Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 26, 2014

Pollard for Murderers? A Bad Deal

Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

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Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

As I wrote on the 25th anniversary of his imprisonment, Pollard’s case is a mixed bag for supporters of Israel. As much as his sentence was an injustice, he is no hero and did grave harm. Moreover, the prospect that someone who committed espionage in the belief that he was helping Israel would gain his release in exchange for the freedom of those who indiscriminately shed Jewish blood is more than an irony; it’s an outrage that even the spy should reject.

Having already released scores of Arab murderers, who have been subsequently honored and embraced by Abbas, there is little incentive for Netanyahu to keep letting them out if the Palestinians are not going to commit to peace talks whose purpose is an end to the conflict. If he is going to be blamed for the collapse of Kerry’s initiative no matter what he does, it would be a mistake to start making further concessions that will come back to haunt him later. The problem with injecting Pollard into peace talks is that it is the sort of American concession for which Israel will pay a disproportionate price with little prospect of receiving what it wants. That’s what happened the last time he offered to make territorial concessions in exchange for Pollard’s freedom. In the end, the Palestinians got the land, and Israel got neither Pollard nor peace.

If the Palestinians want something from Israel they should be prepared to pay for it by demonstrating their willingness to end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. In essence a trade for Pollard now would be a substitute for getting the Palestinians to make those assurances. However much they may want Pollard, making such a swap would be against the long-term prospects of both Israel’s security and peace.

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Mea Culpa

Yesterday I criticized a front-page article by the Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes, who I thought demonstrated a bias against people of faith.

I stand by my appraisal of Mr. Barnes’s piece. But on reflection I want to make a clarification.

I started out my piece by quoting from a 1993 Washington Post article critical of Christians in public life before zeroing in on the article by Mr. Barnes. In the process I added a sarcastic line about the Post’s coverage of Christians in public life, implying that the paper has a chronic anti-Christian bias.

Mea culpa. To suggest, as I did, that the Post doesn’t respectfully cover people of faith who are in public life is simplistic and unwarranted. Its coverage of religion is, in fact, pretty fair-minded and often insightful. (It’s worth pointing out that the Post’s religion writer isn’t Mr. Barnes; it’s Michelle Boorstein.)

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Yesterday I criticized a front-page article by the Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes, who I thought demonstrated a bias against people of faith.

I stand by my appraisal of Mr. Barnes’s piece. But on reflection I want to make a clarification.

I started out my piece by quoting from a 1993 Washington Post article critical of Christians in public life before zeroing in on the article by Mr. Barnes. In the process I added a sarcastic line about the Post’s coverage of Christians in public life, implying that the paper has a chronic anti-Christian bias.

Mea culpa. To suggest, as I did, that the Post doesn’t respectfully cover people of faith who are in public life is simplistic and unwarranted. Its coverage of religion is, in fact, pretty fair-minded and often insightful. (It’s worth pointing out that the Post’s religion writer isn’t Mr. Barnes; it’s Michelle Boorstein.)

All of which is to say I was far too sweeping in my judgment, and I wanted to be sure to clarify the record. A rifle shot approach was warranted; the shot-gun approach was not. 

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Obama’s Latest Victim: MSNBC

As his sinking poll ratings have demonstrated, a lot of Americans are unhappy with President Obama. Weak leadership abroad, ObamaCare, and various scandals have all combined to send his popularity into a tailspin from which he is not likely to recover before the end of his term in office. But perhaps the ones who should be most angry with him are his biggest fans in the media rather than his conservative antagonists. Like the World War Two era pop classic teaches us, Obama is demonstrating that “you always hurt the ones you love.”

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, a new study from the Pew Research Journalism Project that incorporates Nielson ratings data shows that MSNBC is bleeding viewers and revenue at a pace that outstrips the rest of the cable news market. While Fox and CNN have both lost ground as the television market becomes more fractured by the vast number of choices available to viewers, in 2013 the left-wing network lost a staggering 24 percent of its prime-time audience and 15 percent of those who watch during the day. That is double the losses experienced by CNN and four times those of Fox. On the revenue side of things, while Fox and CNN are growing, MSNBC is losing income.

What’s the reason for this? The answer, according to Byers, is obvious. The network established itself as a liberal destination by being the place where viewers knew to go for criticism of George W. Bush and then celebrations of Barack Obama. But as Obama begins his slide into second-term irrelevance, left-wingers are no longer finding it entertaining to tune into the NBC knock-off network to watch talking heads parrot administration talking points and trash Republicans. Like fans of a sports team that is playing out the string in a season where they won’t make the playoffs, liberals are giving up and tuning out.

