Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 15, 2014

The Future of Liberal Jewry in a Nutshell

Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

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Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

The article concerns the decision of Rabbi Andrew Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn to leave the rabbinate and pursue a new career in poverty work. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly significant about this. Rabbis, like lots of other professionals, often change their professions in mid life. As the rabbi says, the shift is neither a crisis of faith nor a contradiction of his life’s work as there is no inherent contradiction between being a Reform rabbi and being a poverty activist.

But the Times was not wrong to highlight this story as being something of a metaphor for liberal Jewry. Bachmann was widely seen as being among the best and the brightest in the Reform rabbinate and a man who had transformed his synagogue into a vibrant center attracting congregants eager to be a part of his vision of social activism. His decision to leave doesn’t mean that Beth Elohim will collapse. But it does show that when you start treating Judaism as merely a vehicle for liberal social activism, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to eliminate the middleman. Bachmann may not be renouncing his faith or even his calling as a rabbi but, as we learn in the Times account of his decision making process that he has discovered that he’s a lot more interested in spending his life advancing the anti-poverty agenda than in teaching Judaism to a generation of Jews who are desperately in need of leaders able to reach them.

One needs to be careful about going too far with this line of reasoning, but, it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time.

Those who wrote about the Pew Survey rightly focused on statistics that showed the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying and the secondary results that show that the children of such marriages are exponentially less likely to be Jewishly educated, affiliate with the Jewish community or regard themselves as “Jews by religion.” Those numbers point in only one direction and it is one that means that within a few generations most of the descendants of those who currently call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Jews will have left the Jewish community and have only the most meager and vestigial ties to their origins.

But just as telling as the intermarriage numbers were those that explored what it means to be a Jew to those who still do consider themselves Jewish. Relatively few see it as having anything to do with religious faith or being part of the Jewish people. More think it is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice.

Jewish identity and faith has always contained within it a lively mix of the universal and the particular. But in the universe of liberal American Jewry, the balance is skewed toward the former. As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.”

As such, liberal Jews are far less likely to resist the blandishments of assimilation since there is very little difference between their view of their faith and the secular political version of liberalism. However, as many in these denominations have discovered, it is a lot easier to devote yourself to a liberal cause without tugging along your Jewish baggage. In a movement that treats anti-poverty work as synonymous with faith, who can blame Rabbi Bachmann for deciding to stop trying to feed the hungry in a Jewish context and instead just cut straight to the chase?

As I wrote in the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, this exodus of non-Orthodox Jews is largely the function of free society in which Americans have a choice as to whether they will retain their faith and the breakdown in barriers between faiths that has caused non-Jews to be willing to marry Jews. But it is exacerbated by a societal trend in which the overwhelming majority of American Jews have lost all sense of what it means to hold onto a viable Jewish identity that can be handed down to subsequent generations. If you believe, as most do, that Judaism can be summed up in the phrase “tikkun olam” — a concept about repairing the world that has become a tired cliché and been stripped of its particular Jewish meaning or, as the old quip goes, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, why be a Jew at all?

The answer from all too many liberal Jews is that there is no real reason to stick with Judaism and the result are the numbers that the Pew Center published. Sadly, both the leaders of the Conservative movement and Bachmann’s Reform movement, have taken a blasé attitude toward the Pew statistics, claiming that their impact is either being exaggerated or misinterpreted rather than raising an alarm. That sort of complacence is on display in the quotes in the Times article from both Bachmann and Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They urge Jews not to “build a wall around their Judaism in an effort to preserve it. But it’s difficult to view the catastrophic numbers in a context other than one in which the consequences of not preserving distinctions or viewing Judaism as religious liberalism are becoming apparent. As scholars Jack Wertheimer, Steven Cohen and Steven Bayme have pointed out, the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jewry is to emphasize both Jewish particularity as well as seek to promote endogamy.

Rabbi Bachmann isn’t leaving Judaism but that is exactly what most non-Orthodox Jews are doing. If even he sees a life devoted to Jewish teachings as somehow not fulfilling enough to suit his needs, how can anyone else argue that it is reasonable to expect his congregants not to shuck off Jewish particularism just as easily?

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The Presidency is Breaking Obama Even As Obama Has Broken the Nation

One of the nation’s best radio talk show hosts, Hugh Hewitt, interviewed Joe Scarborough, the host of one of the best political shows on television. According to Mr. Scarborough

This is a president that does go out of his way to show that he’s not paying attention to what anybody says. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do, and he’s going to be stubborn about it. He is politically, he is either politically tone deaf or he just doesn’t give a damn. And I tend to believe based on everything I’ve heard from people who work inside the White House, and we’ve got a lot of friends there, and based on my friends who are senior Democratic senators, this president has checked out… He wants to be the next, I hear it time and time again from his close political allies. This man wants to be an ex-president.

