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Why Is Hamas Still Shooting?

Earlier today and not long after Israel had agreed to extend the temporary cease-fire that existed in Gaza, a new barrage of rockets was fired from the Hamas-run strip into Israel. Hamas’s latest rupture of a cease-fire caused Israel to pull its negotiators out of the talks in Cairo where Egyptian and American interlocutors have attempted to craft a compromise solution that would allow an agreement to end the shooting. But before the U.S. starts pressuring Israel to send its diplomats back to the table, Americans should realize that the reason why Hamas is still firing missiles has not a little to do with their expectations about the international reaction to their behavior that have been confirmed by the Obama administration.

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Earlier today and not long after Israel had agreed to extend the temporary cease-fire that existed in Gaza, a new barrage of rockets was fired from the Hamas-run strip into Israel. Hamas’s latest rupture of a cease-fire caused Israel to pull its negotiators out of the talks in Cairo where Egyptian and American interlocutors have attempted to craft a compromise solution that would allow an agreement to end the shooting. But before the U.S. starts pressuring Israel to send its diplomats back to the table, Americans should realize that the reason why Hamas is still firing missiles has not a little to do with their expectations about the international reaction to their behavior that have been confirmed by the Obama administration.

Like the thousands launched in the last month as the latest fighting raged, those fired today were either shot down by Iron Dome or exploded harmlessly in empty fields. But the massive nature of this provocation makes it clear that the rockets were not the act of isolated or rogue groups in Gaza but a concerted effort by Hamas to pressure both Israel and the other parties to the talks to give in to their demands to lift the blockade of the strip without the Islamists agreeing to any real limits on their ability to re-arm.

Some observers, like reporters from the New York Times, think the back and forth between Hamas and Israel is some kind of pantomime show with no real purpose. As the Times piece noted, both sides know they won’t get what they want in the talks. But it needs to be understood that so long as Hamas believes the international community will be so concerned about the plight of the people of Gaza–whose lives have been devastated by the war the terror group launched–that they will eventually be able to corner the Israelis and force them and the Egyptians to loosen the blockade, the violence will continue.

The willingness of Hamas to keep firing despite their complete military defeat at the hands of the Israelis illustrates a key point about the asymmetrical warfare in which the two sides have been engaged.

Hamas rocket barrages have been a fiasco as almost none of the thousands of rockets fired have found their targets. Their enormous investment in building dozens of tunnels aimed at facilitating cross-border terror attacks has been thrown away. Indeed, their decision to launch an ill-timed war this summer not only undid years of work before the tunnels could be exploited, it also led to their planning for a coup in the West Bank against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to be discovered in advance of that plot being set in motion.

And yet the reality that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must face is that despite the victories won by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and the Israel Defense Forces’ successful incursion into Gaza, Hamas is not only undeterred from launching more rockets; it also doesn’t consider itself to have been defeated.

By understandably halting that offensive without toppling Hamas because of the great cost such a battle would exact from his country, Netanyahu has tacitly accepted that this last month would not be the last battle fought with Hamas. But the question before Israel is not whether Netanyahu will order an all-out offensive designed to rid the strip of its Hamas tyrants once and for all. That decision has already been made and Netanyahu has already made clear that Israel won’t or can’t pay such a price in blood and international pressure that a re-occupation of the strip would entail.

Instead, the question yet to be answered is whether international pressure—and in particular pressure from the United States—will force the Israelis to allow a loosening of the blockade so as to help Gaza rebuild and Hamas to re-arm. By keeping the rocket barrages going even though it knows that they will do little or no damage to Israel, Hamas is counting on that pressure being increased. More rockets will force more Israeli counter-strikes and those will, without doubt, worsen the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and therefore increase the agitation going on around the globe against Israel’s measures of self-defense.

That is why if the Obama administration is serious about crafting a cease-fire that means anything, it must signal to Hamas that it must abandon its hopes for a political victory in Cairo that will overshadow its military defeat. Yet while still insisting that it disdains Hamas, the administration’s determination to pick fights with Israel and to force it to back down on demands for the demilitarization of the strip have unintended consequences. By pushing for Israel to halt the fighting and for it to give in to some of Hamas’s demands, the U.S. has once again set in motion a series of events that will only lead to more violence.

Netanyahu is determined not to unnecessarily exacerbate the relationship with the U.S. and President Obama’s brutal attempts to force it to stop fighting by halting weapon shipments have reduced Israel’s room to maneuver. But he should resist pressure to return to Cairo. As bad as Hamas’s intermittent missile barrages may be, agreeing to a formal cease-fire that would open up the floodgates for the resupply of the group’s arsenal via shipments from Iran would be far worse. Hamas is still firing in no small part to convince Obama to crack down even harder on Israel. The president should refuse to play along. But if he does, Israel must not agree to a deal that will make the next round of fighting with Hamas just as bad, if not worse, than the last one.

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What Message Is Obama Sending to Israel?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell by reporting that the U.S. had withheld a shipment of Hellfire missiles from Israel during wartime and that the Obama administration “tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel.” In response, I wrote that the administration could no longer resort to its favorite defense on Israel: that no matter how poorly President Obama and his appointees treated Israel in the diplomatic arena, at least he had Israel’s back on security.

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell by reporting that the U.S. had withheld a shipment of Hellfire missiles from Israel during wartime and that the Obama administration “tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel.” In response, I wrote that the administration could no longer resort to its favorite defense on Israel: that no matter how poorly President Obama and his appointees treated Israel in the diplomatic arena, at least he had Israel’s back on security.

Yesterday Shmuel Rosner wrote a very smart response. He disagrees with me on how much of a lesson we can draw from this one incident, but has his own incisive take on it. I think it’s worth clarifying part of my original point and also drawing attention to Rosner’s own analysis of the dustup, which has important implications.

I wrote that “now we know that the president is not fully committed to Israel’s security.” Rosner quotes that line and then writes: “a halt of one, or even five, shipments of arms, when Israel can clearly do without them for now, is not yet a clear statement of carelessness regarding Israel’s security.”

That’s true, but I didn’t write that the president cares nothing for Israel’s security; I wrote that he’s “not fully committed to Israel’s security.” I think that’s an important distinction. And the reason I wrote that is not just about stopping one (“or even five”) arms shipments, but the key point that the resupply process has generally been on autopilot and takes place below Obama’s pay grade.

It’s not as though Obama were transferring all that weaponry to Israel and then decided to hold one shipment to apply pressure to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It’s that, if the Journal story has it right, Obama was unaware of the arms transfers in that program, and when he became aware he put a stop to one shipment and the fast-track process and took a key component of U.S.-Israel mutual defense off of autopilot. While Israel was at war, no less.

In other words, Obama deserves less credit than he’s received for supporting Israel’s security over the last six years, not that Obama has suddenly changed course (though that’s true in a way too).