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As his sinking poll ratings have demonstrated, a lot of Americans are unhappy with President Obama. Weak leadership abroad, ObamaCare, and various scandals have all combined to send his popularity into a tailspin from which he is not likely to recover before the end of his term in office. But perhaps the ones who should be most angry with him are his biggest fans in the media rather than his conservative antagonists. Like the World War Two era pop classic teaches us, Obama is demonstrating that “you always hurt the ones you love.”

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, a new study from the Pew Research Journalism Project that incorporates Nielson ratings data shows that MSNBC is bleeding viewers and revenue at a pace that outstrips the rest of the cable news market. While Fox and CNN have both lost ground as the television market becomes more fractured by the vast number of choices available to viewers, in 2013 the left-wing network lost a staggering 24 percent of its prime-time audience and 15 percent of those who watch during the day. That is double the losses experienced by CNN and four times those of Fox. On the revenue side of things, while Fox and CNN are growing, MSNBC is losing income.

What’s the reason for this? The answer, according to Byers, is obvious. The network established itself as a liberal destination by being the place where viewers knew to go for criticism of George W. Bush and then celebrations of Barack Obama. But as Obama begins his slide into second-term irrelevance, left-wingers are no longer finding it entertaining to tune into the NBC knock-off network to watch talking heads parrot administration talking points and trash Republicans. Like fans of a sports team that is playing out the string in a season where they won’t make the playoffs, liberals are giving up and tuning out.

All cable stations are hurt by the digital revolution that has transformed television watching and diminished the clout of all stations on the dial. Cable news networks are also particularly vulnerable to the political cycle, with boom times during elections and important events and declines when nothing particularly interesting is happening. But MSNBC is in a particularly tight spot because of the nature of their political bias.

As I wrote last year when the previous Pew report on the media was published, the research breaking down the various cable news stations’ broadcasts showed that MSNBC was the most biased of all the networks. While the majority of commentary on Fox is conservative, they still run a respectable amount of straight news and generally always provide a liberal foil to their right-wing talkers even if the sole left-winger is always outnumbered. But on MSNBC, the liberal mindset is uniform with few of their shows even bothering to interview stray conservatives, let alone let alone feature them on a regular basis even as tokens. Other than Chuck Todd’s Morning Rundown which provides relatively fair coverage and as good a daily take on the political scene as is available on television, the only break on their schedule from left-wing uniformity comes from Joe Scarborough, the co-host of their morning show. But though Scarborough can go off on rants that displease MSNBC’s viewers, he spent much of 2013 reading from the liberal hymnal about gun control and denouncing the Tea Party. Meanwhile just about everyone else on that show and the rest of their network lineup is a reliable font of left-wing conventional wisdom.

MSNBC’s efforts to counteract the effect of an aging audience with younger, inexperienced, and often incompetent hosts like Ronan Farrow have been laughable failures. As Byers rightly points out, any thought about lowering the age of the average viewer is belied by the catheter ads that punctuate the shows hosted by such ingénues. Having bet their future on the concept of a network that would be more liberal than Fox was conservative, the network has a lot to lose if Democrats become apathetic in the waning days of a lame-duck Obama administration. But its corporate masters at NBC should cheer up. If conservatives do take back Congress this year and perhaps even elect a Republican in 2016, depressed liberals will need an outlet for the derangement syndrome that will be named after whomever it is the GOP nominates for the presidency in two years. If so, MSNBC will be there to give it to them.

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Could the Peace Process Be Destroying Israel’s Legitimacy?

In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

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In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

The boycott threat that Obama and Kerry try to use to panic Israel into doing whatever they instruct is really a case in point. Israel doesn’t await a wave of calls for boycotts if these talks fail; it faces them now. If anything, while this past round of Israeli concessions and negotiations have dragged on, the call for the boycott of Israel has only become louder. Across Europe and on American campuses, the campaign for boycotts is becoming frenetic. Oxfam’s attack on Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream made the headlines but there have been many cases that didn’t. In Europe a Dutch pension fund and several Scandinavian banks have already divested from Israel, while on both sides of the Atlantic the student campaign for boycotts has become particularly ugly. As Jonathan Tobin wrote about yesterday, the BDS campaign has even come to propagate racist hate speech. During a boycott vote only last night at King’s College, London, Jewish students were first hectored and reduced to tears, then mocked and taunted by BDS students.

At the very least, the fact that all of this goes on while Israel is in negotiations to try and end its presence in the West Bank should convince us that this has nothing to do with the “occupation.” Omar Barghouti, one of the leading founders of BDS, has been unequivocal in saying that the creation of two states would not end calls for boycotts. Yet if it is true that none of this is about creating a Palestinian state but rather opposing a Jewish one, then where does this leave notions about land for peace? Indeed, it would seem that on this point the boycotters are consistent with the Palestinians’ own refusal to let go of the desire to end Israel, even if it prevents them from getting a state themselves.

