A symposium on Obama, Israel, and American Jews.
We asked 31 prominent American Jews to respond to this statement:
The open conflict between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has created tensions between the United States and Israel of a kind not seen since the days of the administration of the first President Bush. And those tensions are placing unique pressure on American Jews, who voted for Barack Obama by a margin of nearly 4-to-1 in 2008 after being assured by Obama himself and by his supporters in the Jewish community that he was a friend and an ally of the State of Israel despite his long association with, among others, the unabashedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Reverend Jeremiah Wright. ¶ We argue that American Jews are facing an unprecedented political challenge, and at a crucial moment, with the need to address the existential threat to Israel—and by extension to the future of the Jewish people as a whole—from a potentially nuclear Iran. How will American Jews handle this challenge? Can Obama’s Jewish supporters act in a way that will change the unmistakable direction of current American policy emanating from the White House? Will American Jews accept Barack Obama’s view that the state of Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American “blood and treasure” in the Middle East? Will they continue to extend their support to the Obama administration and to Barack Obama’s political party?
Their responses appear on the following pages in alphabetical order
American Jews like to support Democratic politicians in the U.S. and their rough equivalent, the Labor Party, in the State of Israel. When a Democrat seems close with a Labor government (as Bill Clinton did with Ehud Barak), they are supremely happy; when a Republican seems close to a right-wing or centrist Israeli prime minister (as George W. Bush was to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert), they are satisfied; when a Democrat fights with a right-wing Israeli government, they are unhappy. They don’t know which side they’re on.
Poll data and impressionistic evidence suggest that American Jews are increasingly dubious about Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Most major Jewish organizations, except those that exist solely to support the Democratic Party, have weighed in with anxious complaints, and Democratic politicians also have backed away from public support for the Obama approach.
This is a useful test of American Jews and their leaders: which is the deeper commitment, to Democratic Party politicians regardless of their policies, or to the security of Israel? What do they do when a president presents a left-wing version of American security interests that not only says that the Iraq war was bad and we need to get out of Afghanistan (popular sentiments among American Jewry) but adds that Israel is a threat to American security? How do they react when a Democratic president seems intent on a personal rapprochement with the Islamic world and appears to view Israel as more obstacle and albatross than ally for our country?
How Orthodox Jews will react is clear; those who voted for Obama will abandon him, and the Republican candidate in 2012 will get a majority of Orthodox voters. The question is how Reform and Conservative Jews (and the unaffiliated who say they are “just Jewish”) will react to a White House whose indifference to Israel’s security is palpable. They will certainly not leave the Democratic Party, any more than they did when Jimmy Carter was displaying hostility to Israel and somewhat more Jews voted for Reagan. Many will even more energetically support Democrats in Congress, to prove to themselves that they are still “progressive” at heart, even if they cannot back Obama.
But my own sad prediction is that among non-Orthodox Jews, the real divide will be between activists (whether leaders of community organizations, synagogue officials, major donors, or regular synagogue goers) and the broader majority of Jews. The activists will dump Obama; the rest will not, for their commitment to Israel and, for that matter, to Judaism is simply less powerful than their secular religion—liberalism as represented in the Democratic Party. Whatever excuse they supply themselves (for example, the Republican candidate for president, or even vice president, will undermine “a woman’s right to choose”), they will be displaying their priorities. Israel is simply not near the top of their list.
For which reason, more committed Jews can only thank God for the greater commitment of so many evangelicals—whose party loyalties have not become a religious faith and who will indeed dump Obama if he abandons Israel in a time of peril.
Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2001 through early 2009, he served in a variety of positions on the National Security Council, among them deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.
MORRIS J. AMITAY
The unjustified criticism of Israel by U.S. government officials, including the president, makes it absolutely necessary for Jewish supporters of Israel to speak out in opposition to this dangerous trend in U.S. Middle East policy. Given Obama’s questionable past associations, this should have been expected.
What with all the other challenges Obama faced, who could foresee how quickly he would disparage Israel while moving toward the imposition of a U.S. plan? When the president linked the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the loss of American “blood and treasure,” he stepped over the reddest of lines. Israel should not take the president’s growing hostility too personally, though; witness Obama’s demeaning treatment of other allies—none of whom, however, is threatened with genocide.
The president’s inept handling of foreign affairs is the result of a misguided worldview combined with an abysmal lack of experience and highlighted by his scant résumé. For political leaders to succeed in Washington, it is not necessarily about what they know, or even whom they know—but where they have been. In dealing with international issues, President Obama simply has not been there. And humility not being one of his strong points, Obama is displaying the arrogance of power by dealing harshly with friends while seeking favor from our enemies.
Beginning with the Franklin Roosevelt administration, most Jewish Americans seem to have been born with Democratic DNA, making it difficult for them to see beyond Obama’s rhetoric about “unbreakable bonds” between America and Israel. They must begin to realize that a U.S.-imposed plan would both fail to bring about the change needed in a region with multiple conflicts and despotic rulers and threaten Israel’s future security and survival.
For Jewish-American Obama supporters, the time for giving this administration the benefit of the doubt should be over. We now have such “lovers of Zion” as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft advising the administration as to the outline of an American “peace” plan. Fortunately, the U.S. Congress remains overwhelmingly supportive of Israel’s security, with more support now from Republicans than from Democrats. Forty years ago, when I worked in the Senate, the numbers were reversed.
A great deal of the responsibility for getting the administration back on the right course, for both Israel and America, now falls on Obama’s Jewish supporters, who must make their concerns known. While maintaining their liberal orientation on social issues, Jewish Democrats should insist that our country work closely with Israel to achieve shared goals and put the onus for lack of progress on the other side. At a time when more attention should be paid to spinning centrifuges in Iran than to building homes in Jewish areas of Jerusalem, I fervently hope that Jewish Americans of all political persuasions let their views be known. Only time (which is quickly running out) will tell what effect this will have. I would be pleasantly surprised if my liberal co-religionists were up to this task—but I fear that I will be disappointed.
Morris J. Amitay is a former executive director of AIPAC and the founder and treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee.
American Jews are predominantly progressive, and like President Obama, they largely subscribe to a progressive interpretation of world affairs. Unfortunately, the progressive assessment of Israel and of Middle East politics is based on a reckless illusion that thwarts worthy progressive goals and undermines vital American interests.
The illusion is that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is the root cause of instability, violence, and war in the region. If only Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank and ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip, then, progressives contend, a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state would emerge. This would placate restive Muslim populations throughout the Arab world and enable the international community to concentrate on other matters, including Iran.
The illusion prevents progressives from grasping what our allies in the region see clearly. Not only Israelis but also Sunni Arab states across the Middle East—from Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf to Lebanon and Egypt along the Mediterranean—view the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sponsorship of Islamic extremism and pursuit of nuclear weapons as the chief threat to their interests and the great menace to the maintenance of international order.
The progressive illusion antedates Obama’s presidency. The learned and the political classes throughout the United States and Europe subscribe to it, the Arab press promulgates it, and the United Nations holds it as an article of faith. By affirming it through deliberate, public, and one-sided imposition of pressure on Israel to make concessions in advance of negotiations, the Obama administration has baffled and demoralized Israelis, pulled the rug out from under Palestinian moderates, lent legitimacy to the demonizers of Israel around the world, and given Iran a windfall of precious time to promote terror and develop nuclear weapons.
On June 14, 2009, 10 days after President Obama’s Cairo address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a landmark speech at Bar Ilan University. While insisting on Israel’s determination to establish secure borders, he declared his willingness to go anywhere to discuss peace, invited Arab leaders to come to Israel, and became Israel’s first conservative prime minister to affirm the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves in their own state.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bold gestures have not been reciprocated.
Consistent with their professed values, progressive Jews should seek to persuade the president they helped elect to make progress toward peace. To begin again, President Obama should encourage Arab leaders to accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation; convince Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to declare in Arabic to their own people—as no Palestinian leader ever has—that they recognize Israel’s right to exist as a free, democratic, and Jewish state; publicly identify the war waged against Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies by the forces of radical Islam as the chief obstacle to the attainment of peace in the Middle East; and block Iran’s arming and financing of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
KENNETH J. BIALKIN
Since Harry S. Truman, all presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, have professed friendship for Israel. But the test lies in conduct, not rhetoric. Some presidents thought to be unsympathetic to Israel have delivered stunning evidence of understanding and support for the Jewish state’s existential struggle.
President Obama has signaled a change in policy in a peace process designed to convince the Muslim world to think better of the U.S. by pushing harder on Israel. This new emphasis of seeking greater approval of America is hardly likely to soften Arab attitudes toward Israel and might actually reinforce existing hard-line views. It is increasingly obvious that the failure to make progress in Middle East peace lies primarily in the continued refusal of the Arab world (except Egypt and Jordan) to accept Israel as a peaceful neighbor. The president would be better advised to utilize his formidable persuasive powers and high standing in the world to lead the international and diplomatic community toward convincing the Arab world to accept the reality of Israel’s existence and to welcome it as a friendly neighbor. He would be surprised at how friendly Israel could become if that realization were nourished.
Support for Obama from American Jews in the 2008 election was helped by several factors that will be absent from the 2010 elections: namely, disapproval of George W. Bush, opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, the McCain/Palin ticket, and excitement that America might elect a black president. Other factors that favored Obama in 2008 may yet persist in 2010, for example, Jewish liberal bias and traditional pro-Democrat drift. Recent polls of the Jewish community, however, reflect a clear decline of Jewish support from 2008. A Quinnipiac poll in April reported that 67 percent of Jews did not approve of Obama’s handling of Israel. Many Jews reacted with fury at the treatment accorded Israel’s prime minister in the Biden affair and to the demands of the administration for concessions on Jerusalem. Initially, many who had supported President Obama were hesitant to be critical, perhaps for fear that they would offend the president or risk their newfound access to the White House. Also, Jewish organizations whose constituents include both Democrats and Republicans were slow in finding a balance of words to describe the concern that had spread throughout the community. The president’s letter in April to a Jewish leader reaffirming U.S. support for Israel was a clear effort at damage control by the White House.
But the genie is out of the bottle. With the fallout from the Biden affair, the struggle for Jerusalem has begun. The contretemps has forced all Jews to examine their deepest feelings about Jerusalem. It has obliged Jews and others to reflect on who has deeper claims in the Holy Land—Jews with an almost unbroken history in the region or the relatively recently arrived peoples now collectively called Palestinians. President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 wrongly attributes Israel’s claims solely to the horror of the Holocaust. He neglected to recognize more than 3,000 years of an almost continuous nexus to the land of the Bible. He ignored the patrimony of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, the prophets, Jesus, and others. The refusal to acknowledge Israel’s connection to the Land of Israel is a deliberate effort by Israel’s enemies and detractors to minimize the history of the Jewish people and their contributions to principles of justice, freedom, monotheism, and morality, which have seeded and fertilized the development of the Abrahamic religions.
Kenneth J. Bialkin is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The prevalent narrative that Jews voted for Barack Obama in high numbers because they felt comfortable with him on Israel is incorrect. The American Jewish Committee poll in late September 2008 showed Obama at 57 percent and McCain at 30 percent among Jewish voters. This demonstrated that the concerns the Republican Jewish Coalition and others raised about Obama were, at the time, having an effect on the Jewish community.
There is little question that the U.S. economic collapse in October was the main impetus for Obama’s receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote. Without that game-changing event, I have every confidence that Obama would have received much lower support among Jews.
In light of this, Obama’s decline in the polls and the buyer’s remorse we are seeing now are not surprising. The AJC’s annual survey of American Jewish opinion in March showed that only 57 percent of Jews approved of Obama’s job performance. In early April, a McLaughlin poll found that a plurality of Jewish voters, 46 percent, would consider voting for someone else rather than re-elect President Obama. Also in April, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 67 percent of Jewish voters disapproved of the president’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
The challenge for the Jewish community going forward—in light of the pressure being placed on Israel to cease building in its eternal capital of Jerusalem, the demands for unilateral Israeli concessions to move the peace process forward, and an administration that continues to drag its feet as Iran moves closer to developing a nuclear weapon—is to stand up and to speak out.
What should be most troubling to the American Jewish community is that surveys show a widening partisan gap in support for Israel, with Republicans supporting Israel in far greater numbers. Low support for Israel among rank-and-file Democrats should set off alarm bells in the offices of every Jewish communal organization and in the Jewish community.
Underscoring that fact is that only a small handful of Democrats have put support for Israel above partisanship and have spoken out against the recent pressure of the Obama administration. The silence from party leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi has been deafening.
U.S. Jewry must come together in a bipartisan fashion to stand up and speak out. The Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council should work together, along with others in the community, to send an unambiguous signal to the Obama administration that pressuring Israel, our ally and friend, must stop.
There are times in history when the Jewish community is tested—and this is one of them. When we look back on this period, we must be able to answer the question “Where were you then?” by saying honestly that we stood up and spoke out and did everything we could.
Matthew Brooks is executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Policy Center.
Did american Jews need the “assurance” mentioned in your premise when they made the decision to support Barack Obama in 2008? That is not by any means clear. Sure, Obama mouthed a few bromides about Israel’s security during the campaign, but Jewish voters, like other Americans, were aware that this candidate’s history was uniquely hostile to Israel. They knew of Obama’s tame attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church (which gave Louis Farrakhan a “lifetime achievement award” and offered space in its bulletin to Hamas). They were aware of his friendships with Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi and of his affection for Third World causes. They heard him promise to hold face-to-face meetings with Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Chavez “without preconditions.”
Arguably, Israel’s security was not a high priority for the 78 percent of Jews who voted for Obama. Though the Democratic Party has been (with the exception of the first Bush administration) the less pro-Israel of the two major parties for four decades, Jewish attachment to the Democrats has remained slavish. Even in the face of the ardent and even inspired support of Israel by President George W. Bush, Jewish voters were unmoved, handing 76 percent of their votes in 2004 to Senator John Kerry.
But until 2008, fuzzy-mindedness on the part of Israel’s supporters, while it may have been unwise and even, in the case of Bush II, ungrateful, was something less than pivotal. A vote for Clinton over Dole, or even Kerry over Bush, would not have put Israel’s very existence at stake. Many American Jews, along with many Israelis, put misplaced faith in the “Oslo process” and other chimeras seductive to liberals. But with an Iranian bomb looming, the stakes in 2008 became dire. Only a fool would deny that an Iranian bomb might spell the nuclear annihilation of Israel—a holocaust more comprehensive than the Nazis’. Yet most American Jews, staring this nightmare in the face, shrugged it off.
Does it trouble Jewish voters to see President Obama warmly shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, assiduously courting Bashar Assad, and flattering Ahmadinejad, while delivering the most stinging rebukes to Netanyahu? It’s difficult to know. An American Jewish Committee poll found that Obama’s support among Jews has declined by 22 points in the past year. Yet 55 percent of American Jews still support the way Obama is handling U.S.-Israel relations—more than the 50 percent who approve his handling of health care.
Israel has better friends in America than American Jews. A 2008 poll found that 82 percent of American Christians believed they had a “moral and Biblical” obligation to support Israel (including 89 percent of evangelicals). A 2010 Gallup survey found that 85 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. The figure for Democrats was 48 percent. The notion that America’s support for Israel is the result of sinister manipulation by Jews is risible. Millions of Americans of all faiths (and none at all) feel a warm attachment to a fellow democracy and an ally in the war on terror. If Israel’s relationship with its most important ally depended only on American Jews, a frightening situation would be even worse.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ
The line in the sand, for me, has always been Israel’s security. I decided to vote for Barack Obama, having previously favored Hillary Clinton, only after Obama went to Sderot and affirmed Israel’s right to do whatever was necessary to stop rockets from targeting Israeli civilians. When Obama became president, I was not surprised that he took a tough stance against Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which I too have opposed since 1973. I noted with satisfaction that although Obama criticized the settlements on the West Bank, he did not criticize the security barrier that was built, in part, on land captured in the 1967 war. I also noted with satisfaction that the Obama administration categorically rejected the Goldstone Report—a report that was entirely inconsistent with candidate Obama’s statements at Sderot.
I began to get worried about the Obama administration when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel appeared to link American support for Israel’s security with Israeli actions regarding the settlements. I became even more concerned when Vice President Biden and General David Petraeus were quoted as suggesting that Israel’s actions could affect American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Emanuel, Biden, and Petraeus quickly distanced themselves from this linkage argument, it continues to have a life of its own, despite its falsity, as evidenced by the fact that while Israel was seeking to make peace in 2000-2001 by creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem, al-Qaeda was planning the 9/11 attack. So Israel’s “good” actions did nothing to make America safe from Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, when Israel took tough action against Gaza last year in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s “bad” actions did not increase American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such linkage is also dangerous because its implication is that Israel must cease to exist. The basic complaint that Muslim extremists have against Israel is not what the Jewish state does but what it is: a secular, non-Muslim democracy that promotes equal rights for women, gays, Christians, and others. Regardless of what Israel does or doesn’t do, its very existence will be anathema to Muslim extremists. The only action Israel could take to mollify such extremists would be to commit politicide.
