THE twenty-second Zionist Congress met in Basel against a background of tension and violence in Palestine, with the Jewish DP's…
THE twenty-second Zionist Congress met in Basel against a background of tension and violence in Palestine, with the Jewish DP’s still waiting in the de- tention camps-and with a sense of the ur- gency of a settlement of the Palestine ques- tion beyond anything in Zionist history.
The central political issue of the Congress was this: Would the Jews attend the Lon- don Conference called by the British? In the White Paper of 939, the British gov- ernment had declared its intention to discon- tinue Jewish immigration. Now it sought a new official policy for Palestine. In its en- deavor to arrive at that new policy, it had in- THE reports of ROBERT WELTSCH, Palestine journalist, are widely read in many countries, and their fairness and independence have won him respect even among those whose views and loyalties lead them to differing personal judgments about Zionist hopes and realities. This firsthand report on the Basel Congress makes a special effort to clarify the positions of the parties there, and to interpret the basic is- sues at the heart of their conflict. Mr. Weltsch came to Palestine in 1938 and edited two weeklies there, besides contributing to the Pal- estine Post. Previously, he was editor of the Jiidische Rundschau in Germany for almost twenty years. He wrote "Palestine Plans and Counter-Plans" in the October 1946 COMMME- TARY.
vited Jews and Arabs to a conference. The Jews had not attended the first stage of this conference. Would they participate now? The Executive of the Jewish Agency came to the Congress asking authorization to par- ticipate in the London Conference. From unofficial negotiation with both the British and the American governments, the Execu- tive had gained the impression that some compromise could be reached which would give the Jews a considerable part of what they wanted. The magic formula was par- tition, the solution already envisaged in 937.
None thought this solution ideal, and especially not those who preferred that the whole of Palestine be developed in some unitary way, and who regarded statehood as a doubtful and two-edged weapon. But un- der the circumstances partition, with the recognition of a Jewish state in part of Pal- estine, was clearly the only compromise formula with any prospect of success at the Congress. Partition therefore became the watchword of the "moderates" at Basel. This was linked to the idea of a negotiated com- promise settlement and with the demand that the British invitation to the London Con- ference be accepted, as urged by the Ameri- can State Department.
The planned London Conference was a sequel to the Anglo-American Committee of 101COMMENTARY Inquiry and to the joint Expert Committee that produced the proposals known as the "Morrison Plan." In September, the Jewish Agency had said it would attend the Con- ference if two conditions were fulfilled: the liberation of the Jewish leaders detained at that time in Latrun; and acceptance by the British government of the creation of a viable Jewish state in a suitable part of Palestine as the basis for negotiations. The first con- dition was complied with: after some hesi- tation, the British decreed an unlimited amnesty to the Jewish leaders, including those who had not been interned, such as Ben Gurion and Dr. Sneh. As for the sec- ond, the British said they were willing to discuss all counterproposals on an equal foot- ing with their own. This meant that they accepted the Jewish Agency’s proposals "as a basis of discussion," but would not agree to comply with these proposals themselves in advance of discussion-such compliance could only be made by a power defeated on the battlefield.
The Executive of the Jewish Agency, act- ing on its own responsibility, now came to the Congress with the demand that it be authorized to attend the Conference. The issue was very clear and might have been decided in a few days. But it took more than a fortnight of frustration and maneuvering to reach a decision. At the last moment, in the small hours of Christmas Eve, a majority of the Congress voted down participation.
The Congress declared that "in the existing circumstances, the Zionist movement cannot participate in the London Conference." It added, however, that "if a change should take place in the situation, the General Council shall consider the matter and decide whether to participate or not." This was a clear defeat for Dr. Weizmann and the outgoing Executive. According to all established parliamentary custom, it would have been logical for those behind the win- ning resolution to form a new Executive to carry out the new policy. But nothing of the kind happened. The majority that had defeated Dr. Weizmann was made up of in- compatible partners. The Congress was therefore left in a state of confusion and after many hours the nominating committee had to confess that no Executive could be formed. The difficult task was left to the General Council, which is, in fact, a com- mittee of the Congress composed of party representatives in exactly the same propor- tion as the Congress itself.