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One of the nation’s best radio talk show hosts, Hugh Hewitt, interviewed Joe Scarborough, the host of one of the best political shows on television. According to Mr. Scarborough

This is a president that does go out of his way to show that he’s not paying attention to what anybody says. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do, and he’s going to be stubborn about it. He is politically, he is either politically tone deaf or he just doesn’t give a damn. And I tend to believe based on everything I’ve heard from people who work inside the White House, and we’ve got a lot of friends there, and based on my friends who are senior Democratic senators, this president has checked out… He wants to be the next, I hear it time and time again from his close political allies. This man wants to be an ex-president.

So the president — with crises breaking out across the globe, the economy still staggering, and unrest and despair in America rising — seems to have grown bored with the job. This is on one level an astonishing thing; on the other, it has the ring of truth. I say that in part because Mr. Scarborough is speaking to Democrats, not simply Republicans, on this matter. His sources are excellent. Yet one also sees Obama’s indifference in how he conducts himself, as well as stories leaked by the White House about his “restlessness.”

What could possibility explain this attitude? It may be that Mr. Obama was drawn to the job not for the right reasons but because he viewed the presidency as a new mountain to climb, a prize to win, as a way to feed his unusually large ego (even for a politician). It may also be that Mr. Obama, with his presidency crumbling, is like a petulant child who wants to pick up his marbles and leave. He was fine serving as president when he was adored and well liked; now that things are going south he appears to have emotionally “checked out,” to use Scarborough’s phrase.

The problem with this is that Mr. Obama is disengaging (a) after having done extraordinary damage to America and (b) at a moment when the world is convulsing because of the void left by Obama’s (and therefore America’s) diffidence and passivity. An increasingly insouciant commander-in-chief is not what’s needed at this particular time, given the multiplying threats and increasing disorder in the world.

It’s very much beginning to look at if Barack Obama saw the presidency as primarily a way to satisfy his narcissism. What’s happened instead is the presidency is breaking him, even as he is breaking the nation.

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Who will be Turkey’s Medvedev?

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

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As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

Erdoğan has announced that he will choose his successor on August 21. Several names have been floated. When I was in Turkey earlier this, several people suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan might take the post. On paper he seems qualified: he was previously minister of foreign affairs and also minister of finance, and in his deputy premiership, he also has special responsibility for the treasury. That may also be his undoing. Erdoğan is politically savvy but he does not have any firm grasp of the economy. Certainly, he implemented no-nonsense reforms which were long overdue and for that he gets credit, but he also was fortunate enough to hold power against the backdrop of a demographic dividend and in the aftermath of massive currency devaluation. The Turkish economy had hit rock bottom shortly before Erdoğan’s Islamist party won election. Rebounds are often time of great prosperity, especially if the starting point is the economy’s nadir. Today, however, the Turkish economy is tenuous at best. Currency devaluation has undercut Turks’ buying power, and personal debt is up more than 3,000 percent. People are living on credit, and eventually the banks will call in the debt or risk failure. Against this backdrop, Babacan has sought reforms that Erdoğan neither wants nor understands.

Others have suggested that Ahmet Davutoğlu, architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s policy has on the face of things been a disaster: He has embraced Hamas over the Palestinian Authority; looks at Israel with anti-Semitic disdain; was for Assad before he was against him; oversaw perhaps the covert Turkish flirtation with ISIS; and cast his lot with the Muslim Brotherhood over Egypt. In short, he has made Turkey into a pariah in the region, but his ideological radicalism and fealty to Erdoğan’s ambitions to be sultan in reality if not in name, makes him another prime candidate.

Others suggest Bülent Arınç, another Erdoğan deputy who, while serving as parliamentary speaker once warned the constitutional court that the AKP could dissolve them if they kept finding AKP legislation unconstitutional. He, too, has the right ideological pedigree. Other candidates might also take the prize, all of them handpicked for their loyalty to Erdoğan.

Make no mistake, though: It doesn’t matter who becomes Turkey’s Dmitry Medvedev because just as in Russia, the premiership will be irrelevant. Erdoğan has become the Turkish equivalent of Vladimir Putin. He is an authoritarian dictator, a strong man, and internally as intolerant as the Islamic State even if he too refined to show it directly. That the premiership no longer matters in Turkey, that any appointment will be as irrelevant as Putin’s placeholder was in Russia, shows just how far Turkey has fallen. It is now just another third world dictatorship, and will ultimately be just as much a failure. Unfortunately, the damage Erdoğan can do before that happens will remain considerable.

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What Happened to the Press in Gaza?

