Why did an outspoken Jewish novelist win a major literary prize in increasingly anti-Semitic Britain?
The British writer Howard Jacobson was so astonished when his latest novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize—the most prestigious award for fiction in the English language—that he asked the BBC interviewer who introduced her segment on the award if she could please repeat her opening phrase, “Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize.”
Jacobson is, in his public persona at least, one of Britain’s most likable literary and media figures. It is a testament to his popular success as a genial but demanding presenter of TV arts programs that the reaction to his literary triumph has been so overwhelmingly positive. For as amiable as he might be, Jacobson fearlessly broke with the politics of the literary and arts world by decrying the ascent of acceptable anti-Semitism in Britain and, even more bravely, made it clear that fashionable anti-Zionism is just a gussied-up version of the older hatred. Indeed, these themes are at the center of The Finkler Question, which is why his victory was so unexpected, not only to him but to everyone else as well. The fact that he was given the Booker the same month that Nobel judges in Sweden named Mario Vargas Llosa the literature laureate and Nobel judges in Norway gave the Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao the Peace Prize makes you wonder if Northern Europe has somehow slipped out of joint—and high above London, Stockholm, and Oslo, swallows are now dining on eagles.
After all, Jacobson was up against formidable competition—including the anti-monarchist Australian two-time winner Peter Carey, the conceptual artist Tom McCarthy, and especially the Anglo-Caribbean Andrea Levy. Her latest book, The Long Song, tells the story of a slave girl born on a 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation—a subject that could hardly be bettered as Man Booker Prize bait.
Although it is not unheard of for the Booker to go to a genuinely deserving work, it often seems as if the primary concern of Booker jurors is to choose a book that will make them look good according to the prejudices of their peers. Hence the urge to give the prize to exotics from outposts of the former empire, authors of victim narratives, and/or persons of color. Every few years, however, the Booker goes to some older white guy from the British Isles, as if to prove that the process is not totalitarian in its political correctness. The last of these, John Banville, won it for The Sea in 2005 at the age of 60. At 68, Jacobson is the second oldest.
Jacobson claimed his prize as a victory for comic writing. Indeed the Guardian newspaper stated that The Finkler Question was “the first unashamedly comic novel” to win the prize—a somewhat bizarre claim given the previous victories of Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and several others, including Paul Scott’s Staying On.
In any case, Jacobson and the Guardian are both wrong in their characterization of The Finkler Question. Like Jacobson’s masterpiece Kalooki Nights, first published in 2006, the new novel is far too dark and serious in intent to be called an “unashamedly comic novel.”
The book tells the story of three London men who have been friends since two of them were schoolboys and the third was their history teacher. Samuel Finkler is a TV intellectual who writes philosophically inspired self-help books of the Alain de Botton sort, with titles like The Existentialist in the Kitchen. His Gentile school chum and rival, Julian Treslove, spent most of his career at the BBC, an institution he loathes, and now ekes out a living as a celebrity look-alike. Both were taught at school by Libor, a Jewish Czech émigré who has remained their friend for more than two decades.
Finkler is clever, driven, selfish, greedy, cynical, ruthless, and obsessed with worldly success—exactly the sort of person who thrives in TV and a rather dismaying model of a certain kind of secular Jew. The fact that Treslove calls Jews “Finklers”—and assumes that his friend’s personality quirks are “Finklerish”—is disturbing, though Treslove also sees Libor’s Mittel-European cultivated gracefulness and emotional intensity as typically “Finklerish.”
The incident that ignites the pilot is the peculiar mugging from behind of Treslove by a woman who says something in his ear that sounds like “You Jew.” Though he also wonders if his attacker could have been an ex-lover whispering “You, Jules” or have simply said “your jewels,” this fundamentally humiliating experience makes him suddenly aware of anti-Semitism and prompts him to delve deeper into the mysteries of Jewish identity and culture. Soon he is exploring salt beef sandwiches, klezmer music, Maimonidean musings on the effects of circumcision on sexual performance, and begins to date the founder of a new Jewish museum.