Another source of concern for me has been the Obama policy regarding Iran. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a memo in which he acknowledged that America has no real policy that is likely to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons. Instead the Obama administration is moving toward a policy of “containment,” which is no policy at all but rather an implicit admission of failure. At the same time that it has been weak toward Iran, it has been firm toward Israel in telling an ally that has been threatened with nuclear destruction that it may not exercise its inherent right to prevent its citizens from becoming victims of a second Holocaust advocated by a tyrant who denies that the first occurred.
So I am worried about the direction the Obama administration seems to be taking with regard to Israel’s security. I will not join the chorus of condemnation by right-wingers directed against the Obama policy with regard to the settlements, or even with regard to a divided Jerusalem. The Obama administration has not yet crossed my line in the sand. I hope it never does so, but if it does, I will be extremely critical. In the meantime, those of us who supported Obama must continue to press him against compromising Israel’s security and against suggesting a false and dangerous linkage between Israel’s actions and the safety of American troops.
Alan M. Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University and the author of the upcoming book Trials of Zion.
NATHAN J. DIAMENT
A clear majority of American Orthodox Jews, the group that I am privileged to represent in Washington, do not have the political schizophrenia described by the questions framing this symposium. A majority of Orthodox Jews did not vote to elect Mr. Obama in 2008 precisely because of their concerns over what his policies would be toward Israel. Currently, most Orthodox Jews oppose President Obama’s activist pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking because our segment of the pro-Israel community, like most Israelis, do not believe that the Palestinians are either interested in or capable of concluding a peace deal any time soon.
Nonetheless, those who assert that there is an “‘unmistakable” anti-Israel “direction?.?.?.?emanating from the White House” are incorrect. In fact, the White House is schizophrenic.
Mr. Obama explicitly insists that he subscribes to the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, is unshakably committed to Israel’s security, and is actively pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal for the sake of, among other things, Israel’s best long-term interests. Indeed, under the Obama administration, every aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship—other than the Israeli-Arab peace process—has not only remained on track from previous administrations but also has flourished. Military cooperation, intelligence-sharing, trade relations, opposing the scurrilous Goldstone Report at the UN, even working to avert Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are all areas where the Obama and Netanyahu governments are working well together. The disagreements over peace-process issues—even the feud over housing in Jerusalem—have not resulted in the Obama team’s scaling back these other tracks of support, much less yielded any threats to cut off American aid to Israel, as Israel’s enemies would wish.
In terms of the atmospherics of the relationship, we are indeed experiencing tensions between the American and Israeli leaderships “of a kind not seen since the days of?.?.?.?the first President Bush,” and President Obama is responsible for this atmosphere. While the most recent and most disturbing catalyst for these tensions was the administration’s escalated reaction to the Ramat Shlomo Jerusalem-housing announcement issued during Vice President Biden’s March visit to Israel, it spans a longer arc.
In the space of Mr. Obama’s presidency, one can anchor the beginning of that arc in the president’s Cairo speech, which contained phrases jarring to Jewish sensibilities. It continues with his administration’s condemning as “settlements” “harmful to peacemaking” any Israeli construction across the Green Line—from an isolated hilltop to East Jerusalem—and supporting Arab demands for a total construction freeze as a precondition for peace negotiations.
It currently culminates in an administration spokesman reporting that, in reprimanding Prime Minister Netanyahu for the Ramat Shlomo housing announcement, Secretary of State Clinton said that the Israeli move harmed not the peace process but rather the “bilateral relationship” between America and Israel; and administration officials telling the New York Times that there has been a shift in the approach to relations with Israel precisely because of a belief that American “blood and treasure” are imperiled by a lack of resolution regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
As I am writing these words (in late April), the Obama administration is in the midst of a full-court press of Jewish-community outreach because of the outcry over these accumulated events.
The president’s national security adviser, General Jones; his senior adviser, David Axelrod; and Secretary of State Clinton each addressed Jewish audiences in the space of a fortnight. Most notably, the president himself sent a public letter to the Jewish community, via the Conference of Presidents, in which he repudiated the view that “Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American blood and treasure” (saying America’s “alliance with Israel serves our national security interests”) and rejected the calls for him to propose and force an “American peace plan” to resolve the conflict.
But the president also, in that letter, derided the “noise and distortion about my views” as opposed to “the actual approach of my Administration toward the Middle East”—as if the president and his team had contributed nothing to the negative narrative.
Thus, the outreach effort is sure to fail and will not preempt the next crisis unless two things occur.
First, the president must seize control of the message he wants to convey. If he wants there to be no mistaking his position that there is “no space” between the U.S. and Israel on matters of the Jewish state’s security—whether that be in dealing with the existential threat of a nuclear Iran or the contours of a peace deal with the Palestinians he will press for—he not only has to say so clearly and repeatedly; he must also shut down those within his administration who deviate from that message.
Second, the president must align his peacemaking efforts to practically serve that policy purpose and not an ideological predisposition.
The president has ignored the history of past Israeli-Arab peacemaking, which demonstrates that Israel will “take risks for peace” when two conditions are present: an Arab leader who is obviously a real partner for peace (think Sadat), and the Jewish state’s clear belief that the United States “has Israel’s back.” Neither of these conditions is present, and Mr. Obama’s approach to date has only made them further out of reach. The president must change course and press the Arabs not only to stop incitement against Israel but also to take steps toward normalization with Israel; and he must show Israelis that they can still count on America.
“How” should “American Jews handle this challenge?” Not by asserting the Barack Obama is anti–Israel, not to mention worse. American Jews should hold President Obama to the standard of his own words. American Jews, including Orthodox Jews, share his goal—ensuring Israel’s long-term security and Jewish character—and we must insist that his administration intelligently pursue that goal.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
You lost me at “Reverend Jeremiah Wright.”??The editors of Commentary could have decided to conduct a substantive debate about the merits of the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel. Instead they decided to frame the “discussion” by positing that in Israel’s hour of need, we have a Reverend Wright–worshiping president who is blaming Israel for the loss of American “blood and treasure” and what are liberal Jews going to do to make up for the error of their ways?.?.?.?in other words, by asking the equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Commentary does not appear to want a real debate about the administration’s Middle East policy. So a related topic presents itself: how the bulk of Jewish conservatives have joined a movement that is much less interested in policy and intellectual debate and much more interested in whipping itself into a lather over the perfidy of its opponents and bemoaning either the stupidity or the disloyalty of that opposition.
The evidence of this hysterical campaign can be divided into a handful of story lines.
Imaginary Policy Advisers: Throughout the 2008 election cycle, conservative Jewish circles fixated over Obama’s supposed Middle East policy ties to people like Rashid Khalidi and Reverend Wright. They warned the Jewish community that these types of people would be guiding Obama’s foreign policy. Now that the administration is stocked with people like Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Hillary Clinton, many of those same voices are, in defiance of all logic, yelling I told you so.
Historical Illiteracy: Historical analogies are great for analyzing complex current problems. But how credible is your argument when everything comes down to Munich and Chamberlain? Describing administration policies, as one Obama critic recently did, as the equivalent of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. is laughable.
I Have in My Hands a List of Known Communists: Too many Jewish conservatives are loath to argue actual facts and so they resort to made-up facts. Recently, Jewish conservatives have spread blatant misrepresentations—such as claims that the administration was encouraging Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and that Obama had changed visa policies to obstruct Israeli nuclear scientists from entering the United States. This phenomenon is not confined to marginal characters. Elliott Abrams feels comfortable putting words never uttered into the mouths of both the columnist David Ignatius and President Obama when he says that “Obama came to the conclusion that he should impose a ‘peace plan.’”
The Jewish Masses Are Asses: Perhaps the most telling Jewish conservative behavior pattern is the reaction to the continued pattern of Democratic voting in the Jewish community. Jewish Republican analysts have spent years whining about Jews supposedly voting against their “self-interest.” According to these experts, only naïveté, ignorance, and worship of the false religion of liberalism can explain this perverse Jewish voting behavior.
Critical times demand cool analysis, reasoned discussion, and a profound understanding of the difference between enemies and friends. The hysteria, partisan one-upmanship, and painting of opponents as disloyal are a formula for Jewish disaster.
Ira Forman is CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
ABRAHAM H. FOXMAN
I believe American Jews will mobilize if they truly believe the Obama administration is fundamentally changing the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and undermining Israel’s security. They are not there now, partly because they haven’t reached a definitive conclusion as to where the administration is going, partly because they admire the president, and partly because they don’t feel very comfortable about the settlement issue and the Netanyahu government.
There is much to be concerned about regarding the assumptions and directions of the administration. Its unwillingness to see what Israelis have gone through in the past decade—three major initiatives to move forward met with rejection, terrorism, and extremism—is disheartening and leads to a misreading of options.
The administration’s making the settlement issue a sine qua non of negotiations was a bad mistake, not only because it provided an excuse for the Palestinians not to come to the table, but also because it left an impression that America saw pressure on Israel as a way to curry favor with the Islamic world. (Israel has already made offers on settlements, but major change can happen only in the context of significant and unprecedented Palestinian steps toward peace.) The administration publicly making Jerusalem an up-front issue heightened the Jewish community’s anxiety and concern.
Also, its comments suggesting that it buys the idea that American interests in the wider Middle East, including the ability to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, are dependent on peace between the Israelis and Palestinians are equally misguided.
The piling on against Israel left an impression that America’s long-held bipartisan policy was changing, having an impact on the Israeli public and Israel’s enemies.
On the other hand, the administration has shown enough flexibility to back off certain positions. For example, on settlements and Jerusalem, after starting unnecessary brouhahas, it seems willing to compromise. Questions remain, however, as to whether this is a tactical move to pacify critics or whether it reflects a deeper understanding and policy changes.
For American Jews as a whole (there is already a certain segment that believes that the administration has gone too far), breaking points could come if the administration does not protect Israel in the UN Security Council should the Palestinians opt for a unilateral declaration of statehood; or if the administration comes up with its own plan leading to efforts to impose it on the parties; or if the administration loses its focus on seeing to it that Iran does not get nuclear weapons.
At any of these points, traditional American Jewish concern for Israel’s well-being will kick in despite suggestions by some that the Jewish community has changed. I remember hearing back in the days of Menachem Begin’s tenure as prime minister how things had changed, but Jews showed up when needed. I believe the same would happen now.
The question for me is not whether Jews will stand up but how effective we will be. In that respect, the key factor will be Democrats in Congress. Can the community mobilize the Democratic majority in both houses to take issue with the president of their party? This will be a major challenge that will require persistence, initiative, and creativity.
In the final analysis, I’m still hopeful that things never reach that point, that the relationship, despite ups and downs, will remain intact. If not, I’m confident we will rise to the occasion as we have many times in the past.
The fact that the president, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod have found opportunities to rearticulate the strong U.S.-Israel strategic and special relationship indicates that the administration has begun to hear some of the concerns reverberating in the Jewish community, and not only from Republican Jews.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Some american presidents have had an instinctive sense about the Jewish people, about the way defenselessness and vulnerability have contributed to the tragedies of Jewish history and about the role the modern State of Israel has played in giving sense to that history. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman and George W. Bush—a diverse group of politicians from widely different backgrounds—had this instinct. Barack Obama does not.
There were plenty of clues that, despite a substantial number of Jewish supporters and advisers, candidate Obama did not have a decent appreciation of the Jewish psyche: his membership in a church that honored Louis Farrakhan; his former spiritual adviser who had a deep animus for Israel and trafficked in conspiracy theories; his foreign-policy team, which was populated with people who were demonstrably insensitive to Jewish concerns.
But perhaps the best indication that for Obama the Jews and Israel are merely political issues, not instinctual or personal points, came in the summer of 2008. At the AIPAC policy conference on June 4 of that year, Obama delivered a speech in which he articulated a philo-Semitic autobiography and Zionist credentials, declaring, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” Days later, Obama retracted his declaration, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that his clarion call for a united Jerusalem suffered from “poor phrasing.” If his commitment to an undivided Jerusalem was contrived for the AIPAC audience, there was every reason to believe that the balance of his address was as well.
The defining characteristic of presidents who are respected as friends of the Jewish people and Israel is their willingness to put principle over politics. Think of Truman’s support for the nascent Jewish state over the strenuous objections of the U.S. national-security and foreign-policy establishment. The essence of Obama’s Jewish problem is his penchant for putting politics over principle.
What explains this penchant? First, nothing about Obama’s formative years in Indonesia or his politically formative years on Chicago’s South Side would suggest a principled attachment to the Jewish community or Israel. Those are locales hardly less devoid of philo-Semitic and Zionist sentiment than Plains, Georgia, or Kennebunkport, Maine.
Second, Obama’s political style is that of the perpetual campaign. Since moving into the White House, he has taken his operation to the world stage, seeking popularity and an enhanced relationship with the Muslim world. That’s a contest one wins by confronting Israel rather than by endorsing its existential concerns about Hamas, Hezbollah, and a nuclear-armed Iran.
Third, Obama consistently attempts to define his presidency in grandiose, unprecedented terms, from stimulus plans to health-care reform. In the foreign-policy sphere, nothing could appeal more to the vanity of a president who won a Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of potentiality than to untie the Gordian knot of “Middle East” peace. And in Obama’s political milieu, Israeli security and the concerns of American Jews are dispensable to that worthy goal.
Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.
Long before his election as president, it was clear that Barack Obama felt little of the traditional American warmth for Israel or any particular repugnance for the enemies that Israel and America have in common. As Commentary’s editors suggest, his exceptionally close ties to the man he described as his spiritual mentor, the Israel-bashing Reverend Jeremiah Wright, should have given pause to any pro-Israel voter. So should the persistence with which he vowed to undertake direct presidential diplomacy with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the virulently anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic president of Iran—“without preconditions.” Yet many American Jews chose to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that he could be numbered, as Alan Dershowitz wrote at the time, “among Israel’s strongest supporters.”
Only the willfully blind could believe that now. And many American Jews are willfully blind.
Time and again, Obama has made clear both his lack of sympathy for the Jewish state and his keen desire to ingratiate himself with Arab and Muslim autocrats. The disparities in the administration’s tone and attitude have been striking. For the prime minister of Israel, there have been humiliating snubs and telephoned harangues; for the rulers of Iran, invitations to “engage” and sycophantic New Year greetings. When Damascus was reported to be arming Hezbollah with Scud missiles, Obama’s secretary of state observed mildly that the U.S. “would like to have a more balanced and positive relationship with Syria.” When Israel announced plans to build more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, by contrast, the secretary of state angrily condemned the announcement as “an insult to the United States.”
Even more egregious is Obama’s insinuation that American troops are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because Israel won’t agree to peace on the Palestinians’ terms. The Israeli-Arab conflict “is costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” the president said in April—a claim not just false but also recklessly close to a blood libel. No wonder the number of Israeli Jews who see Obama as pro-Israel is minuscule: just 9 percent, according to the Jerusalem Post.
When the first George Bush was in the White House, he evinced a similar anti-Israel animus, and some of his advisers worried that his Mideast policy would hurt the president with Jewish voters. “F— the Jews,” Secretary of State James Baker notoriously responded, “they don’t vote for us anyway.” They didn’t: when Bush ran for re-election in 1992, he drew only 11 percent of the Jewish vote—less than a third of those who had voted for him in 1988.
Is it likely that two-thirds of the overwhelming majority of Jews who backed Obama in 2008 would abandon him in 2012, assuming he runs for re-election and his animus toward Israel persists? To ask it another way: would most American Jews vote against a Democratic nominee out of concern for Israel?
There is no reason to think so. American Jews have been stalwart Democrats for nearly a century, and their partisan affiliation shows no sign of weakening—not even as the Democratic Party’s support for Israel grows steadily weaker. When Gallup earlier this year surveyed Americans on their sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 85 percent of Republicans expressed support for Israel—but only 48 percent of Democrats did so. Reams of data confirm that solidarity with Israel is now far stronger among Republicans and conservatives than among Democrats and liberals.
That is why if they are forced to choose between standing with Israel and standing with the Democratic Party, many American Jews will simply deny that any choice must be made. As evidence, consider a recent Quinnipiac University poll, in which fully 50 percent of Jews described Obama as a “strong supporter of Israel”—a far higher proportion than the 19 percent of evangelicals, 23 percent of Protestants, and 35 percent of Catholics who said the same. Denial is not an uncommon response to cognitive dissonance, and a goodly number of Jewish Democrats will find it easier to keep telling themselves that Obama is strongly pro-Israel than to rethink their party loyalty.