Yesterday, the spokeswoman for the Hamas government in Gaza let the shoe drop. Isra al-Mudallal told a Lebanese television station that the Islamist group routinely intimidated foreign journalists in efforts to “persuade” them to stop trying to take pictures of rocket launches or Hamas fighters.

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Yesterday, the spokeswoman for the Hamas government in Gaza let the shoe drop. Isra al-Mudallal told a Lebanese television station that the Islamist group routinely intimidated foreign journalists in efforts to “persuade” them to stop trying to take pictures of rocket launches or Hamas fighters.

This admission jibes with the complaint issued earlier this week by the Foreign Press Association about Hamas intimidation and interference with reporters in Gaza. Indeed, it explains a lot about the fact that, as I noted last week, throughout the four weeks of fighting, the hordes of foreign reporters that flooded the strip failed to produce a single video of the thousands of rockets shot at the Jewish state or of the armed Hamas cadres that were fighting the Israel Defense Force. Indeed, the first videos of Hamas terrorist activity launches only came in the waning days of the conflict and were released by Finnish and Indian TV only after their reporters had left Gaza? Until then, the only videos coming out of Gaza were those that bolstered the Palestinian narrative about Israeli attacks on civilians as pictures of dead children played in an endless loop on cable news stations.

Yet when put to the question about what was going on in Gaza, most members of the foreign press weren’t very forthcoming about what was, admittedly, a difficult problem. Some claimed they never saw a Hamas fighter or that a massive force numbering thousands operating in what we were endlessly told was a tiny and densely populated area operated out of sight. Others denied the charge of intimidation and claimed to have not seen any evidence of Hamas using civilians as human shields even though they know that the terrorist group was operating in and around civilian targets continuously.

While none of those who knuckled under to Hamas intimidation should be nominated for any awards for journalistic integrity, let alone courage, it’s easy to sympathize with their plight. Hamas is a terrorist organization whose members have no scruples about violence. It plays for keeps and reporters in areas under their control who don’t get with the program do run a very real risk of never seeing their homes and families again.

But the frustrating thing about this situation is not just that the foreign press was forced to tell only part of the story that was happening in Gaza. It is that most of them seem to think there was nothing wrong with their coverage. Indeed, many seem not to have needed a talking-to from Hamas thugs in order to agree with al-Mudallal that the only proper thing to do in Gaza for a journalist was to take as many pictures of injured Palestinian civilians while ignoring the fact that they were put in harm’s way by terrorists shooting and tunneling from within their midst, including the vicinity of schools, hospitals and mosques.

What’s even more interesting is that one journalist who reported from the Israeli side of the border, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, protested the Foreign Press Association complaint against Hamas. On Monday, Rudoren tweeted that: “Every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense.”

That may well be true since so many of those who reported for the Times and the broadcast and cable news networks seemed to think the narrative of this war was solely about Israeli attacks on Gaza while ignoring or minimizing the fact that Hamas started the war and launched thousands of rockets and prepared dozens of terror tunnels, the purpose of which was to kill as many Jews as possible. This selective presentation of information about the fighting skewed both the coverage and the climate of public opinion in most of the world. The lies by omission committed by journalists helped feed an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism became respectable in Europe, Asia and Africa and caused even some fair-weather friends of Israel in this country to claim that Israeli beastliness was undermining the Jewish state’s right to self-defense.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising to those who have closely followed the media’s coverage of the conflict in recent years. Hamas spokeswoman al-Mulladal was, after all, treated by many in the press as a symbol of the new, moderate and modern Hamas as this profile published in Germany’s Der Spiegel in the weeks before the fighting started testifies.

This blatant media bias isn’t bothering most Israelis who long ago gave up on the idea of getting a fair shake from a foreign press corps that often arrives in the region deeply prejudiced against Zionism and determined to find stories that fit with their pre-existing biases about the Palestinians. But it should profoundly upset those who care about the profession of journalism.

We’ve heard a lot in the last weeks about whether Israel and its friends have drawn the proper conclusions from this war as pundits warned them that the coverage of Palestinian casualties would cost them dearly in the court of public opinion. But we’ve heard very little soul searching from journalists about the crisis in their profession that the failure of reporters operating in Gaza highlights.

It is no cliché to say, as Americans have been repeating since the earliest days of our republic, that a free press is essential to a functioning democracy. But journalists who set out to distort the truth about a major conflict and skew their reporting to further isolate the one Jewish state on the planet and boost their image of a bloodthirsty terrorist organization have lost their moral compass as well as their professional integrity. It may well be that the controversy over the missing pictures in Gaza will soon fade from memory and the press will, as is their wont, go back to business as usual blasting Israel and ignoring the ethical questions raised by their one-sided actions. But no one who reads al-Mudallal’s admission and ponders the otherwise inexplicable failure of journalists to tell both sides of the story will ever trust Rudoren or any of her colleagues again.