But Rosner’s conclusion is worth contemplating as well. He writes:

But I do see something else that is quite disturbing: Obama no longer cares if people say that he doesn’t care about Israel’s security.

Let me explain: for six years it was important for the administration to separate “security relations” from “diplomatic relations”, because the separation enabled it to keep wrapping itself in a ‘supportive of Israel’ garment even as it was having bitter fights with the Israeli government. When relations were very tense, the pretense of them being still very strong was important for the Obama administration to maintain. Of course, part of it is because it is true: the relations are still strong. The US and Israel have ties strong enough to sustain a period of tension between the two governments. But there were also other reasons for the Obama team to insist on the viability of the “security” relations. Possibly, some of this was for political reasons – Obama did not wish to pick a fight with political supporters over Israel. And some of it probably had psychological motivations – it enabled people within the administration that are basically supportive of Israel to compartmentalize their own feelings about the policies of the administration in which they serve.

Enter the latest report, which ruins it for Obama, or at least significantly damages it. Suddenly, the Obama administration decided to send a blow in the one area that was supposedly a no-entry-zone.

If Obama no longer cares to be seen as supportive of Israel, Rosner writes, then that would be “a change that is much more significant than one shipment of Hellfire missiles.”

There have been a lot of jokes about the president already enjoying his retirement, but the kernel of truth at the center of them has been his disregard for pretending he cares about any number of issues. He’s disengaged and, frankly, appears overwhelmed by the task at hand.

But he’s still president, and he’s still the most visible representative of his party. The Democrats already have an “Israel problem,” in that the base of the party continues their own reassessment of the special relationship. Obama only reinforces that at a time when Israeli civilians are being forced into bomb shelters.

And it matters for another reason, and this is a point on which Rosner and I agree. American diplomatic support for Israel cannot so easily be separated from support for Israel’s security. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S. can attempt to force Israel’s government to take positions that weaken its security, regardless of its supply of arms and ammunition.

Israel’s enemies react according to its perceived strength, and that in turn relies on the fairly significant factor of whether the Jewish state has the world’s only superpower standing behind it. Obama is quite aware of the impression he’s giving, and it will almost certainly have real-world consequences.

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Resisting the Ferguson Temptation

Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

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Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Unlike virtually everyone else who has commented on the shooting and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Ryan simply asked that those who speak about these events refrain from attempts to exploit what has happened. Not succumbing to the temptation to use the social pathologies on display in Missouri as fodder to promote his new book, Ryan said the following:

“Don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives, don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now,” the Wisconsin Republican said on “Fox and Friends.” “We should take a deep breath, let’s have some sympathy for the family and the community … and let’s let the investigation take its course and hope that justice is served appropriately.”

That’s good advice, and the media figures and so-called racial activists like Al Sharpton, who have descended upon Ferguson like a ravenous flock of vultures, would do well to heed it if they actually cared about the citizens of this troubled town or race relations across the country.

The Brown shooting, like the death of Martin, has become more of an opportunity to rehearse the usual litany of liberal ideological rants in which this heretofore-obscure town has become a symbol of racism. Rather than let the facts of the case—whatever they may be—be uncovered and then let the legal process play out, the impulse to prejudge the case has consistently prevailed. Whether that means an assumption that the police officer is guilty of murder or that the victim was somehow responsible for the incident, neither set of arguments has done much to advance the cause of justice of the peace of that community.

As Fred Siegel correctly noted in City Journal yesterday, most of those who have weighed in with commentary about Ferguson are stuck in the 1960s, a perspective from which all violence is viewed through the lens of the civil-rights movement. Those who play this game rarely stop to reflect that a half century later, an African-American president now governs the same country. Nor do they ponder the fact that solutions to the problems of such communities cannot be found in the playbook employed by those who protested against now vanished Jim Crow laws in an America that no longer exists. Sharpton and the pack of so-called civil-rights leaders who have parachuted into this mess have clearly done more harm than any possible good.

To acknowledge this reality does not oblige anyone to be indifferent to the anger of Ferguson residents about what they perceive as misconduct by the police or the ham-handed response to subsequent protests and riots by the authorities. But if we were to avoid merely repeating the same destructive narrative about racism that did so much damage in the Martin case, then it would behoove those commenting on the issue to refuse to rehearse, as Siegel says, “The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, [that] plays out time and again.” As Siegel says, using Brown’s death to pivot into discussions about race, white flight, or urban/suburban jurisdiction disputes is a mistake.

Neither Sharpton nor anyone else talking on television really knows what happened when Brown died. Until we get a better handle on that question, they should stop fomenting the sort of anger that leads to riots and more violence as we have seen the last several nights in Ferguson. The cable news commentariat is as determined not to learn from their mistakes in this case, just as they were during Zimmerman’s trial. They will, instead, repeat the same cant about race and suggest more of the same failed policies that have helped perpetuate these problems rather than fix them. Until we learn to resist this temptation, as Siegel writes, that failure ensures “there will be more Fergusons.”

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Israel’s Record on Civilian Casualties Compares Well to America’s

Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

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Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, of the victims of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq whose age and gender could be determined, 46 percent were women and 39 percent were children. The study, based on data from Iraq Body Count, covered the period from March 2003 to March 2008, but specifically excluded airstrikes carried out during periods of intense fighting, such as the initial U.S. invasion and the 2004 battle of Fallujah. In other words, it excluded those periods when fire was likely to be heaviest and most indiscriminate due to the need to protect troops at risk.

By contrast, according to statistics published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 12 percent of all Palestinians killed in Gaza were women and 23 percent were children (239 women and 459 children out of 1,976 fatalities). Thus even if OCHA’s numbers are accurate, the percentages of women and children killed in Gaza were far lower than the percentages killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. Yet one would expect them to be higher, for at least three reasons.

First, unlike the NEJM study, OCHA’s figures cover the entire war, including periods of intense fighting when soldiers’ lives were at risk. In other words, they include the battles involving the heaviest fire, which NEJM’s study excluded. Second, the NEJM figures referred only to airstrikes, which utilize precision weapons; OCHA’s figures also include people killed by non-precision weaponry such as artillery fire. Third, though the claim that Gaza is one of the world’s mostly densely populated places is nonsense, almost all the fighting took place in dense urban areas: Since Hamas’s strategy depends on massive civilian casualties, it locates its rocket launchers and tunnels mainly in such areas. In contrast, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq weren’t limited to dense urban areas.

In short, even if OCHA’s figures are credible, Israel comes off well by comparison with coalition forces in Iraq. But in fact, they aren’t. First, OCHA doesn’t say whether any of these “children” were combatants, though it’s hardly unheard of for 16- or 17-year-old Palestinians to bear arms. More importantly, however, it doesn’t say how many of these women and children were actually killed by Hamas rather than Israel.

As I’ve noted before, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched at Israel–475 out of 3,137–actually landed in Gaza, where, given the lack of either Iron Dome or civilian bomb shelters, they would have been far more lethal than they were in Israel. In one documented case alone, a misfired Hamas rocket killed 10 people in a park, including eight children.