In a hard-hitting follow-up piece for Mosaic, Yoav Sorek tells us that since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, when Israel reneged on its pledge to itself not recognize or negotiate with the terrorist PLO, the net result has not only been unprecedented waves of carnage and violence, but the onset of deep self-doubt about Israel’s own national legitimacy. By promoting the idea that the conflict is a territorial one, Israel at once legitimized the PLO and undermined its own legitimacy before the world, as well as to itself. Accepting the land-for-peace equation meant that Israel was now saying it was the problem, not Arab annihilationism toward the Jewish state, but rather its occupation of “Palestinian land.”  

Israel has placed itself in the dock by endorsing land-for-peace. By promoting this idea Israel accepts that its activities over the 1949 armistice lines are illegitimate if not illegal. For the international community, land for peace means that Israel withdraws from territory and gets peace in return. By that logic the absence of peace is on account of the presence of Israelis in occupied land. Israel knows that it can’t hand over territory to those who will only use it to advance warfare against its people. So Israel is forced to say one thing and do another; the debate becomes fixated on whether or not the Palestinians are really a partner for peace and the Israelis just appear dishonest. Nor does Israel get any praise for the withdrawals it makes for, as Evelyn Gordon has argued previously, by denying its claim to the land Israel earns the status of a thief only partially returning what never belonged to her.  

Sorek suggests that asserting to the world Israel’s legal rights in the West Bank is the only viable option left. Once Israel establishes that it has the land by right, only then can it effectively confront Arab rejectionism, which negotiations and land withdrawals actually spur on. It would seem that if Israel cannot tolerate the status quo then it must either unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank or otherwise annex it. But it’s quite possible that further withdrawals might actually damage Israel’s legitimacy more than annexation would. 

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Hobby Lobby and the Shellacking, Part II

During the Supreme Court oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., there was an important colloquy between Justice Elena Kagan and Hobby Lobby’s counsel, Paul Clement. The issue was whether the government has a “compelling interest” in enforcing ObamaCare against employers whose undisputed fundamental religious beliefs would be violated. Clement argued that the existence of the grandfather clause in the law shows there is no such interest:   

MR. CLEMENT: … I think the grandfather provisions of this statute really are devastating for the government’s argument that it has a compelling interest [to mandate insurance that violates Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs]. When the government pursues compelling interest, it demands immediate compliance. … I can’t imagine Congress passing Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and saying, “Stop discriminating on the basis of race, unless of course you have a pre-existing policy that discriminates on the basis of race, and then you can keep it as long as you’d like.”

JUSTICE KAGAN: … you know, initially Title VII did not apply to any employers with fewer than 25 employees. And then gradually, Congress brought the number down because Congress realized that there were going to be transition issues and that some time was needed to make sure that the compelling interest, you know, should be applied uniformly across all employers.

MR. CLEMENT: … [It’s consistent with a compelling interest] to say we’re going to focus on the people who actually employ the most people and therefore can engage in the most discrimination. It’s quite a different matter, and I don’t think anybody would think that Congress would pass a Title VII that said, “Hey, as long as you have a pre-existing discriminatory policy, you’re allowed to keep it.” [Transcript at pp. 30-31]

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During the Supreme Court oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., there was an important colloquy between Justice Elena Kagan and Hobby Lobby’s counsel, Paul Clement. The issue was whether the government has a “compelling interest” in enforcing ObamaCare against employers whose undisputed fundamental religious beliefs would be violated. Clement argued that the existence of the grandfather clause in the law shows there is no such interest:   

MR. CLEMENT: … I think the grandfather provisions of this statute really are devastating for the government’s argument that it has a compelling interest [to mandate insurance that violates Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs]. When the government pursues compelling interest, it demands immediate compliance. … I can’t imagine Congress passing Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and saying, “Stop discriminating on the basis of race, unless of course you have a pre-existing policy that discriminates on the basis of race, and then you can keep it as long as you’d like.”

JUSTICE KAGAN: … you know, initially Title VII did not apply to any employers with fewer than 25 employees. And then gradually, Congress brought the number down because Congress realized that there were going to be transition issues and that some time was needed to make sure that the compelling interest, you know, should be applied uniformly across all employers.

MR. CLEMENT: … [It’s consistent with a compelling interest] to say we’re going to focus on the people who actually employ the most people and therefore can engage in the most discrimination. It’s quite a different matter, and I don’t think anybody would think that Congress would pass a Title VII that said, “Hey, as long as you have a pre-existing discriminatory policy, you’re allowed to keep it.” [Transcript at pp. 30-31]

ObamaCare was enacted on the president’s oft-repeated assurances that everyone who liked their existing insurance plans could keep them–period! Everyone was grandfathered! It was only the freeloaders going to emergency rooms without insurance who–so the argument went–would be mandated into the system. And once those people were in the system, costs for everyone would go down (by $2,500!), the deficit would be cut (by a hundred billion a year!), and people would love the law (once they found out what was in it).