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Understanding A Simple Question

The 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston once joked about a thorny diplomatic question of his day that, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

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The 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston once joked about a thorny diplomatic question of his day that, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

But while the Schleswig-Holstein question might have been hard to understand, the Israel-Palestinian question is not.  Indeed, as Dennis Prager explains in this short lecture, it couldn’t be simpler.

To be sure, while the question is simple, the solution, all too obviously, is not. It has defied the best efforts of men and women of good will for 67 years.

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Drawing Conclusions From the Myth of Middle East Moderates

In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

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In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

Zakaria is merely stating what has long been obvious to critics of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. In that toxic environment, “moderation” is political poison and extremism, especially of the Islamist variety has become mainstream. As Zakaria rightly notes, the dynamic that has brought ISIS to the brink of overrunning Iraq has been manifested throughout the Middle East over the last generation as Islamists have become more powerful and their so-called moderate opponents have become less moderate as well as unpopular.

The purpose of this Obama cheerleader’s detour into reality is not, however, to debunk the fantasy that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen their moderates. Nor is he seeking to pour cold water on those promoting the delusion that Iran’s leaders are becoming more moderate and that justifies American appeasement of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are two fallacies that Zakaria is perfectly happy to continue promoting in his writing and on the bully pulpit he occupies on CNN.

No, the only reason that Zakaria is interesting in shooting down the idea of Arab moderation is because that is a convenient way to defend the Obama against the criticisms lodged against him by Hillary Clinton last week in her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton rightly noted that an early and vigorous Western intervention in Syria would have probably toppled the brutal Assad regime. But even more importantly, the chaos that stemmed from the protracted civil war there led to the rise of ISIS, a vicious Islamist terror group that has overrun parts of Syria and much of Iraq.

But Zakaria is determined to absolve Obama and therefore declares that there were never any real moderates in Syria and that any Western intervention would have been in vain. Like the president, whose alibi for a record of almost unbroken foreign policy failure during his time in office is that the world is a complicated and confusing place he can’t be expected to do much about, let alone fix, Zakaria’s response to Syria is to throw up his hands and to say that nothing could be done.

To be fair, the Syrian opposition was never very impressive and is now totally overshadowed by the extremists in the field against Assad. But to assert that inaction was the only reasonable option in Syria is to promote a different kind of myth. History is fluid, not set in stone. As uncertain as the situation in Syria was three years ago, there’s little doubt that Assad was on the ropes and, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, would have fallen if Obama (who kept predicting the demise of that regime) had acted. While it is possible the country would have descended to chaos as was the case in Libya where the president’s lead from behind style led to disaster, could it have been worse than what is happening now, with the country divided between Iran’s ally Assad and Islamists who are also threatening to take over Iraq?

But even if we leave the Syria out of the discussion, what’s most disappointing about Zakaria’s truth-telling about the missing Muslim and Arab moderates is that even as he tries to debunks Clinton’s criticisms of Obama, he refuses to connect the dots between his thesis and the president’s Middle East policies that he has supported.

Zakaria insists that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine moderate. But, if he was being consistent or had a shred of intellectual integrity, he would note that the same dynamic that has driven other moderate regimes to extremism has applied to Abbas as well. Abbas talks like a moderate at times when speaking to Westerners or left-wing Israelis. But his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to denounce Palestinian Islamists gives the lie to the talk about his moderation, although even the Israeli government regards him as a necessary evil these days.

Zakaria also distorts the truth when he says the reason why there have been no Palestinian elections in recent years (Abbas is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year presidential term) is that the Israelis and the West have postponed them. That is nonsense even though he’s right when he says there is good reason to believe the Hamas terrorists might win. The autocratic and utterly corrupt Fatah run by Abbas needs no prompting from the Israelis or the Americans to act to protect themselves from the trappings of democracy.

But the main failing of Zakaria’s piece is that he refuses to draw the proper conclusion from his correct diagnosis about the failure of Arab moderation. If it is a fantasy to imagine that there are no moderates who can make peace with the Jewish state and live with the West without resorting to terror or nuclear blackmail, then it behooves the U.S. to stop trying to hammer the Israelis into making dangerous concessions that will only strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would also be good reason for Obama to sober up about the prospects of détente with Iran and to realize that rather than loosening sanctions on Tehran, tougher ones along with a credible threat of force is the only way to avert the nuclear threat.

For Zakaria, Arab and Muslim moderation is a myth. But only a myth when it serves the purpose of absolving Obama from his responsibility to lead, not when it comes to pressuring Israel or appeasing Iran.

Update: This afternoon, The Washington Post responded to complaints such as the one I made about Zakaria’s wrongly blaming Israel for the failure to hold Palestinian elections. It reads as follows:

An earlier version of this column erred in stating, “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.

