Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 15, 2013

Re: Confronting the End of European Jewry

Earlier this week, Jonathan Tobin thoughtfully weighed in on Michel Gurfinkiel’s brilliant article at Mosaic Magazine on the paradox of Jewish life in Europe. Having written in the past on similar themes and in a similar vein here at COMMENTARY, I wish to add another dimension to the debate over the future of European Jewry that, in the understandable concern over rising anti-Semitism, sometimes gets lost.

Despite the disheartening vilification of Israel, the biggest threat to long-term European Jewish survival is assimilation, not persecution or even prejudice.

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Earlier this week, Jonathan Tobin thoughtfully weighed in on Michel Gurfinkiel’s brilliant article at Mosaic Magazine on the paradox of Jewish life in Europe. Having written in the past on similar themes and in a similar vein here at COMMENTARY, I wish to add another dimension to the debate over the future of European Jewry that, in the understandable concern over rising anti-Semitism, sometimes gets lost.

Despite the disheartening vilification of Israel, the biggest threat to long-term European Jewish survival is assimilation, not persecution or even prejudice.

European Jewish demographics since World War II ended show a pattern of decline that can be correlated to the degree of Jewish assimilation into the broader European society. The more secular Jews are, the less children they tend to have.

As Daniel Johnson points out in a rejoinder to Gurfinkiel’s essay, Jewish demographic decline in Britain has now been reversed–mostly because of the Haredi community’s high birthrates, as a reader shrewdly remarks. One should add the Modern Orthodox into that caveat–for they are, as always, the best hope for the long-term survival of any Jewish community.

The fact is, European Jews are very much like their non-Jewish counterparts. They are assimilating into something–and their full embrace of the surrounding culture leads to dwindling numbers of Jews for the next generation as a result of lower birth rates, intermarriage, lack of participation in communal life, lack of Jewish literacy, and the like. Their loss to the community means that communities become smaller over time–and larger religious families are not large enough to make up for those lost numbers.

Is there prejudice in Europe? Plenty. Some of it is a byproduct of European hostility to Israel, which in some ways is a sublimation of no-longer acceptable classic anti-Semitism, and in some ways it is its new incarnation. Some of it is resurfacing from the right, some of it in the East, and some of it will become worse if the economic crisis does not recede. But nobody serious is talking of discriminating against Jews and nobody who is talking about it is being taken seriously.

The worst cases of discrimination against Jews have occurred in the intellectual world–evidence of the illiberal streak still present among self-defined liberal intellectuals and academics. But no one has been denied equal rights, job opportunities or access to welfare on the basis of being Jewish. That would be and will remain unthinkable.

More importantly, the level of security in place among Jewish communities across Europe would be impossible, especially in smaller communities, were it not for the state authorities’ constant commitment to provide or complement security measures. The need for such exceptional security measures reveals a deteriorating environment–but the ongoing public allocation of resources for the protection of Jewish institutions reflects a commitment to pluralism and Jewish existence.

State largesse for Jewish institutions goes well beyond security–it has rescued Jewish heritage sites from decay; supported countless cultural events such as the European day of Jewish Culture; and financed Jewish education; overall benefiting living communities as well as the memory of lost ones.

Being Jewish is a complex business for those who take their identity seriously, and in today’s Europe some of those aspects are more pleasant than others. It is a balance, and both those who leave and those who stay articulate compelling arguments justifying their choice. There has not been a mass Jewish flight from any European country–strong evidence that the picture is not that bleak. But many Jews seriously contemplate moving, or at least take steps to enable their children to move (educating them abroad for example)–a reminder that the picture is not cheerful either.

There are also some unexpected side-effects to this predicament that are strengthening, rather than weakening, Jewish identity in Europe, thus improving chances for Jewish continuity.

More Jewish children attend Jewish day schools than ever before–even if it is just to avoid the chance encounter with prejudice, now far more likely than in the past. And because faith schools are subsidized in many European countries, Jewish education is, unlike in the U.S., very affordable. Tuition is within reach of middle-class incomes and, thanks to financial aid, no Jewish kid whose parents wish in Jewish education is left out.

A separate but correlated development is the mass participation by young Jews in March of the Living/Birthright type programs to Auschwitz and Israel–something sure to strengthen their identity.

