Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 23, 2014

Redskins Illustrate Government Gone Wild

After I questioned whether the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board had overstepped its bounds when they ruled against the Washington Redskins last week, some readers wrote to say that I just didn’t understand the purpose of the Patent Office.

Read More

After I questioned whether the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board had overstepped its bounds when they ruled against the Washington Redskins last week, some readers wrote to say that I just didn’t understand the purpose of the Patent Office.

Preventing companies from copyrighting offensive names such as Redskins under the provisions of the Lanham Act was, some said, exactly what this body was established to do. But writing in the Washington Post, George Washington University’s Jonathan Turley thinks, as I do, that the decision against the Redskins is an indication that government regulatory agencies are out of control. The Patent Office, like the IRS and a host of other government bodies, isn’t content with merely enforcing the law neutrally but now eagerly seizes any opportunity to reward those individuals, groups, or companies that they approve of and to punish those they dislike.

The Redskins case is a good example because the National Football League franchise’s insistence on keeping a brand name that is obviously offensive to Native Americans is difficult to sympathize with unless you are a fan of the team’s traditions. I agree with those who think owner Daniel Snyder is merely being stubborn and ought to drop a slur that can’t be credibly defended as a name that honors rather than insults Indians. But, as Turley notes, the government’s decision to seize on an ambiguously worded phrase in one statute in order to take a stand on the team that actually will change little is dangerous.

But if you think this is the only time this body has made an outrageous decision, you’d be wrong. While I wondered whether the Redskins opinion would set an unenforceable precedent that would call into question uncounted numbers of companies with logos and names that might be offensive to someone somewhere, the fact is the Patent Office actually has a long record of behaving in this fashion.

As the New York Times’s Upshot section noted in a piece published on Friday, there are many other examples of perplexing, even ridiculously arbitrary decisions on company or group names that have been handed down over the years. The office denied the right of Heeb magazine to patent its name for the sale of T-shirts as well as stopping an Armenian-American from marketing an alcoholic beverage it called “Khoran.” It also stopped a group of Asian-Americans from getting a trademark on their name because they called themselves “The Slants.” Yet it prevented an Italian-American group that is offended at the mention of a certain organized crime group from spiking a trademark on the name “Memphis Mafia,” which is an association of Elvis Presley fans. It also halted the effort to challenge the right of a lesbian motorcycle-riding club to call their group “Dykes on Bikes.”

The point here isn’t that one ruling was wise and another foolish. It’s that the government has no business getting involved in any of these decisions, regardless of the dubious merits of any of the names or the groups involved. But like the willingness of the IRS to play favorites on the question of granting nonprofit status, the Patent Office has no business exercising this kind of power.

As Turley writes, virtually every branch of government is vulnerable to the sort of “mission creep” that allows them to stick their noses into issues that they’d be better off staying away from. What Congress needs to do is to pass laws that ensures that government agencies stick to their original purposes. In the case of the Patent Office, that would mean protecting intellectual property rather than, as it did with the Redskins and some of these other cases, actually seeking to deprive individuals or companies of the ability to defend their rights. You don’t have to be a fan of the Redskins or like their justly unpopular name to understand that a government that arrogates such power to itself is one that is capable of imposing itself in sectors where it will be easier to see just how wrongheaded such an intervention would be.