Moreover, as I’ve also noted, Hamas’s practice of booby-trapping and storing rockets in houses, mosques, and clinics means that many Israeli strikes inadvertently set off massive secondary explosions. In other words, many Palestinian “victims of Israeli attacks” were likely killed not by the Israeli strike itself, but by secondary explosions caused by Hamas’s own bombs.

Americans rightly expect the world to understand that when U.S. airstrikes decimate a Yemeni wedding party or kill civilians in Iraq, it isn’t because the U.S. is bloodthirsty, but because mistakes happen in wartime, especially when fighting terrorists who don’t wear uniforms and operate from amid civilian populations. But Israel is entitled to that same understanding.

Instead, the White House, Pentagon, and State Department have all accused Israel in the harshest terms of doing too little to prevent civilian casualties. Given that Israel’s record on this score, as the NEJM study shows, is even better than America’s, that is the height of hypocrisy.

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Planes, Buses, and Failing Dem Campaigns

This has not been a good week for Democrats running for the Senate. But rather than their problems being focused on the congressional party’s difficult relationship with President Obama or the burden that defending his policies has placed upon Democratic incumbents in red states, this week their problem is on transportation. No, not transportation policy but the fact that shady transactions to pay for their campaign transportation are creating a distraction that is making it harder for the party’s candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana to stay close to their Republican rivals.

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This has not been a good week for Democrats running for the Senate. But rather than their problems being focused on the congressional party’s difficult relationship with President Obama or the burden that defending his policies has placed upon Democratic incumbents in red states, this week their problem is on transportation. No, not transportation policy but the fact that shady transactions to pay for their campaign transportation are creating a distraction that is making it harder for the party’s candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana to stay close to their Republican rivals.

Today’s unwelcome headline for the president’s party concerns Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes has been losing ground recently in her efforts to unseat Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, so the last thing she needed was for Politico to start taking an interest in how she’s paying for her campaign bus. But rather than paying attention to her attacks on McConnell or even her efforts to distance herself from President Obama and his attacks on the coal industry, the publication devoted a major feature today to the question of a possible scandal involving an in-kind contribution from the candidate’s father that may violate campaign finance laws.

Politico’s analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows that the costs listed for the campaign bus that she has been using to crisscross the Bluegrass State are a fraction of what the going rate for renting such a vehicle would be. The reason for this anomaly is that a company owned by Grimes’s father Jerry Lundergan, a former Democratic Party state chairman and legislator, operates the bus. The difference between the fair market value of the rental and the minimal rate her campaign is paying constitutes an illegal in-kind contribution and may open Lundergan to an FEC investigation and fines.

As Politico notes, catering and event planning companies owned by Lundergan have handled much of the details and logistics of his daughter’s effort to win a Senate seat. This has enabled her to save a lot of money. As the story related, though the Grimes campaign hasn’t stinted on the frills associated with campaign events, including some held at exclusive venues, she has still managed to spend far less on such items than comparable events held by McConnell. While some might focus on the fact that her campaign has spent a considerable amount on services provided by companies that are either owned by her relatives or those that employ them, the real problem here is that the Lundergan clan appears to be skirting laws that strictly regulate the way candidates raise and spend money.

This is not the first time Lundergan has run into trouble with the law. The candidate’s father was forced to resign as state chairman after being convicted of a felony in 1989 for accepting no-bid contracts for the Democrats that were not only shady but violations of the law. However, he avoided further trouble when courts ruled his actions to be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Does any of this rise to the level of a full-blown scandal that could sink Grimes? No. But it is a distraction as well as a disturbing reminder of her father’s troubled ethical past. And it comes just at the time when she needs to start building momentum rather than letting McConnell expand his narrow lead as the campaign heads into the fall homestretch.

At the same time, the far more serious questions being asked about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses are starting to get louder. Reviews of her schedule in the past few years have revealed two more campaign trips that were paid for by the taxpayers rather than the senator’s donors.

Landrieu is attempting to downplay the revelations as being just a “minor mistake.” Were she safely reelected, she might be able to stick to that story and, like Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill, just pay a fine and back taxes on ill-gotten savings that helped her stay in office. But since this has come out while she is fighting for her political life, Landrieu may pay a higher cost in lost votes than she ever will in accounting for the way her campaign has looted the public treasury. The mere fact that Rep. Bill Cassidy has been able to dub her campaign “Air Landrieu” may cause more of a problem than the efforts of ethics probers.

Neither Grimes nor Lundergan should be counted out just because of these problems, but the difficulties both are facing have added to the handicaps that have been placed upon their reelection efforts by the president’s policies. At a time when they would have both liked to stay on the offensive, their transportation problems have given their opponents damaging talking points and set back an already uphill struggle for Democrats this fall.

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Yes, Egypt Is Playing a Constructive Role in Gaza Conflict

With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

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With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

The complaint centers on Egypt’s post-Morsi role in the region. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was in power in Cairo, its Palestinian offshoot Hamas had a powerful friend next door. When violence last flared up between Israel and Hamas, Cairo facilitated a ceasefire–a process which left Hamas mostly unscathed and able to replenish its arsenal for the next round of fighting. But Sisi heads a military government that deposed the Brotherhood’s men in a coup. As such, Sisi doesn’t want Hamas to be able to rearm at will and cause trouble indefinitely.

It’s a logical position, and one that should be echoed in the West. But not everyone’s happy with Sisi’s lack of urgency in ending the fighting. An example of this argument comes from Michele Dunne and Nathan Brown:

This subtle shift — from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates — has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas — and particularly the population of Gaza — the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.

Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza — even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.

But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt’s policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood — an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First of all, Nunne and Brown claim that Hamas has punctured its isolation thanks to Cairo’s tough line. I’m not at all convinced this is really the case, but let’s say it is. The more important question than whether the world is talking to Hamas is how the world is talking about Hamas. There is an unprecedented consensus that this is the moment to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. But the Israeli/Egyptian opposition to letting Hamas off the hook has raised serious discussions about ending the Gaza blockade in return for demilitarizing the strip. And this idea has broad support at the Pentagon, in Europe, and among Arab states in the Middle East.

It might be true that if this doesn’t happen, Dunne and Brown have a case. But that leads to the second problem with their thesis: they have fallen into the classic trap of prioritizing ending this war over preventing future wars. They are nearly mutually exclusive goals. “This war” is not really a separate war, after all, from the last one or the one before that. As long as Hamas is in power in Gaza and able to rearm and threaten Israel, each truce is temporary and each ceasefire comes with an expiration date.

Another problem is that Dunne and Brown give Morsi a bit too much credit for containing Hamas. It’s true that Morsi cracked down on tunnels to Egypt. But as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

That’s a significant difference. Enabling weapons flows to Hamas guarantees future violence, so it’s a bit rich to see Morsi praised and Sisi criticized on this score.