It took the General Council almost an- other week before it was able to announce "Habemus papam." It did not elect a presi- dent, apparently aware that Dr. Weizmann’s seat could not be filled by just anyone; but after protracted horse-trading between par- ties, it composed an Executive made up of representatives of the three main parties that had formed the previous Executive-Labor (Mapai), General Zionists, and Mizrachi.
These parties represented sharply conflicting views, and so two men were appointed to head each of the important political depart- ments-one yea-sayer and one nay-sayer, as if to paralyze any action whatsoever.
And then, a day or so after the election, a puzzled Zionist world learned from the official spokesmen of the Jewish Agency that there were good chances of the Agency’s attending the London Conference, particu- larly since the majority of the Executive fa- vored such participation! This may seem incredible, but negotia- tion is after all the only alternative to a declaration of "war." So Zionists were now given to understand that the political task was to find some fact that could be interpreted as a "change of circumstances" permitting participation in the Conference. The final decision would be made by a committee of fifteen that would act if the Executive, by a two-thirds majority, voted that a new situation existed, warrant- ing reopening of the question of participa- tion.
T mE Congress could have approached its 1 task with more realism and more dignity.
Most of the plenary sessions were equivalent to mass-meetings. The custom of apportion- ing time for speeches according to the arith- metical strength of the parties concerned, 102THE END OF THE BILTMORE ROAD and of dividing the time quota of each party among all its members, regardless of whether or not they have anything to say, degraded the so-called general debate. Four or five dozens of speakers were called upon; some exhibited their emotions, some repeated their party slogans, some made incidental routine speeches. Not a single speech, with the no- table exception of Dr. Weizmann’s, revealed any greatness of personality or of moral and intellectual understanding.
As for political arguments based on facts and the knowledge of facts, these appeared only in the speeches of the members of the Executive. Among these, Dr. Nahum Gold- mann distinguished himself by his ingenious and penetrating analysis. Many described his speech as the best at the Congress, even those who did not like what he said. Dr.
Goldmann advocated negotiation, Dr. Silver and Dr. Sneh objected to it; but they, too, supported their views with genuine political arguments, not by mere rhetoric. Yet there was no one who could present a searching and critical evaluation of the errors of the past seven years. On the whole; political debate remained on the low level to which it fell after the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff in 1933- It must be understood that it was not the issue of British policy that was at the core of the dissensions in Basel. All Zionists agreed in condemning the White Paper of 1939 and the policy of delay pursued by the British Labor government. The real issue was on the way out of the present deadlock.
Here there were actually only two large groups at the Congress. One side wanted to negotiate with the British because it felt that some compromise would have to be reached in any case. The other side rejected nego- tiation, holding fast to an uncompromising program calling for the establishment of the whole of Palestine as a Jewish state and unabated "resistance" to achieve it.
The Executive of the Jewish Agency, in its so-called "Paris decisions" of September 1946, had agreed to partition. It was as- sumed that partition had at least the backing of the parties which were represented in the Executive coalition-namely Mapai, the Gen- eral Zionists, and Mizrachi. But it soon be- came clear that the situation was not so simple: these parties were split among them- selves.
THE party division of the Zionist move- ment was more sharply evidenced than at any previous Congress. In fact, the Congress split into a series of small congresses, each party deciding main issues in its own cau- cuses and coming to the plenary Congress with foregone conclusions.
The dominating party in the old Execu- tive, and indeed the most powerful factor in Zionism during the last decade or so, was the Palestine Labor party (Mapai). A split in its ranks has tumbled it from its leading position. Despite Ben Gurion’s feverish en- deavors to re-establish unity, internal con- troversy led ultimately to the secession and formation of a rival party, more radical both in its socialism and in its nationalism. At the recent Congress, this new party, known formerly as "Fraction Two" of the Labor party, and now as the "Movement for the Unity of Labor" (Ahdut Avoda), appeared for the first time as a political entity, bring- ing with it a deep animosity toward the old Labor party.
A third labor group, Hashomer Hatzair, likewise appeared at this Congress for the first time in real strength. All attempts to form a united "labor wing" of these three parties failed. This was natural, since their mutual differences revolved precisely on the most important question before the Con- gress-the political one.