To be sure, in 2012, Obama isn’t going to duplicate the 78 percent of Jewish votes he drew in 2008. But will American Jews turn away from him en masse? Don’t bet on it. “F— the Jews,” Obama’s advisers can tell him. “They’ll vote for us anyway.”
Jeff Jacobyis a columnist for the Boston Globe.
There is no real love without criticism, the Talmud teaches. And if the United States always endorses whatever policies emerge from the unstable, often incoherent coalitions of Israeli governments—well, that’s not love; it’s indulgence and condescension.
Real friends hold their friends responsible for reciprocity and good judgment. It will sometimes be unpleasant, but ultimately we who love Israel and want her to flourish as a Jewish, democratic state should welcome honest American friends.
I see no cause for concern in an American administration that expects Israel to refrain from building as provocatively as possible, and shaming the vice president in the process. Foolishness like that entails consequences. If Israeli-American relations endure a rocky passage as a result, whose fault is that?
Similarly, I want my real friends to tell me the truth: that time is not on my side, demographically or geopolitically; that unilateral withdrawals in Lebanon and Gaza brought no peace but negotiated agreements with Egypt did; and that it is in my interest to encourage the leadership of Salam Fayyad, still relatively weak but the best we can hope for from the Palestinian Authority.
American Jewish discourse about Israel remains binary—with us or against us—and crude. But the truth is that Israel, like America, has partisan discourse over its important challenges. Although Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to power, consistent, large majorities of Israelis (71 percent, according to a March Hebrew University poll) nevertheless favor an independent Palestinian state. How can President Barack Obama be “against” Israel or “betray it” by advancing a position that most Israelis favor?
One can support Obama’s measured, friendly pressure without falling into the facile trap of linkage. It is just delusional to expect that American “blood and treasure” would be magically secured in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the Gulf once Palestine is independent. Nor will Israel be welcomed into the Arab League once Kiryat Arba is evacuated. But unquestionably it is in America’s interest to ameliorate this intractable problem, both for the sake of its close Israeli friend and, yes, to enhance the goodwill of less dear friends and even mortal adversaries elsewhere.
I do not suspect the Obama administration’s sympathies or some putative anti-Semitism. (Jeremiah Wright? Rahm Emanuel? Which one works in the White House?) Furthermore, Americans’ sympathies continue to run more than 3-to-1, with Israel over the Palestinians, as a CNN poll found last month. This country is not about to shift its long-term alliances.
So there is much less to all the hubbub of the recent strained relationship than meets the eye. The worrisome element, it seems to me, is that this may distract Israelis as well as American Jews from the real issue that should be indelibly stamped on our minds: restraining a nuclear Iran. American Jews should hope not for American coddling over the territories but rather for real leadership on that existential threat. If the United States provides that, Israel and her friends will be happy to build their apartments on a different hill.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City.
The only surprise about the tension between the Obama administration and Israel is that anyone is surprised.
While President Barack Obama was less than frank about his intentions to govern from the center, he never projected himself as a supporter of Israel beyond a few bland campaign clichés. There were certainly clear indicators of what to expect: he palled around with Palestinian scholar and Israel-basher Rashid Khalidi and sipped Chardonnay with “reformed” domestic terrorists who’d been overtly hostile to Israel for decades. He admired Edward Said. He sat in a church pew for years and blithely ingested anti-Israel and frankly anti-Semitic rhetoric without a word of protest.
The greater issue isn’t that Obama is no great friend of Israel and never will be. The fascinatingly perverse tendency of Jews to vote against their self-interest is. Even with my psychological training, I don’t understand it. However, it is nothing new. Our history is rife with fractiousness and the tendency to over-intellectualize and to complicate simple issues of self-preservation. To some extent, our ability to promote an infinite array of opinions has contributed to the richness of our culture. Often, however, it has lead to tragedy. Let’s not forget that it was a certain group of Jews that invited the Romans into Jerusalem.
My personal opinion—and I’ve written about this before—is that the bifurcation of Israel and Judaism is structurally fallacious. The Land of Israel is an essential ingredient of Judaism practiced fully. Thus, it is impossible to be anti-Israel and not be anti-Jewish. And in fact, the war being waged against Israel by the Muslim world is, at the core, a religious dispute. Radical Islamists no longer talk about Zionists; they come right out and broadcast their goal of eradicating worldwide Jewry. The same squarely theological cast informs Islam’s struggle against “Western values,” which is really a buzzword for Christianity. Failure to recognize any link between Israeli and Jewish survival is the same old pathological denial that has informed the most tragic chapters of Jewish history.
No doubt there are many people who will disagree, ranging from the pseudo-Zionists of J Street to the Satmar Hasidim. Hostility toward Israel engenders fascinating levels of Jewish “pluralism.”
Obama will come and go. Jewish antipathy toward Israel and Judaism itself will endure. And that is the challenge.
Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 32 best-selling novels, five nonfiction books, and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is professor of clinical pediatrics and psychology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
U.S.-Israeli relations are still reeling from the Obama administration’s smear campaign launched against the Jewish state in March following an Israeli government announcement that 1,600 new apartment units had been authorized to be built in an existing Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. As part of that campaign, various administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the president himself, have blamed Israel for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, and the president has snubbed its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during a White House visit. Worse still, some administration officials have suggested that Israeli actions were endangering the lives of American military personnel in the Middle East.
Although the Israeli government’s construction-approval announcement, which came during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel, was an exercise in poor judgment, it violated no previous Israeli commitments to the United States. Months before Mr. Biden’s visit, Netanyahu’s government had turned down an Obama administration request to stop all building in East Jerusalem, which is part of Israel’s capital and home to some 280,000 Jews, as well as all settlement construction in the West Bank. However, in a move hailed by Secretary of State Clinton as “unprecedented,” Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction to assist in getting stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority moving. In addition, he took other confidence-building measures such as lifting numerous roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank to improve the quality of life of Palestinians. Apparently, all this was not enough for the Obama administration, which ignored the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of Israeli peace offers and their and the Arab states’ refusal to make any conciliatory gestures toward Israel, and instead chose to label Israel as the obstacle to peace.
The Obama administration seemed bent on a course of diminishing the stature and importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance and redirecting U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Arab direction. The White House even suggested that if Israel did not agree to its demands for territorial concessions to the Palestinians, the administration would put forth its own peace plan and impose a solution on Israel.
As a result of the clear intention of the president to wring concessions from Israel that could jeopardize its security while encouraging the Palestinians and the Arab states to escalate their demands, a number of organizations and several individuals denounced the Obama administration for its hostility to the State of Israel, our only democratic and reliable ally in the Middle East.
The Obama administration was counting on its support in the Jewish community, which gave him 78 percent of its vote in the presidential election that elected him—a percentage second only to that of the African-American community. It is true that for several weeks, Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel in Congress and elsewhere were dangerously silent. Then people began to wake up. In a poll taken on April 22 by Quinnipiac University, the Jewish community replied with 67 percent disapproving of Barack Obama’s “handling [of] the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.” In another poll, support for President Obama in the Jewish community went down to 58 percent, a loss of 20 points. In the Quinnipiac poll, it was revealed that sympathies of Americans were greater for Israel among Republicans—70 percent—while for Palestinians it was at 8 percent; whereas among Democrats, it was 46 percent for Israel and 19 percent for Palestinians.
At this point, the Obama administration decided it had gone too far, certainly in view of the upcoming biannual congressional election and the fear of losing either one or both Houses. So, on April 20, the president wrote a letter to the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in which he assures the Jewish community of his commitment to Israel and pledges that the U.S. will not seek to impose a peace agreement on Israel, which some observers have suggested was his motive in creating the crisis.
Some have argued that the president’s efforts to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship to what it was—one of total trust—are insincere and should be rejected. For now, I am willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. But I also believe we must be ever vigilant and prepared once again to stand up and oppose efforts to bludgeon Israel into engaging in any actions that threaten its security and defensible borders. Whenever President Obama asks Israel to make a concession to the Palestinians to advance peace, he should simultaneously require the same of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, he should now demand of the Palestinian Authority that it state in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that it accepts the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel to exist side by side with a Palestinian state.
Ed Koch is former mayor of New York City
While “I-told-you-so” vindication feels good (I was senior Middle East adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign), it is no substitute for the urgent re-education of Barack Obama.
No American president has ever entered the Oval Office with so many bad ideas about the Middle East, half-baked in the ovens of the Middle East departments at Columbia and the University of Chicago. Two of these ideas are particularly pernicious and might be described as the Khalidi Doctrine, after Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American professor who gave Obama his Middle East primer at Chicago. First, the American resort to force in the Middle East is always counterproductive; second, the unresolved Palestine problem is the hinge on which the entire Middle East turns.
Guided by these two ideas, Obama’s ship ran aground almost as soon as it left port. The diplomatic drive to tame Iran was bound to stall without the backup of a credible military threat—the willingness to use force, despite its downsides. The implosion of Plan A, “engagement,“ has left a strategic vacuum, which only now the administration is beginning to fill with stiffer rhetoric. And putting the Palestine problem front and center has only incited the intransigence of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. By declaring a peace deal a “vital American interest” and tussling with the Netanyahu government, Obama merely jacked up the Palestinian asking price for renewing negotiations and everything else.
As the two pillars of the Khalidi Doctrine crumble under the weight of reality, champions of an alternative approach are finally getting some traction. They insist that U.S. diplomacy toward Iran is doomed, absent the threat to use force if talks fail. And they argue that tinkering with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is a dangerous distraction from the main event: Iran.
How do we know whether these ideas are making inroads? First, there was the “dual loyalty” smearing of Dennis Ross by an anonymous administration official, which looked like a desperate lunge to head off just this kind of rethinking. Second, the president of the weather vane called the Council on Foreign Relations and suddenly reversed direction: chasing an Israeli-Palestinian deal, he announced, is “a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.” To judge from these gyrations, the re-education of Barack Obama has begun.
What can American Jews do to accelerate it? They must keep their and Obama’s eyes squarely on the ball. When Obama visited the town of Sderot during his campaign, he declared that “a nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation not just in the Middle East but around the world. Whatever remains of our nuclear non-proliferation framework, I think, would begin to disintegrate.” That is the Obama for whom most Jewish Democrats cast their votes: a president who would secure the greater peace. Call it the Sderot Pledge: American Jews must unite around it and hold Obama to it.
Martin Kramer is senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
How,” the editors of Commentary ask, “will American Jews handle” the challenge of a potentially nuclear Iran? My (somewhat dyspeptic) answer: poorly. Just as poorly as they have handled so many other real-world challenges that can’t be solved in accordance with conventional liberal pieties.
Fortunately, neither American nor Israeli foreign-policy need be guided by the head-in-the-sand political views of much of the American Jewish community. If the U.S. does act to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, it will be due to a drumbeat of criticism of the Obama administration’s lack of a serious Iran policy. That criticism is coming from American hawks, most of whom are not Jewish, more than from American Jews. So if the Obama administration is shamed into doing something effective with respect to Iran, perhaps the Jewish community will one day thank the Christian hawks. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
For that matter, if the Obama administration is pressured into treating Israel, as previous administrations have, as an ally instead of as a problem, American Jews should be grateful to non-Jewish Americans for being so pro-Israel and for doing the pressuring. But I wouldn’t bet on much in the way of expressions of gratitude in this instance either.
And of course it is possible that dovish and pro-Obama Jews are finally awakening to reality. But I can’t say I’d recommend betting on this happening on a massive scale either.
Now if Israel acts against the Iranian nuclear program, it will of course be thanks to the foresight of the Israeli government and the fortitude of the Israeli people. One does hope, if Israel does act, that she will receive the support of the American Jewish community. One knows she will have the strong backing of American conservatives and evangelical Christians.
It’s sad that the American Jewish community is so lacking in political wisdom and in ecumenical gratitude. It’s fortunate, on the other hand, that so many Americans and Israelis tend toward good sense and political courage. That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of both the Jewish and the American state. I’m even hopeful that things will work out in the short term vis-à-vis Iran, and with respect to American-Israeli relations.
But I’m doubtful that this will be due to the American Jewish community rising to the challenge. I hope I’m wrong.
William Kristol is the editor of the Weekly Standard.
At his core, Barack Obama is a leveler—an eraser of distinctions. Most Americans savor his unique ability to blur divisions based on race, or to demolish barriers between the impoverished and the privileged. In other areas, the president’s leveling instinct creates far more controversy, particularly when it morphs into a stubbornly nonjudgmental form of moral relativism. On national-security issues in particular, his denial of distinctions has led to dangerous confusion between the decent and the degenerate, between friend and foe, and, ultimately, between right and wrong. The administration has offered new protections to terrorists at Gitmo while threatening criminal prosecution of counterterrorist operatives who helped protect us from their murderous schemes. With similar blindness, the Obama team seems determined to punish the Israelis despite their innumerable risks for peace, while rewarding the Palestinians for their unshakable intransigence.
Mr. Obama’s obtuse approach to Israel doesn’t reflect anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism so much as it expresses his refusal to consider the overriding moral dimension to the Middle East conflict. In this, he presents a painful contrast to his predecessor. George W. Bush made his share of foreign-policy errors, but he never lost sight of the irreducible difference between nations that sought a peaceful, stable, democratic world and those he unabashedly called the “evil-doers”—gangster regimes and terrorist bands bent on domination and destruction. When it comes to Israel and her enemies, Alan Dershowitz (who supported Obama’s presidential campaign) memorably drew the crucial distinction on my radio show: “If the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace tomorrow. If the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be genocide tomorrow.” In other words, there is no moral equivalence between those who seek only security within their own borders and those who yearn to annihilate a neighboring people.
Assuming that President Obama continues to ignore or obscure the contrasting agendas of Israeli and Islamic combatants—that he continues to worry more over Jews building apartments in Jerusalem than over Muslim fanatics building nukes in Teheran—will Jewish voters wake up to the administration’s threat to our interests and our values?
That seems doubtful, since so many secular Jews share the president’s discomfort with moral judgments and recoil from the imposition of absolute categories of good and evil on contemporary affairs. For one thing, talk of ultimate right and wrong smacks inevitably of religiosity, and Jews remain disproportionately disengaged from organized faith—they are vastly less likely to affiliate with congregations, or even to profess belief in God, than their Christian neighbors. The most conventionally religious elements in the Jewish community, the Orthodox, display no reluctance to uphold clear distinctions between good and evil, and they voted overwhelmingly against Obama—just as their less stringent compatriots unblushingly backed their fellow relativist by similarly lopsided margins.
A major shift in the Jewish vote would require a deeper shift in Jewish attitudes and an unlikely new willingness to reaffirm the most rigorous, judgmental aspects of our tradition. The sad fact is that most Jews like Obama’s leveling approach, and his eradication of differences, including the existential distinction between Jew and Gentile. Consider the goofy pride with which so many besotted liberals pointed to the recent White House seder, led by Jeremiah Wright’s long-time congregant in his conspicuous yarmulke, presiding over the annual ritual of particularistic national origins despite his admitted ignorance of Jewish tradition. By contrast, when George W. Bush hosted menorah lightings in the White House, he never presumed to kindle the lights himself but instead assigned the task to Jewish offspring of fighting men who were serving their country in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This president, unlike Mr. Bush, would feel profound discomfort with the uncompromising Jewish emphasis on separation—between pure and impure, kosher and nonkosher, Sabbath and weekday, good and evil. After all, the Book of Genesis shows God beginning the work of creation through the process of division—between light and darkness, waters above and waters beneath, earth and seas, and so forth. TheHavdalah (“Separation”) prayer recited by religious Jews at the conclusion of every Sabbath emphasizes this crucial aspect of the sacred: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who separates between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor.”
When more Jews resonate with this eternal imperative to draw crisp distinctions, they will rally to Israel’s uniquely compelling case as a singular example of decency in the most desperate, depraved corner of the earth, but until then they will probably continue to make common cause with our relativist-in-chief.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show.
AARON DAVID MILLER
Jews worry for a living. Their dark and catastrophe-laden history compels them to do so. But American Jews, paradoxically freed from the existential threats faced by their co-religionists around the world, particularly the Israelis, seem to worry more.
I put forward a notion in my last book, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, called the cosmic oy-vey. The phrase is designed to capture the persistent capacity of some (maybe even many) American Jews to elevate their worries on almost every issue to the level of an existential concern. Jimmy Carter writes a bad book that makes the New York Times bestseller list, and the sky is falling; professors Walt and Mearsheimer make a grossly flawed and oversimplified argument about the pro-Israeli lobby, and you’d think the world were coming to an end.
