Commentary Magazine


Topic: Independence Day

Debating Islam, Radicalism, and Liberty

I’m here in Jordan and, because of Ramadan, I tend to be up all night and then sleep until the early afternoon. While waiting for sundown, there really isn’t much to do except watch the Arabic satellite channels in both Arabic and English to get caught up on world events. How fortunate I was to catch a rebroadcast of a 2013 debate between outspoken Muslim reformer Irshad Manji and Mehdi Hassan, Al Jazeera’s well-prepared and able moderator, who also brought in interventions from a range of audience members. The whole segment is here and well worth watching. Manji handles herself well and presents an impassioned defense of free thought, free interpretation, and individual liberty.

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I’m here in Jordan and, because of Ramadan, I tend to be up all night and then sleep until the early afternoon. While waiting for sundown, there really isn’t much to do except watch the Arabic satellite channels in both Arabic and English to get caught up on world events. How fortunate I was to catch a rebroadcast of a 2013 debate between outspoken Muslim reformer Irshad Manji and Mehdi Hassan, Al Jazeera’s well-prepared and able moderator, who also brought in interventions from a range of audience members. The whole segment is here and well worth watching. Manji handles herself well and presents an impassioned defense of free thought, free interpretation, and individual liberty.

On Independence Day weekend back home, and remembering that the United States was founded in part because of a desire for religious freedom, Manji’s debate, her defense of her writings, and her response to those who make the tired argument about not sharing podiums with those with whom they disagree is well worth watching. How sad it is that the points Manji makes are so often ignored by those in the White House who pride themselves on cross-cultural and religious dialogue, and diplomats who tip-toe around religious radicalism rather than confront it head on.

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Celebrating American Governance

It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

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It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

There is, it must be admitted, an element of serendipity involved: the (primarily) British immigrants who created the United States of America had the good fortune to arrive in a land of abundant natural resources and little in the way of organized military opposition from other nation-states. As Indian tribes were defeated, the road to the West was opened and America could stretch from sea to shining sea. 

But geography is not destiny. Russia, after all, experienced a similar expansion, in its case to the Wild Wild East, taking control of Central Asia and Siberia. Today Russia has more land and arguably greater natural resources than the U.S., yet it is a nation in inexorable decline, its anemic economy propped up by oil prices, its population in long-term decline.

What made the difference in America’s case? Quite simply, good government. The relatively minimalist government created by the Founders unleashed the animal energies of newly arrived immigrants and set them free to build a mighty economic behemoth in ways that no central planner could possibly have envisioned much less brought into being. The reason other large countries have not enjoyed similar good fortune comes down to governance.

This was a point that was brought home to me during a week of travel in India prior to my arrival in Nepal. India is blessed with a large land area and a massive population of 1.2 billion. Its people are in no way intrinsically inferior to those of the United States–in fact Indian immigrants are some of the most successful people in America. 

And during a journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, most of it overland, I was constantly impressed by how hard Indians work for meager wages. Whether it was newspaper vendors getting up at the crack of dawn in Mumbai or a friendly taxi driver shuttling me all day in his beaten-up Ambassador sedan, the industriousness and intelligence of Indians was never in dispute. So why is it that India’s GDP per capita is $1,500 and America’s is $53,000?

Indians are free to blame the legacy of British colonial rule, yet the United States too was a progeny of the British Empire. Granted, Americans were able to rebel much earlier but that is in large part because of the American colonists’ greater unity as opposed to the divisions of India when the British arrived. Indeed British imperialists created the very concept of “India” which had never existed before, and left it with many valuable legacies from railroads to a civil service and a functioning democracy. You can still see the British legacy in cities such as Mumbai in crumbling buildings built in the early 20th century.

In any case India has been free of British rule for nearly 67 years—long enough for other once-impoverished nations such as South Korea to catapult into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest democracies. It is no secret why India has lagged behind: It has been the victim of terrible governance. For decades it adhered to fashionable socialist nostrums. More recently a succession of governments has tried to implement free-market reforms, only to be stymied by the inexorable bureaucracy. 