And finally, Dunne and Brown–and the other critics of Egypt’s new role under Sisi–don’t seem to appreciate the fact that Sisi’s goals align quite nicely with those of the West. Doesn’t the West want terrorist groups like Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest to be defeated? I would think so.

And this is even more important in light of the news yesterday that Israel derailed an attempted West Bank coup by Hamas. According to Israel’s security officials, as the Times of Israel reported, “the plot was orchestrated by senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey and enjoys the support of the local officials there.”

Any assessment of the balance of power in the Middle East has to incorporate the fact that Turkey is now not only helping Hamas, but enabling the planning of a coup against Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank. Egypt’s shift to dedicated foe of Hamas is a boon to the West’s otherwise fading influence in the region, and persuasively rebuts the idea that Cairo’s actions don’t align with Western strategic objectives.

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Democrats Air Frustrations with Obama

Republicans have been frustrated by President Obama for a long time. But it turns out Democrats have, too. According to a story in the New York Times, “nearly six years into his term, with his popularity at the lowest of his presidency, Mr. Obama appears remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill, with his long neglect of would-be allies catching up to him.”

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Republicans have been frustrated by President Obama for a long time. But it turns out Democrats have, too. According to a story in the New York Times, “nearly six years into his term, with his popularity at the lowest of his presidency, Mr. Obama appears remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill, with his long neglect of would-be allies catching up to him.”

The Times goes on to report that based on interviews with nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers and senior congressional aides:

Mr. Obama’s approach has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office. Grumbling by lawmakers about a president is nothing unusual. But what is striking now is the way prominent Democrats’ views of Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are spilling out into public, and how resigned many seem that the relationship will never improve.

We’re told that in private meetings, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, “has voiced regular dismay to lawmakers and top aides about White House operations and competency across a range of issues, according to several Democrats on Capitol Hill.”

Mr. Obama’s detachment from his own party–his lack of personal relationships with Democrats on Capitol Hill–is hardly news to anyone. What is news is that Democrats are willing to give public voice to their complaints. They want their grievances known.

But it’s not just, or even mainly, Mr. Obama’s aloofness that seems to trouble them; it is, as Harry Reid’s chief of staff indicates, his lack of competence that is really bothering them. Let’s just put it this way: If an aloof President Obama has 60 percent approval ratings (instead of 40 percent)–if the Affordable Care Act was wildly popular, the economy was surging, and the world was tranquil–you wouldn’t see front-page stories in the New York Times highlighting Democrats complaining about him.

The fact that Democratic members of Congress are eager to distance themselves from the Obama presidency is an indication of its disrepair. But this is the state of affairs in the Obama second term; and Democrats may as well accept that things are only going to get worse.

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Hamas Coup Should Change Truce Equation

The news that Israel’s security services foiled a plot by Hamas that was aimed at toppling the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank will probably ignored by most of the Jewish state’s critics who are obsessed with damning its campaign in Gaza to suppress rocket fire and terror tunnel building. But rather than dismissing this as a minor story, those who are pushing Israel hard to make concessions to both Hamas and the PA should be paying closer attention to what the terrorists intend to do and the implication of their plans for a truce that would further empower the Islamists.

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The news that Israel’s security services foiled a plot by Hamas that was aimed at toppling the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank will probably ignored by most of the Jewish state’s critics who are obsessed with damning its campaign in Gaza to suppress rocket fire and terror tunnel building. But rather than dismissing this as a minor story, those who are pushing Israel hard to make concessions to both Hamas and the PA should be paying closer attention to what the terrorists intend to do and the implication of their plans for a truce that would further empower the Islamists.

The details of what Israel’s Shin Bet service discovered during the sweeps of the West Bank in May and June should curl Abbas’ hair. The group that he had embraced as a partner in the PA as a result of the unity pact he signed in April wasn’t planning on going along with Fatah’s leadership as Abbas and Secretary of State John Kerry naively believed. Instead they set up new terror cells in all the major towns and cities of the West Bank whose goal was to ultimately set off a new conflagration with Israel with a series of massive attacks throughout the area including one on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

What did Hamas think it could accomplish by pouring operatives, money, weapons and explosives into the West Bank? The point was to plunge the area into turmoil opening up a second front against Israel to relieve pressure on Hamas in Gaza as well as to make it impossible for Abbas to pretend to govern the West Bank.

This ought to change the conversation about the terms of the truce that the United States has been pushing Israel to accept to formally conclude the recent hostilities in Gaza. If, as reported, the West has pressured Israel to accept a loosening of the blockade on Gaza — the key Hamas demand throughout the fighting — then we can be sure that this summer’s bloodshed will be repeated before long. While it is hoped that easing the isolation of Gaza will ameliorate the suffering of Palestinians and perhaps even help Abbas gain back control of the strip, so long as Hamas is still armed and in power there, these hopes are in vain. Open borders for Gaza means an inevitable resupply of the Hamas arsenal, more building materials for tunnels and the rest of the underground city that enables the Islamist movement to continue fighting while its human hostages above ground continue to die every time they pick another fight with Israel.

But the decision to acquiesce to any of Hamas’s demands will have consequences for more than the future of Gaza. The assumption that Abbas can continue to hang on to the West Bank and maybe even assume some power in Gaza is based on the idea that Hamas is on the ropes and without options. But once the resupply of Hamas in Gaza begins, it will have serious implications for Abbas’s future.

The only reason Abbas has stayed in power in the West Bank is the protection he gets from Israel’s army and security services. But the more chances Hamas gets to topple him the more likely it is that sooner or later, the Islamist will launch the third intifada they are aiming at even if the Shin Bet manages to save Abbas’s hide. Any outcome in Gaza that can be portrayed as victory for Hamas will only hasten the day when that intifada will start with its consequent massive shedding of blood on both sides.

Those who have spoken of Hamas, as having evolved to the point where it is a legitimate political force and not a terror group should have had lost their illusions about the group amid the rocket launches and the discovery of the tunnels. But the revelation about the coup attempt should remove any doubt as to the Islamists’ intentions. The Obama administration, which has been eager to push Israel to do something to allow Hamas a way out of the conflict, should realize that the coup should end its illusions about Palestinian unity and the ability of Abbas to make peace while partnering with the terrorists.

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Israel’s Critics Echo Nazis, Not the Zionists

European anti-Zionists have their new poster boy. In 1943, Henk Zanoli helped save a Jewish boy from the Nazis in Holland, a feat for which he was later honored by the State of Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” This past week he returned the medal he got because some of his relatives by marriage were killed in Gaza during the recent fighting. As such, he is the perfect witness for the prosecution against the Jewish state. But though the 91-year-old Zanoli still deserves our respect, he’s lost sight of the truth about the war of his youth as well as the one being waged now against the same Jewish people he once helped.