When he talks to Finkler about all this, he is patronized. Treslove recounts a long list of (real) violent anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and elsewhere, and Finkler responds, “I’m not saying it makes pleasant listening, but it’s not exactly Kristallnacht is it?”
Finkler has long been hostile to Israel; he has declared on the radio that he is ashamed of his co-religionists there and joined a group of prominent creative folk called ASHamed Jews that supports the creative and fiscal boycott of the Jewish state. This action repels Finkler’s dying wife: “I’m ashamed of your public display of shame and I’m not even Jewish.” She knows that his motivation is self-serving: not only does Finkler enjoy “the warm glow of self righteousness” that comes from saying the word “justice”; he thinks that joining the group is good for his career.
Only when, during the 2009 Gaza campaign, the press starts talking hyperbolically about “massacre” and “slaughter” does the philosopher in Finkler begin to have doubts about the group and its cause. Even as he does so, his comrades—several of whom seem based on real-life Jewish figures in the London media and academic scene—become even more hysterical in their denunciations of Israel.
Throughout the book there are discussions, arguments, and jokes—some of them daring to the point of offensiveness, others very bleak indeed—about Jewishness and Jewish identity. Finkler’s wife asks the increasingly obsessive Treslove if he doesn’t wish that Jews would just “shut up about themselves….Endlessly falling out in public about how Jewish to be, whether they are or they aren’t, whether they’re practicing or they’re not, whether to wear fringes or eat bacon, whether they feel safe here or precarious, whether the world hates them or it doesn’t, the fucking Holocaust, fucking Palestine?”
Treslove answers no. But then he fits in all too well with one of Finkler’s definitions of Jewishness—he is someone who is always “talking feverishly about being Jewish.”
Though Jacobson cracks wise throughout the book, “comic” really isn’t the correct descriptive for The Finkler Question, especially given its sense of approaching darkness. This makes all the more strange how readily he and others think it is. But then the response to Jacobson’s fiction has always been strange. Jacobson started publishing fiction at the relatively late age of 40. Born in a working-class Jewish area of Manchester in 1942, he was educated at Cambridge at the feet of the critic F.R. Leavis and then embarked on a career as a literature professor with positions at Cambridge and Sydney University in Australia before settling at the equivalent of a community college in the grim midlands town of Wolverhampton. It was the latter experience that inspired his first novel, Coming from Behind (1983), after which he began writing full time. He turned two widely praised works of nonfiction—Roots Shmoots: Journeys Among Jews and Seriously Funny: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime—into successful television series.
Jacobson’s novels come in two types: erudite autobiographical works that draw on his childhood in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Manchester and erudite autobiographical works about middle-aged sex and adultery among the academic and literary upper middle class.
The first set depict a pinched, insular community psychologically deformed by the shtetl life from which its residents emerged and then re-created in English cities. Living in perpetual, irrational fear that the “yocks”—a British-Jewish slang term for Gentile far nastier than “goy”—might one day form a drunken mob and attack the neighborhood, its inhabitants tend to turn to Orthodoxy or quasi-religious leftist politics. The hothouse intensity of their family life breeds misery. Theirs is such a depressingly graceless, incurious, and cramped existence that any reader could be forgiven for feeling the stirrings of an aesthetic anti-Semitism within his breast.
The books set in modern upper-middle-class London tend to be more lightweight. They include Act of Love (about an antiquarian bookseller who becomes obsessed with the idea of watching his wife betray him) and No More Mr. Nice Guy (about a TV writer who is kicked out by his porn-author wife and then masochistically revisits the sexual milestones of his life). All Jacobson novels share an obsession with sex—which helps explain the common likening of his work to that of Philip Roth, with whom he does share a certain puerility on such matters.