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Abadi, Maliki, Da`wa and Iraqi Reality

Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

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Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

Da`wa—the political movement to which both Maliki and Abadi belong—has always been fissiparous. And years of exile simply made it worse. Back in 2008, Iraqi-British scholar Sama Hadad published an excellent analysis of the impact of the separate exiles in a report on Arab dissident movements for AEI; you can download it here (Sama’s chapter begins on page 32), but the key section—with footnotes removed—is here:

In 1958, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with support from other young scholars, established the Islamic Da’wa Party, which, up until his execution, was the only Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Party. Al-Sadr was the key architect of the party and was its intellectual driving force. The party established most its leadership force from the educated middle class and Al-Sadr tried to instill within them the ideas he was developing. The Ba’athist government in Iraq, however, deemed membership in or association with the Islamic Da’wa Party to be a capital offense. Many Da’wa members fled Iraq, mainly to Iran.

For the thousands of Iraqis who had found sanctuary in Iran, the nostalgia for their homeland and their desire for an Islamic state mixed in with the sense of revolution that was still prevailing in Iran, attracted them to wilayat al-faqih[the philosophy of guardianship of clerical jurists espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini]. For some in the Da’wa Party this fascination did not last long. During the 1980s the Iranian government measured any group’s commitment to the revolution by their belief in wilayat al-faqih. The Revolutionary authorities censored or banned any group that challenged the concept of wilayat al-faqih. This placed Da’wa in a tight spot, unable to publicly exchange ideas with their members other than those that conformed to wilayat al-faqih.

Iranian authorities sensed growing disagreement among leading Da’wa members as to how pro- wilayat al-faqih they should be. Capitalizing on this disagreement, Iran sought to fragment the party and establish groups more loyal to wilayat al-faqih. The Da’wa party attempted to salvage the situation by not challenging wilayat al-faqih, but throwing out any members who publicly supported it.

The most prominent group to emerge from the fragmentation of the Da’wa party, under the guardianship of Iran, was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Led by Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, SCIRI fully embraced wilayat al-faqih.

Da’wa members fled Iranian repression and regrouped in London. The discord of the 1980s and 1990s, however, meant that Da’wa did not significantly extrapolate from Al-Sadr’s theories.

The most significant step taken was the publication in London of ‘Barnamajuna’ (Our Program). Barnamajuna emphasized the need for democracy, free markets, and abandoned the call for an Islamic Republic in Iraq, perhaps as a backlash from their negative experience in Tehran. There was a clear shift from the belief of the early 80s in the will of the faqih (scholar) over the people, similar to wilayat al-faqih, to the belief in the superiority of the will of the people.

A senior Da’wa Party political source stated at the time, “[al-Da’wa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public.” This marked a clear re-affirmation of Al-Sadr’s wilayat al-ummah [rule by the community].

A relevant point brought out further in the essay is that Da`wa’s intellectual development in the United Kingdom was more dynamic, but still restrained by the fact that the Iranian regime more or less held the majority of Da`wa activists hostage in Iran. Should Da`wa activists in London grow too vocal in proposing alternate interpretations of governance than espoused by Khomeini and his successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then Da`wa exiles in Iran might suffer. When I visited Iran for my second time in 1999, I met a number of Iraqi Shi‘ite exiles in the center of that country, and they had nothing good to say about the Iranian repression they suffered and the indignities Iran put upon their children.

Iraq’s liberation, however, provide an opportunity for the two main Da`wa communities to reunite; a renaissance in exegesis took place. Much of this was not to Iran’s liking. When it came to governing philosophy and religious interpretation, differences that might have existed between those who spent their exile in Iran versus those who lived those decades in Britain disappeared with time, Da`wa might split personalities, ambitions, or portions of the debate but to suggest that Abadi is enlightened while Maliki was not is simply inaccurate. Enlightenment is relative, but the two men likely now share many of the same interpretations.

Enter Iran: Iranians know the Iraqi Sh‘ites do not particularly embrace Khomeini’s viewpoints. That does not make Iraqi Shi‘ites into American clones or necessarily pro-Western; rather, it makes Iraqi Shi‘ites, well, Iraqi Shi‘ites. The Iranian government has responded by sponsoring militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites. These militias remain a major problem, alongside their opposites on the Sunni side: radical Islamists sponsored by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; and ethnic and sectarian chauvinist Baathists embraced by Jordan. Alas, empty calls for an inclusive government do nothing to address this basic problem, nor would forcing all factions under a big tent lead to anything other than infighting and paralysis. Iraqis don’t insist that Jesse Jackson and Dick Cheney share a desk, or Samantha Power and Pat Buchanan; that we do the equivalent to Iraqis is unfortunate.