The result? Young Jews are more literate than their parents and grandparents ever were in Jewish heritage–and these are secular Jews. The Orthodox were, are and will always remain, well-versed in Jewish tradition. But their secular counterparts were falling by the way sides. Where Jewish day schools exist, that trend has been reversed–because they offer a safe environment, a high-quality education, a sense of belonging, and a way to make friends that provides more chances to find a Jewish partner and less chances to have friends who turn out to be anti-Semites.

Jewish demographers have conclusively documented positive correlations between day school attendance and group programs strengthening collective identity on one hand, and the tendency not to marry out on the other, as they have correlated higher religious observance to lower intermarriage rates. So, children going to Jewish day schools in greater numbers, and then going onto trips to Israel and/or Poland at a critical stage of their formative years, have stronger Jewish identities and a stronger commitment to working for the community, being a part of it and remaining a member into adulthood.

None of this diminishes the validity of Gurfinkiel’s analysis.

The picture is verily confusing–today, it is both harder and easier than in the past to be a European Jew. There are good reasons why many Jews feel that Israel or, to a lesser extent, the U.S., Canada or Australia offer a better chance for a Jewish future. But the numbers of those voting with their feet are still much smaller than those opting to stay. The dwindling numbers, then, are primarily a function of Jews who cease identifying as Jews, less a function of Jews fleeing anti-Semitism.

Just as often, those who are leaving are the least affluent or the most ideologically fervent–their motives have to do less with fleeing anti-Semitism (though hostility plays a role) and more with tackling a combination of material hardship and disaffection with the predominant social values.

I share Gurfinkiel’s alarm at the pathetic, instinctive “Third-Worldist” dislike for Israel that European elites obsessively entertain, but do not see it as an existential threat for Jewish communities as such. The threat comes from a confluence of factors, of which antipathy for Israel is one.

Muslim anti-Semitism is also a growing threat–and it is not enough to live in leafy middle-class suburbs to avoid it. Ultimately, Jews still think that working with local institutions, pursuing interfaith dialogue, promoting civic education, and perpetuating memory are strong antidotes for European society at large.

They have not been entirely wrong so far.

Things might change if homegrown Islamic radicalism grows. Even so, it will not be the Jews’ problem alone. Whether Europeans get medieval against their Muslim minorities at some point remains to be seen–and Jews would not want to be standing in the way (or on the side) of that mob when it happens–but I suspect Jews will be spared by and large.

To the average Western European, Jews are still welcome while on good behavior and mostly left to themselves and able to worship freely and thrive culturally while being equal citizens before the law. Israel is a different story–and for those whose attachment to Israel remains a central feature of their identity, the European intellectual landscape and public discourse will never stop offering solid reasons to leave.

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The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Critics Piles Up

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made headlines by using his trip to the Middle East to bolster peace talks by doing what everyone does when they parachute into the region to look productive: take shots at Israel. As the Times of Israel reports, today Ban said that he was “deeply troubled by Israel’s continuing settlement activity in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.”

But the more revealing part of the story is was this: “Under US pressure, [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas eventually agreed to return to talks without a settlement freeze, though the Palestinian leader’s aides have said the Obama administration assured them it would try to restrain Israeli construction over the Green Line.” Abbas agreed to return to talks without a settlement freeze because he was granted the release of Palestinian terrorists instead of a settlement freeze. But apparently he thought he was getting both: one officially and one unofficially.

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made headlines by using his trip to the Middle East to bolster peace talks by doing what everyone does when they parachute into the region to look productive: take shots at Israel. As the Times of Israel reports, today Ban said that he was “deeply troubled by Israel’s continuing settlement activity in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.”

But the more revealing part of the story is was this: “Under US pressure, [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas eventually agreed to return to talks without a settlement freeze, though the Palestinian leader’s aides have said the Obama administration assured them it would try to restrain Israeli construction over the Green Line.” Abbas agreed to return to talks without a settlement freeze because he was granted the release of Palestinian terrorists instead of a settlement freeze. But apparently he thought he was getting both: one officially and one unofficially.