Read Less

Too Late for Obama to Get Right with Egypt

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Read More

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Given that the regime led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is clearly ensconced in power and seems to have the support of most of its people, this decision is a good idea even if it comes far too late to do much to actually do the U.S. much good. President Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew was a mistake that was compounded by Washington’s futile efforts to head off the coup and then impose cuts in aid to Egypt’s military. These measures did nothing to make the military respect human rights or increase support for democracy in Egypt. But they did convince most Egyptians that the U.S. was out of touch with their desire to end the ill-fated experiment with an Islamist government. But by making this belated statement on the eve of the Cairo government’s sentencing of journalists for assisting the Brotherhood, Kerry lost whatever little leverage or standing he might have had in pushing Sisi not to go overboard in his campaign against the Brotherhood. Bad timing has been the hallmark of the administration’s path to its current dilemma. Obama stuck too long with the old regime led by Hosni Mubarak to suit most Egyptians who were ready for change during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that swept the country. But by pushing hard for Mubarak’s ouster after being on his side for so long convinced no one of America’s good intentions. But once Mubarak was out, the president shifted his ground and began working to pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime against the wishes of the country’s military that hoped to avert that outcome. Washington was ruthless in threatening dire consequences against the army when it tried to stop the Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s first election and then seemed to support the Islamists once they were firmly in power. When a year of Mohamed Morsi’s government convinced tens of millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the summer of 2013 to urge the Brotherhood’s ouster, Obama again waited too long to recognize this reality. He was seen as seeking to stop the mass movement aimed at averting the country’s slide into unchecked Islamist tyranny. When the U.S. punished the military government that overthrew Morsi to popular acclaim, that ended any chance of regaining American influence in the world’s most populous Arab nation. Sisi’s government’s ruthless suppression of the Brotherhood makes sense to Egyptians who understand that they must choose between the military and the Islamists. Sisi is right to regard the Brotherhood as a deadly foe that must be crushed now if Egypt is not going to have to face more violence in the future. But it hardly enhances the image of the U.S. as a friend to freedom everywhere for Obama to have finally given in on this point just as Sisi was imprisoning journalists and sentencing large numbers of Brotherhood members to death. Second guessing any president is easy, but the plain fact is that this administration has managed to mess up even those decisions that were correct. At this point, President Obama has alienated virtually everyone in Egypt. Sisi’s government has the power to help influence the Palestinians to reject Hamas as well as providing an anchor for regional stability if it survives, as it probably will, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take back power. Though the U.S. retains the leverage that its large annual aid to the country gives it, there is little chance anyone in Cairo takes Obama’s admonitions seriously, even when he is right. Egypt is far from being the only foreign-policy disaster that can be laid at the feet of this president. The collapse in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, throwing away its leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear threat, abandoning Syria and then backing away from efforts to punish the Assad regime in Syria, and a foolish “reset” of relations with Russia that led to more aggression from Moscow loom larger than Obama’s streak of bad timing in Egypt. But, like those other examples, Egypt has highlighted the president’s inability to make a decision and his poor choices when he does make up his mind. Having first articulated his flawed vision of a new Middle East policy in a 2009 speech in Cairo, it is both ironic and fitting that Egypt is also a reminder of just how amateurish this administration’s approach to foreign policy has always been.

Read Less

Can Being Broke Help Joe Beat Hillary?

He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

Read More

He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

Biden may well have been “the poorest man in Congress” during his 36 years in the Senate. But his claims that he didn’t “own a single stock or bond” and “no savings accounts” was not factually correct. He does have some savings and there are some investments in his wife’s name. Though his net worth of approximately $800,000 makes him a pauper compared to most Washington politicians, with annual income in the $400,000 range (including $2,200 a month from the Secret Service in rent payments for the use of a building at his Delaware home), no one need worry about him.

There’s little doubt that Biden hopes that highlighting his relatively modest means will remind Democrats that they have an alternative to Clinton as she slogs through a book tour that has brought her as many negative headlines as good ones. However, anyone who thinks that the so-called party of the people would be more inclined to nominate a middle class candidate over one of the now demonstrably wealthy Clintons knows nothing about American politics or Democrats.

Like the English, who have always been known to “love a lord” even as they resented the privileges of the ruling class, Americans generally like rich people. That may even be truer of the party that claims to represent the interests of working people and to be in perpetual war with Wall Street than it is of the Republicans who are generally billed as the party of business. On this point I agree with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, who also pours cold water on the notion that Biden has any advantage with Democratic voters on the question of income.

While the GOP has had its share of wealthy standard-bearers (Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes, and Theodore Roosevelt being the most prominent examples in the 20th and early 21st centuries), the Democrats have shown even more of a weakness for swells than the Republicans.

If we ignore Barack Obama, who entered the White House a relatively wealthy man due to the sales of his books and his wife’s income but came from a humble background, Bill Clinton was actually the last non-rich Democratic presidential candidate. Al Gore (who has grown far richer due to his exploitation of “green” economics and his sale of a cable channel without an audience to Al Jazeera) and John Kerry were both extremely wealthy. Going back further, you discover not only have the Democrats often nominated wealthy men, the richest tend to be the most popular, i.e. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Looked at in that context, over the course of the last century, Democrats have always been suckers for the rich guy who claims to defend the interests of the little guy at the expense of his fellow millionaires.

Thus, if Joe Biden thinks he can counter Hillary’s compelling narrative as the first female president with one that touts his middle class background and relatively thin back account, he is probably wasting his time. Democrats get as much, if not more of their money these days from the wealthy, including those on Wall Street.