All this turned out to be untrue. The administration issued a grandfather regulation so narrow that virtually everyone’s existing insurance in the individual market got cancelled, which got the administration into huge political trouble. So the president issued a new exemption (via a press conference), and then unilaterally delayed the employer mandate lest the same thing happen later this year in a market 20 times as large. But the existence of the grandfather clause–as well as the exemptions issued left and right–puts the administration in legal jeopardy in the Court, because it cuts into the heart of the “compelling interest” argument. Justice rarely gets more poetic.

Political justice may take a little longer, but it may be coming. There has likely never been a law passed with more fraudulent arguments, using more fraudulent procedures, rushed through more quickly on a strictly partisan vote, while opinion polls (and the Massachusetts special election) showed the public and voters firmly opposed, both back then and now.

Now that everyone has not only learned what is in the law, but has seen how it has been implemented–with a website that didn’t work, exemptions and extensions handed out without the consent of Congress, supporters or key voting groups given immense leeway while opponents are taken all the way to the Supreme Court, and as Jonathan Tobin notes, a nonstop continuing chaos–there may be a new horror movie coming in November to a polling place near you. Call it The Shellacking, Part II.

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Adelson, Democracy, and Anti-Semitism

This week the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding a conference in Las Vegas, the home of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, its most prominent supporter. Like other prominent conservative political donors, Adelson’s largesse to causes and candidates he supports brought him a great deal of scrutiny in 2012 when he and his wife Miriam singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential hopes alive during the GOP primaries. Undeterred by the fact that most of the people they backed in the last election lost, the Adelsons are thinking about 2016. As the Washington Post reported in a feature about the RJC event, some, though not all, Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to win what some wags are calling the “Sheldon primary.” Anyone who supports Israel and the Obama administration’s liberal economic policies is apparently welcome to try. Perhaps extra credit will be given to those who back the magnate’s crusade against Internet gambling. But lest anyone think they are contemplating backing Newt or another outlier, in this cycle the Adelsons are apparently echoing “establishment” GOP thought by emphasizing an ability to win a general election rather than conservative ideological purity in deciding who will benefit from their generosity.

Their willingness to put their money where their mouths are makes them easy targets for abuse from those who don’t care for their politics. But a particularly low blow against them was struck yesterday by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, whose reading of the Post feature prompted him to comment that the RJC event seemed more like a plot by Adelson and a “bunch of Jewish zillionaires” to “buy the White House” in order to protect the Jewish state against the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe. As such, Goldberg thinks the “Sheldon primary” seems like the sort of thing Jews should either worry about or be ashamed of since he thinks their conduct seems like a classic example of the same kind of anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish wealth being used to subvert American foreign policy that is cited by some of the worst enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. At the very least, the Forward columnist seems to be saying that Adelson’s political activity is providing fodder for anti-Semites, but this is exactly the sort of reasoning that Jews of every political stripe should reject.

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This week the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding a conference in Las Vegas, the home of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, its most prominent supporter. Like other prominent conservative political donors, Adelson’s largesse to causes and candidates he supports brought him a great deal of scrutiny in 2012 when he and his wife Miriam singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential hopes alive during the GOP primaries. Undeterred by the fact that most of the people they backed in the last election lost, the Adelsons are thinking about 2016. As the Washington Post reported in a feature about the RJC event, some, though not all, Republican presidential hopefuls are eager to win what some wags are calling the “Sheldon primary.” Anyone who supports Israel and the Obama administration’s liberal economic policies is apparently welcome to try. Perhaps extra credit will be given to those who back the magnate’s crusade against Internet gambling. But lest anyone think they are contemplating backing Newt or another outlier, in this cycle the Adelsons are apparently echoing “establishment” GOP thought by emphasizing an ability to win a general election rather than conservative ideological purity in deciding who will benefit from their generosity.

Their willingness to put their money where their mouths are makes them easy targets for abuse from those who don’t care for their politics. But a particularly low blow against them was struck yesterday by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, whose reading of the Post feature prompted him to comment that the RJC event seemed more like a plot by Adelson and a “bunch of Jewish zillionaires” to “buy the White House” in order to protect the Jewish state against the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe. As such, Goldberg thinks the “Sheldon primary” seems like the sort of thing Jews should either worry about or be ashamed of since he thinks their conduct seems like a classic example of the same kind of anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish wealth being used to subvert American foreign policy that is cited by some of the worst enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. At the very least, the Forward columnist seems to be saying that Adelson’s political activity is providing fodder for anti-Semites, but this is exactly the sort of reasoning that Jews of every political stripe should reject.