Not long ago, the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy came out with a survey of bureaucracies in Asia. India ranked as by far the worst of the bunch. Worse than Vietnam. Worse than China. Worse than Indonesia. To say nothing of the top performers, Singapore and Hong Kong—both, coincidentally, also former British colonies. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “The report, which was based on over 2,000 surveys of employed residents and expatriates across Asia, blamed India’s poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and ‘fickle’ regulations for making business a ‘frustrating and expensive’ affair.”

I got a small taste for myself of what Indians have to endure when I applied for a visa at the Indian consulate in New York. The visa officer promised to have everything ready in four or five business days but those days came and went with no way to find out where matters stood—and my flight time drawing near. Only by talking to someone who knew someone was I able to get the visa in time. This is, I imagine, a universal experience in India where the bureaucracy functions so poorly that many people find themselves resorting to favoritism or corruption to get what they are legally entitled to get.

Goodness knows, American government bureaucracy is far from ideal. I get pretty frustrated when I deal with the Post Office. I can only imagine what people are going through trying to enroll in ObamaCare. But for all of the U.S. government’s myriad faults, it is considerably more responsive and accountable and less corrupt and inefficient than most other governments around the world.

So ultimately the story of America’s success comes down to the very thing we celebrate on July 4 but should more properly celebrate on September 17 (September 17, 1787, was the date the Constitution was signed): the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a government which has made it possible for the people of the United States to prosper. Other countries around the world are starting to figure out our formula and in some case to better it, but no other nation has been as well ruled for so long. That is why the United States is still perched, however precariously, as the No. 1 power in the world.

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The Hinge of Fate

On July 4 we celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States. And celebrate it we do—as, indeed, we should—with parties, parades, concerts, fireworks, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and flags everywhere.

But we might also remember how close we came to losing it all when the Union nearly tore itself apart in the greatest war this country ever fought, a war with itself.

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On July 4 we celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States. And celebrate it we do—as, indeed, we should—with parties, parades, concerts, fireworks, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and flags everywhere.

But we might also remember how close we came to losing it all when the Union nearly tore itself apart in the greatest war this country ever fought, a war with itself.

This week, besides marking the nation’s birthday, also marks the 150th anniversary of the days in early July, 1863, when two great victories for Union forces proved to be the hinge of fate in that war. Before that week, many thought the South was winning. After all, General Robert E. Lee had enjoyed his greatest military triumph at the Battle of Chancellorsville as recently as the first week in May. Abraham Lincoln, upon hearing the news of the Union Army’s rout by a Southern army half its size, said, “My God, my God, what will the country say?” Meanwhile General Ulysses S. Grant had spent months trying to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, a city that sat high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, its guns commanding that stretch of the river and preventing the passage of Union forces on the river that was otherwise in Union hands.

Lee decided to strike north, into Pennsylvania, hoping both to find food, shoes, and arms for his troops and forage for his horses, and to score a huge propaganda victory by showing that the North could not stop a general many had come to think of as invincible. For three days, July 1, 2, and 3, the two armies slugged it out in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, at Gettysburg, in the blazing heat of a Pennsylvania summer. After the slaughter of Pickett’s charge on July 3—as ill-conceived a tactical maneuver as any great general has ever ordered—Lee was forced to retreat back across the Potomac River. He would never again be on the offensive.

On July 4, Grant, having invested Vicksburg from the rear, a dangerous and risky maneuver, accepted the surrender of the city. In Lincoln’s words, “The Father of Waters flows once more unvexed to the sea.” It was a huge victory for the North because it cut Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana off from the rest of the Confederacy, which was thereby denied the resources of those states, a third of the Confederacy.

The war would last almost another two years, but the tide had now turned decisively. Lee suffered as many as 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg, a third of his army. Union losses were only slightly smaller. At Vicksburg, casualties were less, about 10,000 for the Union, 9,000 for the Confederacy. (Although Grant took an entire Confederate army, about 30,000 men, prisoner, he paroled most of them, and they were able to soon rejoin the Confederate forces).