There are some rich people Democrats don’t like: Republicans. Obama’s campaign relentlessly harped on Romney’s wealth not because their voters aren’t attracted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous but because they were able to claim that the GOP candidate was essentially self-interested as well as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Romney’s inability to connect with most voters, a trait that had to do with his shortcomings as a politician rather than his money, made the charge stick. While income inequality is a meme liberals like to use against their opponents, they’ve never yet applied the same standard to their own candidates. Being a member of the “one percent” is no bar to Democrat applause so long as the member of that club is willing to attack other one-percenters.

It is true that Hillary is hopelessly out of touch with most Americans as her clueless line about being “dead broke” when she left the White House with an $8 million book advance in her pocket indicated. But don’t expect Democratic primary voters to hold it against her. Biden is so far behind Hillary it’s hard to imagine anything she could do or say to be denied the nomination (other, that is, than refusing to run). Indeed, if she were smart, she’d stop trying to pretend to be middle class and embrace her status as one of the nation’s elites with more gusto. Nobody cares if she has money but they don’t like a woman who has largely lived at the expense of the public pretending that she is just an ordinary person. It will work a lot better and save her from further embarrassment about hypocritically fretting over the travails of financing multiple homes even as she receives $200,000 speaking fees.

Read Less

Intifada with a Twist

During the earlier, more hopeful days of the Arab Spring it was common for people to wonder aloud if the revolutionary momentum would reach the Palestinians. One major difference between the Palestinians and Egyptians or Syrians was that the Palestinians have a degree of self-rule. Any uprising in the Palestinian territories might therefore target the Palestinian Authority or Hamas before Israel, and would likely result in less, not more Palestinian freedom because of it: Hamas would crackdown brutally in Gaza, and if the PA fell in the West Bank it would be replaced by a more authoritarian ruler (probably Hamas).

Read More

During the earlier, more hopeful days of the Arab Spring it was common for people to wonder aloud if the revolutionary momentum would reach the Palestinians. One major difference between the Palestinians and Egyptians or Syrians was that the Palestinians have a degree of self-rule. Any uprising in the Palestinian territories might therefore target the Palestinian Authority or Hamas before Israel, and would likely result in less, not more Palestinian freedom because of it: Hamas would crackdown brutally in Gaza, and if the PA fell in the West Bank it would be replaced by a more authoritarian ruler (probably Hamas).

In part that was the folly of having elections in the territories that included Hamas back in 2006: if you gave the Palestinians a chance to punish the ruling party when Hamas was the only alternative, you would get Hamas in government. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s why many were warning against the United States giving its blessing to a Hamas-Fatah unity government that would soon call for elections. Mahmoud Abbas has been in office twice as long as his legal term; given the corruption of Fatah and the pent-up desire to register their discontent, the Palestinians could be expected to once again empower Hamas.

But now we’re seeing the possibility of Hamas gaining the upper hand without having to wait for an election. Both Haaretz and Khaled Abu Toameh are reporting the rumblings of a new intifada in the West Bank–only this time aimed at Abbas. As Jonathan mentioned earlier, the unrest is tied to Abbas’s criticism of the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers and the Israeli army’s West Bank operation to track them down. Here’s Toameh:

The attack on the Palestinian police station came amid growing Palestinian discontent with PA President Mahmoud Abbas over his opposition to the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths.

Palestinians representing various Palestinian factions, including Abbas’s own Fatah, have resorted to social media to denounce Abbas and his security forces as “traitors” for helping Israel in its efforts to locate the three youths.

One campaign on Facebook entitled, “I’m Palestinian and Abbas doesn’t represent me” has drawn hundreds of supporters.

Palestinian protests against Abbas and security coordination with Israel have recently become a daily occurrence in the West Bank, where Palestinian protesters are no longer afraid to express their views in public.

The Palestinian Authority has begun to feel the heat and that is why its security forces have been instructed to use an iron-fist policy not only against its critics, but also against Palestinian and Western journalists in the West Bank.

On June 20, Palestinian policemen broke up a protest in Hebron by families of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and beat a number of journalists, including a CNN reporter who had his camera smashed.

But the Haaretz piece gets right to the point. Its subheadline, echoed in the article as well, is: “The Palestinian president will soon have to decide whether he’s in favor of Israel or his own people.”