Hashomer Hatzair has a clear-cut program calling for the creation of a binational state, with maximal Jewish mass immigration and a socialist order that would unite Jewish and Arab workers (and enjoy the sympathy of Soviet Russia). This party opposed terrorist "activism" as well as the Biltmore program for a Jewish state. As Mapai had proclaimed its support of both, there could be no political cooperation between these two groups. Ah- dut Avoda, the "Unity" party, is for a reso- lute policy of resistance and activism. Its 103COMMENTARY leader, Tabenkin, has for many years advo- cated that Jewish youth in Palestine be trained in the use of the gun. While parents in Palestine have abhorred these theories, they have done nothing to stop them. At the Congress, Hashomer Hatzair opposed all suggestions linked up with partition, and Ahdut Avoda joined the Revisionists in urg- ing activist resistance and opposing participa- tion in the London Conference.
In the first days of the Congress, Mapai seemed to hold the key to the whole situation.
But a violent struggle developed between the activist and moderate wings of that party, and the Congress waited more than a week for Mapai’s decision. At the Mapai meeting held in Palestine a short time before the delegates left for Basel, the activist faction led by Ben Gurion had won a great victory, with only about 20o per cent of the party voting in opposition. But in the meantime, the minority had not been idle. Headed by some of the ablest men in Mapai-among them Eliezer Kaplan, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, and Josef Sprinzak, veteran Labor leader and former member of the Zionist Executive-it published a little pamphlet, Leb’hinat hadereh ("Examining the Way"), giving speeches and articles that sharply re- jected activism. This minority continued its fight in Basel, where it found unexpected support among delegates from other coun- tries. (Thus the American representatives of Mapai, led by Hayim Greenberg and Baruch Zuckerman, joined the group.) After many days and ights, Mapai took a vote, and although Ben Gurion’s activists were still in the majority, their proportion had dropped from 8o to about 56 per cent.
In the meantime, however, the question of activism had become involved with the ques- tion of the movement’s leadership, especially after Dr. Weizmann’s great speech at the conclusion of the general debate. Mapai had been a Weizmann group at the Congresses before the war, and it was not prepared to abandon this loyalty now, knowing what an asset to Zionism Dr. Weizmann has been on the international scene, and realizing his spiritual and moral superiority to other can- didates. But Weizmann was an obstacle to the policy of resistance and non-cooperation that Ben Gurion had advocated even during the war. Ben Gurion now made the pro- posal that Weizmann be appointed "honorary president." The latter immediately declined this honor, deciding to fight the issue out in clear terms. In his reply to the discussion, he gave Congress the choice between fol- lowing him and deserting him-a choice also made clear to his friends in Mapai. When Mapai finally voted, ninety voted for and thirty against Weizmann’s re-election.
Now Mapai had to find a formula that would permit Jewish participation in the London Conference. Without such a for- mula, Weizmann’s reelection was obviously impossible. A resolution was carefully drafted; it contained several conditions, but was generally understood as saying yes to participation-and to partition. It was this resolution that was defeated in Congress, and with this defeat, ostensibly, Mapai’s hege- mony was destroyed.
TE other big party, the General Zionists, was also divided on the main issue. The General Zionists are a conglomerate of very different groups, a kind of catch-all held to- gether chiefly by the fact that its members belong to none of the more clearly defined parties. Their most important section is the American Zionists.
Dr. Silver had become the most widely- known leader of the intransigent wing of the Zionist Organization of America, and he came to the Congress determined to continue his fight against partition and moderation.
Rumors even arose that he came with aspira- tions to the presidency of the World Or- ganization, in succession to Dr. Weizmann -an idea cherished by many who believed that the president of the Zionist Organiza- tion should now be of American, and not British, nationality, and that the offices of the Zionist Organization should be moved from London and Jerusalem to Washington and Paris.
These suggestions did not recommend themselves to the Congress. Once in Basel, 104THE END OF THE BILTMORE ROAD Dr. Silver prudently abstained from pressing his candidacy.
He must also have known that he would have had to engage in rivalry with Ben Gurion. Although their political attitudes do not differ very much-Dr. Silver having adopted Ben Girion’s Biltmore Program (calling for a Jewish state in all of Palestine) and his slogan of "Ma’avak" (Resistance)-a strong personal animosity between the two leaders is apparent. Furthermore, Ben Gu- rion relies on labor and still advocates a socialist Palestine-however vague that con- cept may be-while Dr. Silver is anti-socialist and determined to break labor’s hegemony in Zionism. Therefore, he is supported mainly by the right wing, the nucleus of his party being the ZOA delegates.