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European anti-Zionists have their new poster boy. In 1943, Henk Zanoli helped save a Jewish boy from the Nazis in Holland, a feat for which he was later honored by the State of Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” This past week he returned the medal he got because some of his relatives by marriage were killed in Gaza during the recent fighting. As such, he is the perfect witness for the prosecution against the Jewish state. But though the 91-year-old Zanoli still deserves our respect, he’s lost sight of the truth about the war of his youth as well as the one being waged now against the same Jewish people he once helped.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Zanoli’s current position as he is grieving the loss of several relatives through marriage of his grand niece, a Dutch diplomat, who lives in Gaza with her Palestinian husband. Nor do his current actions diminish the importance of what he did 70 years ago. But the implicit comparison between his condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the Holocaust is as ill considered, as it is offensive.

Mr. Zanoli claims to have supported the creation of Israel after World War Two but the letter he sent to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial along with his returned medal made clear that he has withdrawn that backing and not just because of what happened to his grandniece’s in-laws. Nor is he, as many of Israel’s critics say they are doing, merely advocating the end of the “occupation” in the West Bank or even that of Gaza which he claims is also “occupied” even though every last soldier, settlement and individual was pulled out of there nine years ago. Instead, he says he opposes the existence a specifically Jewish state, even though Israel grants its Arab minorities full rights. As such, what he is doing is not so much a cri de coeur against oppression as an echo of Hamas’ genocidal program that is similarly aimed at Israel’s extinction.

His characterization of the treatment of Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing” during Israel’s War of Independence is also strangely out of tune for someone claiming to be acting in concert with his support of human rights. While the plight of Palestinian refugees has been terrible, he takes no notice of the fact that these people have been kept stateless specifically in order to perpetuate the war against Israel and the Jews. Nor does he take into account the fact that an equal number of Jews were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries during this period creating a population exchange that closely resembles what happened in much of Europe after World War Two. Does Mr. Zanoli also think the descendants of Germans who were expelled in far greater numbers from parts of their country that were subsequently annexed to Poland and other nations also have a right of return and of sovereignty over their former homes? Or does he think these rules only apply to people displaced by Jews?

More to the point, the obvious analogies to the war during which his heroism happened raises other more pointed questions about Zanoli’s scruples about Israeli actions that are not explored in the New York Times feature that gives him free rein to blast Zionism with no opposing voices heard.

During the course of World War Two, bombs dropped by Allied planes killed millions of Europeans, both Germans as well as the citizens of countries occupied by the Nazis. While postwar moralizing about the Allied strategic bombing campaign has become a staple of scholarly ruminating, the consensus at the time and among sensible scholars since then is that responsibility for these deaths primarily belong to the Germans, not the nations struggling to free Europe from their tyrannical grip.

Were Zanoli primarily seeking to censure the Israelis for their alleged improprieties in bombing targets in Gaza, we might well ask whether the same standards applied to the Israel Defense Forces now should also be used to judge the Allies who liberated the Netherlands from its German torturers. Innocent civilians die in all wars, even those considered justified by most people. This fact didn’t delegitimize the Allied cause then and doesn’t discredit the Israelis now either.

But the main takeaway from Zanoli’s letter — as opposed to the symbolism of a Righteous Gentile censuring Israel for its actions in Gaza — is that Zanoli is not actually interested in changing the Jewish state’s policies toward Palestinians or to ask it to fight against Hamas terrorists — whose indiscriminate bombardment of Israeli cities with thousands of rockets and attempt to use tunnels to inflict massive terror atrocities does not attract his notice — with more restraint. Instead, he is merely supporting the Hamas plan to destroy the state that sheltered the Jews who survived the Holocaust that he resisted.

Seen in that light the only way to properly assess Zanoli’s stance is to conclude that the attempt to claim that his fight against the Nazis is the same as is his current position is a lie. Rather than the Israelis becoming modern day Nazis, it is Zanoli who has, sadly fallen under the influence of his relatives and gone over to the cause of Jew hatred championed by the rulers of Gaza and its Palestinian adherents. His past heroism doesn’t give him carte blanche to deny the right to self-determination and self-defense to the descendants of the survivors of the Shoah that is accorded every other people.

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In Praise of Fair-Minded Liberals

The indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry is a travesty of justice. The Wall Street Journal has an outstanding editorial explaining why. But I also want to give a tip of the hat to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who said in an interview that he was “outraged” over the indictment of Perry on charges of abuse of power and coercion.

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The indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry is a travesty of justice. The Wall Street Journal has an outstanding editorial explaining why. But I also want to give a tip of the hat to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who said in an interview that he was “outraged” over the indictment of Perry on charges of abuse of power and coercion.

The indictment is, Dershowitz told Newsmax.com, politically motivated and an example of a “dangerous” trend of courts being used to alter the results of the ballot box.

“Everybody, liberal or conservative, should stand against this indictment,” Dershowitz said. “If you don’t like how Rick Perry uses his office, don’t vote for him.”

That is exactly right. The case against Perry is stunningly weak and partisan. Jonathan Chait, another liberal who is looking at this matter fairly, explains why here.

It’s rare these days that people of one political ideology defend those who hold another. That’s what Professor Dershowitz and Mr. Chait are doing, and they deserve credit for having done so.

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Anti-Zionism Always Equals Anti-Semitism

The reaction to the fighting in Gaza — which may or may not be formally concluding soon with a cease-fire — continues to produce symptoms of Europe’s age-old disease: anti-Semitism. The latest evidence of this vile behavior not only raises questions about the precarious position of European Jewry but also gives the lie to the claim that one can be an anti-Zionist without slipping inevitably into Jew hatred.

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The reaction to the fighting in Gaza — which may or may not be formally concluding soon with a cease-fire — continues to produce symptoms of Europe’s age-old disease: anti-Semitism. The latest evidence of this vile behavior not only raises questions about the precarious position of European Jewry but also gives the lie to the claim that one can be an anti-Zionist without slipping inevitably into Jew hatred.

The incident involves a branch of chain supermarket store called Sainsbury’s in central London’s Holborn neighborhood. The store was the object of an anti-Zionist protest that sought to remove all foods from its shelved of Israeli origin. Such efforts have become commonplace, especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland where anti-Israeli activists are no longer content to call for boycotts of the Jewish state but are now taking matters into their own hands and entering stores and removing the offensive goods from the shelves without permission. But at this particular Sainsbury’s outlet, the demonstrators became so aggressive that they scared the store management into going even farther toward ensuring that the store was off limits to anything with a Jewish taint.

According to the Guardian:

A Sainsbury’s branch removed kosher food from its shelves over fears that anti-Israeli protesters would attack it.

The branch manager of the store in Holborn, central London ordered the section to be emptied on Saturday afternoon, while protesters outside picketed it calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. The move prompted outrage after a photo of the empty shelves was posted on social media.

Colin Appleby, who took the photo, said the kosher section contained food made in the UK and Poland. He added that a staff member defended the decision, saying: “We support Free Gaza.”