And here we have yet another consequence of opening the West Bank to Hamas, and it’s one that directly threatens not only Abbas’s governing structure but the security of Israel as well. This is obvious if Hamas was indeed behind the kidnapping. But even if not, it’s a good demonstration of Hamas’s ability to use such crises to limit Israeli self-defense.

It’s no secret that Israel rightly prefers Abbas to Hamas. But if Israeli counteroffensives can threaten Abbas’s hold on power, then Hamas has figured out a formula: strike at Israel in the West Bank, and either Israel’s response triggers the weakening and possibly fall of Abbas (to Hamas’s benefit) or Israel ties its own hands, giving Hamas free shots at Israeli civilians.

Israel simply cannot choose the latter: whatever Israelis think of their preference for Abbas over Hamas, he’s not worth committing state suicide over. But the former outcome is still a win for Hamas. If Hamas can chip away at Abbas’s rule by simply attacking Israel, they will do so. And joining the unity government positions them to collect the support Abbas loses.

The American officials who supported this unity government also tried to justify it by claiming that the Palestinians involved in the government cannot be card-carrying members of Hamas (though the Americans wouldn’t know the difference anyway). One way around that for Hamas would have been to run Hamasniks who simply run under a non-Hamas banner. But these latest developments suggest the Palestinians may not even make it to the elections.

If Hamas can cause the downfall of Abbas in the West Bank before elections can be held, they can avoid the trouble of pretending to be on the outside for those elections and can simply rule directly. The Obama administration officials who thought this was a good idea were pretty clearly outsmarted–but they probably thought they had more time before that became clear. Hamas seems to have other ideas.

Read Less

Polish Complaint About U.S. Has Merit

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Read More

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Moscow’s motive in seeking to undermine Polish-U.S. relations at a time when its aggression against Ukraine has the democracies of Eastern Europe worrying about the future is clear. Poles are rightly obsessing about Russia’s possible meddling in their internal affairs and whether the center-right pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk will survive this crisis. Yet the more important question for Americans is whether Sikorski’s colorful and, at times, vulgar, backlash at what he feels has been the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude toward its Polish ally is justified.

Predictably, isolationists and critics of U.S. engagement on behalf of the embattled democracies bordering Russia are labeling Sikorski as an ungrateful wretch. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison claims that the U.S. is already doing everything it can for Poland and that Sikorski’s complaint about the “worthless alliance” is contradicted by the facts since U.S. presidents have repeatedly pledged this country to the defense of Poland since it joined NATO after the Cold War.

But what Larison and anyone else inclined to dismiss Sikorski’s lament need to understand is that Poland’s situation and history require more than the routine pro-forma reassurances Warsaw has gotten from Washington. After five and half years of U.S. retreat under President Obama, including repeated instances in which it has cut off the Poles and other regional democrats at the knees, it’s little wonder that Sikorski is questioning the value of his country’s alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the fact that one of the most pro-American figures in Eastern European politics is speaking in this manner, even if it did come from an off-the-record illegal tape, ought to alarm Americans who think the president’s feckless appeasement of Russia doesn’t have consequences.

Sikorski is not just any Polish politician. He is a distinguished journalist who was educated in the West and left Poland during the period of Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Since his return to his country he has shown himself to be a consistent voice in favor of a strong alliance with the West and the United States that would guarantee defense of the freedom of his nation and others in the region. But in the last few years he has had to contend with an Obama administration more intent on their farcical attempt to “reset” relations with Russia than in shoring up ties to friendly nations like Poland that are threatened by Moscow. Obama’s cancellation of the plan to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was the first indication that he had little interest in bolstering Eastern European democracies against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. Since then relations with Poland have been continuously undermined by the administration’s desire to avoid tension with the Putin regime.

The futility of such efforts was demonstrated this year as Putin reacted to the fall of an ally in Ukraine with the seizure of Crimea and efforts to undermine that country’s sovereignty over its eastern regions that border Russia. Since then the U.S. talked the talk about supporting democracy and resisting aggression. President Obama even visited Poland this spring to restate his willingness to defend that country. But it’s hard to argue with Sikorski’s question about whether the Polish effort to play along with U.S. diplomacy on this and other issues has done more harm than good. If Poles assume that the Americans will save them from winding up under the thumb of a resurgent Russian empire, Sikorski seems to think Obama’s record proves this belief to be a hindrance to improving the situation.