Let us hope Abadi can rally Iraqis against ISIS but, to do that, he will have to defeat not only ISIS itself, but those who have given the group help and solace. Maliki saw the problem growing and begged the White House and visiting Senators like John McCain to understand how radicalized the Syrian opposition had become. To believe that Maliki and Abadi are respectively Satan and savior, or that they represent different Iraq’s or different philosophies is misguided. The two men are realists; it is the White House that too often is not.

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How the West Helps Suppress Gaza Dissent

With the fighting in Gaza seemingly winding down, stories are starting to trickle out about Gaza residents’ unhappiness with Hamas for starting a new war every few years. The Associated Press devoted its “big story” to the topic yesterday; the Washington Post ran a similar story on August 12. Seemingly, that’s an encouraging development. But closer analysis leaves little ground for optimism.

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With the fighting in Gaza seemingly winding down, stories are starting to trickle out about Gaza residents’ unhappiness with Hamas for starting a new war every few years. The Associated Press devoted its “big story” to the topic yesterday; the Washington Post ran a similar story on August 12. Seemingly, that’s an encouraging development. But closer analysis leaves little ground for optimism.

First, the criticism was primarily over tactics: People objected to Hamas launching rockets from their backyards or thought it should have accepted a cease-fire earlier. But as the Washington Post noted, there was virtually no disagreement over strategy: “Most Palestinians, even Hamas’s biggest detractors, say they back the current war against Israel, believing it is the only way to achieve the short-term Palestinian demands of lifting the Israeli and Egyptian economic blockades of Gaza and opening the strip’s border crossings.”

In other words, Palestinians still haven’t grasped the simple fact that the blockade was imposed in response to the nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, and its primary goal is to limit Hamas’ ability to import war materiel. They have evidently forgotten that when Israel first withdrew from Gaza in mid-2005, a U.S.-brokered agreement arranged for the border crossings to open under Palestinian Authority and European supervision; only two years and thousands of rockets later, after Hamas booted the PA out of Gaza in mid-2007, did both Israel and Egypt institute stringent restrictions at the crossings. Thus instead of concluding that the best way to get Israel to end the blockade would be to stop shooting at it, Palestinians still think the best way to end the blockade is to bombard Israel with even more rockets.

Even worse, however, is that both Washington and Europe seem hell-bent on proving them right. One might have thought the discovery that Hamas diverted enormous quantities of imported cement – enough, as one Israeli officer noted, to build “two hospitals, 20 clinics, 20 schools, and 100 kindergartens” – into building tunnels to attack Israel would have led the West to realize that Israel’s insistence on regulating construction imports had some merit. Instead, Western leaders are pressing Israel to agree to significant concessions during the Cairo cease-fire talks. On July 27, for instance, a White House readout of a call between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Obama had demanded a cease-fire “that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs,” while relegating Israel’s demand for Gaza’s disarmament to an ever-elusive “lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” – i.e., the far-distant future.

In short, the West has been pressuring Israel to show Gaza residents that Hamas’ strategy works, and that a war every few years really will force it into concessions. And Israel has begun capitulating to this pressure, having reportedly agreed to several steps to ease the blockade, though not yet to removing it totally.

Even without this, the chances of Gaza residents revolting against Hamas were slim, given the organization’s reign of terror. As one Gazan critical of Hamas bluntly told Haaretz last week, “One mustn’t express an opinion about the war. They’ll make you trouble if you say anything. I speak my mind, but others, if they say what they think, they’ll say they’re collaborators, or they’ll beat them or even kill them.” AP similarly warned that “Under Hamas rule, it’s rare and dangerous to share even as much as a hint of criticism of the government with outsiders”; indeed, few Hamas critics quoted in any of the articles were willing to be identified by name.

But if Hamas had nothing to show for its endless wars, even cowed Gazans might someday decide they’d had enough. Instead, Hamas seems likely to return from Cairo with Israeli concessions that will force even its critics to shut up and admit that its strategy works. It’s hard to imagine a better way to ensure that the countdown to the next Israel-Hamas war will be short.

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Maliki’s Exit Doesn’t Change a Thing

It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

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It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

Politicians react to events; they are seldom consistent over time. That Maliki became more sectarian with time is indisputable. So too is the reality that he was pushed into a sectarian corner. Many analysts point to the arrest warrant for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi issued on Maliki’s watch as evidence that Maliki sought to pursue sectarian vendettas. The evidence against Hashemi was pretty overwhelming, though. To absolve him of guilt simply because he was Sunni and the prime minister was Shi‘ite is ridiculous. And while former Finance Minister Rafi Issawi also found himself accused of capital crimes, those who would absolve Issawi ignore the fact that Issawi’s accusers were Sunni and he voluntarily has paid blood money to them. Maliki also cracked down on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi at times, suggesting his politics were more complicated than sectarianism. If a prime minister does not target terrorists then he is accused of failing to ensure security; if he does go after Sunni terrorists, he is accused of being sectarian, and if he goes after Shi‘ites sponsoring death squads, then he is accused of being authoritarian by cracking down on rivals. So is Maliki blameless? Absolutely not. His fault was not that his government pursued Sunnis accused of crimes, but that too often the decision about who to pursue appeared sectarian.

