Commentary Magazine


Topic: Voltaire

Chabon Swings at Israel — and Hits Peter Beinart!

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Read Less

Frenchness 101

It is dawning on Europe at last that if a state is to survive, citizenship must mean something more than an aggregate of tribal affiliations. All that “land of the free and home of the brave” stuff is, perhaps, starting to look less like jingoism and more like a sound sense of national identity. With France’s occasional Muslim riots morphing into a steady Muslim boil, the French are beginning to wonder about this thing called immigration—why is it becoming the French nightmare if it has been so integral to the American dream?

Isolated in squalid quartiers sensibles or touchy neighborhoods, France’s Muslim immigrant communities are becoming an increasingly insular state within a state. Following their homelands’ mores and customs, the only needs these homogeneous communities have of larger France are the ample state benefits doled out,  no questions asked. In what feels like an emergency measure, France has decided to foster the idea of citizenship in these religious and cultural enclaves: the French government has just launched a program to train its Muslim clerics in Frenchness. The first class of 25 began meeting at the Catholic Institute of Paris in January. The program’s director, Olivier Bobineau, says he wants students to better comprehend the values and rules of France, particularly in regard to the relationship between religion and politics. In some cases, foreign-born clerics don’t even know how to speak French. (This, too, would presumably be addressed.)

Well, triage is a French word; perhaps they can start there. But then what? What do you do if, at the end of the day, being French means . . . being French? What enduring principle can these instructors point to as an ideological foundation for French citizenship? The French have made indispensable contributions to ideas and art, but how does that translate into a practical vision of statehood? Is there even a consistent direction in which French history moves, so that one can speak of an ideal not yet attained? Since 1776, France has done repeated stints as a monarchy, a republic, an empire, and once, a puppet regime of neighboring fascists. More recently, it has teetered on the brink of fuzzy socialism. (For all the talk about America’s youth as a country, it is the oldest existing democracy on the planet.)

Another problem is that citizenship is not a top-down proposal. France cannot redefine by fiat the motives of those who have already taken up residence inside her borders. Having come to France to be paid isolates, these immigrants will not suddenly wish to emulate Pascal or Voltaire because of a government-sponsored class. Any step towards bringing France’s Muslims into the fold has to begin much further upstream, with a clear definition of what France hopes to be and with a better understanding of what prospective immigrants expect to contribute to this vision.

It is dawning on Europe at last that if a state is to survive, citizenship must mean something more than an aggregate of tribal affiliations. All that “land of the free and home of the brave” stuff is, perhaps, starting to look less like jingoism and more like a sound sense of national identity. With France’s occasional Muslim riots morphing into a steady Muslim boil, the French are beginning to wonder about this thing called immigration—why is it becoming the French nightmare if it has been so integral to the American dream?

Isolated in squalid quartiers sensibles or touchy neighborhoods, France’s Muslim immigrant communities are becoming an increasingly insular state within a state. Following their homelands’ mores and customs, the only needs these homogeneous communities have of larger France are the ample state benefits doled out,  no questions asked. In what feels like an emergency measure, France has decided to foster the idea of citizenship in these religious and cultural enclaves: the French government has just launched a program to train its Muslim clerics in Frenchness. The first class of 25 began meeting at the Catholic Institute of Paris in January. The program’s director, Olivier Bobineau, says he wants students to better comprehend the values and rules of France, particularly in regard to the relationship between religion and politics. In some cases, foreign-born clerics don’t even know how to speak French. (This, too, would presumably be addressed.)

Well, triage is a French word; perhaps they can start there. But then what? What do you do if, at the end of the day, being French means . . . being French? What enduring principle can these instructors point to as an ideological foundation for French citizenship? The French have made indispensable contributions to ideas and art, but how does that translate into a practical vision of statehood? Is there even a consistent direction in which French history moves, so that one can speak of an ideal not yet attained? Since 1776, France has done repeated stints as a monarchy, a republic, an empire, and once, a puppet regime of neighboring fascists. More recently, it has teetered on the brink of fuzzy socialism. (For all the talk about America’s youth as a country, it is the oldest existing democracy on the planet.)

