An honest reckoning of Islamic opinion and Islamic violence.
January’s murderous attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher evoked not only fear, indignation, and defiance from Western leaders and publics, but also a second stream of reactions: anxious assertions that the killings bore no relation to Islam and expressions of worry that the Muslim identity of the killers would stoke the flames of “Islamophobia.”
French President François Hollande declared that “these terrorists, these fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed him, saying that the perpetrators “have nothing to do with Islam.” Secretary of State John Kerry opined that “the biggest mistake we could make would be to blame Muslims for crimes…that their faith utterly rejects.” President Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, evinced reluctance to conclude that the Paris gunmen even believed they were acting for Islam. On the evening of the first attack, he declared that despite the perpetrators’ widely reported cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “we have avenged the Prophet,” the White House “was still trying to figure out exactly…what their motivations were.” And at a subsequent briefing he would go only so far as to acknowledge that having committed an act of terrorism, “they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam,” as if they might have contrived the invocation merely as a post-hoc rationalization.
A week after the attacks, Hollande declared an “implacable struggle against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.” This, according to French news reports, was the first time he had used the latter term, which is more freighted in French discourse. He repeated it more than once over the next days, whereas previously he had used only the more anodyne expression, “anti-Muslim.” In the British press, according to a roundup by Brendon O’Neill, the Guardian warned against “Islamophobes seizing this atrocity to advance their hatred,” while the Financial Times saw a threat to Europe in the form of “Islamophobic extremists.” There was more along these lines.
In the United States, New York Times editorials reverted to this subject again and again. “This is…no time for peddlers of xenophobia to try to smear all Muslims with a terrorist brush,” it declaimed immediately after the first attack. Four days later, with four Jewish victims at the kosher market having been added to the original death toll at Charlie, the Times opined, “Perhaps the greatest danger in the wake of the massacres is that more Europeans will come to the conclusion that all Muslim immigrants on the Continent are carriers of a great and mortal threat.” Two days after that, the sole editorial during this period to lament anti-Semitism contained the reminder that “there have been more than 50 anti-Muslim episodes across France…French Muslims, too, are afraid.” A few days later, the editorialists returned to this theme:
French Muslims, who are as scared of terrorists as everybody else, also have to fear anti-Islam prejudice and attacks. There were 60 recorded threats and attacks against Muslims during the six days following the Jan. 7 attack onCharlie Hebdo. There is a real danger the right-wing National Front will seek political advantage by fueling anti-Muslim hysteria.
Is it true that the Paris attacks have nothing to do with Islam and that “the greatest danger” embedded in them is the dread specter of Islamophobia? It is easy to understand why Western leaders propound the former thesis. In Obama’s case, it might be attributed to his solicitousness toward Islam. (“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” he solemnized before the United Nations in 2012.) But in fact, his predecessor, George W. Bush, made similar statements after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful,” he said. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith.”
In the aftermath of those attacks, the State Department under Colin Powell fell over itself trying to demonstrate that the Muslim world rejected al-Qaeda and its actions. For example, the department ballyhooed some pronouncements against “terrorism” by the renowned Sheik Yussuf al-Qaradawi. Apparently no one at State knew what the sheikh’s many followers in the Arab world did: He advocated “martyrdom operations,” that is, suicide bombings, aimed at Israelis, which in his lexicon did not constitute “terrorism.” And he was soon to adopt a similar stance regarding Americans in Iraq.
Powell’s team got itself into this pickle for much the same reason that Western leaders today hasten to pronounce about what is or is not Islamic, a question one might think best left to those who study or at least practice the religion. That is, they understand that the most decisive way purveyors of extremism and violence can be defeated, and perhaps the only way the threat they pose can be rendered negligible, would be their utter repudiation by the umma, the community of Muslim believers, itself. And conversely, the danger we face will be multiplied many times over if a genuine “clash of civilizations” ensues in which the extremists can win recognition as the defenders of the faith.
So when these Westerners insist that the terrorists are not authentically Muslim, they are trying to display their own respect for Islam in a way they hope will be convincing to the mass of that faith’s adherents and will help distance those adherents from the terrorists.
But is what they say true? And is saying it likely to achieve the intended aims?