That about sums up the last two decades of peace processing between the two sides. The Palestinians are granted a concession in order to say no to the Israelis in person, while the “international community” seeks to pressure Israel to make separate concessions it never agreed to. In the end, Israeli leaders are expected to abide by everyone’s requests while the Palestinians aren’t even expected to fulfill formal agreements. The other aspect of this, and the one Ban doesn’t seem to have commented on, is that the concession Israel made in order to restart talks–the release of murderers–was permanent.

Or was it? A Times of Israel blogger reported earlier this week that one of the murderers on the list killed an American citizen, and called on the FBI to arrest him. It’s doubtful the U.S. would ask Israel to release someone as a concession to the Palestinians and then re-arrest them. But this case is more interesting for the U.S. than the others because it brings closer to home the question Jonathan asked when the prisoner release was agreed on: “Would Americans Release Terrorist Killers?

It would be difficult for the Obama administration to object to a prisoner’s release that they pressured Israel to carry out in the first place. But would the president see releasing a terrorist with American blood on his hands as an acceptable concession? How about from an American prison? After all, if the Obama administration can acquiesce to the release of a man who killed an American, does it really matter which cell he’s released from?

And where do you draw the line? If releasing the killer of an American citizen is acceptable, would the administration consider releasing Sirhan Sirhan–the Palestinian terrorist who murdered Bobby Kennedy–for the sake of “peace”? The administration surely wouldn’t say that a senator’s life was worth more than a non-senator. Sirhan is currently serving a life sentence in California, though he was originally given the death penalty. Here is the New York Times dispatch from the day of Sirhan’s sentencing in 1969, explaining the clamor in favor of putting Sirhan to death:

Mr. Stitzel, a pressroom foreman for the Los Angeles Times, told newsmen:

“There was no one thing that swayed them over. One item, however, that was very important was that we should stand behind our laws. There seems to be a tendency today to not do this – to be lax. I felt all along that because of the seriousness and gravity of the crime it should be the death penalty. As long as we have capital punishment, what other crime would justify the death penalty if this didn’t?”

Notice the language: “we should stand behind our laws.” And: “what other crime would justify the death penalty if this didn’t?” Such crimes–acts of bloodlust carried out by Sirhan’s compatriots in the Palestinian territories for decades–are considered shocking to the core when they are infrequent. That there are so many such criminals in Israel’s jails would seem to indicate a problem with Palestinian governance, wouldn’t it?

Yet the world looks at the sheer number of Palestinian terrorists and pretends they are no longer murderers if they are let free, their crimes erased from memory and from the consciences of those who don’t have to live with the consequences. And as if that weren’t enough, the UN secretary-general follows up the prisoner release by pronouncing from Ramallah that he is “deeply troubled” by the lack of even more concessions from Israel. Abbas is frustrated too, for he was told that Israel would be held to even the concessions it never offered. It’s no surprise that polls show deep Israeli skepticism toward this process, which the U.S. and UN mediation will only reinforce.

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“The Problems Are More Difficult Than I Imagined Them to Be”

As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

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As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

As for what to do now, the issues seem to me to be complex and difficult to sort through. Would it be wise to cut off aid to the Egyptian military after yesterday’s massacres? If we do, won’t that diminish our leverage in the future and alienate the current leadership? As LBJ is purported to have said, they may be bastards–but at least they’re our bastards (at least in comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood).

On the flip side, if we don’t cut off aid, doesn’t that undermine our professed commitment to human rights, free elections and the rule of law? And as Max Boot asks, hasn’t the crackdown demonstrated that we have very little leverage to lose? If we can’t influence the Egyptian military, shouldn’t we at least stand for American principles? 

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Should we press for it to be part of a post-military rule coalition? Or would that be unwise and impractical? If not, what should happen to the Brotherhood? Should we view events in Egypt as tragic and unfortunate–but also recognize that the Egyptian military, for all its faults, is vastly superior to the Brotherhood? Shouldn’t we understand that to undermine the military at this moment would be to encourage the Brotherhood to continue to fight to regain power?

I have my own thoughts on these matters, but they are tentative. And they should be. After all, I was among those who was moved by the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 and hopeful of what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. Things turned out a good deal worse than I expected. So modesty in predicting the outcome of events is warranted, at least in my case.

Beyond that I’m reminded, in part because I’ve served in three administrations, that the world is untidy, that events are contingent, and that arguments that sound reasonable and logical when discussing them in the Situation Room often don’t work out in the real world. The difference between being a commentator and working in the White House is that in the case of the latter the consequences of being wrong can be far more durable and damaging.