Another problem is that citizenship is not a top-down proposal. France cannot redefine by fiat the motives of those who have already taken up residence inside her borders. Having come to France to be paid isolates, these immigrants will not suddenly wish to emulate Pascal or Voltaire because of a government-sponsored class. Any step towards bringing France’s Muslims into the fold has to begin much further upstream, with a clear definition of what France hopes to be and with a better understanding of what prospective immigrants expect to contribute to this vision.

Read Less

Nazi Mitfords

On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.

Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.

Read More

On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.

Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.

Although Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is being marketed by its publisher as a glamorous item penned by the “great wits and beauties of their age,” there is nothing either witty or beautiful about Diana’s and Unity’s ardent crushes on Hitler, with whom they socialized regularly in the 1930’s. In 1937 Unity tells Diana, “Nazism is my life,” while Diana replies, “I thirst for only a glimpse of” Hitler, and in 1938 informs Unity: “The Fuehrer is the kindest man in the world, isn’t he?”

Readers who dissent from this view will find astonishingly adamant defenses here of Diana by the editor Charlotte Mosley, her daughter-in-law. Charlotte is the wife of Diana’s son Oswald Alexander Mosley (born 1938), and as editor of previous collections of Nancy’s letters, Ms. Mosley repeatedly defended her mother-in-law, despite Diana’s being an unrepentant Nazi to her dying day. Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters amps up this unapologetic stance, accusing Nancy of “disloyalty” and “betrayal” because during World War II, she sensibly told friends in the British government of her concern that Diana was an “extremely dangerous person.” Moreover, Nancy pointed out that another sister, Pamela, was “anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and defeatist.” Rather than applauding Nancy’s good sense and courage, Ms. Mosley equates Nancy’s passion for a French Gaullist officer to Diana’s and Unity’s doting on Hitler, writing that Nancy “became as indiscriminately pro-French as Unity had been pro-German.”

Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters mashes the sisters into a conglomerate, describing them as knowing “Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Hitler; [they] were friends of Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh, and Maya Angelou.” This conjures up confused images of Hitler socializing with Maya Angelou. Historical mish-mash is a bad approach for a book dealing with six sisters of whom only one, Nancy, produced work that is as fresh today as when she wrote it.

Read Less

Val Goes Free

Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.

Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.

Read More

Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.

Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.

Quite a number of public personalities who should have known better sided with the Islamists, and argued that the cartoons should have been banned. One particularly creepy apologist of censorship was the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw—and he in the chair of Canning and Palmerston. The French press, on the other hand, was rather robust. L’Express, the magazine once graced by Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel, published all twelve cartoons. Val published only three, including the one showing the prophet’s turban as a fizzing bomb, and the one which has the prophet exclaiming, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots,” though the word used for idiot in French is rather rude. Special print runs followed, more than doubling Charlie Hebdo‘s circulation.

It is not clear why Charlie Hebdo and Val were prosecuted for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” and L’Express was not. President Jacques Chirac wanted a trial, and seems to have pressured the Grand Mosque of Paris to bring a charge. The Grand Mosque comes under the umbrella of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), which is itself under the thumb of the Muslim Brotherhood. Val claims that Dalil Boubakeur, the imam of the Grand Mosque (an Algerian originally and by all accounts a decent man) told him that he did not want to prosecute, but the authorities were eager to do so. Val thinks that Chirac is out to appease the Arabs, or maybe is just chasing commerce. At any rate, Chirac offered the UOIF the services of his personal lawyer, Francis Szpiner, who in court spouted a lot of nonsense about racism. A second lawyer for the prosecution had a name—Christophe Bigot—that a satirical magazine might have invented.

The three judges of the Paris tribunal were having none of it. Throwing the case out, they rendered a judgement that Le Monde approvingly called “a model of clarity.” The three cartoons were all fair comment. Gratuitous offence to Muslims would be objectionable, but there was none. The UOIF says that the verdict is “unsatisfactory,” and it will appeal. But in the city where Voltaire was once thrashed by a nobleman and then locked up, free speech is still safe.

Read Less

Ramadan’s Exclusion

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.

Read More

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.