Altogether the Adelsons gave a whopping $93 million to 17 different conservative super-PACs in 2012 and that’s not counting direct contributions to candidates that are limited by law (or the tens of millions that they gave to charitable and Jewish philanthropic causes). For those who think money ought to be driven out of politics, this is unseemly or a threat to democracy. But money is, and always has been, the lifeblood of American politics and the last 40 years of attempts at legislating campaign finance reform have proved that such efforts are counterproductive. Spending money on causes and candidates is an expression of political speech protected by the Constitution. The Adelsons are just as entitled to spend some of their billions to support pro-Israel and pro-economic freedom candidates as the Koch brothers are to support conservatives, George Soros is to back liberals, and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer is to fund politicians who toe his particular line on environmental issues.

There should also be no misunderstanding about the fact that both sides of the political divide are doing the same thing. As the OpenSecrets.org site run by the left-wing Center for Responsive Politics recently noted, a list of the largest political donors in the period stretching from 1988 to 2014 reveals that most of the biggest givers were in fact inclined to support Democrats and left-wing causes. Twelve of the top 16 names on the list were unions while the other four were business groups that gave to both parties. Koch Industries, run by the aforementioned brothers of that name who are more hated by liberals than are the Adelsons, ranks a paltry 59th on that list.

As they proved in 2012, the Adelsons can’t buy anybody the White House. Nor can the Kochs, Soros, Steyer, or any combination of unions. But all of them have every right to use their wealth to promote the causes and candidates they support or to oppose the ones they dislike.

To imply that there is something untoward or unsavory about Jewish donors acting in the same way that other Americans do, be they union bosses or liberal financiers, is appalling. The essence of democracy is participation and pro-Israel Jews are just as free to use their wealth as those who are interested in preventing global warming. Goldberg is right to worry about anti-Semitism, but Jews being afraid to step out into the public square to advocate for their causes and to spend money to support those who agree with them will not stop it. Fear of antagonizing anti-Semites is what caused the leaders of American Jewry to fail to speak out during the Holocaust. Subsequent generations who mobilized on behalf of the Soviet Jewry movement and for Israel learned that lesson. That Sheldon Adelson and his friends have also done so is to their credit. Rather than being embarrassed by the “Sheldon primary,” pro-Israel Jews and supporters of free speech, be they Democrats or Republicans, should be cheering it.

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The “Facts” According to Journalists

As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

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As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

Or take a Reuters report on Lebanon this month, which asserted as fact that “Israeli forces still hold at least three pockets of occupied territory which are claimed by Lebanon.” This isn’t a quote from a Lebanese official; it’s the Reuters reporter.

Anyone reading that would never know Israel withdrew from every inch of Lebanon in 2000; that this withdrawal was unanimously certified as complete by the UN Security Council; and that only afterward did Hezbollah, backed by its Lebanese puppet government, suddenly lay claim to additional territory to justify its continued war on Israel. They’d think Israel indeed continues to “occupy” Lebanese territory. And anyone who believes this is easily persuaded that Hezbollah is a legitimate political player that seeks only to regain “occupied Lebanese territory,” rather than a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist organization whose goal is Israel’s eradication, and which any civilized country ought to shun.

This steady drip of media falsehoods even permeates stories that ostensibly have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict–like a New York Times review of Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus, which casually refers to events in “first-century Palestine.” As the reviewer, a Yale professor of religious studies, certainly ought to know, there was no “Palestine” in Jesus’s day. The Roman province Jesus inhabited was called “Judaea,” a word whose linguistic similarity to “Judaism” is no accident; Judaea was a Jewish commonwealth. Only after the Bar-Kochba revolt more than a century later did the Romans rename it “Palestine,” after the Philistines, in a deliberate effort to obscure Jewish ties to the land.

But anyone reading this review would easily conclude that just like the Palestinians always claim, they–not the Jews–are the Holy Land’s indigenous people: Look, there never was a Jewish state there; “Palestine” existed even back in the first century! And if so, then Israel is indeed a thief who stole the Palestinians’ land.   

All this means that many well-meaning people don’t know even the most basic facts, like the Jews’ historic ties to Israel or the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza. And unless pro-Israel activists tell them, they never will–because the media certainly won’t.

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The ObamaCare Chaos Continues

The administration’s decision to extend the period for open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act past the March 31 deadline is hardly surprising. The list of delays, extensions, and postponements of various aspects of the law is already so long that even an article devoted to the topic–such as the one published today by Politico titled “A Brief History of ObamaCare Delays”–is itself an abridged list of only the most prominent examples.

This latest instance is defended by the administration and its supporters as just a commonsense measure intended to help those who were stymied during the enrollment process by the glitch-ridden Heatlhcare.gov website. But the political implications of this decision are more far-reaching than the matter-of-fact announcement that sought to represent it as not a big deal. The delay seeks to get the president off the hook for the ACA likely falling millions short of the seven million enrollees that constituted the administration’s initial goal as well as the benchmark that would enable the ACA to be fiscally responsible.