Muslim scripture is ambiguous. The Koran is not organized as a logical treatise any more than is the Bible. It is sprinkled with “sword verses” as well as “peace verses,” and the proper interpretation or application of these verses has always been a subject of debate among believers and Islamic scholars. Great value is often attached to emulating Muhammad, who is not regarded as in any sense supernatural but rather as the greatest of human beings. He did kind and peaceful things but he also was a conqueror. As Obama recently reminded Americans, “people [have] committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” but Christ himself counseled turning the other cheek; not so the Prophet of Islam.
Certainly, contrary to Josh Earnest, the Paris killers Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were fulfilling the strictures of their faith, and they were prepared not only to kill but also to die in doing so. Neither can it be said, alas, that they were merely one (or three) of a kind, like the home-grown American terrorists who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Of the 51 organizations listed by the State Department as “foreign terrorist organizations,” 38 are predominantly Muslim, mostly Islamist in ideology.
Their works are evident daily all around us. At nearly the same moment as the first Paris attack, in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, a car bomb, presumably set by Houthis who are waging a war that is at once ethnic and religious, killed 37 and injured another 66, according to the BBC. Also that day, Iraqi News reported that the Islamic State publicly executed 20 men and three female lawyers in Mosul, the men for various alleged offenses and the women apparently merely for being who they were. At the same time, Iraq’s minister of human rights reported the discovery of mass graves in the area containing the remains of 320 other Islamic State victims, including children, apparently of the Yazidi sect. Also that day in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported that a Taliban car bomb killed a judge and injured his two daughters, and six men on a construction crew in Baghlan province were mowed down. The next day in Libya, the Islamic State issued a claim to have executed two Tunisian journalists who, they alleged, worked for “a satellite channel that fights religion,” while the group’s Syrian members beheaded an imam in Hassakeh for “insulting God” and threw another man to his death from a rooftop in Aleppo for being gay, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. While all this was going on, the Muslim terror group Boko Haram was slaughtering an estimated 2,000 residents of the village of Baga, Nigeria, and then released a video in which a man purporting to be the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, crowed: “We indeed killed them, as our Lord instructed us in His Book…We will not stop. This is not much. You’ll see.”
The website TheReligionOfPeace.com monitors such terror attacks and lists 25,000 of them (in which at least one person was killed) since 9/11. The site is openly hostile to Islam, so it is not a respectable source. But I have Googled numerous incidents on its list, and in each case my search produced multiple accounts from Western or other neutral news organizations that corroborated the listing. The BBC, working in cooperation with King’s College, conducted a count of “jihadist violence” for the single month of November 2014. While the website I’ve mentioned listed 284 incidents killing 2,515 people, the BBC counted 664 incidents, killing 5,042. “Jihadist violence,” the BBC’s category, is broader than “terror attacks,” the website’s term, since the former includes killings of combatants by other combatants, not properly labeled “terrorism.” Still, the BBC’s numbers, which are twice as large as those of TheReligionOfPeace.com, make the latter’s seem plausible.
Of course, even 25,000 atrocities need bespeak only the depredations of some hundreds of thousands or a few million individuals out of a worldwide Muslim population of a billion-plus. It raises the question, “What do Muslims in general think of terrorism?”
President Obama recently said that “99.9 percent of Muslims…are looking for the same things we are looking for—order, peace, prosperity” and “don’t even recognize radical [interpretations] as being Islam.” Alas, opinion surveys tell us a more equivocal story. To be sure, all opinion polls show that most Muslims reject such murderous acts as those of the Islamic State or of the Kouachis and Coulibaly. But the minorities who do not reject terrorism are not negligible.
A Gallup poll in nine predominantly Muslim countries taken months after 9/11 found that pluralities or bare majorities in most of these countries judged the attacks to be “totally unjustifiable.” In Kuwait, however, a mere decade after its national independence had been restored by American arms, only 26 percent found 9/11 “totally unjustifiable,” while two other governments closely allied to the United States, those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, refused Gallup permission to ask their citizens this particular question (although not others), presumably for fear of what it might reveal. Further dampening whatever satisfaction could be taken from the main results were the responses to a question about the U.S. attack on Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda once its government had refused an ultimatum to do so itself. Respondents judged this U.S. action to be “totally unjustifiable” in far larger proportions than said the same about the 9/11 assault that provoked it. And to make the picture still cloudier, overwhelming majorities denied that Arabs had been involved in the 9/11 atrocity (presumably believing that the CIA or the Mossad had done it), although Osama bin Laden had already released a video claiming credit.