Even leaving aside this and other contacts with leading terrorists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, and the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center—all of which Ramadan denies—his claim to be a leading moderate who seeks to “westernize Islam” and believes in freedom of speech does not square with his public pronouncements. (For fuller documentation of these charges against Ramadan, please see this from the indispensible Daniel Pipes.) It is rank hypocrisy for Ramadan, who rarely condemns censorship in the Muslim world, to accuse the United States of “muffling critical opinion” and “requiring all its citizens to think the same way.”

Ramadan justified the protests against Danish cartoons of Mohammed, claiming that the Koran prohibits representations of Islamic prophets. (In fact, it does not.) He supported the Islamist campaign to ban Voltaire’s play about Mohammed, Fanaticism, at the French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly. He refers to Islamist atrocities such as 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid and Bali as “interventions” and denies that bin Laden was behind 9/11. He has praised the genocidal Sudanese Islamist regime. He attacked the French intellectuals Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Levy for “betraying the French Republic” by their support for “sectarianism”, a euphemism for Zionism, and scandalized many by identifying them as Jews. According to Mike Whine, head of the British Community Security Trust, an organization which monitors anti-Semitism, Ramadan has made many anti-Jewish statements and “is at the soft end of the extreme Islamist spectrum.”

We do not know precisely why the U.S. Department for Homeland Security has repeatedly turned down his application for a visa, despite elements in the State Department who would like to revoke the ban. The evidence against him may well include classified information. What we do know is that Ramadan has never abandoned his project of Islamification, and that he wants to pursue it in the heart of the United States. As the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan sees his own destiny in exalted terms. In his Chronicle piece, he speaks of the “period of transition” on which the West has embarked since the emergence of large Muslim minorities, who will require the host societies to make “major adjustments” to accommodate them. “We must move forward from integration,” he declares, while Muslims “must no longer see themselves as a ‘minority.’”

What does all this mean? What is Western society supposed to be in transition to—an Islamic one? What are these “major adjustments” that the Western democracies must make? What is wrong with the model of integration, which has served the United States well in the past, and why is it no longer good enough for Muslims? And why must Muslims no longer see themselves as a minority, if that is what they are?

Ramadan’s manifesto, moderate as it may sound, in reality amounts to a program of Islamification by stealth. His family was exiled from Egypt, and Ramadan remains persona non grata there, because the Muslim Brotherhood was and is seen as dangerous. It was the first and is still the largest Islamist organization in the world. Ramadan has achieved respectability in Europe, where he is feted by academics at Oxford and Geneva—he was even invited by the British government to sit on an advisory committee after the 7/7 subway bombings in London.

But the United States has looked more carefully at his record and decided that he represents a threat. To allow Ramadan’s brand of Islamism a platform in the heart of the American academy would be the equivalent of allowing, say, Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt to lecture in the United States during the Third Reich. It was the judge who had prosecuted many Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson, who warned that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact.” It is not incumbent on a democracy to allow its enemies the freedom to subvert its very existence. Tariq Ramadan is just such an enemy.

Read Less

The Man Who Gave the Qur’an to the West

So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.

In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.

Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.

The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.

So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.

In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.

Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.

The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.

Read Less

News from the Continent: Never Again?

In the midst of Europe’s week of official mourning for the Holocaust, the question of how the continent should preserve that terrible memory and transmit it to future generations was the focus of a great controversy. The boycotting of Holocaust Memorial Day by prominent Muslim organizations has by now become an annual ritual. With the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) first among them, these groups believe that a “more inclusive” event should replace the “selective” ceremonies devoted to remembering the Nazi war against the Jews.

What organizations like the MCB have in mind is plain: a “Genocide Memorial Day” focusing on allegedly “ongoing” genocides like that of Israel against the Palestinians. And the MCB’s argument to replace the day with a different sort of commemoration is making headway—so much so that, this year, the city council of Bolton decided not to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to replace its usual event with an observance more to the MCB’s liking. According to the city council, the decision to move the commemoration to June and to call it Genocide Memorial Day was reached in consultation with an interfaith council, although several prominent Jewish leaders were not consulted. Bolton has a rapidly growing Muslim population. With Europe’s shifting demographics, one might wonder how long it will be before such changes sweep the continent, from Sweden’s Malmö—where one-quarter of the population is Muslim—to Sicily’s Mazara del Vallo.