That doesn’t mean that President Obama, or for that matter any other president, shouldn’t be criticized for his policies and his failures. Nor does it mean Mr. Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the promises he made before and shortly after he took office, when he seemed to be under the impression that he could shape world events like hot wax. But I for one can’t help having some sympathy for those in the Obama administration who right now are being forced to make decisions about rapidly unfolding events, based on incomplete knowledge, with an imperfect ability to predict the consequences of each course of action. I recall during my years in government being struck by the fact that making the right decision seemed a good deal more obvious when I was on the outside looking in rather than on the inside looking out. 

In an interview in 1962, President Kennedy was asked whether his experience in office matched his expectation and whether things had worked out as he saw in advance. President Kennedy responded this way:

So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.

So will the commentators.

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Special Preview: The Citizen of the World Presidency

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

In 2007, early in the improbable presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the young first-term senator began a series of foreign-policy speeches that seemed too general to provide a guide to what he might do if elected. Aside from making it clear he was not George W. Bush and would get out of Iraq, the rest read like liberal boilerplate: “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology….The conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002….This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place.” In 2008, he visited Berlin and told an enraptured crowd: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world…the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”

In Obama’s fifth year as president, it is increasingly clear these vague phrases were not mere rhetoric. They did, in fact, accurately reflect Obama’s thinking about America’s role in the world and foreshadow the goals of the foreign policy he has been implementing and will be pursuing for three more years. Obama’s foreign policy is strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with, or must confront. It is a foreign policy structured not to influence events in Russia or China or Africa or the Middle East but to serve as a bulwark “against the habits” of American activism and global leadership. It was his purpose to change those habits, and to inculcate new habits—ones in which, in every matter of foreign policy except for the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the United States restrains itself.

Continue reading this article…

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

In 2007, early in the improbable presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the young first-term senator began a series of foreign-policy speeches that seemed too general to provide a guide to what he might do if elected. Aside from making it clear he was not George W. Bush and would get out of Iraq, the rest read like liberal boilerplate: “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology….The conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002….This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place.” In 2008, he visited Berlin and told an enraptured crowd: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world…the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”

In Obama’s fifth year as president, it is increasingly clear these vague phrases were not mere rhetoric. They did, in fact, accurately reflect Obama’s thinking about America’s role in the world and foreshadow the goals of the foreign policy he has been implementing and will be pursuing for three more years. Obama’s foreign policy is strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with, or must confront. It is a foreign policy structured not to influence events in Russia or China or Africa or the Middle East but to serve as a bulwark “against the habits” of American activism and global leadership. It was his purpose to change those habits, and to inculcate new habits—ones in which, in every matter of foreign policy except for the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the United States restrains itself.

Continue reading this article…

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Bolster Military-to-Military Ties with Egypt

I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

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I was no fan of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Realist castigation of the White House for abandoning Mubarak is a bit dishonest: Pinning American national security to cancer-stricken octogenarians is seldom a wise long-term strategy.

The Obama administration’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood was another thing entirely: Political correctness is annoying at the best of times, for it provides an excuse for dissenters to dismiss based on window-dressing rather than address core ideas that merit debate. It is especially dangerous, however, when true believers embrace political correctness as a doctrine and actually believe the pap that extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements are misunderstood, or that Islamist anti-Americanism is rooted in grievance rather than ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was aiming to be the Egyptian and Islamist equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. They disdained democracy and their crocodile tears regarding democratic wrongs are nothing but window-dressing.

One of the greatest ironies of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster from power is that Western liberals are more concerned about the injustice suffered by the Brethren than are their one-time funders in the Arab world. While senators and diplomats were beating themselves up about how unfair events were for Mohamed Morsi and crew, it was the Saudis and Emiratis who cut their ties quickly and without regret. Perhaps the pattern is repeating in which the West’s useful idiots believe Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen who say tolerant things in English while those who understand what the Brotherhood is saying in Arabic understand truly for what the group stands.

At any rate, there are two sides in the immediate Egyptian fight, and their demands are mutually exclusive. One will win, and one will lose and, like Jonathan, let us hope for the sake of U.S. national security that the military wins in the short term. That is not to bless military dictatorship, but building up a more liberal and democratic alternative might take years if not decades and that simply would not be possible under a Muslim Brotherhood regime.