At this point any excuse, no matter how flimsy, to do something to soften the blow of the expected shortfall makes sense for an administration that is already having a tough time selling the unpopular scheme to the public. But more than that, the record of unending delays and meaningless deadlines set up a situation where it will be difficult if not impossible for the federal government to police those provisions of the law that it really does want to enforce. Coming at a time when the Health and Human Services contraception mandate is under attack in the Supreme Court and, just as significantly, the system of ObamaCare subsidies is in peril of being overturned in the federal appellate courts, this new delay is just one more reason why the law is rightly viewed as having brought chaos rather than reform to the health-care system.

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The administration’s decision to extend the period for open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act past the March 31 deadline is hardly surprising. The list of delays, extensions, and postponements of various aspects of the law is already so long that even an article devoted to the topic–such as the one published today by Politico titled “A Brief History of ObamaCare Delays”–is itself an abridged list of only the most prominent examples.

This latest instance is defended by the administration and its supporters as just a commonsense measure intended to help those who were stymied during the enrollment process by the glitch-ridden Heatlhcare.gov website. But the political implications of this decision are more far-reaching than the matter-of-fact announcement that sought to represent it as not a big deal. The delay seeks to get the president off the hook for the ACA likely falling millions short of the seven million enrollees that constituted the administration’s initial goal as well as the benchmark that would enable the ACA to be fiscally responsible.

At this point any excuse, no matter how flimsy, to do something to soften the blow of the expected shortfall makes sense for an administration that is already having a tough time selling the unpopular scheme to the public. But more than that, the record of unending delays and meaningless deadlines set up a situation where it will be difficult if not impossible for the federal government to police those provisions of the law that it really does want to enforce. Coming at a time when the Health and Human Services contraception mandate is under attack in the Supreme Court and, just as significantly, the system of ObamaCare subsidies is in peril of being overturned in the federal appellate courts, this new delay is just one more reason why the law is rightly viewed as having brought chaos rather than reform to the health-care system.

As we noted yesterday, the willingness of the administration to regard enforcement of the various provisions of the health-care law as optional is undermining its ability to defend the contraception mandate in the Hobby Lobby case. And, as Philip Klein reports in the Washington Examiner today, the legal challenge to the subsidy system may be even more dangerous to ObamaCare’s future than the more famous Hobby Lobby case that revolves around the law’s assault on religious liberty. Since the law was written so as to create subsidies for ObamaCare consumers through state-run exchanges, the fact that many states have not chosen to set them up creates a constitutional problem that can only be solved by a revision of the law by Congress or a decision by the courts to do so on their own. Since the courts are properly reluctant to re-write a statute in this manner and there is no chance that Congress will do anything to fix the problem, the system of subsidies may well be overturned, creating even more chaos for the already misnamed Affordable Care Act. If so, implementation of the unwieldy legislation will become impossible.

While Democrats are trying to put a brave face on their defense of ObamaCare, they know that this is the issue that could cost them the Senate in what may well turn out to be an even worse drubbing this fall than the one they suffered in 2010. The administration has tried to postpone as much of the pain from this law until after 2014 as they can. The federal courts are unpredictable and public opinion may be fickle. But by adding to the impression that the law on which the president staked his reputation is in a state of chaos, the latest delay—and the ones that will inevitably follow it in the months to come—may only make it even more likely that congressional Democrats will suffer a grave defeat in November.

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The President Sees a Different Reality in Northeast Asia

Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

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Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.

The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.

Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.

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Gates’s Wise Words on Russia

Bob Gates is sorely missed in President Obama’s Cabinet. To see how much is lacking without his input into the highest councils of government, read his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today.

He makes the sensible point that to date the Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea “has been anemic. Mr. Putin is little influenced by seizure of personal assets of his cronies or the oligarchs, or restrictions on their travel. Unilateral U.S. sanctions, save on Russian banks, will not be effective absent European cooperation. “

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

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Bob Gates is sorely missed in President Obama’s Cabinet. To see how much is lacking without his input into the highest councils of government, read his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today.

He makes the sensible point that to date the Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea “has been anemic. Mr. Putin is little influenced by seizure of personal assets of his cronies or the oligarchs, or restrictions on their travel. Unilateral U.S. sanctions, save on Russian banks, will not be effective absent European cooperation. “

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas must be reduced, and truly meaningful economic sanctions must be imposed, knowing there may be costs to the West as well. NATO allies bordering Russia must be militarily strengthened and reinforced with alliance forces; and the economic and cyber vulnerabilities of the Baltic states to Russian actions must be reduced (especially given the number of Russians and Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia).