As the recorded conversation apparently took place before the attacks on Ukraine began and the growing antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, perhaps Poles feel a bit better about American intentions today. But if, as many suspect, the release of the tapes is a Russian ploy to topple a pro-American government in Warsaw, perhaps Sikorski’s worries about Poland’s future are not as off the mark as some are suggesting. What Putin wants is to line his borders with governments that are oriented toward Moscow rather than the West. While the inclusion of Poland and the Baltic republics in NATO ought to make any Russian plans for re-writing the outcome of the Cold War a pipe dream, Moscow’s adventurism and Obama’s “lead from behind” response to other international crises is rightly causing many in the region to question America’s ability to stay the course.

Rather than joining in the gang tackle of Sikorski, Americans should be pondering how it is that their government has alienated so many allies while engaging in futile efforts at engaging our foes. The U.S. alliance with Poland may not be worthless, but there is little question that it is worth a lot less since Barack Obama became president.

Read Less

The Collective Punishment Canard

Eleven days have now gone by since the abduction of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas terrorists. But rather than international sympathy building for the victims, their families, and a nation that has become transfixed by their fate, it is, instead, the Palestinians who appear to be winning the public-relations battle over this incident.

Read More

Eleven days have now gone by since the abduction of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas terrorists. But rather than international sympathy building for the victims, their families, and a nation that has become transfixed by their fate, it is, instead, the Palestinians who appear to be winning the public-relations battle over this incident.

As even the New York Times finally reported in a belated article by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, the Palestinian people seem united in their support for the kidnappers and dismay at the halting statements of condemnation of the crime uttered by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian mobs have taken to the streets in what is increasingly being thought of as a new intifada protesting the Israel Defense Forces’ attempts to find the boys and to hunt down Hamas terrorists as well as what appears to be the ineffective cooperation of the PA’s security forces with that effort.

Yet the narrative about the kidnapping and its aftermath now seems to be changing from one focused on the plight of the victims to whether the IDF has overstepped in its bounds. Many international critics as well as some on the Israeli left are echoing charges leveled by the Palestinians that the army’s operations are not only undermining the PA but that they constitute a form of collective punishment and are therefore illegal. That’s the line being adopted by some Israeli NGOs like B’Tselem. While such groups have a record of opposing virtually any measures undertaken by Israel to defend its citizens, the notion that the army’s actions are high-handed and do more to create trouble than to actually find the teenagers or to impede Hamas’s terror campaign is one that is gaining some traction in the media.

As the Times of Israel reported, even as it is supposedly assisting the IDF hunt for the kidnappers, the PA is claiming that the arrests of Hamas officials and the temporary closures of various areas in the West Bank where the search is being conducted is a form of collective punishment. But a strong distinction must be drawn between broad measures aimed at squeezing not only the PA but also the Palestinian people in a probably vain effort to force them to produce the boys and their captors and the Israeli army operations that are currently being conducted. While proposals such as the one mooted by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon for “a wide-reaching operation against the civilian population” of the terrorists would clearly be a form of collective punishment, what actually has been going on in the West Bank is nothing like that.

As legal expert and COMMENTARY contributor Eugene Kontorovich told the Times of Israel, there is a vast difference between police and military operations that may inconvenience civilians whose aim is to find captives and terrorists and those that are specifically aimed at making a broad population miserable:

“Rounding up suspects, or potential witnesses, is not punishment, but rather rudimentary investigative process,” Kontorovich said. “Especially when the crime is thought to be committed by a complex terror organization, the number of potential witnesses is high. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Palestinians are being rounded up just to get back at Palestinians, without any regard to their having potentially useful information.”

Collective punishment means targeting the broader community for the crimes of an armed group, Kontorovich added. “However, members of a criminal group can be punished for each others’ crimes as part of joint criminal enterprise. This is widely used against everyone from the Nuremberg defendants to drug dealing gangs.” Police often round up gang members after a crime hoping they can shed light on the perpetrators or that they themselves might be liable for offenses committed in furtherance of the joint criminal enterprise, he said.

The point is that so long as the IDF is focused on finding the boys and Hamasniks, what is happening on the ground in the West Bank cannot be considered collective punishment. Despite ceding operational control of most of the West Bank to the PA, as the sovereign power in the area Israel has an obligation to both root out terrorism and to protect is citizens. The reason why Palestinians have taken to the streets to protest the search and the arrests of Hamas members (as well as the seizures of caches of arms and explosives that were discovered in the course of those searches) is not because the IDF’s measures are unreasonable or cruel but that the Arab population opposes the safe return of the boy and any measures intended to hinder Hamas’s efforts to kidnap and/or kill more Israelis.