In the books that draw on his childhood, the sexual material can verge on the creepy. It is not just a matter of the usual Oedipal impulses. The protagonist in The Mighty Walzer—arguably his least entertaining book, about a teenage ping-pong champion—spends hours in the bathroom masturbating to sepia pictures of his long dead great aunts and cousins. But the ping-pong player’s obsessions are relatively bland compared with those of Maxie Glickman, the protagonist of Jacobson’s dark masterpiece Kalooki Nights. As a teenager, Maxie pleasures himself to a book called The Scourge of the Swastika—specifically, to photographs of naked Jewish women being inspected in a concentration camp. He is also erotically obsessed with Ilse Koch, the notorious SS wife who came to be known as “the bitch of Buchenwald.” Portnoy seems a paragon of psychosexual health by comparison.
Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind, is about a small, sweaty, hairy, neurotically lustful English literature professor called Sefton Goldberg whose overheated erotic yearnings at a miserable provincial college get him into comic scrapes. Like so many small, sweaty, hairy, neurotically lustful Jacobson alter egos, Goldberg is unathletic, unmoved by nature, argumentative, masochistic, and self-obsessed. Again and again in the book, Jacobson explains these and other quirks with the phrase “because he was Jewish,” as if he assumes that none of his readers will have seen a Woody Allen movie and as if he himself believes that Jewish stereotypes of Jews are inherently cute and funny.
In Britain, Jacobson’s fiction is always said to be “underrated” and “hilarious.” Paperback editions of works like The Mighty Walzer are garnished with blurbs by famous writers proclaiming the sidesplitting nature of the contents within. But there are more laughs in any single book by, say, Tom Sharpe—a popular comic novelist without literary pretensions—than in all of Jacobson’s oeuvre put together. And it is hard to see how Jacobson is underrated. If anything, his early books are radically overrated.
Indeed, one sometimes feels that the critics who make such a point of laughing at Jacobson’s capering, neurotic, lust-tormented, uncomfortable Jewish characters are doing so because they are enjoying how ungenerous he is with his creations. Jacobson’s stand-in protagonists are hyper-aware of stereotyping and hypersensitive to it; they agonize about the meaning of Jewishness and the competing contradictory currents of secular Jewish identity. But these clever, libidinous, disputatious men are not always as sympathetic as they are intended to be, and their dexterous anatomization of lower-middle-class Jewish life as it was might make it seem uglier and more graceless than it could possibly have been.
Jacobson’s observations about his Jews don’t always ring true to American ears, as when the narrator of Kalooki Nights announces that “most ethnic troubles in most schools originate in geography or PE. They do for Jews, anyway, who can neither draw a map nor hang upside down from a wall bar. The two deficiencies are not entirely unrelated. Jews cannot draw a map nor negotiate a wall bar because they have seldom had any use for either.” The gym joke is old and the map joke is off; given how often and how far the Jews have traveled after various expulsions, it’s hard to believe they traditionally have little geographical sense. For Jacobson, “Jews” really means the shtetl Jews of Russia and Poland and their immediate descendants in England, and not much else. This fact, and the clichés that emanate from it, may explain why until now his books have failed to make a good impression across the Atlantic.
Another reason is that America is perhaps too philo-Semitic to be intrigued or amused by the kind of parochial British Jewishness that Jacobson celebrates and laments. As he himself notes, America is much more Jewish than Britain is. African-Americans, Hispanics, and WASPs alike unselfconsciously use “tush” and “shmuck” in conversation. Moreover, American Jewry has arguably become much more variegated than its much smaller British equivalent (the community is only 260,000 strong). America has Hells Angels Jews, tall Jews, surfing Jews, right-wing Jews, preppy Jews, baseball-playing Jews, country and western Jews, Green Beret Medal of Honor Jews, as well as more familiar shnooky, nerdy, Jappy, fearful, materialistic, klutzy, brainy, urban, funny, lawyerly types of Jew.