Dr. Silver’s was by far the strongest group within the General Zionist Federation.
When that organization assembled in Basel on the eve of the Congress, it seemed, during the first one or two days, that it would split into two halves. But an undertaking was given that its members would not be com- pelled to vote in accordance with caucus de- cisions.
This enabled the Federation to survive formally, although its two halves continued to divide on almost every question.
The majority of delegates from the British Empire, important sections of the American delegation, and many independents from small countries virtually seceded from Dr.
Silver’s group. Hadassah’s whole delegation of twenty-eight members, and several indi- vidual American Zionists-among them men of great weight such as Dr. Stephen Wise, Louis Lipsky, Robert Szold, and others- joined the dissenting half of the General Zionists. But skillful maneuvering prevented this split from reaching full expression, and only on the last two days of the Congress, amid the then prevailing confusion, did these delegates discover, too late, that the situation was irretrievably lost.
It is in any case difficult to say which sec- tion of the General Zionists actually repre- sented the majority. Dr. Silver had to rely strongly on the support of the Revisionists, who applauded him even more enthusiasti- cally than did his own group.
THE reappearance of the Revisionists was perhaps the decisive event of the Con- gress. They had been outside the Organiza- tion for thirteen years and had founded their own "New" Zionist Organization, which be- came the parent of the so-called "dissident" groups, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stem group. Their program called for the estab- lishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan-which would include the pres- ent kingdom of Transjordan. They were the first protagonists of that militant Zionism which had its theorist in the late Vladimir Jabotinsky.
It had always been Ben Gurion’s dream to bring the Revisionists back into the "old" Organization. Now he succeeded. The Re- visionists came back just in time for the Congress elections. They were correct in their assumption that their ultra-nationalist ideas had gained a hold on a large section of the Zionist masses. In fact, the bloody reality of Palestine had become more militant than anything the Revisionists themselves had dreamed of. There was no longer any reason for them to stay outside, and thus they brought a compact group of forty-five votes to the Congress to throw into the balance against every attempt to steer a moderate course.
Mizrachi, the organization of orthodox religious Zionists, has traditionally fought for a very radical political policy at Con- gresses, but in the periods in between their members have usually gone along with the others. Remarkably enough, some of Miz- rachi’s leaders have become more moderate in the last months. Among these new mod- erates was Rabbi Fishman, who had been interned at Latrun and who subsequently changed his mind on the main political issue, advocating negotiation on the basis of parti- tion. But Fishman and his friends remained a minority inside their party, which as a whole voted against participation in the Lon- don Conference. Interestingly enough, the resolution that was finally carried in Con- 105COMMENTARY gress was itself of Mizrachi origin, and was supported by the Silver group, the Revision- ists, and Ahdut Avoda.
Aliya Hadasha was represented at this Congress by five men. Consisting mainly of immigrants to Palestine from Germany and Austria, Aliya Hadasha was the only group in Palestine to have predicted the present confusion-which it foresaw as far back as 1940. At that time, it had warned that ac- tivist propaganda and the anti-British whis- pering campaign must lead to an impasse.
This group opposed both terrorism and the Biltmore phraseology uncompromisingly, but its strength was confined to Palestine, and it had no affiliated groups in America or England to swell its Congress delegation.
Aliya Hadasha had been very much slan- dered in Palestine (as well as abroad), being called a defeatist and even "quisling" group for warning that Zionism could not achieve its aim by a permanent conflict with Britain, and for having advocated finding some way of restoring relations with her. This view had been shared by large numbers in Pales- tine who remained silent because they felt themselves unequal to the ruthless party struggle.
BUT now in the Congress, this view hither- to stigmatized as "defeatist" was openly defended, even by those who had previously denounced it and vilified its exponents. Isaac Gruenbaum, a member of the outgoing Ex- ecutive, had been for many years one of the most vociferous and radical propagandists for the Biltmore program and the philosophy of "struggle." Now he became a convert to the moderate policy and arose to warn the Con- gress not to lose its sense of reality. It was one of the most dramatic moments of the Congress when Dr. Gruenbaum interrupted his former pupil, Dr. Sneh, who was speak- ing for a policy of resistance and physical struggle, and accused him of indulging in dangerous and irresponsible talk. Is struggle an aim in itself? Must not every struggle one day be terminated by negotiations? And can we provoke the British indefinitely? These questions were not asked by one of the "defeatists" of Aliya Hadasha, but by Dr. Gruenbaum.