In a sense, the collective punishment charge has resonance not so much because of any intention on the part of the Israelis but because the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians seem to identify with the kidnappers. That is unfortunate not just because it complicates the efforts of the Israelis and any PA security forces that are actually trying to solve the crime but because it demonstrates the futility of efforts to revive the peace process. The three-fingered salute mocking the kidnapped boys and the pain of their families and the Israeli people that has been adopted by Palestinians and their social media shows just how great the gap between the two peoples have grown.

One needn’t be a supporter of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to understand that so long as the kidnapping of Israeli boys is thought to be an act of heroism that should be emulated, the political culture of the Palestinians will not allow any leader to make peace in their name. That’s tragic, but it should not deter Israel from doing everything possible to find the boys and to prevent Hamas from committing more acts of terrorism. Criticizing Israel for acting in this manner stems from from a desire to delegitimize any measures of self-defense, not the collective punishment canard.

Read Less

The Dream Palace and the Nightmare: Fouad Ajami’s Quest for Truth

In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

Read More

In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

The Times’s remembrance of Ajami, who died yesterday at age 68, can be written off as another repulsive leftist tantrum. But it’s actually a museum-worthy display of the intellectual depths to which the left has sunk in recent years in an effort–ultimately doomed, one hopes–to erase history. Ajami had long put himself on the front lines of those trying to beat back this rebellion against knowledge. Defense of the truth was weakened by his passing, and the Times wasted not a moment to advance its assault.

It is unfortunate that to call out the Times requires quoting the editorial. Ajami had a long and distinguished career, yet the Times begins its obituary by apportioning a healthy share of blame for the Iraq war to him. And it just keeps sinking from there. Here is the first quote we get from elsewhere in the academy of Ajami’s thinking:

Mr. Ajami’s harshest criticism was leveled at Arab autocrats, who by definition lacked popular support. But his use of words like “tribal,” “atavistic” and “clannish” to describe Arab peoples rankled some. So did his belief that Western nations should intervene in the region to correct wrongs. Edward Said, the Palestinian cultural critic who died in 2003, accused him of having “unmistakably racist prescriptions.”

That is not the last time the obituary seeks to paint Ajami as a racist, a slander without a shred of truth to it–and so it is fitting, in a way, that Edward Said should be the vessel for it. Here is the Times on Ajami’s book The Dream Palace of the Arabs:

“The Dream Palace of the Arabs” told of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to renew their homelands’ culture through the forces of modernism and secularism. The Christian Science Monitor called it “a cleareyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs.”

Partly because of that tone, some condemned the book as too negative. The scholar Andrew N. Rubin, writing in The Nation, said it “echoes the kind of anti-Arabism that both Washington and the pro-Israeli lobby have come to embrace.”

A twofer: calling both Ajami and the “Israel lobby” racist. But this is one of the obstacles Ajami faced in being so eloquent: Andrew Rubin may have read Ajami’s book, but he obviously didn’t understand a word of it. Dream Palace was a condemnation of Arab police-state autocrats precisely because it was a celebration of the potential of Arabs and Arab culture.

Here, for example, is Ajami writing of a popular Arab poet lashing out in verse against Israel:

The Qabbani poem became an overnight sensation. Political power was in the hands of kings and dictators, businessmen were coming and going to economic conferences and “summits” in Casablanca, Amman, and Cairo, trumpeting the advent of a new Middle Eastern economy, but this poet had his own kingdom. As he himself so defiantly put it, poetry was “written on the forehead of every Arab from his birth until his death.” The Arab was the “quintessential poetic being.” Poetry had its own dominion; sultat al-ski’r (the dominion of poetry), and was nobler and truer than the authority of “patriarchy and the authorities of marriage, and politics, and the military.” These later dominions were mere “soap bubbles.” Poetry was at the heart of the turath (heritage), and this turath is “our identity, our passport, our blood type; without it we will become bastard-children.”

Ajami could be proud of the Arab mind but uncomfortable with the ends to which it sometimes lent itself, as in the case of Qabbani’s poem. Such nuance was lost on his critics. Ajami thought higher of his people than did the condescending leftwing polemicists who encouraged their war against the Jews in their midst and against the Westerners seeking to open doors for them. In explaining the title of the book, Ajami wrote:

On their own, in the barracks and in the academies, in the principal cities of the Arab world—Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo—Arabs had built their own dream palace—an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity. In these pages I take up what had become of this edifice in the last quarter-century. The book is at once a book about public matters—a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas—and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.