Jacobson’s books are aimed at and grow out of a society that never produced or embraced a Mel Brooks or a Lenny Bruce. As Jacobson’s alter ego Max says in Kalooki Nights, “somehow English Jews have had all the rudery squeezed out of them.” It is one of the paradoxes of the comparative history of Jews in Britain and the United States that British Jewry tends to be less assertive. There is nothing like an AIPAC or an Anti-Defamation League in the UK; their pallid equivalents are small, underfunded, and have little influence.
For these reasons, it might be difficult for American readers to appreciate just how courageous Jacobson has been as an opponent of the vicious anti-Israel discourse now so common in the United Kingdom. He has done so not only in The Finkler Question but in his role as a weekly columnist for the Independent, the most ferociously anti-Israel (and anti-American) of all Britain’s mainstream papers. It frequently devotes its front page to the bigoted rantings of the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. One of its star columnists is an exceptionally nasty and dishonest youth called Johann Hari who, commenting on Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008, wrote that whenever he tried to write positive or reassuring words about that country, “a remembered smell fills my nostrils, the smell of shit.” Hari’s article went on to accuse Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian land and drinking water with untreated sewage. That same year Hari, who specializes in smearing his targets as “racists” and who claims that his own critics are part of a McCarthyite conspiracy “sent” to “intimidate and silence” anti-zionists like himself, won a prestigious prize for political journalism named after George Orwell, a travesty that is almost comic in a dark Howard Jacobsonesque way.
Jacobson took his most widely noted and controversial stand during the Gaza campaign of 2009, when, in the course of a brilliant Independent piece on the vicious dishonesty of likening the Gaza assault to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, he also denounced the anti-Semitism of a play by the long-fashionable playwright Caryl Churchill.
Churchill’s short play Seven Jewish Children—not Seven Israeli Children, as Jacobson noted—culminates in an Israeli character’s racist monologue rejoicing in the slaughter of Palestinian children: “they’re animals…I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out…we’re chosen people.” An appalled Jacobson wrote: “Once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple.”
He further noted that the Guardian’s theater critic Michael Billington had praised the play for showing “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians.” The use of the eugenic word “bred” led Jacobson to observe “how easily language can sleepwalk us into bigotry.”
In this column and in countless others, Jacobson has proved a uniquely calm and effective voice when it comes to exposing the assumptions, prejudices, and lies embedded in the rhetoric of people like Churchill and her supporters. He understands the culture of the liberal metropolitan media elite because he is a part of it. Not for him the tired old defenses of Israel that take no note of the unyielding moral universe of its Western foes. The battle and others like it are brilliantly evoked by The Finkler Question, which dissects the motivations of the London Jews who have joined or taken leading roles in the British movement to delegitimize Israel. Jacobson’s ASHamed Jews are not consumed by self-hatred but self-congratulation. Some have found a new form of religion and identity in their association with the BBC or other institutions of Britain’s media elite. Others are proving their assimilation. Still others are trying to destroy “the thing they loved for fear of its falling into the enemy’s hands” or merely engaging in traditional Jewish inter-tribal warfare.
The force of Jacobson’s column mirrors the growth of his work as a novelist. It is only in the past five years that Jacobson has produced fiction truly commensurate with his talent and ambition. The Finkler Question and Kalooki Nights are so superior to anything Jacobson has written before—richer, deeper, more important—that it is almost as if he has been awakened creatively by the threat posed to both Israel and the Jews by the efforts to delegitimize both. His arrival as a genuinely great British novelist is perhaps the only good thing to have come from the eruption of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom. Surely one of Jacobson’s own rueful and neurotic narrators would have to acknowledge that it would have been better for Britain and the world if circumstances had allowed Howard Jacobson to remain just a relatively minor literary navel-gazer rather than a fearless speaker of truth on behalf of a people under a systematic cultural assault.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The Howard Jacobson Question
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?