“I didn’t try to point out that kosher goods were not Israeli goods but they walked away,” he wrote on Facebook.

This marks a new low in anti-Zionist agitation but also illustrates that despite the hair-splitting by some ideologues and their apologists the distance to travel between hatred for Israel and that directed at all Jews isn’t very far.

This protest also illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of those claiming to protest Israeli actions in the name of human rights. Those who have taken to the streets against Israel as well as storming stores with Israeli or kosher goods say they support “Free Gaza.” But what, in fact, they are supporting is not a free Gaza but a Hamas-ruled Islamist state. Their protests are implicit endorsement not so much of the right of Gazans to go about their lives without being subjected to attack as they are backing of Hamas’ genocidal war on Israel. Were they actually the least bit concerned about the Palestinians who have been killed or wounded in the fighting they would, instead be directing their protests against the strip’s Hamas rulers who have squandered foreign aid on the infrastructure of terror including tunnels aimed at facilitating cross-border raids and an arsenal of thousands of rockets that have rained down on Israeli cities.

Protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas are, almost by definition, exercises in hypocrisy.

Even if one disagrees with Israeli policies on the West Bank, Hamas’s “resistance” against the “occupation,” has nothing to do with hilltop settlements on land that could theoretically become part of a Palestinian state but are, instead, focused on “liberating” all of pre-1967 Israel and evicting or slaughtering its Jewish population. But even if the Gaza protests were solely about what happens on the West Bank (which could have already become an independent Palestinian state had the Palestinian Authority been willing to say yes to peace offers in 2000, 2001, 2008 and this past spring), it bears pointing out that the frenzy that the fighting in Gaza has generated is out of all proportion to the scale of suffering there when compared to other conflicts. The fact that those who protest against alleged Israeli brutality have nothing to say about the fact that other Muslims in Syria and half a dozen other Arab countries are currently killing far more Muslims than who have died in Gaza is significant.

Anti-Zionists are ready to deny to the Jews the same rights of self-determination and self-defense that every other people planet is granted without controversy. As such, they are practicing a form of prejudice. Since the term of art for prejudice against Jews is called anti-Semitism, there is no doubt that those who agitate against Israel’s existence are anti-Semites.

Were these people merely seeking to rid supermarket shelves of Israeli products rather than anything kosher no matter its country of origin it would not be any more defensible. But when anti-Zionists start targeting anything connected with Jews they are merely pointing out that the gap between their positions and those of the Nazi-like Hamas is a distinction without a difference. Their zeal to target Jews shows they are rapidly absorbing the crude Jew-hatred that is being imported to Europe from the Middle East.

Europe’s streets have been filled with protesters against Israel’s anti-terror counter-offensive in Gaza spewing all kinds of hate speech and sometimes, as in Paris, morphing into anti-Semitic riots. But this behavior is also being encouraged by stunts like the decision of Glasgow’s City Hall to fly a Palestinian flag in a gesture of support for Hamas, it’s easy to see why some of the demonstrators are feeling free to vent their anti-Semitism rather than stick to more defensible behavior. A Europe that has come to view Hamas and its platform as acceptable is not only ready to believe anything, no matter how preposterous. It also showing that there may be no turning back from a descent into a new period of European barbarism toward Jews.

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U.S. Commitment Needed in Iraq

Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

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Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.

This raises the issue of why, if this tactic is effective in Iraq, it can’t also be utilized in Syria where the Free Syrian Army is also eager to attack ISIS as well as the Assad regime? ISIS cannot be beaten on one side of the border alone; we need a coordinated strategy to take it down in both Iraq and Syria.

And it is not just the Kurds and Free Syrian Army we should be helping. There are major limitations to how far the Kurds, in particular, can go in northern Iraq. If they try to dominate primarily Sunni areas, they will risk a pro-ISIS backlash from Sunnis. While the Kurds are great allies, we need allies among the Sunni tribes to really retake Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.

Two of the best observers of Iraq–Colonel Joel Rayburn of the U.S. Army and Ali Khedery, a former political adviser to various US ambassadors and commanders in Iraq–had op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times respectively this weekend pointing out how difficult this will be–how much Nouri al Maliki’s sectarianism has frayed the bonds of trust necessary to hold Iraq together. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will have his work cut out for him convincing the Sunnis that, if they take up arms against ISIS, they will not be betrayed as they were after the surge. The betrayal was not only on the part of Maliki; it was also on the part of the United States which promised to stand by the Sons of Iraq (as the Sunni militia was known) and then pulled all of our troops out, leaving them to the mercies of sectarian Shiites.

It is hard to imagine the Sunnis being mobilized again without a great deal of U.S. assistance–and perhaps not even then. Welcome as recent tactical advances are–and they do show what the U.S. can achieve with only a little commitment–they are a long, long way from where we need to be, which is to be destroying ISIS, an organization that Rayburn rightly likens to the Khmer Rouge in the Middle East.

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Why We Dehumanize Political Opponents

The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

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The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

The reader, a self-described liberal Democrat with very progressive values, writes, “I know that people like my dad are going to destroy us all. I don’t have any good times with him anymore. All we do is argue…. I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?”

Andrew W.K. responded this way: “Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man. There isn’t one. You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you.” He adds

You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won. And even if one side did win, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the deeper desire to be in a state of inflamed passionate conflict…. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently.

I should say here that I dissent from some of what Andrew W.K. says, including this statement: “No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise.”

This assertion cannot be true. Some people who appear bad actually are bad. It is precisely the beliefs and behavior of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jon-Il, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin, Khaled Mashaal, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Timothy McVeigh and countless others — that make them fundamentally worse than you or I. Some individuals really and truly are monsters.

But where I think he is on to something important is how many of us allow reasonable but pronounced political differences to dissolve human bonds. How politics and life are fairly complicated matters that we’re tempted to reduce to simplistic formulas. And how we often assume our vantage point is the only valid one and make very little effort to see things from the point of view of those with whom we most disagree. Andrew W.K. writes, “We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think — the absolute truth and final side to stand on.”

This called to mind a recent conversation I had in which I found myself observing that there’s a crucial distinction that’s sometimes lost on me and among people whom I know, including those within my faith community.

It’s the distinction between believing in objective truth and believing we can fully apprehend and access it. As my friend put it, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold more lightly to our ability to perceive truth.” His wife added that she’s found we need to learn to live with greater humility, to live with open hands, faithfully seeking truth without constantly demanding certitude.

I’m fully aware of the danger this can introduce: relativism. The perspective I’m offering, if over-interpreted, can drain us of our convictions, making us less willing to fight for things that are worth fighting for. It can lead us into a world of existential confusion and ultimately, despair.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that will help us find just the right setting between unwarranted assurance and unwarranted uncertainty. We can all come up with scenarios in which each one, at the wrong time, can lead to disaster. What we need depends in large part on where we stand and what our predisposition, our default position, is.