Maintaining leverage with the Egyptian military therefore becomes a paramount U.S. interest. The State Department likes to think that they maintain a monopoly over diplomacy, but the reality is that American generals are often better diplomats when the crisis erupts. After all, diplomats have cocktail parties and an occasional conference, but military officers have staff college classes that often last months, if not years. Over the course of a promising officer’s career, he might find himself in class or in exercises with the same foreign officer multiple times. Not surprisingly, friendships develop between families and relationships run deep. That may not be something which President Obama—who has never served in the military—understands. Nor is it something to which Secretary of State John Kerry—who appears to hold the military in disdain—will care to admit. Alas, while Kerry chides the Egyptians and promotes the type of unthinking compromise that a proverbial State Department kindergartener might have formulated, he and Obama appear to be abandoning the one tool with which they can have some leverage: the military-to-military relationship.

First, the U.S. suspended F-16 sales to Egypt—a silly thing to do since such sales aren’t simply about airplanes, but also about long-term training relationships. Next, Obama cancelled the Bright Star exercises, again an opportunity for multiple senior U.S. officers to have quiet tête-à-têtes with their Egyptian counterparts. If the White House truly wanted to restrain the Egyptian army, then that would be a far better way to convey that message rather than putting John Kerry on television, or having a U.S. embassy which has mismanaged its way into irrelevance deliver a demarche. With leverage so fleeting, how unfortunate it is that Obama wants to eliminate what remains.

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The Muslim Brotherhood’s Shameful Nobel Laureate

When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

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When Islamist radicals in Pakistan’s tribal territories shot 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai, the world condemned the senseless act of terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban had, like the Chechen Islamists who massacred children in Beslan nearly a decade ago, simply miscalculated that even those prone to support extremists and terrorists draw the line at targeting children (or, at least non-Jewish children).

In the wake of the assassination attempt on the young advocate for girls’ education, there was one so-called peace activist who was noticeably silent: 2011 Nobel Laureate Tawakkul Karman. Karman was selected not only because she was a Yemeni political activist—rising up courageously to challenge the dictatorship of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—but also because she was affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

Karman did not hesitate, however, to condemn the Egyptian government’s crackdown in Cairo—even before the recent violence. She found no time to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Christians or ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s abuse of power, but violence perpetrated against Islamists was, for the Nobel Laureate, another thing entirely.

Herein lies the problem: For too many affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates, there exists different standards for Islamists and for non-Islamists. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself leading a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group—famously exculpated indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir because the Koran cleared the Sudanese Islamist president. Karman delegitimized herself when she refused to speak up for an innocent school girl targeted by militant Islamists. If she wants us to believe she is an honest broker and carries any weight in her support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood now, she should be quickly disabused of that notion.

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Church, State, and the Role of the Family

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

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Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith….

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Correlation does have some explanatory power, but there is more to this story to buttress the case for the connection between faith and the family. One missing ingredient here is politics, because as the West “lost God,” it didn’t really lose religion–it simply substituted political religions for its Judeo-Christian past. Shaw and Eberstadt mention rationalism, the Enlightenment, and late 18th-century France as an early example–and it’s a good one.

The French Revolution was not a case of politics triumphing over religion. It was a case of a messianic political religion triumphing over the church. The language and symbolism of the Revolution were soaked in the concept of regeneration and rebirth. Religion had been so central to life in 18th-century Europe that it had to be appropriated by the church’s enemies because of its idealistic and aspirational language. As Michael Burleigh notes in Earthly Powers:

The attempted fusion of Church and Revolution through the Constitutional Church had been a divisive failure. So why not elevate the Revolution itself into the religion? After all, it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.

Because the French Revolution ushered in the new (and persistent) age of messianic politics, the state became a rival to the church–and later to organized religion in general in the West. This is one reason the value of the separation of church and state became truly realized with regard to protecting the former from the latter. It’s what Roger Williams meant when in the 17th century he said “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.”

A century later, as William M. Wiecek noted, the divide became stark:

For the antinomian divine, God’s garden (the church) had to be protected against the profane incursions of the ungodly (the wilderness). For the Enlightenment rationalist, on the other hand, the state had to be protected from the church, lest power-avaricious clergy corrupt the secular order.