So this week, as you down your third hot dog and look forward to the strawberry shortcake and fireworks, pause for a moment to remember those who made this 237th birthday possible: those who gave their lives at Gettysburg and Vicksburg 150 years ago so that this nation might live.

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Six Million Dead but Eleven, or Is It Twelve, Million Universalizing Lies

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

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Dismantling Joe Klein

Correcting the errors in logic and fact by Joe Klein is more than a full-time job, and I usually have better things to do. But once in a while, he writes a piece that deserves to be examined and dismantled. The posting Klein did on Time magazine’s blog Swampland earlier this week, “Obama on Iraq,” qualifies as one of those instances. Let’s have a look.

1. On Monday Klein wrote this:

It is the way of the world that Barack Obama ‘ s announcement today of the end of the combat phase in Iraq … will not be remembered as vividly as George Bush’s juvenile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator in a golden sunset, to announce — six years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely — the “end of combat operations.”

Now let’s see what Klein said about Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on CBS’s Face the Nation, on May 4, 2003:

Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me. And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb. You compare that image, which everybody across the world saw, with this debate last night where you have nine people on a stage and it doesn’t air until 11:30 at night, up against Saturday Night Live, and you see what a major, major struggle the Democrats are going to have to try and beat a popular incumbent president.

Bush’s moment went from being Hollywood cool then to a puerile act now. Such bipolar shifts of opinion in a high-ranking public official would be alarming and dangerous; in a columnist and blogger, they are comical and discrediting.

2. Klein asserts this:

Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation — the carnage and tragedy it wrought — will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own. [emphasis added]

Here, Klein moves from the merely ludicrous to the offensive. What Klein is arguing is that even if things turn out well in Iraq, America deserves none of the credit. We were responsible only for carnage and tragedy, not liberation. The heroic sacrifices of America’s military men and women are dismissed as inconsequential. Those who have died have done so in vain, according to Klein’s line of reasoning; if the Iraqis manage to cobble for themselves a decent society, he insists, it will be an achievement of their own making alone.

This claim is flatly untrue. Without the intervention of the United States, Saddam Hussein would not have been deposed. And without the sacrifice of treasure and blood made by America, Iraq would have been convulsed by civil war and possibly genocide. It is certainly true that if Iraq continues on its path to self-government, its people will deserve a large share of the credit. But so will America — and so will those who wore America’s uniform into combat. For Klein to dismiss what our country and its warriors have done to advance liberty and humane ends is disturbing and revelatory.

3. Klein writes this: Read More

Correcting the errors in logic and fact by Joe Klein is more than a full-time job, and I usually have better things to do. But once in a while, he writes a piece that deserves to be examined and dismantled. The posting Klein did on Time magazine’s blog Swampland earlier this week, “Obama on Iraq,” qualifies as one of those instances. Let’s have a look.

1. On Monday Klein wrote this:

It is the way of the world that Barack Obama ‘ s announcement today of the end of the combat phase in Iraq … will not be remembered as vividly as George Bush’s juvenile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator in a golden sunset, to announce — six years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely — the “end of combat operations.”

Now let’s see what Klein said about Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on CBS’s Face the Nation, on May 4, 2003:

Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me. And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb. You compare that image, which everybody across the world saw, with this debate last night where you have nine people on a stage and it doesn’t air until 11:30 at night, up against Saturday Night Live, and you see what a major, major struggle the Democrats are going to have to try and beat a popular incumbent president.

Bush’s moment went from being Hollywood cool then to a puerile act now. Such bipolar shifts of opinion in a high-ranking public official would be alarming and dangerous; in a columnist and blogger, they are comical and discrediting.

2. Klein asserts this:

Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation — the carnage and tragedy it wrought — will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own. [emphasis added]

Here, Klein moves from the merely ludicrous to the offensive. What Klein is arguing is that even if things turn out well in Iraq, America deserves none of the credit. We were responsible only for carnage and tragedy, not liberation. The heroic sacrifices of America’s military men and women are dismissed as inconsequential. Those who have died have done so in vain, according to Klein’s line of reasoning; if the Iraqis manage to cobble for themselves a decent society, he insists, it will be an achievement of their own making alone.