Western investment in Russia should be curtailed; Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and other forums that offer respect and legitimacy; the U.S. defense budget should be restored to the level proposed in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget a year ago, and the Pentagon directed to cut overhead drastically, with saved dollars going to enhanced capabilities, such as additional Navy ships; U.S. military withdrawals from Europe should be halted; and the EU should be urged to grant associate agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.

These are all great ideas but of course, with the exception of expelling Russia from the G-8 at least temporarily, they are not being implemented either by President Obama or the other leaders of NATO. The defense budget cuts continue and there is no sign of a meaningful U.S. military commitment to the Baltics, Poland, or other frontline states. Nor is there even a strategy in place to end European reliance on Russia’s natural gas which would require (a) lifting U.S. restrictions on the export of American oil and gas and (b) lifting European restrictions on “fracking,” which would make it possible to market copious oil and gas supplies within Europe itself.

In essence, for all the tough talk from NATO, the consensus of the West seems to be that Putin has gotten away with his theft of Crimea and that the West shouldn’t escalate tensions with Russia unless and until Putin decides to grab eastern Ukraine too. This is sending, as Bob Gates warns, a very bad message that aggression pays–a message that will be heard not only in Moscow but in Tehran, Pyongyang and Beijing too.

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Obama Loses Complete Touch with Reality

Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

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Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

According to a story from the Washington Post, titled “NATO general warns of further Russian aggression,”

Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia is trying to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine, a charge that Russia denies. But Breedlove [U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe] said Russian ambitions do not stop there.

“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.

That’s not all. 

Russia has increased its influence in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Indeed, Russia’s position in the Middle East hasn’t been this strong since Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from Egypt in the 1970s. Yet the president continues to make his preposterous claims. In public. Repeatedly.

I’m starting to be convinced this isn’t simply a talking point by a president on the defensive. I think he actually believes what he’s saying. Which means he is losing touch with reality. Which may be the most worrisome thing of all.

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“Shut Up,” BDS Explained: An “Open Forum” at Vassar

It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

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It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

So members of Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine “staged an action against” the on-campus part of the class, which included picketing, urging students to drop the course, and making a lot of noise (the only dispute seems to be whether the noise could be described as “ululating” or not). Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman, two of the course instructors, complained to college officials about the protest; the protesters, most of whom were “people of color,” cried racism; and so the open forum was held.

Weiss is explicit about the character of this “open forum”:

The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

In other words, at least at this Vassar forum, it was not even possible to have a debate about the desirability of BDS because the students who support BDS have no intention of engaging in a debate or even letting their opponents speak without disrupting them. But such “belligerence may be necessary,” Weiss argues, to make sure that the right side wins.

Let’s review to whom the belligerence is directed. Not right-wing Zionists, if there happen to be any at Vassar, but people with impeccable liberal credentials, like, as Weiss notes, Jill Schneiderman, who think that attention should be drawn to Israeli injustice but are wary of describing Israel as a blot on civilization and doubtful that boycott is a wise strategy.

BDS supporters, who usually say they are fighting a “taboo” against discussing Israel on college campuses, rarely concede that they actually think the taboo is against supporting Israel. But that is just what Weiss does: “Norman Finkelstein said some time ago that you can’t be for Israel on college campuses, and I was seeing this before my eyes.” Indeed, the “intellectual labors are done, the activists are moving. The public square will increasingly belong to the warriors of both sides.”

But Weiss is kidding himself if the thinks that a movement that is unpopular even on the left will win by trying to shout its opponents down. Even on our college campuses, which are much less sympathetic to Israel than the general public is, the politics of BDS can shock. Schneiderman was sympathetic enough to Weiss to invite him to the forum. After the forum, she had this to say: “last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” She says of Weiss’s reporting on the meeting: “This is only one example of how Phil Weiss uses facts flexibly only when they suit his agenda.”

Some BDS supporters claim to welcome the attention the American Studies Association boycott brought to the BDS movement, even as they try to hide their activities. I bet that publicity is going to hurt in the long term, at least in the United States where, even on college campuses, much less the “public square,” trying to shut up everyone who disagrees with you does not wear well.

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Slurring Israel with the Crimea Comparison

For those who make a profession of inciting hatred against Israel, just about every new eventuality seems to present another opportunity to demonize the Jewish state. The recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia has been no exception. The fact that the West has responded to this clear breach of international law with sanctions against Russia has both brought cries of hypocrisy from the anti-Israel camp and whetted its appetite to push for similar such moves against Israel. The difference between the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory and the Israeli presence in the West Bank should be clear enough for all to see. Yet, there are those whose agenda will involve a concerted effort to push this comparison.