Today the cosmic oy-vey is at work again, even subtly intertwined in the assumptions advanced in the Commentary Symposium, assumptions with which I am now wrestling.
There’s plenty for American Jews to worry about concerning Israel: Iran’s possible acquisition of a nuclear weapon; the increasing lethality, range, and precision of Hamas and Hezbollah high-trajectory weapons; and the fact that given the grim prospects for any serious peacemaking, a continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is virtually certain.
I would argue, though, that what is not worth worrying about is the current administration’s brouhaha with Israel. If you want to worry about something related to President Obama, worry about the fact that his administration still lacks an effective strategy to deal with Iran; worry about the fact that the president has no serious strategy for resolving the Arab-Israeli issue; worry about the fact that America is bogged down in two costly and unpopular wars in which victory is measured not by can we win but by when can we leave; and worry about the fact that al-Qaeda, over time, is bent on acquiring and detonating a nuclear weapon in the United States.
It’s true that the United States is going through a tough patch in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Of the three worst periods of tension in that relationship, the current crisis still doesn’t approach 1956 (over Suez), 1975 (the reassessment of the second Sinai disengagement agreement), or 1991 (over housing loan guarantees and settlements). In these three cases, sanctions against Israel were either threatened or used. And while the current tensions are not just a bump in the road (and could even worsen), the U.S.-Israeli bond has proved remarkably resilient over the course of the last 60-plus years. The marriage of interests and ideology creates a powerful and enduring bond that links Israel and the United States together.
No, what worries me is that unlike previous periods of tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, this time around, nobody on either side seems to be in charge; nobody knows how to climb down, let alone how to use the current crisis to his advantage, or how to get back on track. The Israeli prime minister is a prisoner of his own ideology and his coalition; the president is a prisoner of his own transformational goals and his illusions about certain issues pertaining to Arab-Israeli peace.
Right now, both the president and the prime minister see the world more in terms of how they want it to be, rather than how it is, and neither seems to appreciate the reality in which the other lives. The honeymoon is over; divorce is not an option. So, until Obama and Netanyahu are able to find common ground on some policy initiative that matters to them both, restoring a functional partnership will be extremely difficult. And the next six months will resemble more a soap opera than serious cooperation between the United States and Israel. And that would be a terrible outcome for two nations that face profound challenges in an angry, turbulent, and dysfunctional region.
Aaron David Miller is public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and has been an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Are you still glad you voted for Obama?” my grandfather is asking my mother over the phone, in his pre-Passover call from Jerusalem. With the time difference, he has precious little time before the start of the holiday; in America, we have hours still.
I slink away to avoid being pulled into the conversation that I know is to follow. In the days leading up to the election, my grandfather and I had our own heated discussion about Obama, my fervor for his candidacy contrasting with my grandfather’s immense dislike, and it’s not an argument I’m eager to repeat. My mother’s response, which I can’t avoid hearing, comes as no surprise: “I’m very angry at Obama,” she says, having reluctantly voted for him, one of many American Jews who were lifelong Democrats yet worried about his stance on Israel. I, like many American Jews, voted for him without reservation.
Once my mother gets off the phone, there’s no time to talk politics in the swirl of Passover preparations—too many bitter herbs to be sliced—but it’s still on my mind at the seder, where Jewish history is compressed into past, present, and future at once. The eternal optimist who says Next year in Jerusalem is side by side with the doomsayer who reminds us that in every generation, an enemy will rise up to destroy us.
Whether the perceived Obama shift away from Israel will translate into a concrete policy still remains to be seen. Even so, it’s the beginning for me of a painful, reluctant disenchantment. I’m feeling the classic discomfort of cognitive dissonance, supporting the Obama agenda on most other issues but adamantly disagreeing with much of the liberal political world when it comes to Israel. Whose blind spot, whose contradiction, is this? Mine or theirs?
“I get it,” Obama famously said in his State of the Union about the economy, and it is those words I want to hear him say, and say sincerely, regarding Israel’s history, its all-too-valid fears, its current plight. Without those words, these are lonely, uncertain times for this Obama loyalist. I feel this most keenly at the end of Passover when, at my Republican in-laws’, I await the subject of Obama and Israel to be raised. Whereas before I would have argued vehemently in his support, now, closing my mouth, not sure what to think anymore, I’m reminded of a line from Shalom Aleichem, as Tevye the Dairyman grieves at having said goodbye to one of his daughters: “Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?” As I sit at the table, tired of matzoh, I know what to say.
“Have you heard any news of global warming?”
Tova Mirvis is the author of two novels and is currently a visiting research associate at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.
The geniuses in the Obama administration have now twice provoked and twice lost the same gratuitous fight with the Netanyahu government. Unfortunately, these defeats don’t deter them from persisting with their misconceived goals.
The first fight began in May 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an end to Israeli building activity on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Four months later, after figuring out that this policy obstructed the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy they fervently sought, the geniuses backtracked and returned to Democratic Party policies-as-usual, meaning good relations with Jerusalem.
In March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton, and Obama then picked the same fight with Israel all over again, now over Jerusalem specifically. This time, the administration needed only six weeks to retreat from its foolishness, as signaled by National Security Adviser James Jones’s speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Elie Wiesel’s lunch at the White House.
Notwithstanding these tactical retreats, the policy of “linkage”—belief that the well-being of the Middle East depends primarily on an Israeli-Palestinian accord—remains very much in place and will bedevil U.S.-Israel relations at least through the next two and a half years of Obama’s presidency.
At this difficult time, three facts console me. First, Israelis take more “risks for peace” and offer more “painful concessions”—i.e., they make more irreversible mistakes—when U.S.-Israel ties are warm and strong. In contrast, tense U.S.-Israel ties render such bad decisions less likely. This is one silver lining in Obama’s missteps.
Another silver lining is the apparently permanent damage these fights have inflicted on Obama, who in the eyes of many Zionist Americans is seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Third, Obama’s fights with Israel occur at a moment of particularly strong American support for Israel; one recent poll, for instance, shows a 10-to-1 preference for Israel over the Palestinians. Add to this the deep fabric of U.S.-Israeli religious, family, commercial, and cultural ties—as symbolized by the just-signed bilateral open-skies agreement—and it appears that a president, especially one who has cascaded in the polls and must be deeply concerned about the forthcoming midterm elections, can go only so far to antagonize the very large body of pro-Israel voters. Thus, I am worried but not acutely so.
The title and questions in this symposium focus on American Jews. But the Arab-Israeli debate in the United States has changed to the point that “Jews” no longer adequately defines the actively pro-Israel camp. As Jewish defamers of Israel grow more prominent and organize themselves (think J Street), so do ardently pro-Israel non-Jews (think Christians United for Israel). I therefore suggest rephrasing the discussion, substituting “Zionists” for “Jews.”
Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” Yet in our own time in America, it is within a political rather than a religious context that the undying stubbornness of the Jewish people manifests itself most blatantly. Their early ancestors had the golden calf; they have the Democratic Party.
Consider: since 1928—before Franklin Roosevelt, be it noted—a staggering 75 percent of Jewish voters have on average gone for the Democratic presidential candidate. In all those years, and long past the point where the Democratic Party served either their interests or their ideals, whether as Jews or as Americans, only one of its candidates—Jimmy Carter running for a second term against Ronald Reagan—failed to get a majority of their vote, and even he scored a plurality in a three-way race.
There is no more telling example of the stubborn persistence of this pattern than the 2008 election. Thus, in spite of Barack Obama’s close association with the anti-Semitic likes of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Professor Rashid Khalidi, the Jewish vote for him was 35 points—35 points!—higher than the pro-Obama white vote in general, and it was even 11 points higher than the Hispanic vote. Broken down by religion: the Jewish vote was 33 points higher than the Protestant vote and 24 points higher than the Catholic vote. Only with blacks (95 percent) did Obama do better than with Jews.
Nevertheless, except for the heartbroken disavowals of Ed Koch and the angry attacks of Marty Peretz over Obama’s betrayal of the soothing assurances they had given to their fellow Jews of his great friendliness toward Israel, his army of Jewish supporters has greeted this betrayal with a disgracefully tepid response (which is at least less dishonorable than the sycophantic apologetics of a leading Jewish cheerleader like Martin Indyk). More disgraceful still is how Obama’s Jewish supporters have treated his evident willingness to accept an Iranian bomb in spite of repeated declarations that it is “unacceptable.”
The American Jewish community of the 1930s and 40s has often been excoriated for its “silence” in the face of Roosevelt’s failure to do much about Hitler’s threat to rid the earth of Jews. But compared with the response of today’s community to Obama’s treatment of Ahmadinejad’s threat to do unto the Jewish state what Hitler did unto the Jews of Europe, the voice of yesteryear’s “Jews of silence” sounds like a mighty roar.
And so, even though the 2012 Jewish vote for Obama is unlikely to reach its astronomic 2008 height, it is a good bet that a majority will support him once again. “F— the Jews,” said James Baker to George H.?W. Bush in 1992, “they won’t vote for us anyway.” I can easily imagine Rahm Emanuel (who is famously fond of the F word) saying to Barack Obama, “F— the Jews; they will vote for us anyway.” After all, Emanuel knows as well as Baker that when it comes to the stiff-neckedness of the Jewish people, the Democratic Party is a worthy descendent of the golden calf.
Norman Podhoretz’s 12th book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, was published by Doubleday last fall.
Here are five points that may help to explain current American-Israeli tensions and American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.
1. To understand President Obama, one must understand that he is the first leftist—not liberal, leftist—to serve as president of the United States. While President Franklin Roosevelt was also a man of the left regarding economic policy, social policy, and expanding government, today he would be considered “conservative” regarding foreign policy and the nature of American civilization. FDR believed in American exceptionalism and advocated fighting for others’ liberty. Even before the war, he regularly spoke of America as, in his words, “the guardian of Western culture.” The Democratic Party would not consider for nomination a man who said such things today. Today’s left rejects such notions. For example, when asked last year by the Financial Times if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The left wants America to be like other countries—particularly the social democracies of Western Europe. Therefore, a leftist president simply cannot be as pro-Israel as a president who believes in American exceptionalism. Rather, he will likely be as pro-Israel as the Europeans are.
2. A fundamental characteristic of the left is a desire that America be loved, or at least liked, by the world. That is far more important than being strong, and it may well preclude risking world opprobrium for backing Israel.
3. This president particularly wants to be liked in the Muslim world. He feels that he has a great advantage in changing the Muslim world’s views of America because he has a Muslim father, a Muslim name, and spent some of his early years in Indonesia. A president seeking singlehandedly to change the Muslim world’s attitudes toward America and the American president is not likely to be as strongly pro-Israel as was the last president, who was prepared to have himself and America disliked by Muslims who hate the Jewish state.
4. If President Obama watched MEMRI or Palestinian Media Watch, and thereby viewed the daily Palestinian and other Arab television broadcasts of Nazi-like Jew-hatred, perhaps he would realize that the overwhelming obstacle to Mideast peace is a hatred that has no parallel anywhere in the world. Until then, however, he will continue to hold the left’s belief that Israel is as responsible, if not more responsible, for the lack of peace in the Middle East.
5. Finally, most American Jews are not nearly as passionate about Israel as they were a generation ago. Many are indifferent because being Jewish is of no particular significance to them. Many are liberal?/?left and may loathe the right more than they love Israel. And some are leftist more than Jewish in their values and passions. Therefore, many American Jews will support an American president on the left against an Israeli prime minister on the right.
Add to these five observations Iran’s developing nuclear weapons while America’s president—not to mention the United Nations Security Council—is not as nearly as tough as necessary on that country’s fanatically anti-Israel regime. One then appreciates why many of us believe Israel is in danger.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio-talk-show host, a syndicated columnist, and the author of four books.
There was a time, not so long ago, when support for the State of Israel was what most bound together the American Jewish community. Now, sadly, it is Israel that most divides us.
How did that happen, and what can be done about it?
As long as Israel was the underdog in its conflict with the Arab world, and particularly in the early years of the state, the overwhelming majority of American Jews were firmly in the Zionist camp, giving their energy and primarily their dollars toward ensuring a safe haven for the remnants of European Jewry after the Holocaust, the immigrants from Arab countries, and other fellow Jews living in the holy land.
The Six-Day War marked the high point of pride in and identification with the Israeli people, widely seen as Jewish Supermen in the heady days after the defeat of the mighty Arab nations. But gradually that image changed. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Lebanon War of 1982, and the first intifada five years later, Israel increasingly was seen in the eyes of the world as Goliath rather than David, no longer the plucky little nation surrounded by 100 million hostile Arabs but instead the mighty war machine preventing Palestinians from having a state of their own.
American Jews who lived through the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, and who witnessed its early struggles, identified with Israel in their kishkas. Not so, though, a young generation that has grown up long after the Six Day War miracle and the euphoria of the Entebbe rescue. Their memory is of the Rabin assassination, checkpoints, intifadas, and widespread condemnation of Israel as occupier, and worse.
Too few of our young people receive a serious Zionist education, even in our best Jewish day schools. They may learn about Judah Maccabee but don’t know Menachem Begin from Natan Sharansky. Most find the Mideast conflict confusing as they watch the Palestinians become the darlings of their liberal friends, particularly on college campuses. Lacking the historical knowledge and moral confidence to make Israel’s case, too many of our sons and daughters tune out of the discussion.
Birthright Israel has been a great success this past decade, reintroducing Israel in a positive light to tens of thousands of young people, but there is only so much a 10-day visit can do.
The prospect of confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem today is deeply troubling to our young people, and perhaps a losing proposition for pro-Israel supporters. Those who helped elect Barack Obama, moved by his vision of transformation and of restoring respect for America among the nations of the world, may well believe that “tough love” rather than creative advocacy is what Israel needs.
For a generation that has done little to teach our children the history, ethical imperative, and moral passion of Israel, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York and founding chair of Write on for Israel, an advocacy program through journalism for high school students.
JONATHAN D. SARNA
American jews have always been happiest when the policies they espouse comport with those that their government espouses. When America battled the Nazis during World War II, when it battled Arab terrorists and al-Qaeda, when it fought Iraq in the Kuwait war, and when it overthrew Saddam Hussein, Jews cheered; their interests and Washington’s interests seemed in perfect alignment.
At other times, though, Jews have significantly differed from government policy, and this was true long before the State of Israel came into existence. In the wake of brutal anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in the first decade of the 20th century, American Jews campaigned to abrogate an 1832 treaty of commerce with that country. President William Howard Taft, influenced by business leaders, strongly opposed this move and sternly lectured American Jews on the folly of their dissent when they met with him to discuss the issue. Nevertheless, the Jewish community courageously stuck to its guns. Taft was compelled to abrogate the treaty in 1911, and many Jews (including the powerful Jacob Schiff) punished his party and supported the Democrats or the “Bull Moose” Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Jews likewise consistently dissented from government policies that sought to limit immigration. Restrictionists who favored literacy tests and tight immigration quotas during the 1910s and 20s regularly charged that Jews put their own interests ahead of the country’s best interests, but Jewish leaders stood firm. Rather than cowering before those who defined “national interests” differently, they advocated for what they believed right, even when this put them at odds with presidents whom Jews had helped to elect.
So there is nothing unique or unprecedented about the current conflict with the White House. Indeed, Jewish disagreements with White House policies, particularly concerning the Middle East, characterized the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations as well, and in those days Israel was a good deal weaker and more dependent than it is now.
The last Democratic president who was perceived (correctly, as we now know) to be an opponent of the State of Israel and its policies was Jimmy Carter. His weak-kneed, idealistic, and naïve foreign policy—uncomfortably similar, in some ways, to that of Barack Obama—alienated millions who had previously supported him. In 1976 he had garnered fully 71 percent of the Jewish vote. Just four years later, he became the only Jewish Democrat in 80 years to receive less than 50 percent of the Jewish vote, and was driven from the White House by Ronald Reagan, who won a higher percentage of Jewish votes than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Could something similar happen to Barack Obama?