This claim is flatly untrue. Without the intervention of the United States, Saddam Hussein would not have been deposed. And without the sacrifice of treasure and blood made by America, Iraq would have been convulsed by civil war and possibly genocide. It is certainly true that if Iraq continues on its path to self-government, its people will deserve a large share of the credit. But so will America — and so will those who wore America’s uniform into combat. For Klein to dismiss what our country and its warriors have done to advance liberty and humane ends is disturbing and revelatory.

3. Klein writes this:

As for myself, I deeply regret that once, on television in the days before the war, I reluctantly but foolishly said that going ahead with the invasion might be the right thing to do. I was far more skeptical, and equivocal, in print–I never wrote in favor of the war and repeatedly raised the problems that would accompany it–but skepticism and equivocation were an insufficient reaction, too.

Well, this admission marks progress of a sort, I suppose.

For the longest time, Klein denied ever having supported the war. He even complained about being criticized by liberals for his support of the Iraq war. “The fact that I’ve been opposed to the Iraq war ever since this 2002 article in Slate just makes it all the more aggravating,” Klein said.

But what proved to be even more aggravating to Joe is when people like Arianna Huffington and me pointed out that Klein supported the war immediately before it began, thus contradicting his revisionist claim.

For the record: On Feb. 22, 2003, Klein told the late Tim Russert that the war was a “really tough decision” but that he, Klein, thought it was probably “the right decision at this point.” Klein then offered several reasons for his judgment: Saddam’s defiance of 17 UN resolutions over a dozen years; Klein’s firm conviction that Saddam was hiding WMD; and the need to send the message that if we didn’t enforce the latest UN resolution, it “empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there.”

It’s worth pointing out that to make a false claim and revise it in light of emerging evidence is something of a pattern with Joe. After all, he repeatedly and forcefully denied being the author of the novel Primary Colors until he was forced to admit that he, in fact, had written it. It takes him a while to grudgingly bow before incontrovertible evidence. But he does get there. Eventually. When he has no other choice.

4.  According to Klein:

In retrospect, the issue then was as clear cut as it is now. It demanded a clarity that I failed to summon. The essential principle is immutable: We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.

Presumably, then, Klein believes that Great Britain declaring war on Germany two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland (Great Britain and Poland were allies and shared a security pact) was a violation of an “essential” and “immutable” principle. So was the first Gulf War, when the United States repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. So was Tony Blair’s intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (the latter widely viewed as successful in helping save that West African country from barbarism and dictatorship). So, arguably, was the American Civil War; after all, Lincoln could have avoided war, had he given in on the matters of secession and slavery.

According to Klein, no war is justified unless a nation has been attacked or is under the direct, immediate threat of attack — which means interventions for the sake of aiding allies, meeting treaty obligations, averting massive humanitarian disasters, or advancing national interests and national security are always and forever off the table.

Klein’s arguments are those of a simpleton. He has drawn up a doctrine that isn’t based on careful reasoning, subtle analysis, or a sophisticated understanding of history; it is, in fact, a childish overreaction to the events of the moment. What Klein states with emphatic certainty one day is something he will probably jettison the next.

Iraq is a subject on which Joe Klein has been — let’s be gentle here — highly erratic. He both opposed and supported the war before it began. After the war started, he spoke hopefully about the movement toward democracy there. (“This is not a moment for caveats,” he wrote in 2005, after the Iraqi elections. “It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement — however it may turn out — and for hope.”) Now he refers to it as a “neo-colonialist obscenity.” President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” went from being something that “seem[s] to be paying off” and that might even secure Bush the Nobel Peace Prize to a “delusional farce.” Klein ridiculed the idea of the surge, referring to it as “Bush’s futile pipe dream,” before conceding that the surge was wise, necessary, and successful.

This is all of a piece with Klein. And there is a kind of poignancy that surrounds his descent. Once upon a time, Joe was a fairly decent political reporter — but somewhere along the line, he went badly off track. He has become startlingly embittered, consumed by his hatreds, regarding as malevolent enemies all people who hold views different from his. In the past, his writings could be insightful, somewhat balanced, and at times elegant. These days, he’s not good for much more than a rant — and even his rants have become predictable, pedestrian, banal. Witless, even.