The Pew Research Center has taken numerous polls since then of citizens in Muslim-majority countries and occasionally of Muslims in other countries. A key question asks whether “suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets” are justified “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never.” In most cases at least a plurality of respondents answer “never,” but a significant segment of the populations chooses one of the other responses. For example, in 2014 in the largest Arab country, Egypt, only 38 percent said such violence was “never” justified, while 24 percent approved of it “often” or “sometimes.” Another 35 percent chose “rarely.” In some discourse, “rarely” can be a euphemism for “never.” But in this case, the option “never” was always offered, so respondents who instead chose “rarely” must have meant something else. On its face, this would seem to mean they believe that violence aimed at civilians is generally a bad thing, but not always. If this group is added to those who say “often” or “sometimes,” then in most years including the most recent survey, most Egyptians—a total of 59 percent in 2014—believe terrorism is justified at least once in a while.
The same is true for Lebanon’s Muslim population, of whom 29 percent say “often” or “sometimes” and another 25 percent say “rarely,” for a total of 54 percent, while those choosing “never” made up 45 percent. In the Palestinian territories, the share saying “never” to violence against civilians rose in 2014 to 32 percent while 59 percent chose one of the other three options. (These results, although tilted in favor of violence, are so much less so than in the previous four Pew surveys of Palestinians as to suggest some kind of anomaly in the 2014 survey. In all the previous surveys, whopping majorities approved violence against civilians “often” or “sometimes” while fewer than 20 percent answered “never.”) In Jordan, a majority once approved of such violence and only 11 percent said it was “never” justifiable, but this was back in 2005 just before jihadists blew up three hotels in Amman. The following year’s survey revealed a sharp drop in support for anti-civilian attacks, and this new attitude has endured since. In 2014, 44 percent of Jordanians answered “often” or “sometimes” or “rarely,” while 55 percent said “never.”
Jordan was not the only country in which support for suicide bombings and the like diminished following domestic terror incidents. In Pakistan, a decade ago there were more respondents who thought these acts “often” or “sometimes” justified than those who thought them “never” justified; but in recent years, with many horrific attacks on mosques, schools, and markets, majorities upwards of 80 percent have responded “never.” In Nigeria in 2010, before the resurgence of Boko Haram, 51 percent responded “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely,” and only a plurality of 44 percent said “never.” Now, in 2014, the number who accepted such violence had fallen to 26 percent, while those who said “never” made up a clear majority, at 61 percent. Tunisia, where a process of reform and democratization has been punctuated by acts of extremist violence, recorded the strongest consensus (90 percent in 2014) of any Muslim country surveyed by Pew that such acts are “never” justified.
One country in which the trend has gone in the opposite direction is Turkey, perhaps due to the influence of its increasingly shrill Islamist government. Such responses were once minuscule in number, but in 2014, 29 percent of Turks found violence against civilians at least occasionally justified, while the proportion answering “never,” which had once been in the 80-plus range, was down to 58 percent, a majority but no longer overwhelming.
In the other 10 African and Asian countries surveyed by Pew, the share of respondents clearly rejecting attacks on civilians ranged from overwhelming in Uzbekistan (78 percent “never”) to a weak minority in Bangladesh (33 percent “never”). In most cases, about 20 percent said attacks on civilians were “often” or “sometimes” justified, with another roughly 15 percent saying “rarely.” In other words, about one-third of respondents decline to categorically eschew such acts.
The findings are not much different among Muslims living in the four European countries that Pew included in its surveys. Of these, only in Germany did an overwhelming majority of Muslims rule out violence against civilians. In France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, Pew found that 15 to 16 percent of Muslims endorsed violence against civilians “often” or “sometimes.” In France, another 19 percent gave the answer “rarely.” In other words, more than one-third of France’s Muslims support such acts at least on occasion, as do about one-quarter of those in Spain and the UK.