The events of the last half year have af- fected many more people than Isaac Gruen- baum. The turning point was the 2 9 th of June, the day when the Government occu- pied the building of the Jewish Agency and arrested its leaders. This incident put an end to the theory of "lo yaezu" ("they won’t dare"), frequently cited at Congress debates and preached in Palestine for many years by some Labor leaders, among them the late Berl Katznelson and Ben Gurion, both highly influential, especially among the youth. This theory held that Britain would not dare to take real and effective military measures against the Jews because such steps would arouse the conscience of mankind and alienate public opinion. This view was strengthened when for more than a year the British reaction to Jewish acts of violence, even those involving the deaths of soldiers and civilians, was confined to the proclama- tion of curfews, and to police action that was almost always without result. The curfew, while inconvenient, could not be considered a ruthless check on acts of violence. Some- times strong words of condemnation were heard in Parliament-after the assassination of Lord Moyne, for instance, or after the murder of seven sleeping soldiers in Tel Aviv-but no serious reprisals were taken.
When this confidence in the passivity of the British was shaken on the 2 9 th of June, a great part of the Yishuv was honestly in- dignant that the British had abandoned their assigned role. But it became manifest at the Congress that the eyes of many Palestinian Jews had been opened.
One of the leaders of the moderate wing in Mapai wrote on the eve of the Congress: "After all the demonstrations of our power to commit acts of violence,-we have achieved no political success. True, the actions were carried out with considerable military and technical skill. But I must assert-and I don’t know whether it is or is not pleasant to hear -that they were successful from the military point of view only because the other side did not react. Until the 9 th of June, the ob- 106THE END OF THE BILTMORE ROAD jective situation was that we did what we wanted and the reactions from the other side were few and weak. There were people among us who regarded this as a sign that the British would not react at all. We have lived with the British for twenty-five years and have not yet learned that they are not hasty in their reactions. In this point they differ from Germans or Russians. But after- wards they react in the same way as other nations…. The situation changed funda- mentally on the 2 9 th of June" (Pinhas Lu- bianiker in Leb’hinat Hadereh).
The opponents of activism presented many moral and political arguments at Basel, but it was this point that seemed to be decisive.
The Congress was like a parliament con- fronted with the question of declaring war.
It was no longer enough to reiterate the justice of one’s own claims; one had also to take into account the strength of the oppos- ing military forces and the possible outcome.
In the face of this grim problem, it began to be asked whether Zionism actually was in such a desperate situation that it had noth- ing to lose if it declared for "war." The warning against the risks of "war" came first from Dr. Weizmann himself. His speech at the conclusion of the general de- bate was one of the greatest in Zionist his- tory, and was the one event of moral and spiritual greatness at this Congress. It is difficult to overrate the immense catharsis experienced by everybody when Dr. Weiz- mann intervened after so many days of squabbling. But, as always, Dr. Weizmann earned much admiration but few followers.
THIs Congress revealed, perhaps for the I last time, the "Weizmann problem" that has been at the core of Zionist history for the last twenty-five years. All this time the move- ment has lived in the shadow of latent or open conflict between its leader and the Zionist parties. The situation revealed in I947 could be seen in 92I, and at all the Congresses between these dates. Weizmann’s position as a leader is unique. He has steered the Zionist ship through the rough seas of political reality; he knows what is possible and what is not, and he tells Congress the plain truth. But Congress does not want to listen, and rejects his views and his policy.
Yet in the end, it elects Weizmann again.
It has done this for twenty-five years, with the notable exception of I931, when it al- lowed itself the luxury of turning him out for four years.