I will say that most people who inhabit the worlds in which I travel in – the worlds of politics, political philosophy and theology — lean too much in the direction of assuming we know the full truth as against leaning too much in the direction of having little confidence we can ascertain any of the truth. We therefore tend to ignore evidence that challenges our assumptions and resist honest self-examination. We spend all of our time defending what we deem to be the truth; as a result, we have almost no time to actually reflect on it and refine our views of it.

“What I want in our students,” my good and wise friend told me, “and what I admire are people who are teachable, who are open to arguments, who make room for other perspectives.”

People of a certain cast of mind will roll their eyes at such words. They are the ones who most need to hear them.

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Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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Rick Perry and Our Dysfunctional Politics

I had two initial responses to the outrageous indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. One was to feel the same outrage about the criminalization of politics that John Steele Gordon discussed yesterday. The other was to assume that the prospect of this prosecution, no matter how unfair it would prove to be, would derail his hopes for another run at the presidency. However, I might have been wrong about my second reaction and the reason for that re-evaluation speaks volumes about how dysfunctional our political system has become.

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I had two initial responses to the outrageous indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. One was to feel the same outrage about the criminalization of politics that John Steele Gordon discussed yesterday. The other was to assume that the prospect of this prosecution, no matter how unfair it would prove to be, would derail his hopes for another run at the presidency. However, I might have been wrong about my second reaction and the reason for that re-evaluation speaks volumes about how dysfunctional our political system has become.

First, let’s not mince words about the egregious nature of the indictment and what it means about how out-of-control prosecutors can derail democracy. It should be remembered that what happened here was that a Democratic prosecutor who had disgraced her office with a drunk driving violation and abusive behavior toward police refused to resign. Perry used a threat of a veto of her budget to try to force that resignation. The special prosecutor in the case alleges that using that threat — something that was obviously in the service of the public good — was an illegal abuse of power. That is absurd and you have to be a hardcore Democratic partisan to think that it is even remotely reasonable for a prosecutor to treat a public policy dispute — especially one in which the governor was clearly on the side of ethics — as a criminal matter.

But in a normal political atmosphere, any criminal indictment, no matter how ill-considered and fated to be eventually overturned, is generally enough to kill a political career. But in Perry’s case that might not be so.

We are now at a point in our political history where it is understood that trials such as the one to which Perry may be subjected are merely politics by other means rather than a third rail event that disqualifies the defendant no matter the eventual legal outcome. In the past, politicians who were victimized by prosecutorial overreach were left at the end of the process asking where they could go to get their good names back even if they had retained their freedom. The correct assumption was that any judicial process even one that led to acquittal or vindication through convictions being thrown out on appeal was ultimately disqualifying even when innocence was eventually established.

But something has changed in American politics and Perry’s decision to go on with planned appearances in New Hampshire in spite of his difficulties illustrates the altered atmosphere.

As this Politico story indicates, we’re now at the point where much of the public understands that partisanship and the criminalization of politics has gotten out of hand. With many prominent Democrats, including former Obama advisor David Axelrod, acknowledging that the indictment of Perry is something of a farce, the opprobrium that normally attaches to any object of prosecution is starting to wear off.

Just as importantly, the willingness of prosecutors to inject themselves into the political process in this manner is not only seen as illegitimate but it may also enhance Perry’s appeal among Republicans. Rather than causing him to be viewed as a leper because of the indictment, it may well make conservatives see him as a folk hero or at least a victim, which in our contemporary culture may just as good if not better for the purpose of enchancing popularity.

Lest anyone think this is a reaction confined only to the right, there are already some examples of the same thing happening on the left. Historically, African-Americans have tended to rally around one of their own when they came under attack from prosecutors. The ability of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to win re-election in the 1960s despite being thrown out of the House of Representatives by other Democrats illustrates this trend. More recently, the news that Philadelphia Mayor John Street was being investigated by the Bush administration Justice Department on corruption charges in 2003 turned a tight re-election race into a landslide for the incumbent as black Philadelphians treated the probe as proof of bad faith on the part of Republicans, not of Street’s questionable conduct in office. Now it appears the right seems to feel the same way about such investigations of their leaders though, to be fair, those cases were far more substantive than the tissue of insinuations lodged against Perry.

If we are now at the point where no one trusts prosecutions of politicians this is a terrible development because it shows how badly split we are becoming as a nation. With some on the left willing to countenance this kind of judicial smearing of a conservative, it’s only understandable that Republicans won’t hold it against Perry. Indeed, it may well enhance his standing and, like the massive over-reaction against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker from left-wingers who resisted his reform efforts that led to a recall election, the Travis County prosecutors may have made Perry into a right-wing folk hero. I still think Perry is unlikely to become a first tier primary candidate in 2016, let alone the GOP nominee, but this indictment may prove to be a badge of honor that will cause many Republicans to put aside their memories of his “oops” moments in 2012.

However, the long-term impact of this development may do more to harm the cause of public ethics than to help or hurt Perry’s already dubious chances of winning the presidency. Holding public officials accountable for genuine corruption and abuse of power — such as the willingness of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to quash an ethics commission probe when it hit too close to home and involved some of his supporters — is essential to the survival of democracy. By abusing the judicial process in this manner, Texas prosecutors have undermined the rule of law as well as exacerbated an already perilous political divide.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Another Nail in the Dems’ Senate Coffin?

Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

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Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

The story, published Friday night by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reveals that in response to charges from her Republican challengers that she has been paying for campaign expenses, including flights, from official government funds rather than her private account, the senator has ordered an inquiry into the records of her office during the last 18 years she has been in the Senate. While the senator may hope this gesture may quiet her critics, the inquiry by her own legal counsel will not convince many people of her innocence even if it exonerates her. If anything, it draws more attention to allegations that could be both embarrassing and result in serious ethics charges.

Unfortunately, for the senator, her lawyer won’t be the only one looking into her affairs. On Thursday, CNN reported that Landrieu had reimbursed the Senate the $5,700 charge for a charter flight home from Washington for a campaign appearance. Anyone who thinks that was the first such instance in which the Louisiana senator has played that trick is probably willing to buy a bridge across the Mississippi. If the Senate Ethics committee, or the Justice Department were to do some serious digging into her records, the results might require more than a mere reimbursement check.

Will this tip what was already looking like a dead heat between Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy into a likely GOP pickup? It’s hard to say.

Landrieu may be a Democrat in a state that votes Republican in presidential elections but she is a formidable politician. As I noted back in April, her strong constituent service and expertise in bringing home federal dollars to Louisiana has given her more than a fighting chance and even the neutrality, if not support, of some local Republican officials. Her family name is a popular brand in the state stemming from the ability of her father Moon, to manage to be that rare Louisiana Democrat who didn’t wind up in jail at some point during his career. Though there were plenty of questions raised about corruption involved in the building of New Orleans’ Superdome and other projects built while he was mayor, the former congressman, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and federal judge was never charged or convicted of anything. The same is true of Landrieu’s brother Mitch, the current mayor of the Big Easy.