On their own. Though the Iraq war came after Dream Palace’s publication, it does offer something of a window into Ajami’s thinking. Ajami didn’t support the Iraq war because he thought his Shiite brethren needed a different master. He supported it because on their own they were capable of great things. They didn’t need a master, no matter his tone or tongue. They had rights and expectations and deserved more. This is anti-Arab? The claim is nothing more than extravagant idiocy.

The Times piece closes with another quote from the Nation, in which Ajami is accused of winning over his Western champions with his “almost flirtatious manner” and his pretensions to be “the good Arab.” The Times may not have written that deeply unintelligent nonsense, but reproducing it in its obituary is insulting; using it as the closing quote is spitting on the man’s grave.

The irony is that Ajami’s critics so easily appropriated the language of the authoritarian monsters Ajami wanted consigned to the dustbin, and they did so while Ajami was working tirelessly for the Arabs’ right to be free of such authoritarianism. Now they dismiss him as a traitor to his own people because he wanted them to be free. In life, Ajami was dangerous to them and their artificial world. In death, they fear him still.

Read Less

BDS Cares Nothing for Your Wounded Feelings

Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

Read More

Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

A pretty strong indication became apparent during the course of a CNN interview following the Presbyterian vote. Speaking in defense of the move was Presbyterian moderator Heath Rada. One couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. He admitted that he had not cast a vote on the issue and as the grilling by CNN anchors unfolded it became more and more apparent that Rada didn’t really believe in the divestment he was now being obliged to defend. Over and over again Rada kept repeating that this was not intended as an attack on “our Jewish brothers and sisters” but quite quickly the familial insinuation became distastefully patronizing. I wonder just how many American Jews reciprocate the suggestion of such kinship with the Presbyterian Church right now.

Next up was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. By all accounts Jacobs had been present at the vote and had done much to try and talk the church elders around. Although, given how the vote went in the end, it seems he didn’t get much in return for his trouble. Still, speaking on CNN he was as eloquent a spokesperson as anyone could wish for. He unequivocally slammed the grotesque anti-Jewish publication Zionism Unsettled (which is still on sale at the Presbyterian Church’s website), and rightly pointed out that this vote is an affirmation of global BDS–boycott, divestment, sanctions.

Yet as Rabbi Jacobs laid out his argument it became quite clear why he and other liberal Jews failed to prevent that BDS vote and why they will continue to fail to do so in the future. Jacobs’s argument hinged on one point: votes like this hurt Jewish feelings. But that’s a pretty weak argument. If one really believes that Israel is oppressing and tormenting Palestinians, then the hurt feelings of American Jewry are all very regretful, but in the face of injustice, what right do American Jews have to say it upsets them to see Israel’s military activities boycotted? If Israel’s misdemeanors in the West Bank are so very wrong then instead of complaining about their feelings, shouldn’t good liberal Jews support such moves?

And Rabbi Jacobs reiterated the legitimacy of these notions even during the few minutes he was speaking on CNN, so one can only imagine what he might have said in his much lengthier comments to the church elders. As an alternative to boycotts Jacobs suggested that he and the Presbyterians should go meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and protest settlements. But by suggesting that settlements are what needs protesting Jacobs strengthens the notion that settlements are the underlying problem. If that’s true—and if Israelis refuse to accept this—then why not boycott them just like you might place sanctions on any other state that’s gone rogue?

There is however a much stronger moral argument against the latest Presbyterian divestment. The first point is that the companies they are divesting from provide security services against terrorism that help stop their “Jewish brothers and sisters” from being murdered. Motorola is being divested from for the apparent outrage of providing surveillance technology that protects civilian communities in the West Bank while HP is responsible for the terrible crime of providing materials used for preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea. BDS calls these the apparatus of occupation, but are the Presbyterians really telling us that they oppose measures to prevent terrorism targeting civilians? Never mind Jewish feelings, what about defending Jewish lives?

The second point to be stressed here is that those speaking to groups like the Presbyterians have to stop repeating this false narrative that says that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through settlements. It must be reiterated constantly that Israel has legitimate rights in the West Bank that are, yes, necessitated by the present security situation and Palestinian rejectionism but more importantly that are upheld by historical and legal right. There is a strong international law case that people like Rabbi Jacobs refuse to make because they have staked everything on a two-state agreement that may never come.