Returning to the family, we see not only its role in incubating religious practice and tradition in each new generation but also the political outlooks that may logically result from it. Studies have suggested, for example, that conservatives in America have larger families than liberals, and that conservative church attendance is double that of liberals. Might there be a reverse connection along the lines Eberstadt argues in this separate context? Might conservatives be more religious because they have more children? It would certainly not be the only reason, of course, but perhaps an underestimated contributing factor.

While we’re at it, might having children encourage a more politically conservative outlook? Having families certainly affects a person’s interaction with the state, not just on basic issues of taxes and services but of voluntary economic organization. In his review of Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, Benjamin Friedman notes the age-old existence of risk-sharing within families. In a footnote, he adds: “Risk-sharing within families continues to be important. According to some estimates, even small families can internally insure against nearly three-quarters of the income risk associated with individual family members’ uncertain length of life.”

This is not to claim that having more children means less dependence on the state, in the aggregate or otherwise. But it may affect the kind of dependence on the state, and the mere existence of the opportunity for risk-sharing encourages a ubiquitous reminder of the state’s proper role in human affairs and its lack of monopoly on fulfilling the needs of its citizens. This is not the separation of church and state, but rather the separation of state and individual. I’m not suggesting the purpose of having a family is for economic abstractions like risk-sharing. Only that Eberstadt is surely on to something when she offers renewed credit to the family’s impact on society at large.

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Aid Has Not Bought U.S. Leverage in Egypt

With more than 500 people dead as a result of the Egyptian army’s brutal assault on Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, it is a little late in the day for President Obama to be issuing standard condemnations. Even canceling the annual Bright Star military exercise, while undoubtedly the right call (it would have been a travesty to see U.S. personnel exercising with Egyptian soldiers not long after they had slain all these civilians), does not go far enough.

Up until now I have been against canceling U.S. military aid to Egypt, amounting to $1.3 billion a year, because I thought it was important to preserve the leverage that aid buys us. Now, however, it is clear that the U.S. has no leverage at all.

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With more than 500 people dead as a result of the Egyptian army’s brutal assault on Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, it is a little late in the day for President Obama to be issuing standard condemnations. Even canceling the annual Bright Star military exercise, while undoubtedly the right call (it would have been a travesty to see U.S. personnel exercising with Egyptian soldiers not long after they had slain all these civilians), does not go far enough.

Up until now I have been against canceling U.S. military aid to Egypt, amounting to $1.3 billion a year, because I thought it was important to preserve the leverage that aid buys us. Now, however, it is clear that the U.S. has no leverage at all.

The Obama administration has been quietly advising the generals behind the scenes to de-escalate the conflict in Cairo. Instead the generals ordered armored vehicles and troops to assault the sit-ins, and never mind the casualty count. At this point it is not clear what purpose U.S. aid serves beyond associating the U.S. with the heinous actions of what looks increasingly to be a military dictatorship.

The aid is designed to buy peace between Egypt and Israel, but there is scant chance of the military regime initiating hostilities against Israel–it is too busy making war on its own people. I am under no illusion that an aid cutoff would influence the Egyptian army; it will survive on subsidies from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

Nor am I under any illusions about the nature of the opposition the army is facing–the Muslim Brotherhood during its time in power showed, as if any proof were necessary, that it is a power-hungry, Islamist organization with no respect for democratic principles.

Faced with a choice of unpalatable adversaries, the U.S. would be well advised to stick by its principles–the rule of law, the right to protest, free elections, and all the rest. If we continue to fund the Egyptian military, however, it will make it appear as if the U.S. supports this bloody crackdown–and it could make the U.S. complicit in the emergence of a new threat from violent Islamism.

Al-Qaeda, recall, has its roots in an earlier era of Egyptian repression against the Islamists; the current head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was once tortured in an Egyptian prison. The Egyptian military seems hell-bent on fostering another outburst of violent radicalism, and there is little the U.S. can do to stop them. But at least we don’t have to give our stamp of approval to this misguided and ruthless crackdown.

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How Can Israel Entrust Its Security to People Who Got Egypt So Wrong?

To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

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To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”

Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.

None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.

Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.

In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.

But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.

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