Iraqi Sunni figures are not without blame. Take Prime Minister Nouri l-Maliki’s raid on a protest camp in Ramadi late last year. It is absolutely true that most of those at the camps were young, unemployed local Sunni Arabs who were not prone to Al Qaeda. It is also true that the timing of the raid was motivated by politics. But it is just as true that Al Qaeda had a presence at the camp, as videos of sermons endorsing Al Qaeda and protestors waving Al Qaeda flags show. To also suggest that Al Qaeda was not present but materialized and seized Ramadi and Fallujah in outrage within days beggars belief. The simple fact is that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have long sought shelter in Iraq’s Sunni-led provinces, and Sunni politicians have allowed them to on the belief that they could be a useful wedge against the central government.

Indeed, too often it appears that Iraq’s Arab Sunni political leaders are the most sectarian in Iraq. The basic problem is that the majority of Sunni leaders refuse the legitimacy of any Shi‘ite-led central government. That Baathists and Sunni tribal leader colluded with the Islamic State is not so much the result of frustration, but rather of malice. They saw such collusions as a means to an end, the end being not winning greater compromise in Baghdad, but rather winning control in Baghdad.

But didn’t the surge present a model? Certainly it was militarily brilliant and had great success in the short-term. But it was politically and culturally Pollyannaish and, effectively, convinced those disdainful of Baghdad for sectarian reasons that they could win through violence what they could not win politically. Some Sunni tribal figures joined the surge so long as the money was right. Some prominent U.S. generals were willing also to promise them continued funding and then lay the bill at Maliki’s desk, regardless of whether they had the authority to do so or not. And while Baathists, too, have shown that they are willing to cooperate for a time; they are not willing to forfeit their basic animus toward Shi‘ites, whom they castigate as Fifth Columnists. That was why General David Petraeus’ empowerment of Baathists in Mosul was so shortsighted and disastrous, and led to countless deaths in the November 2004 uprising. The point is this: When Maliki—and almost every other politician in Baghdad—warn that the Sunni officer corps seeks a coup to change not just the prime minister but the entire system, they are not paranoid. Instead, they are right. To push for the restoration of so many former Sunni military officers into the Iraqi army would endanger the Iraqi state and justify the Iranian propaganda which suggests that Iraqi Shi‘ites might not like their Persian brethren, but have no choice but to accept their protection.

So what must be done?

  • It’s essential to realize that sectarianism in Iraq isn’t a Shi‘ite against Sunni phenomenon but is often more acute the other way. I have never met a Sunni politician who, after a couple hours of discussion and maybe a couple whiskeys, didn’t acknowledge that they sought to restore Sunni control over the Shi‘ite population.
  • It’s also important to recognize that many Sunni leaders have their hands sullied by terrorism. Getting the Turkish or Qatari governments to vouch for their innocence is like getting Ted Bundy to assure the world of Jeffrey Dahmer’s innocence.
  • There should be no redemption for any figure that cooperated in anyway with ISIS or with the current uprising. Perhaps they thought they could use ISIS but retain control. That alone should disqualify their judgment into the future.
  • It’s long past time senior American military officers who have spent years in CENTCOM’s area of operation recognize that the clientitis that affects career State Department Arabists can also infect them. Generals interact with their effete and elite counterparts, and too often accept their complaints and adopt their biases. When it comes to anti-Shi’ite bias, how frustrating it is to see so many Americans more sectarian than Iraqis.
  • If the goal is to undermine Iranian influence, then it becomes essential to have a real presence in Iraq, one that Iraqis of all stripes can use to push back against Iranian Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani’s demands. Sometimes there is no substitute for a base, be it in Iraqi Kurdistan or in southern Iraq.
  • Likewise, if the goal is economic opportunity, then no effort should be spared to build and improve the Iraqi private sector. This should not be left at the hands of USAID. The staffers at that dysfunctional and wasteful organization don’t know the first thing about free market enterprise. Rather, it’s time to do what the Iraqis have been asking for all along: Send in American businessmen to invest in small projects: hotels, local manufacturing, etc.
  • Bolstering the private sector is also important since every Iraqi ministry has about ten times the employees it needs to function. Bloated state payrolls might work when the price of oil is high, but what goes up also comes down, and the bloated bureaucracy is a ticking time bomb.
  • And, finally, federalism needn’t be a dirty word. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States centralized the government in part because it was just easier for the State Department and Pentagon to handle that way. But, instead of building a huge bureaucracy in Baghdad, why not simply leave defense and foreign affairs in Baghdad, and distribute Iraq’s oil revenue not only to the provinces to decide what to do with, but directly to the districts. Let them compete for the best model, and replicate the tale of two cities—Kirkuk and Mosul—throughout the whole country. The key is that federalism should be based on administrative district, and not on ethnicity or sectarian identity.