What Weizmann has done at all the Con- gresses, and what he did again in Basel, is one simple thing: he stated facts. And the Congress, still upholding the tradition of a messianism living in a world of dreams, did not like facts. One of the facts he recalled is that of the smallness of Palestine (". . . be- cause Joshua stopped at the Jordan and did not lead our forefathers to America"). An- other is the presence of more than a million Arabs in Palestine, which naturally sets limits to Jewish expansion. He also recalled that the Jewish interpretation, according to which the Balfour Declaration granted Pal- estine to the Jews as their national home, was never accepted by the world, and that the Declaration explicitly promised no more than a Jewish Home in Palestine.
Therefore, all we can claim, in accordance with the Balfour Declaration and with present realities, is a Jewish state in a part of Palestine.
The second point Weizmann tried to con- vey to Congress-and he has tried many times before-concerns the methods of poli- tics. Politics is sometimes a very hard and distasteful job. It requires responsibility and caution, patience and understanding and quick exploitation of any chance, and a con- stant awareness of the possibility of failure.
If you lose patience and indulge in emotions and violence, then you can easily jeopardize all chance for success. It is not true, Weiz- mann said, that England wants to liquidate Zionism. On the contrary, the Churchill government had prepared a plan of partition which followed the proposals of the 937 Peel Report and which granted the Jews a state in a part of Palestine. This plan died with the murder of Lord Moyne. Zionism was indeed lucky that this crisis passed without more serious consequences. If the 107COMMENTARY British wanted to liquidate Zionism, as Dr.
Sneh had alleged with Dr. Silver seconding, their determination might well have been strengthened by many things that had hap- pened in Palestine during the last year and by many things that Dr. Sneh said in Basel.
The most important part of Weizmann’s speech was his powerful refutation of terror.
Other speakers had also condemned terror- ism, but ambiguously; they generally referred to the terrorist gangs as "dissenting groups." Even those who recommended "resistance" could thus speak against the "dissenting groups" without disavowing their principles, for it was against the "dissension" from the discipline and jurisdiction of the elected national bodies that they turned their wrath, and not against the criminal acts themselves.
But Weizmann alone made it unequivocally clear that resistance is indivisible, that you cannot preach resistance and at the same time condemn its results.
WrEzMaMNN lost. The Congress had a clear activist majority. Not only were the Revisionists, the Mizrachi, the Silver group of the General Zionists, and the Ahdut Avoda-the bloc that defeated participation in the London Conference-in favor of "re- sistance" as the only alternative policy, but Hadassah, too, supported it. And, most important of all, the Ben Gurion wing in Mapai remained predominant. The activism of Mapai went so far that the party finally decided to join only an "activist" Executive.
Ben Gurion was ostensibly defeated when the resolution on the London Conference proposed by his party was rejected by Con- gress. But he was in fact the victor. And the widespread view that the Congress de- cision was an "American" victory also does not correspond to the facts. For on the one hand, while American influence was indeed very strong in the General Zionist and Miz- rachi groups, many Americans, including such men as Stephen Wise, Louis Lipsky, Robert Szold, Louis Levinthal, and the whole Hadassah fraction, dissented from the ma- jority’s policy, and within the Mapai all the Americans held a moderate line. On the other hand, the policy of Dr. Silver and his associates did not originate in America.
Not Dr. Silver, but Mr. Ben Gurion in- vented the Biltmore program and the "Ma’avak" slogan. And it was the Palestinian Executive that flooded the whole American continent with shlichim, officers of the propa- ganda machine, and persuaded Jewish public opinion that this particular line was required under the circumstances. This flood of prop- aganda was unchecked. Dr. Weizmann was silent during the war. It is to be regretted that he did not deliver earlier the unmistak- able criticism of the Biltmore policy which he gave at this Congress, when it was too late.
The Congress did not solve a single prob- lem. The second stage of the Palestine Con- ference is just beginning in London as these lines go to press. There are still the Arabs, there is still Britain, there is still Palestine’s geographical and strategical position, there is still the clash of two nationalisms and the necessity of a compromise. In spite of all the shouting, it may be assumed that the Zionist world is finally becoming aware of these facts. And it is to be hoped that the new Executive will accept a reasonable set- tlement if it is offered.
But then there still remains the very seri- ous question of whether the "dissident" groups will acquiesce, or whether the new Jewish government will be confronted with a Jewish revolt. This internal question may turn out to be more important for Jewish history and Jewish destiny than all the reso- lutions of Zionist congresses.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The End of the Biltmore Road
Must-Reads from Magazine
A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.