Much could change between now and 2012, but signs abound that Jewish support for the Democratic administration is waning. The real question, looking ahead, is whether the Republicans will be able to use this to their advantage. To do so, history suggests, they will need to nominate a candidate whose views on American policy, foreign and domestic, comport with those most Jews hold dear. If Jews decide that the Republican candidate in 2012 more closely aligns with their views than Barack Obama, it is a safe bet that the Republican candidate will win many more of their votes than McCain and Palin did in 2008.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of American Judaism: A History
The current tension between the United States and Israel is less than a crisis (for example, Suez 1956) and more than a passing tempest (the Israel-China “Phalcon” episode, 2000). In my view, it registers a 5 or a 6 on the diplomatic Richter scale. But that relatively good news should be cold comfort—the potential for mistrust and recriminations to morph these early tremors into a level-9 earthquake are depressingly real. In the meantime, even the current modest level of tension has had the nasty side effect of giving intellectual terrorists, like Harvard professor Stephen Walt, free rein to use mainstream publications to engage in McCarthyite “dual loyalty” attacks on dozens of patriotic Jewish Americans, myself included.
While Commentary has asked respondents to focus on the role of Jewish Americans in this evolving U.S.-Israel relationship, it is a mistake to overlook the crucial role played by non-Jewish Americans. I am not speaking about the “silent majority” of Americans that still poll in support of strong U.S.-Israel ties in overwhelming numbers. And I am not speaking about the rise of pro-Israel sentiment among conservative evangelicals or its drop among liberal Christian groups. Rather, I focus on what I call the non-evangelical Christian Zionist policymakers. (I haven’t figured out a catchy acronym yet.)
Historically, the role played by these courageous friends of Israel—from Clark Clifford to Alexander Haig—was critical. But who at the highest levels of our foreign-policy elite, especially those outside the ranks of elected officials, play this role today? Among Republicans, George Shultz remains an exemplar. Among Democrats, Evan Bayh, a soon-to-be-ex-elected official, retains a powerful voice. There are, of course, others. But compared with a generation ago, the bench is pretty thin.
There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, not all of them negative or regrettable. To a certain extent, for example, this is an unintended consequence of the growing acceptability of Jewish foreign-policy practitioners, especially as concerns the U.S.-Israel relationship and wider U.S. Middle East policy. But at the same time, among many in the foreign-policy elite, there has been an unmistakable decline into indifference toward and detachment from Israel and the fate of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
When times are good, this doesn’t matter very much. But when times are bad—and especially when they are getting worse—the absence of this critical layer of robust, sophisticated, and influential advocacy of strong U.S.-Israel ties can be devastating.
So as Jewish Americans analyze their relationship to Israel, Obama, and American politics on the pages of Commentary and elsewhere, let’s please remember a larger reality—if U.S.-Israel friendship becomes viewed solely or even predominantly as an indulgence to the American Jewish community, without vocal and effective champions among non-Jewish foreign-policy practitioners who rally to its defense because U.S.-Israel friendship advances U.S. strategic interests, the chances that it will survive the level-9 earthquake are slim. Rebuilding that sort of support (starting with support among the Democratic foreign-policy elite, given the current administration) is where we need to refocus our efforts.
Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The problem with President Obama’s approach to Israel is that he means well. Pressuring Israel has no political benefit for him, only risks. Yet he seems to believe that it is the right thing to do for peace, since peace—in his view—comes from raising the stakes to a near rupture in the U.S.-Israel relationship. His administration argues that the U.S. knows Israel’s best interests better than its own elected prime minister. It is ironic, to say the least, that an administration that has gone to extraordinary lengths to listen to almost every other nation has no qualms about dictating to Israel.
All this would be bad enough in isolation, but it is not. The flap with Israel has distracted from the central global security challenge of our time: Iran’s race to obtain nuclear weapons. If Iran succeeds, the first casualty will be the Arab-Israeli peace process, since Hamas and Hezbollah will be greatly strengthened, and no Arab player, including the Palestinians, will risk normalization, let alone making peace, with Israel.
Under normal circumstances, American Jews would turn to other political forces to compel a course correction. Indeed, the shock absorber in the U.S.-Israel relationship has historically been the Congress. Whenever there has been tension between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister, Congress has stepped in. Even in the recent flare-up, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer co-authored a letter to President Obama reminding him that the U.S. “must be both a trusted mediator and a devoted friend to Israel.” Senator Barbara Boxer penned a similar letter.
The good news is that these letters were signed by overwhelming majorities in both bodies—333 House members and 76 senators. But digging a little deeper reveals a worrisome trend: while 96 percent of House Republicans signed the letter, only 64 percent of House Democrats signed it; similarly in the U.S. Senate, over 90 percent of Republicans signed on, but only 64 percent of Senate Democrats would join.
Even more striking were some of the individuals who refused to sign, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a much-talked-about possible majority leader, and John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The same is true in the House, where many of the party’s leading lights took a pass. The uncomfortable fact is that there are real divisions among congressional Democrats over Israel, and those divisions are widening and cementing in ways not seen in decades.
Another shock absorber could be the grassroots constituencies that form the basis of a political party. But sadly, outside the Jewish community, there is not a single constituency within the Democratic coalition for whom Israel is a priority. To the contrary, most of the Democratic base regards a strong Israel as counter to American interests and values. As far as powerful groups that care deeply about Israel, there is simply nothing comparable in the Democratic Party to the cultural conservatives, evangelical Christians, and national-security hawks, all of whom are highly influential blocs in the GOP and all of whom view a strong Israel as a priority.
Today, Democrats in Congress, in the executive branch, and at the grassroots level are at best deeply divided over Israel and at worst deeply hostile, and the need to confront Iran has fallen off their radar screen entirely.
This presents Jewish Democrats with a question: will the Democratic Party be a party that is pro-Israel and internationalist, or a party that confronts Israel while allowing real global threats to grow? If it is the latter, then the Democratic Party is not a pro-Israel party. Make no mistake: it might have some pro-Israel members in office, but that is different from being a pro-Israel party.
Dan Senor is the co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. He is adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Two recent Jerusalem Post headlines on the same April day encapsulate our current moment. The first declared: “Most Americans unhappy with Obama’s handling of Israel ties.” The second: “Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama.”
What a contrast. The U.S. has now reached a point where American citizens are so comfortable with Israel that they prefer the policies of Jerusalem to the policies of Washington. And yet, at this moment, American Jewish leaders are struggling over the question of criticizing the administration’s policies toward the Jewish state.
American Jews now differ from the rest of America—and the world—in understanding President Obama’s coldness towards Israel. Despite the president’s words and not-unsubtle actions, American Jews remain a loyal voting bloc in a party whose supporters are far less likely to be supportive of Israel than are those in the rival party (48 percent among Democrats, 85 percent among Republicans).
This seemingly unshakable loyalty has a real-world impact on Israel’s future. If Obama knows that he can take for granted the Jewish vote, then he has very little incentive to take Israel’s side in questions about the peace process, terrorism, or even its right to exist. In effect, Obama can invert James Baker’s dictum “F— the Jews, they didn’t vote for us any way” to “F— the Jews, they will vote for us anyway.”
In this, American Jews are serving as critical enablers for Obama’s ability to pursue his political interest and personal ideology. From his perspective, the Jews are in his corner and will remain there regardless of his behavior. To take just one example: Obama saw how a simple White House “seder” photo op could quiet stories about his poor treatment of Netanyahu. This leaves Obama free to pursue deeper relations with Israel’s enemies with little fear of losing his Jewish constituency.
Jewish Republicans have long been simply watching events, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. With each new development—the failure of Oslo, 9/11, Bush’s staunch support for Israel, and Obama’s coldness towards Israel—we hope a massive and dramatic shift is around the corner. We hope one event will cause Jewish voters to find a home in the Republican Party. Yet, as in Waiting for Godot, the awaited moment never arrives.
In contrast, opinion in Israel has experienced a tectonic shift. Israeli Jews have rejected the Obama approach, probably because their lives are directly on the line. Various polls have shown Obama’s approval among Israeli Jews as low as 4 percent. This shows that Obama does have a considerable talent to unite the famously fractious sons of Abraham—in America for him; in Israel, against.
Still, Obama’s shift of American foreign policy away from Israel may not be entirely costless. The saving grace, as it were, for Israel is not the Jews but the Gentiles of America, who see in Israel a kindred spirit in favor of modernity and opposed to terror. To the extent that Obama suffers for moving away from Israel, it will be because non-Jewish Americans reject his policies. In the meantime, Israeli Jews will continue to wonder why their American counterparts lag behind the rest of America.
Tevi Troy is visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide under George W. Bush.
RUTH R. WISSE
The essential question for Israel,” writes editor David Remnick in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “is not whether it has the friendship of the White House—it does—but whether Netanyahu remains the arrogant rejectionist that he was in the nineteen-nineties.” This triple twist (a) guarantees Israel the friendship of the flagrantly unfriendly president, (b) manifests corresponding contempt for Israel’s elected leader, and (c) pins Arab “rejectionism” on the rejected party. Remnick’s bow to Obama is deeper than Obama’s bow to the Saudi King, and his antipathy to a strong Israel is greater than Obama’s contrition over a strong America. The president is a certain kind of American, and Remnick is his kind of American Jew.
Fortunately, there are also other kinds. Never before in the Jewish Diaspora has a political group worked as efficiently as AIPAC in defending the Jewish polity against its enemies. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has likewise managed to work on behalf of Israel rather than against it, no small feat in the swamp of Jewish political infighting. Anti-Semitism—now in its new and improved form of anti-Zionism—is sharply resisted by public thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as it never was in the 1930s. America encourages Jews, along with all its minorities, to defend their rights at home and abroad. America will not be at fault if they fail to do so.
There is much at stake in this challenge. By now it is obvious that the organization of modern politics against Jews is a catch-all for ideological warfare against whatever Jews are thought to stand for—free-market competition, equal rights, liberal democracy, “the West.” This proxy war has been waged by Arab and Muslim rejectionists against Israel for 63 years. “Little Satan” is a handier target than big America. A war so preposterously unilateral calls for unprecedented powers of resistance from Israel and political support from democratic allies who recognize the threat to themselves. Since scapegoating Israel prevents meaningful improvement in Arab and Muslim countries, the essential question is not whether Israel has the friendship of the White House—right now it doesn’t—but what the world suffers on that account.
I appreciate the bumper sticker that reads “don’t worry, america: israel is behind you!” Far from putting American lives at risk, Israel has so far borne the brunt of anti-Western hostilities. America “brings its soldiers home”; Israel is the home that soldiers. American Jews bear a double responsibility to get behind both Israel and America in their common struggle against hostile leaders and rotten ideologies. Will some prefer the Remnick twist? Probably. But the Russian Jewish immigrants I’ve come to know in Boston did not vote for the most left-wing member of the Senate. My faith in the future of democracies lies with them.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University.
A wish: that there should be less noxious speculation about the president’s origins and less invidious speculation about his “real” views. I assume he views the prospect of a nuclear Iran with horror, as any sane man would, and wishes to forestall it if possible. I assume he wishes Israel to survive in peace. I am heartily sick of the invective that loads my in-box imputing to the president traitorous, anti-Semitic, or conspiratorial motives, usually allied to pseudo–psychological diagnoses.
A belief: that the following political calculus is profoundly mistaken—the Bush administration warmly embraced Israel and there was no peace. Therefore, chilliness and pressure on Israel will bring peace. The opposite of an unproductive policy is not automatically a productive one. The president who cannot sustain the confidence of both sides will not succeed. The administration’s posturing is unworthy; alienating a steadfast ally through neglect or carping achieves nothing and risks a great deal.
A surprise: that the government of Israel would permit anything—anything—to separate it from the United States at this time. Iran’s designs should push parochial agendas to the side. In this battle, Israel needs to count on as much cooperation as possible. This is a nuclear bomb; you don’t talk housing units in Hiroshima.
A fear: that even if there is regime change in Iran, its desire to be a nuclear power will not abate. Nor will the influence of that part of the population for whom Israel is a temporary and unjust intruder. This is the most terrifying development in the postwar world, and talk of “containment” is acquiescence to Armageddon. It is not certain that Iran will explode a nuclear device should it acquire one. Even the devout can be pragmatic. Men are not machines, nor does sharia—or halacha or the expectation of the eschaton—make them so. But the temptation to an apocalyptic mind is present and dreadful. And that which you do not explode you can still exploit.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Los Angeles.
ERIC H. YOFFIE
I believe that there is no “Barack Obama policy” on Israel, just as there was no “George W. Bush policy” on Israel. There is an American policy, and it has been remarkably consistent for nearly two decades: a Palestinian state alongside Israel, under conditions that will guarantee peace and security for both—and that will enable Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.
President Obama is a friend of Israel, and his administration is filled with friends, with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Dennis Ross leading a long list. His concern about Israeli settlements does not reflect fundamental differences with past administrations; it reflects the simple fact that settlers outside the major settlement blocks that will remain part of Israel have grown in number from 50,000 to 100,000 since the mid-1990s, thereby calling into question the viability of the two-state solution on which American policy rests.
The Obama administration has made many mistakes. It should have been more emphatic in articulating its support for Israel and far more assertive in publicly demanding Palestinian concessions. But the president supported Israel on Gaza, withdrew from Durban II, increased military cooperation with Israel, and has done much else to produce a strong pro-Israel record in word and deed.
The administration is right to encourage Palestinian moderates; the alternative to the Palestinian Authority is Hamas. American Jews, I believe, welcome their government’s activism and see it as an opportunity, not a danger. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that PA leaders have the courage to make real peace. Thus, the challenge for Israel—and American Jews—is to keep attention focused on Palestinian obstructionism. This will best be accomplished not by confronting the administration but rather by cooperating with it. An Israel that settles beyond the security fence, builds in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and refuses to remove illegal outposts will be playing into the hands of its enemies. An Israel that works with the U.S. to develop a common strategic understanding, including the red lines that it cannot cross, will defuse current tensions.
The prime minister of Israel has expressed his support for a Palestinian state. By telling the United States specifically how it hopes to get there and putting the burden on the Palestinians to respond, Israel will advance and deepen the American-Israeli alliance.
A nuclear Iran is a profound threat to Israel. Any conceivable response to this threat—economic sanctions with real teeth or military strikes—will require strong American backing. The administration has taken positive steps on Iran, and American Jews must now focus their attention on working with their government to gain support for decisive action in the days ahead.
I don’t speak for American Jews and neither does Commentary. The poll data that we have on their views is conflicting and inconclusive. But if the past is any guide, American Jews want pro-Israel advocacy to be firmly bipartisan. Those who prefer to see the American government as the enemy and to demonize the president may be serving their own political agenda, but they are not helping Israel. U.S. Jews want to avoid showdowns, to stress shared values, and to strengthen the ties that bind the U.S. to Israel and that have been the heritage of both Republican and Democratic governments for half a century. Their agenda should be our agenda today.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
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Obama, Israel & American Jews: The Challenge
Must-Reads from Magazine
f all the surprises of the Trump era, none is more notable than the pronounced shift toward Israel. Such a shift was not predictable from Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail; as he sought the Republican nomination, Trump distinguished himself by his refusal to express unqualified support for Israel and his airy conviction that his business experience gave him unique insight into how to strike “a real-estate deal” to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In addition, his isolationist talk alarmed Israel’s friends in the United States and elsewhere if for no other reason than that isolationism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand in hand.
But shift he did. In the 14 months since his inauguration, the new president has announced that the United States accepts Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has declared his intention to build a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, first mandated by U.S. law in 1996. He has installed one of his Orthodox Jewish lawyers as the U.S. ambassador and another as his key envoy on Israeli–Palestinian issues. America’s ambassador to the United Nations has not only spoken out on Israel’s behalf forcefully and repeatedly; Nikki Haley has also led the way in cutting the U.S. stipend to the refugee relief agency that is an effective front for the Palestinian terror state in Gaza. And, as Meir Y. Soloveichik and Michael Medved both detail elsewhere in this issue, his vice president traveled to Israel in January and delivered the most pro-Zionist speech any major American politician has ever given.
Part of this shift can also be seen in what Trump has not done. He has not signaled, in interviews or in policy formulations, that the United States views Israeli actions in and around Gaza and the West Bank as injurious to a future peace. And his administration has not complained about Israeli actions taken in self-defense in Lebanon and Syria but has, instead, supported Israel’s right to defend itself.
This marks a breathtaking contrast with the tone and spirit of the relationship between the two countries during the previous administration. The eight Obama years were characterized by what can only be called a gut hostility rooted in the president’s own ideological distaste for the Jewish state.
The intensity of that hostility ebbed and flowed depending on circumstances, but from early 2009, it kept the relationship between the United States and Israel in a condition of low-grade fever throughout Barack Obama’s tenure—never comfortable, never easy, always a bit off-kilter, always with a bit of a headache that never went away, and always in danger of spiking into a dangerous pyrexia. That fever spike happened no fewer than five times during the Obama presidency. Although these spikes were usually portrayed as the consequences of the personal friction between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that friction was itself the result of the ideas about the Middle East and the world in general Obama had brought with him to the White House. In this case, the political became the personal, not the other way around.