But an even bigger edge for her is that the culture of politics in the state is such that ethical violations are rarely seen as fatal to the future of an officeholder the way they are in other, less easygoing places. To take just the most recent example, David Vitter, Landrieu’s Republican colleague in the Senate, survived his involvement in a prostitution scandal and may well succeed Bobby Jindal as governor of Louisiana in 2015. The list of Louisiana politicians who served jail time, let alone those who labored under ethical clouds, in the last century is too long to include in this piece. Suffice it to say that in the context of that state’s politics, looting the public treasury to pay for a campaign doesn’t exactly make Landrieu an outlier.

Nevertheless, the timing of the revelations isn’t going to help her just at a time when polls recently showed Cassidy to have finally caught and passed the incumbent, albeit by a statistically insignificant one percentage point margin.

Her difficulties are also significant because of all the endangered red state Democrats Landrieu seemed to be the one most likely to survive a tough challenge. If this race starts slipping away from her, then the chances of the Democrats holding the Senate will rest on Kay Hagen in North Carolina and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Both are currently trailing their GOP opponents with the race to hold another Democratic seat in Iowa also starting to look like an uphill slog.

It won’t take much to tip any one of these elections from one party to the other. Which means that even in ethically challenged Louisiana, Landrieu’s using taxpayer dollars to fund her electioneering might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a Democratic Party that needed its Senate candidates to run perfect campaigns to have a chance to keep control of one house of Congress this fall.

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The Criminalization of Politics

On April 13, 2013, Rosemary Lehmberg was pulled over for dangerous driving. She was found with an open bottle of vodka in the car, which is against the law, and her blood-alcohol level was .239 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent. As a rule of thumb, at .1 you’re happy, at .2 you’re drunk, at .3 you’re passed out, and at .4 you’re dead. In other words, to use the technical term, she was blotto.) Taken to the police station, she was abusive and uncooperative to the point of being put in handcuffs and leg irons. She pled guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and a $4000 fine. She served 20 days. Her license was suspended for 180 days.

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On April 13, 2013, Rosemary Lehmberg was pulled over for dangerous driving. She was found with an open bottle of vodka in the car, which is against the law, and her blood-alcohol level was .239 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent. As a rule of thumb, at .1 you’re happy, at .2 you’re drunk, at .3 you’re passed out, and at .4 you’re dead. In other words, to use the technical term, she was blotto.) Taken to the police station, she was abusive and uncooperative to the point of being put in handcuffs and leg irons. She pled guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and a $4000 fine. She served 20 days. Her license was suspended for 180 days.

This sort of thing happens every night in every city in the country. What made this unusual was that Lehmberg is the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, which is the county where Austin, the state capital, is located. That gives the district attorney of Travis County a lot of power to investigate public corruption. Indeed she heads the state’s Public Corruption unit.

Governor Rick Perry, not unreasonably, thought she had disgraced herself and should resign her office. She refused. To force her out, he threatened to veto the appropriation for the Public Corruption unit and, when she stilled refused, vetoed it.

For this the governor was indicted by a special prosecutor on two felony counts that, in theory, could send him to jail for the rest of his life. He is charged with, “misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.”  According to the special prosecutor, threatening a veto is a “misuse.” Since a veto is neither a person nor a thing, it’s hard to see how this applies.

Further, he is accused of, “influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.” The statute excepts, “an official action taken by the member of the governing body.” But, again, the prosecutor argues that while issuing a veto is an official action, threatening to do so is not.”

I imagine every chief executive in the history of the country has, at one time or another threatened a veto in order to get what he or she wanted. That’s called politics. President Obama has threatened a veto dozens of times in his five and half years in office.

This is about as blatantly a political indictment as can be imagined. Jonathan Chait, no fan of Rick Perry, calls it unbelievably ridiculous. Even David Axelrod called the indictment “pretty sketchy.” Indeed the blow back from left, right, and center is so intense that Perry may well be the first public official to actually gain political clout from being indicted.

This is by no means the first time that the Travis County District Attorney has misused his power for political purposes. In 1993, he indicted Kay Bailey Hutchinson, newly elected to the United States Senate, for misuse of her office as Texas State Treasurer. The case collapsed in minutes after the trial began and the judge ordered the jury to find her innocent. In 2005, he indicted U. S. Representative Tom Delay, the majority leader of the House, for misusing campaign funds and money laundering. The judge threw out one charge, but the jury convicted on the other two. Last year, the state appeals court reversed the trial court and acquitted Delay.

Nor is it just Travis County, Texas. The Democratic district attorney of Milwaukee tried to go after Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska had his conviction for bribery overturned after a farrago of misconduct by the prosecutors was revealed. This is part of what Rick Hasen calls, “the criminalization of politics.” It is, to put it mildly, a disturbing trend and a mortal threat to American democracy.”

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Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself

Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

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Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

About this answer, I’d say several things, starting with this one: When he ran for president, he spoke as if America did control everything in the world and therefore that everything that went wrong in the world was the fault of his predecessor. In other words, Mr. Obama spoke in exactly the terms he now complains his critics do. Having been humiliated by events, President Obama is now telling us that the world is a mighty complicated place – who knew? — and American power is so darn limited. In other words: Don’t blame me. I’m only the president. What on earth can I do?

Second, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s critics, but Mr. Obama himself, who set the soaring expectations of what would be achieved if he were elected president. It is Mr. Obama, not others, who claimed his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.” (Just in case the point was lost on us, Mr. Obama ended by saying, “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”)

But that’s not all.

Mr. Obama spoke about how his presidency would “heal the planet” and stop the rise of the oceans. He would usher in unprecedentedly good relations with the world, including the Arab and Islamic world. The president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. There would be extraordinary strides taken toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” He’d successfully pivot to Asia. America would work cooperatively with China. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would end responsibly. The tide of war would recede. He would usher in an era of “smart diplomacy.” Apparently Mr. Obama has forgotten he said all this. We’ll do him the favor of reminding him.

Mr. Obama, in his statement during the press conference earlier this month, is also employing a favorite device of his: creating straw men as a way to discredit serious criticisms of him. No one I know assumes the United States is omnipotent. As a friend of mine put it, he’s content to hold the president to a much more pedestrian standard: has the actions Obama taken and, more importantly, the actions he has not taken, made the challenges he faced worse or better?  By that very modest standard, he told me, Mr. Obama has utterly failed.

“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” my former White House colleague William C. Inboden, told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”

Just so.

The president is desperately trying to escape blame for his failures. But those days are long gone. I would hope that someone in the president’s inner circle, who has standing in his life, would urge him to at least conduct himself in a manner that doesn’t come across as petulant, thin-skinned, and undignified. But that appears to be asking too much of Mr. Obama. He is not emotionally equipped to handle failure with even minimal grace.

His presidency is going down; and he’s determined to look small-minded and bad-tempered in the process.

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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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