Good luck to Iraq’s prime minister. He has huge problems to overcome. But let’s not make them worse by confusing Shi‘ism and Iran, or by incentivizing terror by forcing concessions in its face.

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The Arab Bank and the Future of Terror

A lot of lip service is paid these days by both the U.S. government and the mainstream media about the need to stop terrorism and to isolate those who support it. But a trial that began on Thursday in federal court in New York City may have as much to do with whether it will be possible to isolate terrorists and their funders as anything done by Washington.

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A lot of lip service is paid these days by both the U.S. government and the mainstream media about the need to stop terrorism and to isolate those who support it. But a trial that began on Thursday in federal court in New York City may have as much to do with whether it will be possible to isolate terrorists and their funders as anything done by Washington.

The case is Linde v. Arab Bank, a lawsuit that seeks to hold the Arab Bank, a Jordanian bank with branches throughout the Middle East accountable for the fact that it served for six years as the conduit for funding the Hamas terrorist organization. It was the Arab Bank to which families of Hamas suicide bombers and other terrorists to collect payment for their services. While the operations of Hamas fundraisers in the United States, like the Holy Land Foundation (for which the Council on American Islamic Relations or CAIR initially served as a political front) have been shut down by the federal government, this is the first time a foreign bank that was used to funnel money to Hamas will be called to account in court for its role in promoting murder and mayhem.

The case, which has taken many years of hard work and complicated litigation by the Israel Law Center to bring to court. The 297 plaintiffs in the case are the survivors or the families of those Americans killed in 24 Hamas terrorist attacks from 2001 to 2004 when the Arab Bank was laundering money for the group. But the bank hasn’t been their only opponent. From the inception of this case, the U.S. State Department has fiercely opposed efforts to enforce the federal Anti-Terrorism Act that specifically targets the funders of acts of terror committed against Americans.

As I noted back in April, the State Department backed the refusal of the bank to comply with court rulings that required it to produce records of its clients but fortunately the U.S. Supreme Court turned down their appeal leaving Judge Nina Gershon to tell the jury in the case that it may infer from their non-compliance that it did provide financial services to terror groups via Saudi funders.

At stake here is whether, as the State Department argues, it is unfair for foreign banks that comply with laws in their own countries, to be brought to book in the U.S. for their role in spreading terror. Given the enormous financial resources behind the defense as well as the opposition of the diplomatic establishment to any effort to treat Hamas in the same manner that al-Qaeda and its funders have been dealt with by the courts the odds have always been against the plaintiffs.

But even a cursory look at the facts of the case shows that if the courts take the law as seriously as they should, this is an open and shut case. Despite its pleas of innocence, there’s little doubt that the Beirut branch of the Arab Bank knew exactly what it was doing when it took the money from Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan and then subsequently distributed to the relatives of terrorists who blew themselves up in some of the most horrific acts of terrorism of the last decade including the 2001 Sbarro Pizza bombing in Jerusalem. Under U.S. law, Americans who were killed or injured in such acts of terrorism have a right to sue those who funded the murderers.

Yet some observers, like those quoted in a New York Times article on the case, believe a victory for the plaintiffs will make it harder for banks to do business in “strife torn areas” of the globe. They further argue that a ruling against Arab Bank would set a precedent in which all financial institutions could be held accountable for the crimes of their clients.

But this is nonsense. Banks are not liable if criminals have accounts there. But when banks become the conduit for the movement of funds to terrorism, they are not playing a passive role in the crime. They are directly facilitating groups that traffic in murder for ideological reasons. In the case of Arab Bank, which openly supported the siege of Israel in its own publications, the defense that it didn’t know what it was doing is hardly credible.

Moreover, as we have learned in the last decade since 9/11, straightforward law enforcement efforts aren’t enough to shut down terrorism. The only way to effectively choke off terror groups like al-Qaeda or Hamas is to shut down their financial networks that use institutions like the defendant to both bankroll their operations and provide what amounts to insurance policies for suicide bombers.

If the plaintiffs in Linde v. Arab Bank prevail, as they should, it will deal a critical blow to Islamists and others who use the banking system to launder the vast sums they get from Arab and other Muslim sources to pursue a genocidal war against Jews and Israel. If they do, the State Department will complain but the world will be a lot safer.

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