Given the general leftish direction of his foreign-policy views from college onward, it would have been a miracle had Obama felt kindly disposed toward the Jewish state’s own understanding of its tactical and strategic condition. And Netanyahu spoke out openly and forcefully to kindly disposed Americans—from evangelical Christians to congressional Republicans—about the threats to his country from nearby terrorism and rockets, and a developing nuclear Iran 900 miles away. His candor proved a perpetual irritant to a president whose opening desire was to see “daylight” (as he said in February 2009) between the two countries. Obama caused one final fever spike as he left office by refusing to veto a hostile United Nations resolution. This appeared churlish but was, in fact, Obama allowing himself the full rein of his true and long-standing convictions on his way out the door.T
he things Trump both has and has not done should not seem startling. They constitute the baseline of what we ought to expect one ally would say and not say about the behavior of another ally. But as Obama’s disgraceful conduct demonstrated, Israel is not just another ally and never has been. It is a unique experiment in statehood—a Western country on Mideast soil, born from an anti-colonialist movement that is now viewed by many former colonial powers as an unjust colonial power, created by an international organization that is now largely organized as a means of expressing rage against it.
Historically, American leaders have had to reckon with these unique realities—and the fact that the hostile nations surrounding Israel and hungering for its destruction happen to sit atop the lifeblood of the industrial economy. The so-called realists who claim to view the world and the pursuit of America’s interests through cold and unsentimental eyes have experienced Israel mostly as a burden.
Through many twists and turns over the seven decades of Israel’s existence, they have felt that America’s support for Israel is mostly the result of short-sighted domestic political concerns for which they have little patience—the wishes of Jewish voters, or the religious concerns of evangelical voters, or post-Holocaust sympathy that has required (though they would never say it aloud) an unnatural suspension of our pursuit of the American national interest.
Israel created problems with oil countries, and with the United Nations, and with those who see the claims for the necessity of a Jewish state as a form of special pleading. As a result, the realists have spent the past seven decades whispering in the ears of America’s leaders that they have the right to expect Israel to do things we would not expect of another ally and to demand it behave in ways we would not demand of any other friendly country.
The realists and others have spent nearly 50 years propounding a unified-field theory of Middle East turmoil according to which many if not all of the region’s problems are the result of Israel’s existence. Were it not for Israel, there would not have been regional wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982—no matter who might have borne the greatest degree of responsibility for them. There would have been other conflicts, but not this one. There would have been no world-recession-inducing oil embargo in 1973 because there would have been no response to the Yom Kippur War. Were it not for Israel, for example, there would be no Israeli–Palestinian problem; there would have been some other version of the problem, but not this one.
Unhappiness about the condition of the Palestinians in a world with Israel was held to be the cause of existential unhappiness on the Arab street and therefore of instability in friendly authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel’s own pursuit of what it and its voting populace took to be their national interests was usually treated with disdain at the very least and outright fury at moments of crisis.
It was therefore axiomatic that the solution to many if not most of the region’s problems ran right though the center of Jerusalem. It would take a complex process, a peace process, that would lead to a deal—a deal no one who believed in this magical process could actually describe honestly and forthrightly or give a sense as to what its final contours would be. If you could create a peace process leading to a deal, though, that deal itself would work like a bone-marrow transplant—through a mysterious process spreading new immunities to instability in the Middle East that would heal the causes of conflict and bring about a new era.
Again, this was the view of the realists. With Israel’s 70th anniversary coming hard upon us, the question one needs to ask is this: What if the realists were nothing but fantasists? What if their approach to the Middle East from the time of Israel’s founding was based in wildly unrealistic ideas and emotions? Central to their gullibility was the wild and irrational idea that peace was or ever could be the result of a process. No, peace is a condition of soul, an exhaustion from the impact of conflict, born of a desire to end hostilities. Only after this state is achieved can there be a workable process, because both parties would already have crossed the Rubicon dividing them and would only then need to work out the details of coexistence.
There was no peace to be had. The Arab states didn’t want it. The Palestinians didn’t want it. The Israelis did and do, but not at the expense of their existence. The Arabs demanded concessions, and the Israelis have made many over the years, but they could not concede the security of the millions of Israel’s citizens who had made this miracle of a country an enduring reality. The realists fetishized “process” because it seemed the only way to compel change from the outside. And so Israel has borne the brunt of the anger that follows whenever a fantasist is forced to confront a reality he would rather close his eyes to.
That is why I think what Trump and his people have done over the past 14 months represents a new and genuine realism. They are dealing with Israel and its relationships in the region as they are, not as they would wish them to be. They are seeing how the government of Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making common cause with Israel against the Hamas entity in Gaza and against ISIS forces in the Suez. They are witness to the effort at radical reformation in Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin-Salman—and how that seems to be going hand in hand with an astonishing new concord between Israel and the Desert Kingdom over the common threat from Iran. This is a harmonizing of interests that would have seemed positively science-fictional in living memory.
Mostly, what they are seeing is that an ally is an ally. Israel’s intelligence agencies are providing the kind of information America cannot get on its own about Syria and Iran and the threat from ISIS. Israel is a technological powerhouse whose innovations are already helping to revolutionize American military know-how. Israel’s army is the strongest in the world apart from the regional superpowers—and the only one outside Western Europe and the United States firmly locked in alliance with the West. Things are changing radically in the Middle East, and as the 21st century progresses it is possible that Israel will play a constructive and influential role outside its borders in helping to maintain and strengthen a Pax Americana.
Donald Trump is a flighty man. All of this could change. But for now, the replacement of the false realism of the past with a new realism for the 21st century seems like a revolutionary development that needs to be taken very, very seriously.
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f the making of Washington movies, there is no end. Kohelet said this in Ecclesiastes, I think. Or maybe it was Gene Shalit on the Today Show. It’s a truism in any case. Steven Spielberg’s latest entry in the genre, The Post, is for many Washingtonians the most powerful example in the long line. When the movie opened here in late December, there were reports of audiences cheering lustily and even dissolving in tears at the movie’s end, as if they were watching a speech by President Obama. The local paper ran news articles about it, along with numberless feature stories, interviews, op-eds, fact-checks, reviews, and reviews of reviews.
Which is excusable, I guess, since the movie is about the Washington Post. But then The Post is supposed to be about so many things. It’s about the First Amendment, depicting the agonies of the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, and its owner, Katharine Graham, as they defy the Nixon administration to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. It’s about feminism and the personal evolution of Mrs. Graham from an insecure Georgetown socialite to Master of the Boardroom. It’s the story of the lonely courage of the leaker/whistleblower/traitor (your call) Daniel Ellsberg. It is also, so I read in the Post, a warning about the imperial designs of President Trump to smother a free press. And it’s been understood as a straightforward tale of political history, though the liberties Spielberg takes with his based-on-a-true-story are so extreme as to render it useless as a guide to what happened in the summer of 1971.
Running beneath it all is the motive that animates so many Washington movies: an impatience with the stuttering, halting processes of self-government. The wellspring from which the Washington movie flows is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The plot is familiar to everyone. Mr. Smith, a small-town bumpkin played by Jimmy Stewart—talk about stuttering and halting!—is appointed by sinister political bosses to a vacant Senate seat, on the assumption that he will be easily manipulated, like a movie audience. Instead, Smith stumbles upon an illicit land deal and exposes the Senate as a den of thieves. His filibustering floor speech rouses a populist outpouring from an army of alarmingly cute children. By the end of the movie, Mr. Smith has restored the nation to its democratic ideals.
Capra intended his movie to be a hymn to those ideals, and for nearly 80 years that’s what audiences have taken it to be. It is no such thing. Mr. Smith seethes with contempt for the raw materials of democracy: debate, quid pro quo deal-making, back-scratching compromise—all the tedious, unsightly mechanics that turn democratic ideals into functioning self-government. In Capra’s telling, democracy can be rescued only by anti-democratic means. An appointed charismatic savior (he’s not even elected!) uses a filibuster (favorite parliamentary trick of bullies and autocrats) to release the volatile pressure of a disenfranchised mob (the great fear of every democratic theorist since Aristotle). From Mr. Smith to Legally Blonde 2, the point of the Washington movie is clear: Left to its own devices, without an outside agent to penetrate it and cleanse it of its sins, self-government sinks into corruption and despotism.
Steven Spielberg is the closest thing we have to Capra’s successor. Like all his movies, The Post has many charms: a running visual joke about Bradlee’s daughter making a killing with her lemonade stand threads in and out of the heavier moments like a rope light. On the other hand, his painstaking obsession with period detail often fails: A hippie demonstration against the Vietnam War looks as if it’s been staged by the cast of Hair. The set-piece speeches are insufferable, an icky glue of sanctimony and sentimentality. What we call the Pentagon Papers was a classified history of the lies, misjudgments, and incompetence of four presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, ending in 1968. Sometimes the speechifying is directed at the malfeasance of these men, as when Bradlee bellows: “The way they lied—those days have to be over!”
Weirdly, though, the full force of the movie’s indignation is aimed at Richard Nixon. Historians might point out that Nixon wasn’t even president during the period covered by the Pentagon Papers. Intelligence officials told the president that the release of the papers would pose an unprecedented threat to national security. He ordered the Justice Department to sue to prevent the New York Times and the Post from publishing the top-secret material. In the movie’s account, this ill-judged if understandable response is equivalent to the official, strategic lies that accompanied tens of thousands of American soldiers to their deaths.
A particularly rich moment comes when Robert McNamara warns Mrs. Graham about Nixon’s capacity for evil. As Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary, McNamara was an early version of Saturday Night Live’s Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar: The Viet Cong are on the run! Yeah, sure, that’s the ticket! As much as anyone, McNamara, with his stupidity and dishonesty, guaranteed the tragedy of Vietnam. And yet here he is, issuing a clarion call to Mrs. Graham. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency, and if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it!” Later Bradlee compares Nixon to his predecessors: “He’s doing the same thing!”
Um, no. From his inauguration in 1969 onward, Nixon’s every move in Vietnam was intended to extricate the U.S. from the quicksand previous presidents had led us (and him) into. In this case, if in no other, Nixon was the good guy. He had nothing to lose, personally, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and maybe a lot to gain. After all, they demonstrated the villainy of his predecessors, not his own. (That came later.)
Yet the movie can’t entertain the possibility that Nixon could act on anything but the basest motives. He is a sinister presence. We see him through the Oval Office window, always alone, with his back turned, stabbing the air with a pudgy finger and cursing the Washington Post to subordinates over the phone. It’s actually Nixon’s voice in the movie, taken from the infamous tapes. Unfortunately, the actor’s movements don’t synchronize with the words; in such a somber thriller, the effect is inadvertently comic. It reminded me of watching the back of George Steinbrenner’s head in Seinfeld while Larry David spoke the Yankee owner’s dialogue. And Nixon was no Steinbrenner.
The most plausible explanation is that Nixon, in trying to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, was doing what he said he was doing: his job. American voters had elected him to protect national security and, not incidentally, the prerogative of the president and the federal government to determine how best to protect it, including determining whether sensitive information should be kept secret. If he didn’t do his job the way voters wanted him to, they could get rid of him next time. You know, like in a democracy.
Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and Stephen Spielberg, not to mention those teary audiences, have no patience with such niceties. As it happens, in the end, the Pentagon Papers were a bust. The sickening detail they disclosed deepened but did not broaden the historical record, and by all accounts their impact on national security was negligible. Those facts don’t alter the creepiness of The Post’s premise—that the antagonists of an elected regime are allowed to go outside the law when it suits their view of the national interest. Charismatic saviors (and few people were more charismatic than Ben Bradlee) can save democracy from itself, but only by ignoring the requirements of democracy. Spielberg continues the tradition of the Washington movie. The Post is Capraesque—in the only true sense of the word.
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Is Harvard assaulting the rights of students to free association in the name of a diversity standard it doesn’t live up to itself?
arvard College is home to six all-male “final clubs.” Their members have access to houses in which they eat, socialize, and form bonds with their fellows. These clubs are as historic as they are renowned; most were formed in the 19th century and have had Kennedys, Roosevelts, and an endless procession of politicians, writers, and businessmen as former members. From the time of their origination, these exclusive institutions have been an object of fascination. When doors are closed, and only a small, elite group selected from an already hyper-elite campus has been invited inside, jealousy, curiosity, and frustration are sure to prevail.
The final clubs are financially independent from Harvard and have been entirely unaffiliated with the university since the 1980s, when the administration and the clubs clashed over the latter’s refusal to admit women. But that conflict, which had cooled over time, has recently resurfaced in a new and heightened manner.
In March 2016 Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, set an April 15 deadline for the final clubs, at which time they were to inform the administration whether they would change course and become co-ed. Two forces drove Khurana’s action. The first was a report by Harvard’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention released days earlier, after years of research. The report indicated that students who were involved with the final clubs were significantly more likely to have experienced some form of assault than those who were not. The second impetus was the administration’s position that the final clubs—and the ways in which they screened members—were in direct conflict with the ethos of the university.
The deadline passed without response from the clubs. On May 6, 2016, Dean Khurana wrote a letter to Harvard President Drew Faust. He proposed that, beginning with incoming freshmen who would matriculate in the fall of 2017, students who became members of what he termed “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” should be ineligible for leadership positions in Harvard organizations—meaning they could not serve as publication editors, captains of sports teams, leaders of theatrical troupes, and the like. And they would also be ineligible for letters of recommendation from the dean, necessary for many prestigious postgraduate opportunities such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Khurana’s letter, and the sanctions proposed within, quickly became a cause célèbre. Harry R. Lewis, a professor of computer science and himself a former dean of the college, wrote Khurana a letter expressing his concern that “by asserting, for the first time, such broad authority over Harvard students’ off-campus associations, the good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity.” Lewis went on to note:
The reliance on your judgement of what count[s] as Harvard’s values, and using that judgment to decide which students will receive institutional support, is a frightening prospect….The discretion exercised by the dean and his representatives will chill the activism of students in causes that might also be considered noncompliant with Harvard standards—for example, advocacy for a religion that does not allow women to be full participants, or a political party that opposes affirmative action. Such groups are excluded from your mandate, but only as a matter of your discretion. Why wouldn’t activism for such organizations color the support the College would offer their members, on the basis that such students are showing that their true colors are not pure Crimson?
Lewis also referenced the faculty’s responsibilities and noted that there was no precedent in Harvard’s Handbook for Students for the sanctions, thus suggesting that Khurana’s proposals might be outside the administration’s jurisdiction.
In September 2016, Khurana detailed the responsibilities of the “Single-Gender Social Organizations Implementation Committee.” The committee was tasked with
consulting broadly with the College community to address the following questions: 1) What leadership roles and endorsements are affected by the policy; 2) How organizations can transition to fulfill the expectations of inclusive membership practices; and 3) How the College should handle transgressions of the policy.
In addition to the committee’s work, the faculty went through several rounds of motions and debate, discussing myriad permutations of the sanctions, as well as the validity of the sanctions themselves.
In December 2017, the discussions came to a halt. Harvard’s administration flatly announced it would engage in sanctions against students who joined those “unrecognized single-gender social organizations,” or USGSOs. This ostensibly final decision has provoked renewed outrage from students, faculty, and alumni, who have grounded their varied objections in ethical, philosophical, and legal concerns.U
ntil the 1960s shattered the American elite consensus on such matters, the collegiate experience was vastly different for students. Universities used to view their role as being in loco parentis—serving in place of the parents from whom their charges had recently separated. Today, on Harvard’s enchanting campus, teenagers and twentysomethings tend to rule the roost. Students have tremendous flexibility in building their course schedules, and rare is the lecture professor who takes attendance. Undergraduates come and go as they please, to and from wherever they please, with whomever they please, from the darkest hours of the night to the earliest hours of the morning.
But from the time America’s colleges came into being in the 17th and 18th centuries until just a few decades ago, these institutions imposed rules and regulations, curtailed freedoms, and designed a microcosmic world in which young adults would—in theory—learn how to navigate the reality that awaited them after graduation. They were eased into the world in a setting that constricted their choices and where the powers that be very consciously, and intentionally, refrained from treating them like adults. This was most evident in the controls placed on contact between the sexes.
A 1989 Harvard Crimson article by Katherine E. Bliss detailed the so-called parietal rules of the 1960s. It noted that “in 1964, the primary goal of College administrators was maintaining ‘an open door and one foot on the floor’ policy for students entertaining guests of the opposite sex in their rooms.” At that time, the student body and the administration were in conflict over the right to do as they pleased in their own dorms: “Students in 1964 were concerned with lengthening the number of hours they were allowed to spend with members of the opposite sex in the privacy of their own rooms.” If this sounds quaint, consider Bliss’s next point. “Few,” she observed, “could appreciate the fact that only a decade earlier, men and women were not allowed to enter the dormitories of the opposite sex at all.”