In sum, while the predominant view among the world’s Muslims, insofar as we can learn from these polls, rejects terrorism, a significant minority does not. If, on the whole, say, 20 percent of Muslims, a conservative estimate of the average of these numbers, support terror “often” or “sometimes,” that amounts to 300 million people; and if, say, another 15 percent support it “rarely,” then the total base of support for at least occasional terror acts comes to 500 million. There is little comfort to be found in such figures.
They also make nonsense of the claim that it is unfair to speak of Islamic violence or terrorism and not of Christian or Jewish violence or terrorism, even though occasional terrible acts are committed in the names of the latter two faiths. The obvious answer is that there are no Christian or Jewish analogues to the Islamic State; the numbers of such outrages are an infinitesimal fraction of those committed by Muslims; and there is no equivalent base of support in the respective religious communities.
Studying these data, one wonders what respondents who chose the option of “rarely” have in mind. One of the Pew surveys asked a question not asked in the others, and it may give us a glimpse into the answer, bringing into view another important aspect of the issue of Islamic terrorism: its relation to Israel.
In 2004, during the Palestinian intifada, in addition to its usual question about violence against civilians, which was asked in the abstract and specified no venue, Pew also asked: “What about suicide bombing carried out by Palestinians against Israeli citizens? Do you personally believe that this is justifiable or not justifiable?” Only two options were offered for answering this question: “justifiable” or “not justifiable.” In Turkey and Pakistan, the percentage of respondents that found Palestinian suicide bombing “justifiable” was exactly or almost exactly equal to the combined total that, in response to the first question, chose “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” In other words, countenancing violence against Israeli civilians was apparently what was on the minds of respondents who said they supported violence against civilians “rarely” rather than “never.”
The parallel numbers in Morocco were even more remarkable. There, the proportion who found Palestinian bombings “justifiable,” 74 percent, was far larger than the combined total who, in answer to the first question, replied “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” In other words, a great many of the Moroccans (about half) who said that they “never” supported violence against civilians turned around moments later and endorsed Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians. If all these polls suggest that Muslim attitudes toward terrorism are often equivocal, the case of Israel compounds the problem. For many Arabs and Muslims, Israelis are always fair game.
The Muslim states have long insisted that violence against Israelis, no matter what its nature, cannot by definition constitute terrorism. They argue that terrorism must be defined by its goals rather than the nature of the act, a position that was spelled out by none other than Yasir Arafat in his famous 1974 address to the UN General Assembly. “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights,” he said. “Whoever stands by a just cause…cannot possibly be called [a] terrorist.”
This directly contradicted the stance of UN Secretary General U Thant, who had asserted in response to a Palestinian airplane hijacking in 1970 that “a criminal act is judged by its criminal character and not for its political significance.” But Arafat’s position has prevailed over U Thant’s in UN bodies thanks to the united, adamant stance of the Muslim states. Just a week after Arafat’s appearance, the General Assembly endorsed “the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means,” and a subsequent reiteration dotted the i, affirming “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” Since the Palestinians were engaged neither in conventional nor even, for the most part, guerrilla warfare with Israel, “armed struggle,” as all parties understood, was a euphemism for the Palestinians’ campaign of bombings and murders aimed at civilian targets.
The UN periodically reaffirmed this endorsement until the attacks of 9/11 brought new urgency to the issue of terrorism and prompted Secretary General Kofi Annan to issue a statement that echoed U Thant’s. “The right to resist occupation…cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians,” he said, and he urged the adoption of a general treaty against terrorism. But the Islamic Conference would have none of it, insisting, as the Washington Post reported, “that anti-Israeli militants be exempted.” The Pakistani ambassador explained the reasoning of the Islamic states: “We ought not, in our desire to confront terrorism, erode the principle of the legitimacy of national resistance that we have upheld for 50 years.” Thus Annan’s efforts were thwarted, and in 2011, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, his successor, Ban Ki Moon, lamented that the UN still had not been able to adopt a treaty against terrorism.
In other words the Muslim states have often denounced “terrorism,” but only by defining that term to exclude any and all attacks against Israel and miscellaneous other depredations, such as against Americans in Iraq, undertaken in the name of “national resistance.” To countenance terror in some cases is to countenance terror, period. Who, after all, would support terror on behalf of causes that he opposes? Just as the only meaningful test of support for free speech is support for speech with which one does not agree, so the only meaningful measure of opposition to terrorism is to condemn it even if carried out in the service of a cause of which one approves.