American Jews can complain about how hurtful boycotts of Israel are, but once they have bought into the idea that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through an illegal occupation on Palestinian land they have already lost the argument. And as for those driving the BDS campaign itself, they don’t care about Jewish feelings; attacking Jews is what BDS is all about.

Read Less

Please Subscribe to COMMENTARY!

Three weeks ago we lifted our paywall and made our entire site accessible to all; everyone can now read eight items of any kind for free on this website. Articles, blog posts, archival material, the works. After eight visits, we ask you to subscribe to receive total access to everything we have to offer. The deals are pretty great, I think, beginning at just .99 per month–and you get a free copy of our first topical e-book, The New War on Israel. Please subscribe today.

Three weeks ago we lifted our paywall and made our entire site accessible to all; everyone can now read eight items of any kind for free on this website. Articles, blog posts, archival material, the works. After eight visits, we ask you to subscribe to receive total access to everything we have to offer. The deals are pretty great, I think, beginning at just .99 per month–and you get a free copy of our first topical e-book, The New War on Israel. Please subscribe today.

Read Less

Fouad Ajami, American Patriot

Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

Read More

Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in southern Lebanon, Ajami helped generations of Americans better understand the complex and tortured history of the Middle East. He was a prolific writer, having authored a half-dozen books and more than 400 essays on Arab and Islamic politics. From what I can tell, he never wrote a single sentence that was anything less than superb.

One of my jobs in the White House was to organize meetings between President Bush and scholars and public intellectuals. Fouad Ajami was a guest more than once. Being in this man’s company was among the highlights of my professional life; and developing a friendship with Fouad was a great personal privilege.

Prescient, generous, humane, lyrical and learned, Fouad Ajami was a man who seemed to belong to another, more civilized era. He was taken from us too early. The world will miss him; and so will I.

Requiescat in pace.

Read Less

David Duke and the Presbyterian Church (USA) Join In Common Cause Against Israel

On Friday the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its general convention (310-303) to divest from three companies it says supply Israel with equipment used to oppress Palestinians. Despite the PCUSA’s insistence to the contrary, this is part of a long-term effort to de-legitimize and morally stigmatize Israel. It is evidence not simply of moral confusion but of a disturbing moral inversion.

Read More

On Friday the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its general convention (310-303) to divest from three companies it says supply Israel with equipment used to oppress Palestinians. Despite the PCUSA’s insistence to the contrary, this is part of a long-term effort to de-legitimize and morally stigmatize Israel. It is evidence not simply of moral confusion but of a disturbing moral inversion.

I say that because anyone who has followed this debate knows that the PCUSA have shown a transparent anti-Israeli zeal. (Jonathan Marks’s fine post is worth reading in this regard.) The tactics vary, but the goal is the same: to isolate the Jewish state and turn it into a pariah. (I should add here that I have my own experience in this regard. In the 2000s my wife and I ended up leaving a church we attended for years after we discovered a clear anti-Israel bias that existed among some influential figures within the church.)

In some respects, the action by the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not surprising. It’s one of the mainline denominations that has become increasingly radicalized, politically no less than theologically, and has been losing members in large numbers for years. So it’s been on the road to irrelevance for some time now. That tends to happen to churches that subordinate their spiritual mission to a political one, and in this case to a fairly radical and progressive one.

Still, there is something particularly noxious in last week’s decision by the PCUSA. In a region plagued by genocide, terrorist organizations, terror-sponsoring states, ruthless dictators, and unimaginable oppression, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decides to aim its outrage at Israel, one of America’s closest allies, a nation that is a beacon of freedom and whose moral achievements are more than impressive; they are staggering.

Those who support what happened last week will undoubtedly argue that this was an example of them acting in a way that manifests their faith and their concern for social justice. In fact, it’s evidence of a hollowing out of their faith and required them to disfigure the real meaning of justice. It is hardly an accident that one of those who praised the PCUSA for its actions was none other than David Duke.

In a statement posted on his website, Duke said, “Israel is based not only on ethnic supremacism, but on massive terrorism and ethnic cleansing. … Their racist power over the media and government is why Israel can get away with it all. But people can stand up. Bravo to the Presbyterian Church for standing up to Jewish racism and supremacism!”

Well done, Presbyterian Church (USA). David Duke has found in your organization a moral voice and a moral home.

You can have him.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.