The original parietal rules meant that the women of Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister college, could have been in the Harvard Houses only between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. Robert Watson, a Harvard dean, explained at the time: “We have to watch the mores of our students. I do not want to see Harvard play a leading role in relaxing the moral code of college youth.” Indeed, he went on to say that “the college must follow the customs of the time and the community.…We cannot have rules more liberal than a standard generally accepted by the American public.”
Is there a single standard generally accepted by the American public today? For most of the country—with exceptions in deeply religious Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities—ours is not an age that concerns itself with the amount of time that men and women spend together in solitude. But that doesn’t mean our era isn’t concerned with the moral development of our youth. On the contrary, leaders of America’s elite institutions today are as preoccupied with strengthening the souls of their charges as were the men who designed the parietal codes all those years ago. Only their aim is not sexual purity anymore, but rather social diversity. It is the heart and soul of the moral vision of our times, and administrators today are no less determined to see that students hew to that standard. But in their effort to serve in loco parentis in this fashion, educators are leaping across ethical—and possibly, legal—lines.
The fraternity-like final clubs have always been difficult to get into, much like Harvard itself. And for many years, the all-male final clubs were certainly characterized by discrimination. In a 1965 piece for the Crimson, Herbert H. Denton Jr., then an undergraduate, noted that while “the tacit ban on Jews has been relaxed in most clubs,” the “ban on Negroes is still in effect.” The same cannot be said today; while several of the final clubs are trying to retain their character by remaining single-gender organizations, they do not screen would-be members on the basis of race or religion.
Nonetheless, the administration has determined that they espouse values and ideas contrary to the Harvard spirit and must consequently be treated as an anachronistic wrong to be extirpated. In a statement issued in December, President Faust (along with William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation) declared that
the final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogenous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different. We self-consciously seek to admit a class that is diverse on many dimensions, including on gender, race, and socioeconomic status.
The clubs have strict rules about speaking with the press, and every member I spoke with—both former and current students—did so on the condition of anonymity. Many brought up the topic of diversity, noting that in their experience, the members of their clubs were diverse in both ethnic and socioeconomic respects. Members of multiple clubs told me about policies under which an inability to pay club dues has no bearing on whether or not a student will be accepted. Indeed, one went so far as to note that the financial-aid offer is blatantly highlighted during the initiation process, so that those lower on the socioeconomic ladder are not even temporarily burdened by the misconception that their financial status might affect their membership.
The final clubs, like Harvard itself, may indeed be a product of another era. But just as Harvard has evolved, the final clubs have changed. Faust, Lee, and all of the actors in the anti-final-clubs camp, ignore this. They also espouse a position that is as illogical as it is incoherent: Faust and Lee claim both that “students may decide to join a USGSO and remain in good standing” and that “decisions often have consequences, as they do here in terms of students’ eligibility for decanal1 endorsements and leadership positions supported by institutional resources.”
Most parents would not believe that their sons and daughters were in “good standing” if they came home from campus for winter break and told them they would be unable to be editor of the newspaper, captain of the debate team, or eligible for a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. Yet Faust and Lee insist that “the policy does not discipline or punish the students.” It merely “recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus.” It’s hard to believe that Faust and Lee might honestly think that excluding students from leadership roles or prestigious postgrad opportunities would be construed as anything other than a punishment.
So why the insistence to the contrary? If the final clubs are, in the administration’s eyes, archaic, narrow-minded, discriminatory organizations, why not come out with an honest statement that calls for disciplining the students who dare to participate in these institutions? Lewis, the former dean, has explained this by making reference to what Faust and Lee do not mention—namely, Harvard’s Statutes—the internal bylaws governing the institution. Lewis cites part of the 12th statute, which lays out that “the several faculties have authority…to inflict at their discretion, all proper means of discipline.” He notes that “by declaring that ineligibility for honors and distinctions are ‘not discipline,’ what President Faust and Mr. Lee are saying is that the Statutes are not implicated, the matter is not one for the Faculty to decide, and no Faculty vote is needed to carry out the policy.” Indeed, Lewis notes that “it is important that the…policy not be discipline, because if it were discipline, and disciplinary action were taken against a student without a Faculty vote authorizing that policy, that student could challenge the action as not properly authorized.”
There is something else the Faust-Lee statement does not reference—and tellingly. In the beginning of the Harvard administration’s war on final clubs, concerns over sexual assault seemed to form the core of the issue. The Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention reported that 47 percent of female college seniors who were in some way involved in final clubs—either because they attend events at the male clubs, or because they themselves are members of female clubs—said they had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.” Since “31 percent of female Harvard seniors reported nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college,” the report said, the data proved that “a Harvard College woman is half again more likely to experience sexual assault if she is involved with a Club than the average female Harvard College senior.” But Harvard’s sexual assault survey also found that 75 percent of “incidents of nonconsensual complete and attempted penetration reported by Harvard College females” happened in…Harvard dorms.
The report is sloppy and lumps together things that are not alike. For example, the Porcellian—Harvard’s oldest final club—does not allow any nonmembers through its doors. Charles Storey, who was then the Porcellian’s graduate president, provided a statement to the Crimson in which, among other things, he claimed that the club was “being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault.” The Porcellian, he said, was “mystified as to why the current administration feels that forcing our club to accept female members would reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus.” Indeed, Storey said, “forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”
A day later, Storey apologized for his statement. A few days after that, he resigned as the Porcellian’s graduate president. His reasoning was admittedly inelegant, as it could be interpreted to suggest that club members would be unable to restrain themselves from committing sexual assault should women enter their domain. But Storey was not incorrect in pointing out that, by definition, women could not be subjected to unwanted touching in the Porcellian clubhouse if they were not allowed inside. For a club like the Porcellian, then, where instances of male-on-female sexual assault within the house are currently nonexistent, going co-ed would inherently guarantee that the opportunity for assault would expand. And that is why it is noteworthy (Storey’s humiliation notwithstanding) that the Faust-Lee declaration eliminated the attack on the final clubs for their ostensibly heightened role in unwanted sexual conduct. And why the entirety of the case against them now rests on their failure to hew to the administration’s convictions on gender egalitarianism.
The role that final clubs play in Harvard social life has been a contentious topic for decades. The perception has long been that socially, the members of Harvard’s male final clubs have too much power. On a campus with limited space for social gathering, the final-club mansions are often the source of the college’s most sought-after nightlife. Arguments have been made consistently over time that the exclusionary practices of the clubs—they typically accept only 10 to 25 new members a year—make for unpleasant and unfair campus social dynamics. But again, this conversation is happening at Harvard, an institution that prides itself on its prestige and exclusivity, and which accepted a mere 5.2 percent of its applicants to the 2021 class.
Lewis, the former dean, is not exactly a natural ally for the clubs. He told me that he was “pretty tough with them” during his tenure, and that he was “instrumental in trying to get some of the bad behavior of some of the final clubs under control.” The issues that arose during his time as dean seem to have mostly been related to parties that grew too loud or students who became too drunk. But confronting specific problems as they arise is an approach entirely different from issuing an all-encompassing sanction on free association. At Harvard, specifically, the implications of such a policy could have long-term ramifications. “As an educational institution that, for better or worse, graduates more than its fair share of the leadership of the country, in both industry and technology, and government and law,” Lewis said, “we should not be teaching students that the way you control social problems is by creating bans and penalties against joining organizations.” His “bigger worry,” he said, is that “students will come to think it’s a reasonable thing to do.”
Beyond all these considerations lies an additional layer of complication: legality. Even as a private institution, Harvard’s autonomy may not be as absolute as it seems to believe. I spoke by phone with Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who is currently representing the Fly, one of the clubs. He told me that “Harvard is misinformed if it has been told by its lawyers or by the office of the general counsel that it can do what it is trying to do, that is to say, punish a private off-campus club, punish Harvard students for joining a legal off-campus club, that is not on Harvard property, and over which the university has no control.” If Harvard goes forward with its plan, Silverglate noted, it will have “overstepped its legal powers.” He spoke extensively about the specific challenges that Harvard would face under Massachusetts state law, explaining that there are free-speech provisions in the Massachusetts constitution that are more protective of speech than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Silverglate noted, the state’s supreme court has ruled in several instances that Massachusetts’s declaration of rights “limits the power of private institutions over the people it governs.”
In its desire to avoid a lawsuit, the Harvard administration—or the team of lawyers that doubtlessly advised it—carefully crafted a rule that would apply equally to men and women. Had the sanctions applied solely to male-only clubs, the university would likely have been faced with a federal lawsuit or investigation into gender discrimination. Yet despite the male final clubs being the primary target of the sanctions, they seem to have done the most harm so far to Harvard’s fraternities, sororities, and female final clubs.
One female student I spoke with is a member of one of the originally all-female final clubs that has recently gone co-ed rather than face the sanctions. She explained that within the club, there is a “feeling of resentment.” The USGSOs were all given the choice to either go co-ed or face the sanctions. “The girls clubs,” she told me, “have accepted it because they don’t have a lot of money.” While the male clubs have old and powerful alumni—and the money that comes with them—the female clubs are young and, by comparison, poor. “The boys can all sue,” she said, but “the girls clubs don’t have that privilege.” Having men in the club has certainly changed things for her. She explained: “It’s definitely different—I loved having an all-female space, and there was lots of merit to that socially and even in terms of networking.… I had this strong female network, and that was kind of eroded by going co-ed.”
Sorority members are facing similar challenges, but unlike the male and female final clubs that do not answer to a national body, they are unable to adapt as they see fit. Sororities and fraternities are unable to go co-ed without violating the rules of their national charters; the sanctions policy therefore affects their organizations most.
I spoke by phone with Evan Ribot, a Harvard alumnus from the class of 2014 who was president of the fraternity AEPI while on campus. Stressing that he could speak only for himself, and not on behalf of AEPI or the AEPI alumni network, he told me there was a “tenuous relationship between the administration and the fraternities” when he was on campus. “There was a sense that we operated in a gray zone because the university knew we existed,” he told me. “So we weren’t underground, but we also were not a recognized group.” As a result of the sanctions, AEPI at Harvard has dissolved itself and become a new organization, the gender-neutral “Aleph.” The organization is no longer affiliated with AEPI national.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “because some of my best friends were looking to join AEPI not because they wanted to be in an exclusionary single-sex organization but because they were looking for a place to fit in on a challenging campus.” The same is true for women: Ribot noted “The sororities were an avenue for women to find their own spaces—not because they were looking to exclude men but because there is an inherent value to a group of women hanging out, just like there can be an inherent value to have men hanging out.… It’s not rooted in exclusion.”
In some circumstances, it appears, Faust agrees. She herself attended Bryn Mawr—a women’s college— and serves as a special representative on the board of trustees of her alma mater. “It is impossible to figure out how Faust can reconcile helping to provide that singular experience to women while at the same time denying any portion of that experience to the women she is responsible for at Harvard,” said Richard Porteus, graduate president of the Fly Club. He graduated from Harvard in 1978 and was elected a member of the Fly Club in 1976. He spoke of the diversity of his club class and reflected that while “there were some people whose names also appeared on Harvard buildings,” he “didn’t come from wealth” and was not only elected to the club but became an officer. Porteus explained that “one’s socioeconomic standing did not matter.” All that mattered, he said, was “the potential for forming life-long friendships.”
The debate over Harvard’s final clubs would have taken place in an entirely different framework if we were still living in a time when university administrators saw their role as fill-in parents—and if that role were viewed as a comfort by the parents themselves. But today’s universities are, for better or worse, largely a free-for-all. The curtailing of certain freedoms thus becomes all the more apparent, and all the more disturbing, when measured against the backdrop of a prevailing “you do you” attitude. The core of the administration’s position seems to be reinforced by an overwhelming need to groom a student body that shares all the same beliefs and values—those that echo the principles that the administration itself espouses. If it deems single-sex social groups discriminatory, then there is no room for those students who see them not as beacons of gender exclusivity but as opportunities for friendship and support. In an educational institution, the only kind of diversity that should matter is diversity of thought. That’s a lesson the Harvard administration desperately needs to learn.
Harvard’s own questionable record on diversity is currently under harsh scrutiny—and not because of the behavior of clubs that have a tenuous connection to the university’s educational mission. Research has demonstrated that to gain entry into an institution like Harvard, Asian-American applicants must score an average of 140 points higher on their SATs than white applicants, 270 points higher than Hispanic applicants, and an astonishing 450 points higher than African-American applicants. The Justice Department has taken note and is investigating the matter. In December, the New York Times reported that the university has agreed to give the DOJ access to applicant and student records. That Harvard’s administration has become consumed with the goal of bringing an end to institutions that fail to meet a 21st-century standard for diversity is not without its savage ironies.
1 Meaning something a dean does.
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Review of 'In the Enemy’s House' By Howard Blum
Nearly a decade would pass until the FBI and NSA began to release the actual Venona transcripts in 1995. In the years since, a number of books (including several co-authored by me) have analyzed the Venona revelations, while others have mined Communist International files and the KGB archives. Virtually all the major mysteries about Soviet espionage in the United States have been resolved by these once-secret documents. In addition to confirming the guilt of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and virtually every other person accused of spying in the 1940s by the ex-spies Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, these books have exposed several important and previously unknown agents such as Theodore Hall, Russell McNutt, and I.F. Stone. Indeed, the only accused spy who turns out to have been innocent (although he was a secret Communist almost up until the day he took charge of developing an atomic bomb) was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
A handful of espionage deniers, centered around the Nation magazine, continue to argue, against all evidence and logic, that Alger Hiss is still innocent. The Rosenberg children continue to distort their mother’s role in espionage. And some hard-core McCarthyites still demonize Oppenheimer. But in truth, the bloody battle over who spied is over.
Lamphere’s book emphasized his collaboration with the Army cryptographer Meredith Gardner in the hard work of unraveling the spy rings using the Venona cables. Employing those 1986 recollections as a template, the Vanity Fair contributor Howard Blum has now given us In the Enemy’s House, an overly dramatized but largely accurate account of the friendship between the outgoing, hard-driving, atypical G-man Lamphere and the shy, scholarly, soft-spoken Gardner as they worked together to find and prosecute those Americans who had betrayed their nation.
Blum intersperses the American hunt for spies with the recollections of Julius Rosenberg’s KGB controller, Alexander Feklisov, who ran Rosenberg in 1944 and 1945 and supervised Fuchs in Great Britain from 1947 to 1949. Feklisov watched with mounting dread as the KGB’s atomic spy networks were exposed, both because of Venona and the KGB’s own blunders—most notably because the Russians used Harry Gold, Fuch’s contact, to pick up espionage material from David Greenglass, who was Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law and part of his spy ring.
Blum also uses information from many of the scholarly accounts that have already appeared, although not always carefully. His only new source of data comes from interviews with members of the Lamphere and Gardner families and access to their personal notebooks. But while he provides a list of his sources for each chapter, Blum does not use footnotes, so that although many of the personal and emotional reactions to the investigation he attributes to people, and especially to Lamphere, presumably come from these sources, it is never clear whether they are based on contemporaneous written notes or third-party recollections of events more than 50 years in the past.
Such objections are not mere academic carping. While Blum successfully turns this oft-told story into an interesting and suspenseful narrative, his approach comes at a cost. For example: He is eager to transform Lamphere from a diligent and resourceful FBI investigator who often chafed at the bureaucracy and petty rules that governed the agency into a full-blown rebel who almost singlehandedly forced the FBI to take up the problem of Soviet espionage. To do so, Blum suggests that until the FBI received an anonymous letter in Russian in August 1943 alleging widespread spying and naming KGB operatives, the Bureau regarded the investigation of potential Soviet spies as useless because allies did not spy on each other.
This is wrong. In fact, the FBI had already mounted two large-scale investigations—one of Comintern activities in the United States undertaken in 1940 and the other of attempted espionage directed at atomic-bomb research at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, which began in early 1943. Both had unearthed information on atomic espionage. These included discomfiting details about Robert Oppenheimer’s Communist connections; efforts by Steve Nelson, a CPUSA leader in the Bay Area in contact with known Soviet spies, to obtain atomic information; and contacts between a Soviet spy and Clarence Hiskey, a chemist on the Manhattan Project.
At one point, Blum renders one of Hiskey’s contacts, Zalmond Franklin, as Franklin Zelman and mischaracterizes him as “a KGB spook working under student cover.” In fact, Franklin was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade working as a KGB courier. In any event, the FBI neutralized this threat by transferring Hiskey from Chicago to a military base near the Arctic Circle, thereby scaring his scientific contacts (whom he had introduced to a Soviet agent) into cooperating with the Bureau.