This the Muslim world remains reluctant to do. Palestine is its signature cause. Although the Palestinians did not invent terror, it was Fatah and kindred Palestinian groups that in the 1970s, with their attacks on airplanes, ships, trains, embassies, and even the Olympic Games, made terrorism the scourge of international life that it is today and inspired others to emulate their deeds. Yet how many Muslim voices can be heard anywhere decrying Palestinian terror? Even the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, which has repeatedly renounced terrorism, continues to honor child-murderers and pay stipends to imprisoned terrorists and the families of deceased terrorists. Its official news agency described last summer’s killers of three Israeli teens as “martyrs.” This past November, when four rabbis were hacked to death in prayer in Jerusalem, Abbas condemned the deed, but that same day, as Palestinian Media Watch has documented, Fatah’s Facebook page signaled to the Palestinians that he did not really mean it. It posted a clip from a television interview with one of Arafat’s bodyguards describing how Arafat sometimes bowed to foreign pressure to condemn terror attacks but would do so insincerely because, the guard explained, Islam allows lying under such circumstances. Any viewer would grasp the implication that Abbas was acting in the same manner as his predecessor.
Aside from playing semantic games with the word terrorism, there is another reason that helps to explain why the world’s Muslim governments maintain a strong front in defense of terrorism even while surveys, like Pew’s, suggest that most Muslims reject violence against civilians. The political dynamics of any community are shaped only in part by the proportion of people who believe one thing or another. They are also shaped by the intensity with which views are held. A huge advantage accrues to those who, in Yeats’s line, “are full of passionate intensity.” Today, in the Muslim world, the passionate ones are the Islamists.
Their allure was evidenced a decade ago by Saad Edin Ibrahim, once the most celebrated of Egypt’s political prisoners. Married to an American and carrying dual citizenship, Ibrahim, a sociologist who currently holds a chair at Drew University, is the doyen of Arab liberals. Yet in 2006 he traveled to Lebanon to meet with Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, and then wrote:
Mainstream Islamists with broad support, with developed civic dispositions, and with services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
When, in these pages, I criticized Ibrahim for these words,1 I held up Ayman Nour, who had been the leading alternative to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s 2005 presidential election, as a true liberal. But soon Nour followed Ibrahim into the embrace of the Islamists. The outcome of Egypt’s (and Tunisia’s) 2011 elections following the Arab Spring in a sense vindicated the intuition of both these men that the liberal camp was so weak they would do better to place their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following its victory, however, the Muslim Brotherhood badly overplayed its hand in Egypt and has been dealt a severe setback. While the army has regained power there, the liberal camp shows no new signs of life. If any political forces have benefitted from the Brotherhood’s defeat, they are the more extreme Islamists: Salafis allied with the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and more extreme jihadist sects that have managed to hasten the tempo of guerrilla and terror attacks in Egypt. The military may be back in the saddle, but on the political front the action remains mostly with the Islamists in Egypt and most other Arab states as well as in Iran, Turkey, and across the Muslim world.
The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is one manifestation of this. Hussein Ibish, a Lebanese-American commentator and a leader of the American Task Force on Palestine, put it:
The grimmest truth about ISIS and other ultra-radical extremist groups is that, in addition to their extreme brutality, they have coherent, albeit despicable, narratives, ideologies and agendas… ISIS fighters could certainly tell you what, exactly, they think they are fighting for and why… Mainstream Arab societies look on in horror but have few compelling narratives to counter ISIS’s propaganda… The alternative Arab visions…remain largely repressed, scattered, unorganized, marginal, and hence ineffective.
He offered this observation in the course of commenting on a remarkable cri de coeur published in Politico in September by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the satellite channel Al-Arabiya and columnist for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar—a highly respected journalist who was chosen to be the first newsman to interview President Obama days after he took office. “Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” wrote Melhem. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented, and driven by extremism…than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” He added: “The Islamic State[’s] roots run deep in the badlands of a tormented Arab world.”
While his focus was on the Arabs, Melhem indicated that the problem he saw encompassed the wider Islamic world:
And let’s face the grim truth: There is no evidence whatever that Islam in its various political forms is compatible with modern democracy. From Afghanistan under the Taliban to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from Iran to Sudan, there is no Islamist entity that can be said to be democratic.