This cannot be what Henry Luce envisioned for his magazine.

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Speaking Truth to the “Life Lie”

Former Norwegian diplomat Sven Olaf Eid e-mailed a response to my April 20 post about Israel’s Independence Day (“There Could Have Been Two Independence Days”). The post quoted Abba Eban’s 1958 speech to the UN laying responsibility for the Arab refugees on the Arab leaders who had rejected the UN two-state solution in 1947 — and the five Arab countries that sent their armies to destroy the sliver of a Jewish state on the day it declared its independence in 1948.

Mr. Eid wrote that he agreed with the post but wanted to add an important point made in his August 17, 2006, Wall Street Journal letter, which read as follows:

Based on my experience from service with the United Nations in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon in the 1950s and ’60s, along with several later visits to the region and lifelong studies of its history, I present the following comments regarding [Lebanon’s] suffering.

The U.N.’s partition of Palestine in 1947 was the only possible, realistic situation. The partition would have come about anyhow due to the situation on the ground. But especially since the U.N. Relief and Works Agency took responsibility for the Arab refugee problem in 1949, the U.N. has represented a hindrance to the peaceful settlement of the partition conflict by taking the responsibility for the refugees from the responsible Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many in the region, but it has since served as the bouc emissaire for all the religious and political problems in the Islamic world.

Much-greater human problems concerning territories and refugees were solved (without the U.N. of course) after World War II. The Arab states, helped by the U.N., are responsible for keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alive and have used it cleverly to overshadow their lack of religious and political will and/or capacity to civilize their societies. The Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was an outstanding exception, and we know what happened to him. Another was King Hussein of Jordan. But apart from that, the absence of statesmen, intellectuals and journalists is remarkable.

The great dramatist Henrik Ibsen described a human phenomenon: livslognen or, here in Spain, la mentira vital. “The life lie”: this bigoted belief that all one’s problems are the fault of others. In my opinion, that very clearly characterizes the Arab world’s general politics since World War II.

Since the 1948 war they started, the Arab states have kept the resulting refugees (and generation after generation of their children) in squalid camps, lest their resettlement be deemed an acceptance of Israel. The refugees in Lebanon have not been given rights to hold property, obtain higher education, or work in numerous professions, much less the right of citizenship in the country in which they have lived all or most of their lives over six decades. Instead, they are kept in a culture of dependency served by UNRWA — a “temporary” UN agency formed in 1949, now a bloated bureaucracy in its seventh decade and funded primarily by the U.S. and other Western countries.

The refugee problem will not be solved by “negotiations” between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas. The solution will require a fundamental change in perspective — one that might begin if a U.S. president were ever to travel to Cairo and call for an end to UNRWA, in a speech that would term the treatment of Arab refugees by Arab countries an affront to human rights, and that would end by challenging the leaders of the Arab countries to “tear down those camps.”

Former Norwegian diplomat Sven Olaf Eid e-mailed a response to my April 20 post about Israel’s Independence Day (“There Could Have Been Two Independence Days”). The post quoted Abba Eban’s 1958 speech to the UN laying responsibility for the Arab refugees on the Arab leaders who had rejected the UN two-state solution in 1947 — and the five Arab countries that sent their armies to destroy the sliver of a Jewish state on the day it declared its independence in 1948.

Mr. Eid wrote that he agreed with the post but wanted to add an important point made in his August 17, 2006, Wall Street Journal letter, which read as follows:

Based on my experience from service with the United Nations in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon in the 1950s and ’60s, along with several later visits to the region and lifelong studies of its history, I present the following comments regarding [Lebanon’s] suffering.

The U.N.’s partition of Palestine in 1947 was the only possible, realistic situation. The partition would have come about anyhow due to the situation on the ground. But especially since the U.N. Relief and Works Agency took responsibility for the Arab refugee problem in 1949, the U.N. has represented a hindrance to the peaceful settlement of the partition conflict by taking the responsibility for the refugees from the responsible Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many in the region, but it has since served as the bouc emissaire for all the religious and political problems in the Islamic world.