There are other occasions where Blum demonstrates an uncertain grasp of the history of Soviet intelligence. He misstates Elizabeth Bentley’s motives for defecting; angry at being pushed aside by the Soviets, she feared she was under FBI surveillance. And he claims that only three witnesses testified against the Rosenbergs (Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law and Harry Gold), which leaves off others (Bentley, Max Elitcher, and the photographer who had taken passport photos for the family just prior to their arrests).
Blum’s account of the way the KGB encoded and enciphered its messages is oversimplified. The mistake that made it possible for American counterintelligence to break into the Soviet messages was their intelligence services’ use of some one-use-only pads a second time. Not all of the one-time pads were used twice, and only if such a pad was used twice could the FBI strip the random numbers from the message sent by Western Union. That process allowed Gardner to attempt to break the underlying code. The vast majority of the Soviet cables remained unbreakable, and many could be only partially decrypted. And most of the decrypted cables had nothing to do with atomic espionage but concerned the stealing of diplomatic, political, industrial, and other military secrets.
Partly to heighten suspense, Blum misrepresents or distorts the timelines on matters involving Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenberg ring. He harps on Lamphere’s frustration about not being able to use the decrypts in court, but the FBI had concluded it was highly unlikely that they could be legally introduced into evidence without exposing valuable cryptological techniques, a conflict Lamphere surely understood. That very problem helps explain the FBI’s inability to prosecute Theodore Hall, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos, who had been exposed as a Soviet spy. Blum mistakenly suggests that the FBI agent in Chicago who investigated Hall was unaware of Venona. But that agent did know; the problem was that when the FBI began its investigation in the spring of 1950, Hall had temporarily ceased spying. He was eventually brought in for questioning, but neither he nor his one-time courier and friend, Saville Sax, broke and confessed. Lacking independent evidence, the FBI was stymied.T he most significant flaw of In the Enemy’s House is its assertion that Ethel Rosenberg’s conviction and execution were monumental acts of injustice that disillusioned both Lamphere and Gardner, soured their sense of accomplishment, and left them consumed by guilt. It is true that Lamphere had opposed Ethel’s execution and had drafted a memo that J. Edgar Hoover sent to the judge urging she be spared as the mother of two young sons. Gardner had translated one Venona message that indicated Ethel knew of her husband’s espionage but because of her delicate health “did not work,” which Gardner interpreted to mean she was not part of the spy ring. But, as Lamphere pointed out in his own book, her brother David Greenglass had testified to her involvement in his recruitment. And KGB messages available following the collapse of the Soviet Union now make clear that Ethel had played a key role in persuading her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, to urge her husband to spy.
In The FBI-KGB War, Lamphere never evinced deep moral qualms about their fate. He expressed a more complex set of emotions. “I knew the Rosenbergs were guilty,” he writes, “but that did not lessen my sense of grim responsibility at their deaths.” And he calls claims that the case was a mockery of freedom and justice both “abominable and untruthful.” Blum insists that Gardner was “stunned” by their deaths and quotes him as saying somewhere: “I never wanted to get anyone in trouble” (which would suggest a monumental naiveté if true).
Blum’s claim that Lamphere and Gardner had condemned themselves “to another sort of death sentence” for their roles is a wild exaggeration. So, too, is his charge that Lamphere believed that in the Rosenberg case the United States “might prove to be as ruthless and vindictive as its enemies.”
Finally, Blum links Lamphere’s decision to leave the FBI for a high-level position in the Veteran’s Administration to a sense of lingering guilt. But in his own book, Lamphere attributes the move to the frustration he felt once he realized he would be stuck as a Soviet espionage supervisor for years to come. Blum links Gardner’s brief posting to Great Britain to work with its code-breaking agency as an effort to escape his guilt, but he never mentions that Gardner returned to work at the National Security Agency for many years.
Retired intelligence agents friendly with both men have no recollection of their expressing regret about their role in the Rosenberg case. It is possible that they may have made some such comment to a family member or jotted down something in a notebook, but without very specific and sourced comments, the idea that they ever regretted their work exposing Soviet spies is nonsense that mars Blum’s otherwise entertaining account.
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What we got instead was a combination of celebrity puffery and partisan cheap shots at the Trump administration. The politics of North and South Korea, and the equally complex and intricate relations between these two countries and China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, were reduced to just another amateur sport. Ignorant and supercilious reporters transposed the clichés of the electoral horse race, complete with winners, losers, buzz, and sick burns, to nuclear brinkmanship. Major news organizations could not have done Kim’s job any better for her.
A representative example was written by no less than seven CNN reporters and researchers who concluded, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.” The lead of this news article—I repeat, news article—was the following: “If ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.” Gag me.
Then the authors let loose this howler: “Seen by some as her brother’s answer to American first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kim, 30, is not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.” Kim’s “Kitchen Cabinet”—why, he’s just like Andrew Jackson. And how could anyone have the “perception” that North Korea is “antiquated” and “militaristic”? Sure, they might threaten the world with nuclear annihilation. But have you seen Donald Trump’s latest tweet?
New York Times reporters are either smarter or more efficient than their peers at CNN, because it took only two of them to write “Kim Jong-Un’s sister turns on the charm, taking Pence’s spotlight.” Motoko Rich and Choe Sang-Hun described Kim’s “sphinx-like smile” and “no-nonsense hairstyle and dress, her low-key makeup, and the sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks.” They contrasted the “old message” of Vice President Pence, who has no freckles, with Kim’s “messages of reconciliation.” They cited one Mintaro Oba, a “former diplomat at the State Department specializing in the Koreas, who now works as a speechwriter in Washington.” What they did not mention is that Oba worked at Barack Obama’s State Department and writes speeches for a Democratic firm. Not that he has an axe to grind or anything.
The typical Kim puff piece began with her charm, grace, poise, statesmanship, and desire for unity and peace. Then, 10 paragraphs later, the journalist would mention that oh, by the way, North Korea is a totalitarian hellscape that Kim’s family has been plundering for over half a century. For instance, describing the South Korean reaction to Kim, Anna Fifield of the Washington Post wrote,
They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style. Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect.
A political princess! It’s like Enchanted, except with gulags and famine.
Deep in Fifield’s article, however, we come across this sentence: “Certainly, Kim, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses related to her role in censoring information, was treated like royalty during her visit.” Just thinking out loud here, but maybe human-rights abuses and censorship deserve more than a glancing reference in a subordinate clause. Fifield went on to say that “Vice President Pence, who was also in South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics but studiously avoided Kim, had worried in advance that North Korea would ‘hijack’ the Olympic Games with its ‘propaganda.’” Now where could he have gotten that idea?
The fascination with Kim revealed both the superficiality and condescension of much of our press. Fifield’s colleague, national correspondent Philip Bump, tweeted out (and later deleted) a photo of Kim sitting behind Pence at the opening ceremonies with the comment, “Kim Jong Un’s sister with deadly side-eye at Pence,” as if he were being snarky about an episode of Real Housewives.
When Kim departed the Olympics, Christine Kim of Reuters wrote an article headlined, “Head held high, Kim’s sister returns to North Korea.” Here’s how it began:
A prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half-swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her, a faint smile on her lips and eyelids low as four bodyguards jostle around her.
The Reuters piece ends this way: “Her big smiles and relaxed manner left a largely positive impression on the South Korean public. But her sometimes aloof expression and high-tilted chin also spoke of someone who sees herself ‘of royalty’ and ‘above anyone else,’ leadership experts and some critics said.” Thank goodness for the experts.
Kim Jong Un could not have anticipated more glowing coverage for his sister, for the robot-like cheerleaders he sent alongside her, or for his transparent attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its democratic allies. “North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold,” wrote Soyoung Kim and James Pearson of Reuters, who called Pence “one of the loneliest figures at the opening event.” Quoting on background “a senior diplomatic source close to North Korea,” Will Ripley of CNN wrote an article headlined, “Pence’s Olympic trip a ‘missed opportunity’ for North Korea diplomacy.” But who was Ripley’s source? Dennis Rodman?
What most disturbed me was the difference in coverage of Kim Yo Jong and Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died last year after being tortured and held captive in North Korea. Fred Warmbier accompanied Pence to the Olympics as a reminder of the North’s inhumanity and menace. Journalists ignored, dismissed, and even criticized this grieving man. Among many examples of thoughtlessness and callousness was a Politico tweet that read: “Fred Warmbier criticizes North Korean Olympic spirit.” He must have missed Kim’s freckles.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba asked: “Is Otto Warmbier a symbol, or a prop?” You see, Emba wrote, “Otto’s father may want his son to be a symbol. But the nature of his escort risks turning him into a prop.” Why? Well, because “symbols stand for something” while “props are used by someone.” And “the Trump administration, which hosted Warmbier, is made up of shameless instrumentalizers who have made clear that they stand for very little.” So there you go. We should be skeptical of Fred Warmbier because Trump.
Emba’s not all wrong. There were a lot of props and tools at the Olympics. You could find them in the press box.
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was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six-Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before, and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six-Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two-thirds.
My mother finally found a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives she’d been carrying in her purse for the past several months, relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. Osnat, my mother’s second cousin once removed, had had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. She spoke of having spent five days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as “our dear American Mishpacha” was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel—that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of the land. With some talk of perhaps making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod Airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults, and Peugeots to the beach town of Netanya, where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind the home Osnat shared with her husband, Shlomo.
Days later, I’m with my father and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand, I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder, though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that, too?
When I look up at the wall again, I see some birds’ nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about the cool stuff He does.I
had been born a Jew in Minneapolis. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing any more than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It, too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the “other.”
It’s 1970 and I’m in junior high, on my way to English, when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg, and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the hall. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “Fuck you, faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. H, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
To the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed with alarming speed into the lockers by the three of them. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner, Stuey Nyberg grabs my second cousin, Elaine Kamel, by the shoulders and slams her face-first into her own locker. She and they were selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. H’s shop class this very morning and use it to gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run, but I catch him by his mullet and shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…and my daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyberg says, “Himmelman, it’s your turn to meet the lockers, you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning, he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face, and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m supercharged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God, no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life, I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that, for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation, and we Himmelmans fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a nonstop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days, I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand, Mirage fighter jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead, the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride, I laugh and stare up at the planes as they accelerate and finally rocket out of range.
My father died, after suffering from Stage IV lymphoma for five years, in 1984. I was 25 years old. A year later, I was living in the Twin Cities working on music with my band when I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh. She asked if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature and New Age before anyone had even come up with the term, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 17th-century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a “cherem” by the Dutch Jewish community where he lived and worked. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
The songs were to play off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music was issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success—not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found his way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to his stories and songs of wellness and inner light, rape victims, grief-stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.
Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band, Sussman Lawrence, used to set sail for New York City in 1985.
We were five new-wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking-new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45-minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock-and-roll club, only days after arriving on the East Coast.
Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a band. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real-estate agent named Carol we’d found advertising in a Bergen County newspaper. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were medical students enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and study.
The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, I and my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop and carrying responsible-looking briefcases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof that we were actually who we were claiming to be. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough—“honest enough” to let her know that a few of us were also part-time musicians and that there might be some music playing, quietly of course, from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multihued, invective-laden cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.
Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer-stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire public-address system and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new-wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.
A month after settling in, Ruth Grosh reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band-house collective. After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing, it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving nonsense was about.
Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad had died almost two years before.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.”
“Yeah, it looks great,” I said.
I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died, and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.
She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center, and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband-and-wife psychic tag team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.
“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off.
“The first names are enough,” said the man.
“Okay, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. The two psychics were seated facing each other in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upward in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round the World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment, the corners of both of the psychics’ mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking—open-shut-open-shut—perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good God, the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”
How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.
The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living daylights out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether he wanted to live or die.
I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.
“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”
This seemed to relieve them. The man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence, and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over: “What you need to do is uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”
By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”
“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.
I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release not just the one song, but an entire album dedicated to my father.
The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark Airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.
My bandmates understood this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the ethos of the band may well have been coming to an end. Nevertheless, they played their hearts out on the record and, by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.
The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad, and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.
Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere. It had been two years, after all. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.
While my father was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a different state of mind from that of my friends and bandmates, who were, for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise; it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.
During those years I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.
It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery, we can even become rock stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matter most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made aware of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.
I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar, either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children was born.
The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, some image of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.M
y first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at age 27 were catalytic. A rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it, too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any less miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.
The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place—even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly—is both a liberating and comforting notion. Being attuned to wonder is my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why, then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?
What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before—perhaps couldn’t have known—was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman with whom to create a family and live out my days. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities toward more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman, it will be with my wife. This meant that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though I was, and still am, extremely fond of her, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. In addition, our arrangement was somewhat nebulous, and so this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with the other women with whom I was having casual sex. I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.
It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further by way of metaphor.
Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.
At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound—elemental white noise, if you will—the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, is what sounds the musician chooses to leave behind. In this sense, music comes about not by choosing notes but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this somewhat inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.
Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of B-flat minor while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like a chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principle—creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.
It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.
Most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise passing through the horn.
As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more true must it be for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it) concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful—dare I say mystical—arena of life was something I definitely needed to avoid.
I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.
It was frightening as an adult to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways—as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one that seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. From this moment on, there are things you must do and ways you must act.”
The mantra to live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must, do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star; it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.
So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of: I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.
This part of the story really begins a few months after my dad’s funeral, when I found myself in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’d written for a local performer named Doug Maynard. I sang him a few things and he nodded quietly. Doug wasn’t a big talker. Finally he chose one. “Man, I think I could do this justice,” he said. It was called “My First Mistake.”
You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake.
Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake…
Less than a year later, Doug was found dead in his living room, stone-drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of forty. Before this happened, however, he had introduced me to his manager, who had introduced me to a New York City music lawyer, who had introduced me to a record producer named Kenny Vance.
Kenny had worked with a lot of famous people and he wasn’t particularly shy about mentioning just whom. “I used to date Diane Keaton,” he told me. “I know Woody Allen—been in a couple of his films. I was the music director for Saturday Night Live.” Then he said, “Tonight I’m gonna take you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
Before long, Kenny and I were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. We arrived at an apartment in Crown Heights where Kenny’s friend, Simon Jacobson, greeted us. I liked Simon right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife, Shaindy, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate-covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized table before excusing herself to tend to her young children. The thing I didn’t understand at first was how a big hirsute guy like Simon, in an oversize yarmulke, with a massive beard and in a white polyester button-up, was able to land such a good-looking wife. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest who got the girl. Simon had another thing going for him.
His, at the time, was to memorize every word of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shabbos dissertations and record them on Saturday night for publication later in the week. To understand the scope of the job, it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity. To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t freestyling. Everything he taught was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. And they could not be recorded because it was the Sabbath and no electricity could be used.
When I once mentioned to Simon how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information, he looked at me and said: “The memorization is the least of it. It’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge. Every day I correspond with the Rebbe, and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote and said I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a markup with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘What do you understand?’”
It was getting late. Kenny had left me there and driven back to the city. As Simon spoke to me, I kept looking up at the oil paintings of shtetl life and the Rebbe hanging on the walls. I was prodded more by fatigue than bravado when I finally asked, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? They seem sort of cultish to me.”
“I like the pictures,” he said, “To me, the Rebbe is like a very inspiring grandfather, and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life. There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, and they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.”
“Really,” I asked with just a hint of comic disdain. “Can they fly?”
“Understand, I’ve never seen anyone fly,” Simon answered. “But for a Tzadik, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stunned me. Not because it was new. The things that move us most never are. They are things we already know, beliefs that are buried away inside us. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely no difference between the weights of the two miracles, walking and flight. It’s just that we non-Tzadikim get so tired of the one that happens all the time.
At that moment, at that table in Brooklyn, I started thinking about the little-known rhythm-and-blues singer Doug Maynard. I was remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences—the tendrils, if you will, that in their unfathomable complexity, had guided me to that particular apartment on that particular night. The thought was so vivid, it was as if I could hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sweat, and the pain of this world. It wasn’t long after that I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time. He handed me a bottle of vodka and a blessing for success, and I started becoming more Jewishly observant right away: keeping Shabbos in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, keeping kosher, and putting on tefillin. I married Maria two years later. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it had been like to meet the Rebbe. This is exactly how I answered him.
“You know when you’ve done something you think is horrible (whatever the hell it may be) and you start going down—deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of regret? When you’re in so deep that you start to feel like the biggest loser ever born, like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever gonna come your way, and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. “I’ve been there.”
“Well,” I said, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”