The élan of the extremists may account for some curious poll data reported in 2009 by David Pollock, an expert on Middle East public opinion at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Citing a survey of Egyptians and Saudis taken by a reputable agency, Pollock noted:
Both in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, 75 percent of the public voiced an unfavorable opinion of al-Qaeda; only 20 percent expressed even a “somewhat favorable” view. But when asked to estimate the views of other Muslims, nearly half—44 percent in Egypt and 48 percent in Saudi Arabia—said that “al-Qaeda’s message appeals” to them.
Conceivably some respondents were concealing their own affinity with al-Qaeda by attributing it to others, but a simpler explanation for these incongruous results is that the outspokenness or dynamism exhibited by al-Qaeda sympathizers led their countrymen to overestimate their prevalence.
Likewise, this dynamic may explain the anomaly that support for the Islamic State, as measured in polls of the surrounding countries, is extremely low, but nonetheless it has attracted tens of thousands of volunteers and has had considerable success on the ground. In a September interview, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confessed: “We didn’t…predict the will to fight…[I]n Vietnam…we underestimated the Viet Cong…In this case we underestimated ISIL.” In November, Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, reported the following:
In the many media stories about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, much of the focus has rightly been on the thousands of foreign fighters ISIS has attracted, its brutal tactics and its robust social-media presence. But an arguably even more important development has not received the attention it deserves: the group’s widening influence across the Muslim world, driven by the numerous terrorist and insurgent organizations that have recently sworn loyalty to it. In the past six months, ISIS has drawn into its fold some dozen groups from Algeria to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, had been in existence for a decade before it recruited its first affiliate.
Of course, in attributing the Muslim world’s equivocations about terrorism in some degree to the influence of Islamism, I do not mean to suggest that all Islamists are violent. Melhem summarizes the situation in this passage:
Yes, it is misleading to lump…all Islamist groups together…As terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda and Islamic State are different from the Muslim Brotherhood [,which] renounced violence years ago, although it did dabble with violence in the past. Nonetheless, most of these groups do belong to the same family tree—and all of them stem from the Arabs’ civilizational ills.
Whatever the deepest source of those civilizational ills, the despair or grievance at the heart of Islamism, of whatever stripe, is expressed in terms of competition and conflict with the West. The Muslim Brotherhood, granddaddy of them all, was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna when, according to his own account, six men who had been moved by his lectures came and said to him:
We know not the practical way to reach the glory of Islam and to serve the welfare of Muslims. We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity. They are not more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners…We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it, or to know the path to the service of the fatherland, the religion, and the umma as you know it.
Al-Banna’s teaching stressed the necessity of violent jihad: “He who dies and has not fought… has died a jahilliya [unenlightened or un-Islamic] death.”
After engaging in low-level violence over its early decades, and losing out to successive regimes, the Brotherhood foreswore violence within Egypt. Outside is a different matter, as General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef explained when U.S forces were fighting in Iraq:
The Muslim Brotherhood movement condemns all bombings in the independent Arab and Muslim countries. But the bombings in Palestine and Iraq are a [religious] obligation. This is because these two countries are occupied countries, and the occupier must be expelled in every way possible. Thus, the movement supports martyrdom operations in Palestine and Iraq in order to expel the Zionists and the Americans.
Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, says in its charter not only that “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [Trust] upon all Muslim generations till the day of Resurrection” but also that “the same goes for all the lands accessed and consecrated by Muslims at the time of conquering.”
While the Muslim Brotherhood is one example of moderate Islamism, a still greater one is the AKP of Turkey. But it has become increasingly autocratic in its rule, scornful of the West, anti-Semitic in its rage at Israel, and is serving as the principal diplomatic sponsor of Hamas. In other words, even Islamist groups that avoid violence themselves support it on the part of other Islamists. It goes without saying that the more extreme Islamist groups burn even brighter in their rage at the West and in the lengths to which they are prepared to go to express it.
This rage was plainly evident in the responses to the Paris massacres. In Tehran, protestors encouraged by the government massed outside the French embassy, chanting “death to Charlie” and “death to France.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that French intelligence might have been complicit in the attack and warned: “We must be aware of [the West’s] plots against the Muslim world.”