Much-greater human problems concerning territories and refugees were solved (without the U.N. of course) after World War II. The Arab states, helped by the U.N., are responsible for keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alive and have used it cleverly to overshadow their lack of religious and political will and/or capacity to civilize their societies. The Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was an outstanding exception, and we know what happened to him. Another was King Hussein of Jordan. But apart from that, the absence of statesmen, intellectuals and journalists is remarkable.

The great dramatist Henrik Ibsen described a human phenomenon: livslognen or, here in Spain, la mentira vital. “The life lie”: this bigoted belief that all one’s problems are the fault of others. In my opinion, that very clearly characterizes the Arab world’s general politics since World War II.

Since the 1948 war they started, the Arab states have kept the resulting refugees (and generation after generation of their children) in squalid camps, lest their resettlement be deemed an acceptance of Israel. The refugees in Lebanon have not been given rights to hold property, obtain higher education, or work in numerous professions, much less the right of citizenship in the country in which they have lived all or most of their lives over six decades. Instead, they are kept in a culture of dependency served by UNRWA — a “temporary” UN agency formed in 1949, now a bloated bureaucracy in its seventh decade and funded primarily by the U.S. and other Western countries.

The refugee problem will not be solved by “negotiations” between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas. The solution will require a fundamental change in perspective — one that might begin if a U.S. president were ever to travel to Cairo and call for an end to UNRWA, in a speech that would term the treatment of Arab refugees by Arab countries an affront to human rights, and that would end by challenging the leaders of the Arab countries to “tear down those camps.”

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There Could Have Been Two Independence Days

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

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The Real Demographic Threat

As Israel celebrates its 62nd Independence Day this evening, is the country actually independent? Judging by the remarks of some of its leading politicians, one would have to conclude that the answer is no.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday, for instance, Defense Minister and Labor-party chairman Ehud Barak declared that only by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel preserve its Jewish majority. Ehud Olmert made this claim even more bluntly in 2007, when he was prime minister, declaring that if “the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, has made similar remarks.

In other words, Israel has no control over its own fate; its continued existence depends entirely on the goodwill of a nation that would like nothing better than to see it disappear. Moreover, all the Palestinians have to do to secure this outcome is to continue doing exactly what they have done for the past 17 years: say “no” to every peace offer Israel makes. If that is true, Israel really is finished.

In reality, of course, the Barak-Olmert-Livni conclusion is ridiculous even if one believes the demographic doomsayers (there are grounds for skepticism, but that’s another story). Should Israel someday decide the status quo is untenable, it doesn’t need a peace agreement to leave; it can always quit the West Bank unilaterally, just as it did Gaza. After decades of condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation” and demanding its end, the world could hardly object if Israel complied.

Unfortunately, “ridiculous” is not the same as “harmless.” This credo is actually deadly dangerous, on at least four levels.

First, it encourages Palestinian intransigence: if Palestinians can destroy the Jewish state just by saying no, they have no incentive to ever say yes.

Second, it could lead Israeli leaders to make concessions that truly do endanger the state’s survival.

Third, it encourages world leaders to pressure Israel into such concessions, by enabling them to claim they’re really doing it for Israel’s own good. After all, if Israel’s own leaders say the state can’t survive without a peace deal, isn’t any concession that might appease the Palestinians, however dangerous, better than the alternative of certain death?

Finally, it demoralizes Israel’s own citizens, most of whom know perfectly well that no peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future. If Israel’s continued existence really depends on an unachievable peace, then Israelis have no reason to remain here and no reason to continue sending their sons to fight and die in the state’s defense. And should enough Israelis reach that conclusion, the state really will collapse.

Thus if Israel is to survive another 62 years, it desperately needs its leaders to relearn the wisdom that guided its founders in 1948, when the demographic situation was much worse: that the purpose of independence is precisely to enable the Jewish people to shape Israel’s fate, rather than being the helpless hostages of a hostile nation. The “demographic threat” cannot destroy Israel. But its leaders’ own folly can.