The fact that a particularly unpleasant blog post appeared on Al Jazeera pushing the Israel-Russia comparison might not be considered all that consequential. Al Jazeera may have greatly expanded its programming in the anglosphere, but as is apparent from the piece in question, the commentary given here is hardly of either a mainstream or overwhelmingly credible character. Yet, watered down versions of the same accusations made at Al Jazeera have also appeared in the Economist and are now even being made by peers in Britain’s parliament. We may well find that, wildly inaccurate as this comparison undoubtedly is, for the undiscerning it has some traction. 

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For those who make a profession of inciting hatred against Israel, just about every new eventuality seems to present another opportunity to demonize the Jewish state. The recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia has been no exception. The fact that the West has responded to this clear breach of international law with sanctions against Russia has both brought cries of hypocrisy from the anti-Israel camp and whetted its appetite to push for similar such moves against Israel. The difference between the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory and the Israeli presence in the West Bank should be clear enough for all to see. Yet, there are those whose agenda will involve a concerted effort to push this comparison.

The fact that a particularly unpleasant blog post appeared on Al Jazeera pushing the Israel-Russia comparison might not be considered all that consequential. Al Jazeera may have greatly expanded its programming in the anglosphere, but as is apparent from the piece in question, the commentary given here is hardly of either a mainstream or overwhelmingly credible character. Yet, watered down versions of the same accusations made at Al Jazeera have also appeared in the Economist and are now even being made by peers in Britain’s parliament. We may well find that, wildly inaccurate as this comparison undoubtedly is, for the undiscerning it has some traction. 

Apart from the fact that Vacy Valanza’s piece for Al Jazeera makes the bizarre claim that the establishment of Israel was itself a violation of international law, and that Israel is annexing the West Bank “supported by monies from Jews worldwide through rich Zionist organizations,” the main thrust of the argument is one accusing the West of “hypocrisy.” The claim is that the West singled out Russia yet turns a blind eye to Israel behaving in a highly comparable way. Of course, if the anti-Israel camp is going to now start leveling accusations about the hypocrisy of opposing some occupations but not others, then they may be inviting some rather hard-to-answer questions about their own disinterest in every other occupation from China in Tibet to Turkey in Cyprus. 

The Economist piece addressing this subject is in many respects almost as startling as the Al Jazeera piece. Here the suggestion is that the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory may serve as a distraction that will allow Israel to strengthen its hold on the West Bank and avoid U.S. pressure to end “its own occupation of Palestine”. In this suggestion the analysis offered by the Economist is simply illiterate of recent events. It is the Palestinians that are currently under pressure to continue negotiations about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but more significantly it is Israel that has made a series of concessions by way of prisoner releases to keep these discussions open. Nevertheless, the Economist piece only strays into even more questionable territory when it starts detailing at length a tenuous list of links between Russia and Israel, as if Israel is the only country in the world that had any remotely friendly ties with Putin’s Russia. This appears to be a particularly poor case of attempting to establish some kind of vague guilt by association.

Clearly such sentiments, however outlandish, have had a certain resonance even with politicians. During a recent debate in Britain’s House of Lords, several of the peers repeated the comparison between Israel and Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory. The Labour peer Lord Grocott complained that when it came to occupied territory, the Crimean issue had received a level of “urgency and commitment” not seen in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The infamous Baroness Jenny Tonge, who achieved the impressive feet of managing to be thrown out of the left-wing Liberal Democrat party for her continuous stream of anti-Semitic statements, asked why Britain was “prepared to impose sanctions on Russia for breaking international law but not upon Israel, which has been breaking international law for decades?”

It is striking that so many are referencing this comparison, when in fact it should be clear that any equivalence between these two cases simply does not stand. In the case of Russia and the Crimea, one state invaded the sovereign territory of another and then unilaterally annexed it. This was a completely unprovoked act. In the case of the Israeli presence in the West Bank, this territory fell to Israel after a defensive war in which Jordan initiated hostilities against Israel, and it should further be noted that the West Bank had at no point been legitimately considered Jordanian territory. It was the Jordanian annexation of this land that was in contravention of international law and as such never recognized by most of the international community.

Today the West Bank is commonly referred to as occupied territory, despite the fact that the situation here does not meet the Geneva Conventions’ own definition of occupied territory. Having not previously been the territory of any existing sovereign state it would be more accurate to simply consider the West Bank disputed territory. But as the Levy report acknowledged, if any state has a legitimate claim to this territory it may well be Israel, given that the League of Nations earmarked this land for close Jewish settlement as part of the creation of a Jewish national home.

While the British peers condemn what they refer to as occupation others, such as Al Jazeera’s Valanza, accuse Israel of being in the process of annexing the West Bank. Yet remarkably Valanza actually gives credence to the notion that the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory may have legitimacy because Russia appeared to hold some semblance of a referendum. It is, however, a sign of the times that even when talking about Crimea, there are many who can’t stop themselves from changing the subject back to Israel.  

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