The Islamists in general draw strength from a sentiment of sullen defensiveness more widely evident in the Muslim world. This was exemplified by a furious war of emails that broke out among editors and reporters at Al-Jazeera, mostly pitting Arab against Western staff. Said one of the former: “I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people, chances are one or two of them will kill you.” And the French Jewish intellectual Michel Gurfinkiel reported that in France itself:
Most imams issued perfunctory condemnation of terrorism, but were clearly unenthusiastic about Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of every religion, including Islam…More ominously, one-minute silence ceremonies at school were met with hostility and scorn by Muslim children and teenagers…Two hundred such instances were reported; thousands of cases went unreported, according to teachers’ sources.
Much has already been written about Europe’s burgeoning and poorly integrated Muslim populations. In Western Europe, France is home to the largest number, and there is anecdotal evidence that parts of it seethe with hostility. In 2001, when France hosted an Algerian soccer team in a match staged by diplomats as a demonstration of friendship, it had to be canceled midway when fans, who appeared to be French of North African descent, charged the field, having earlier booed the national anthem and thrown debris at the two French ministers present. In 2005, riots tore through the banlieues, suburbs where Muslims live, lasting three weeks. And in 2012, Christopher Caldwell reports, rioting broke out in Lyon when a bomber was arrested. Many of these suburbs have been called “no-go zones,” although in January that term came in for ridicule when some conservative commentators said these were formal areas outside national sovereignty. This was an exaggeration, but the neighborhoods referred to this way are, as international journalist David Rieff described in the New York Times Magazine in 2007, intimidating to non-Muslims, even police. A few years ago, I strolled a few blocks from my hotel on Place de la République, the center of January’s “Je Suis Charlie” march, and during the hour of midday prayers, a street was blocked by a few hundred male worshippers who filled it with their prayer rugs, appropriating it without official sanction, as far as I could tell.
A particular focus of Muslim hostility in France and other European countries is on Jews. The neo-Nazi French “comedian,” Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who is not himself Muslim but aims in large measure to appeal to a Muslim audience, responded to the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan on Facebook with the taunt “Je Suis Charlie Coulibaly,” which seemed calculated to suggest that he identified with both the provocative magazine,Charlie Hebdo, and the killer of Jews at Hyper Cacher. This was, of course, not the first killing of French Jews by angry Muslims. In 2006, a gang of Muslim youths kidnapped Ilan Halimi in one of the banlieues and tortured him to death over three weeks. In 2012, a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse were mowed down. In 2014, there were no killings, but there were many assaults on individuals identifiable as Jews and desecrations of Jewish sites, punctuated by riots during the Gaza war in which Jews were besieged in two Paris synagogues by a mob “with murder on its mind,” according to witnesses quoted in news reports. Jews attest that one can no longer safely roam Paris or its Metro or many other French cities while wearing a kippah. The natural outcome of all this was twofold: a survey showing that the vast majority of French Jews were considering emigration and a great outpouring of concern by the New York Times and others about…Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a term first put into currency in 1997 in a report of the Runnymede Trust, a left-of-center think tank in the UK. It then was given a kind of official international consecration by the 2001 UN conference on racism at Durban. That conference devolved from an exercise on racism to an exercise in racism, more particularly anti-Semitism, prompting the U.S. delegation to walk out. While the session of government representatives singled out Israel for unique criticism, the officially sanctioned session of NGOs convened in parallel became a circus of Jew-baiting. According to an account by two officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “copies of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were widely distributed by Muslim activists, while a mob marched on Durban’s Jewish community center shouting, ‘Hitler should have finished the job.’” When some representatives succeeded in getting the official declaration to include a reference to anti-Semitism, this was counterbalanced by the addition of “Islamophobia.” Then in 2007, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) created the Islamophobia Observatory, based in Saudi Arabia— which, in the words of Muslim author Asra Q. Nomani, “tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.”
Islamophobia is an odd term. The staffers of Charlie Hebdo were not the first to be murdered for offending Islamic sensibilities. Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Flemming Rose (who published the famous Danish cartoons in 2006), and others are stalked by fatwas commanding their deaths. Israel lives under the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb in the hands of a government pledged to wipe it off the map. Jihadist groups wage war on “Zionists and Crusaders.” And Islamism, in its various forms, proclaims the goal of world domination, if not now then eventually. In short, there are many people who have real reason to fear violence aimed at them from within the Muslim world and in the name of Islam. Of course the overwhelming majority of victims of Muslim violence are Muslims, so clearly none of this justifies fear, and even less so hatred, directed toward Muslims in general or any other expression of prejudice or discrimination.