Read More

In the midst of Europe’s week of official mourning for the Holocaust, the question of how the continent should preserve that terrible memory and transmit it to future generations was the focus of a great controversy. The boycotting of Holocaust Memorial Day by prominent Muslim organizations has by now become an annual ritual. With the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) first among them, these groups believe that a “more inclusive” event should replace the “selective” ceremonies devoted to remembering the Nazi war against the Jews.

What organizations like the MCB have in mind is plain: a “Genocide Memorial Day” focusing on allegedly “ongoing” genocides like that of Israel against the Palestinians. And the MCB’s argument to replace the day with a different sort of commemoration is making headway—so much so that, this year, the city council of Bolton decided not to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to replace its usual event with an observance more to the MCB’s liking. According to the city council, the decision to move the commemoration to June and to call it Genocide Memorial Day was reached in consultation with an interfaith council, although several prominent Jewish leaders were not consulted. Bolton has a rapidly growing Muslim population. With Europe’s shifting demographics, one might wonder how long it will be before such changes sweep the continent, from Sweden’s Malmö—where one-quarter of the population is Muslim—to Sicily’s Mazara del Vallo.

When the MCB pressed for the abolition of Holocaust Memorial Day in 2005, “Home Office officials. . .told the [group], which represents more than 350 Muslim organisations, that they [were] considering the request. But officials have no plans to broaden the remit of the occasion because they fear it would infuriate the Jewish community.” Not principle, then, but sheer political expediency safeguards the day in Britain. And with only political arguments keeping Holocaust Memorial Day in place, how long can it be before voters convince the government that it is time for Britain to be more “inclusive”?

It is, therefore, doubly important to watch how Europe responds to the initiative, recently launched under the new German presidency of the EU, to introduce continent-wide legislation banning Holocaust denial. Strictly speaking, the MCB is not denying the Holocaust. But its comparison of the murder of Europe’s Jews to the plight of the Palestinians is a clear attempt to demonize Israel, with the not-so-unintended side-effect of trivializing the Holocaust. In Palestine, fewer than 4,000 people have been killed by the Israeli military in the last six years, all in an effort to disrupt the activities of terrorists and armed militants. In Auschwitz, 30,000 defenseless Jews were slaughtered every day. The analogy, in other words, is a patent untruth.

This kind of gross distortion has already gone a step further in Spain, where the city council of a small town near Madrid tried to mandate the commemoration of the “Palestinian Holocaust.” In the end, luckily, the council backed down. But making the case that history can defend itself rings hollow in the face of such episodes.

Even with such moral stupidity abounding, the subject of banning Holocaust denial remains a highly contested one across Europe. On January 24, Joan Bakewell commented in the Independent that “Freedom of speech commits us to hearing things with which we profoundly disagree. But unless we hear them, we have no chance to refute and correct them.” Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian a few days earlier, concurred, arguing, in essence, that free speech must be protected, memory must be defended through education, shutting them up would turn them into celebrities, etc.

This argument holds sway in much of the continent. Angelo D’Orsi wrote a similar column in Italy’s La Stampa, claiming that “history can defend itself” without being helped by legislation. In Italy, however, there are opposing voices. The justice minister Clemente Mastella has tried to beat the Germans to the punch, introducing his own legislation against Holocaust denial, which the Italian cabinet approved on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Most Americans consider it both and silly and dangerous to punish people for their opinions. But Europe is not America. It is a continent where the dark shadow of the past requires striking a fine balance between freedom of speech and the protection of memory. Is Holocaust denial truly something that we should defend, à la Voltaire, despite its odiousness, its motives, and its sometimes seductive power? Is truth, in a world submerged in the cacophony of cultural relativism, so compelling that we can always confidently rely on evidence and education to rebuke the charlatans and their sinister denials?

Regulating such hate speech may well endow the David Irvings of the world with the halos of martyrs. But it could also deprive them of a platform, discourage others from providing them with one, silence thousands of hate-spewing websites, shut down publishing houses that still print the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and in general make it more difficult to spread the “opinion” that the Holocaust did not happen. For to say such a thing is not just an opinion: it is a libel against the six million Jews who died—as well as those who survived and their descendants.

Read Less




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

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

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

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

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