As Israel celebrates its 62nd Independence Day this evening, is the country actually independent? Judging by the remarks of some of its leading politicians, one would have to conclude that the answer is no.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday, for instance, Defense Minister and Labor-party chairman Ehud Barak declared that only by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel preserve its Jewish majority. Ehud Olmert made this claim even more bluntly in 2007, when he was prime minister, declaring that if “the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, has made similar remarks.

In other words, Israel has no control over its own fate; its continued existence depends entirely on the goodwill of a nation that would like nothing better than to see it disappear. Moreover, all the Palestinians have to do to secure this outcome is to continue doing exactly what they have done for the past 17 years: say “no” to every peace offer Israel makes. If that is true, Israel really is finished.

In reality, of course, the Barak-Olmert-Livni conclusion is ridiculous even if one believes the demographic doomsayers (there are grounds for skepticism, but that’s another story). Should Israel someday decide the status quo is untenable, it doesn’t need a peace agreement to leave; it can always quit the West Bank unilaterally, just as it did Gaza. After decades of condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation” and demanding its end, the world could hardly object if Israel complied.

Unfortunately, “ridiculous” is not the same as “harmless.” This credo is actually deadly dangerous, on at least four levels.

First, it encourages Palestinian intransigence: if Palestinians can destroy the Jewish state just by saying no, they have no incentive to ever say yes.

Second, it could lead Israeli leaders to make concessions that truly do endanger the state’s survival.

Third, it encourages world leaders to pressure Israel into such concessions, by enabling them to claim they’re really doing it for Israel’s own good. After all, if Israel’s own leaders say the state can’t survive without a peace deal, isn’t any concession that might appease the Palestinians, however dangerous, better than the alternative of certain death?

Finally, it demoralizes Israel’s own citizens, most of whom know perfectly well that no peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future. If Israel’s continued existence really depends on an unachievable peace, then Israelis have no reason to remain here and no reason to continue sending their sons to fight and die in the state’s defense. And should enough Israelis reach that conclusion, the state really will collapse.

Thus if Israel is to survive another 62 years, it desperately needs its leaders to relearn the wisdom that guided its founders in 1948, when the demographic situation was much worse: that the purpose of independence is precisely to enable the Jewish people to shape Israel’s fate, rather than being the helpless hostages of a hostile nation. The “demographic threat” cannot destroy Israel. But its leaders’ own folly can.

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Olmert’s Mystery Scandal

Because of a massive gag order, the Israeli press is not allowed to tell us any details about Ehud Olmert’s newest criminal investigation. But it looks big. We do know that he was interrogated by the police’s National Fraud Unit on Friday morning, and that he will be further interrogated in the coming weeks. We know that a high-ranking police source told the Jerusalem Post that it is worse than previous investigations, so “severe” that he will likely have to quit. We know that officials in the Labor party, his senior coalition partner, are calling for him to step down. And we know that Olmert has cancelled his whole series of press interviews for this week’s Independence Day, and has spoken out against the “wicked and malicious” rumors that have been spread. (Sorry about sparse links. The best web sources right now are in Hebrew, especially NRG’s website.)

Undoubtedly we’ll find out more in a few days, when the order is lifted. In the meantime, we’ll start thinking about elections. Again.

Because of a massive gag order, the Israeli press is not allowed to tell us any details about Ehud Olmert’s newest criminal investigation. But it looks big. We do know that he was interrogated by the police’s National Fraud Unit on Friday morning, and that he will be further interrogated in the coming weeks. We know that a high-ranking police source told the Jerusalem Post that it is worse than previous investigations, so “severe” that he will likely have to quit. We know that officials in the Labor party, his senior coalition partner, are calling for him to step down. And we know that Olmert has cancelled his whole series of press interviews for this week’s Independence Day, and has spoken out against the “wicked and malicious” rumors that have been spread. (Sorry about sparse links. The best web sources right now are in Hebrew, especially NRG’s website.)

Undoubtedly we’ll find out more in a few days, when the order is lifted. In the meantime, we’ll start thinking about elections. Again.

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