But how big a problem is Islamophobia? The British writer Brendan O’Neill notes that a widely forecast upsurge in crimes against Muslims following the 2005 British Underground bombings never materialized. “Islamophobia is a myth,” he says. This brought a rejoinder from Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic who turned the focus to the U.S.: “My belief that Muslims are at special risk…is grounded in the fact that after the September 11 terrorist attacks…hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked dramatically.” They did, but Friedersdorf offered no numbers. According to federal statistics, “hate crimes” aimed at Muslims spiked—to almost half the number aimed at Jews. Before 9/11 such crimes against Muslims were fewer than against any other religious group covered in the reports—Jews, Catholics, or Protestants. A year after the “spike,” hate crimes aimed at Muslims fell, not all the way back to their pre-9/11 level, but to one-sixth as many as were aimed at Jews. This, in a country where, I believe, most Jews feel they do not experience much hatred.
Nonetheless, Hussein Ibish argues that there must be some term to stigmatize “hate speech—which targets real people … compromising or threatening their ability to function as equals to all others in society.” Fair enough. And Ibish further argues thatIslamophobia is the term we have. That may be true, but if so, it is important that it not be used, as Asra Nomani says it is, to silence debate. Also, that it not serve to distort priorities. At a moment when the principle of free speech and the ability of Jews to live in Europe as Jews are under serious threat, threats that could set back the progress of liberal civilization perhaps irreparably, the issue of the moment is not, contrary to New York Times or Guardian editorialists, Islamophobia. And finally, the term or concept of Islamophobia should not be used to compound a debilitating falsehood.
By this I mean the falsehood pronounced by Hollande and Merkel and Kerry and Obama’s spokesman that jihadist violence has “nothing to do with Islam.” I have already presented abundant evidence that this claim is false. Let me explain why I believe it is likely also to prove self-defeating.
There are voices in the Muslim world beckoning Islam to confront its faults and errors and achieve a better understanding of itself so that it might move forward from an era of stagnation and live in harmony with the rest of the world. Melhem’s has been the most eloquent such voice, but it is far from the only one. Nomani’s is another, as is Ibish’s. I could name many more. The London-based international Arabic newspapers, for example, have run several such columns.
The most remarkable and important voice now is that of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. True, his rule thus far has been repressive, some say more repressive than the old regime of Mubarak, and not only of the Islamists but also of secular liberals. Nonetheless, he delivered a speech on December 28 of historic importance. He spoke at Al-Azhar University, the world’s preeminent center of Sunni learning, to a large body of clerics and religious scholars, and he summoned them to transform the faith. The message, although already reported, is so important as to justify quoting at length:
I would like to reiterate that we are not doing enough with regard to true religious discourse. The problem has never been with our faith. Perhaps the problem lies in ideology, and this ideology is sanctified among us…
We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world…I am referring not to “religion,” but to “ideology”—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.
It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at Al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion…
The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition. (Translation by MEMRI.)
Even for a man in Sisi’s position these are brave words, and he repeated many of the same thoughts a month later at the World Economic Forum at Davos, while Kerry droned on about “blam[ing] Muslims for crimes…their faith utterly rejects.” It is to be hoped that Sisi’s words will stimulate more debate within the Muslim world. He will be countered not only by would-be assassins, although there will be no shortage of those, but also by many voices of sullen defensiveness and deep denial that will insist that if there are any problems, they are all the fault of the West or the Zionists.
True, it is not easy to figure out what, besides preserving our own strength while affirming our desire for peace and friendship, non-Muslims can do to encourage and support those seeking to reform the “religious discourse” of the Muslim world. But surely for us to make the point, in the face of yet another brutal Islamist depredation, that, as far as we can see, nothing is amiss in Islam will only lend confirmation to the deniers and will sooner undermine than help the reformers.
1 “In Search of Moderate Muslims,” February 2008
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Muslims and Terror: The Real Story
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.