Haaretz, the Jewish state’s most renowned newspaper, is also its most committed adversary.
On April 2, an Israeli court convicted a member of the Palestinian security forces of the murder of 25-year-old Asher Palmer and his one-year-old son, Yonatan. The assailant had thrown a large stone through the windshield of Asher’s car, causing a fatal crash. By chance, that same day the West Bank settlement Yakir honored an Arab medic who had saved the life of a two-year-old girl after her mother’s car crashed in a similar stoning incident. The following morning, an Israeli newspaper carried a column by one of its star journalists implying that of the two Arabs connected to the crimes, the killer was the one who had acted properly while the medic was a sell-out.
According to the column, “throwing stones [at Israelis] is the birthright and duty” of Palestinians. This right, although perhaps not the duty, belonged not only to Palestinians living “in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, but also within Israel’s recognized borders.” Fulfillment of the Palestinian “right and duty” was lagging, the columnist lamented, because it was insufficiently encouraged by Palestinian officials due to “inertia, laziness, flawed reasoning, misunderstanding and…personal gains.”
The newspaper that carried this column was Israel’s most prestigious: Haaretz. Like the New York Times or Le Monde or the prestige newspapers of many other Western countries, it is left-of-center. But Haaretz is more politically engaged than any of them. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, approvingly calls it “easily the most liberal newspaper in Israel and arguably the most important liberal institution in [the] country.”
That Haaretz is critical of the government is an old story: “Golda Meir once said that the only government that Haaretz ever supported was the British Mandate,” Remnick wrote. But since the early 1990s, when management of the paper was assumed by Amos Schocken, it has moved further to the left—so much so that it has made itself a liability to the ceaseless struggle for survival of “the land” that its name evokes.
The author of the column exhorting stone-throwing was Haaretz’s leading correspondent in the Palestinian territories, Amira Hass. Her writings, together with those of two other reporter-columnists, Gideon Levy and Akiva Eldar, constitute the paper’s signature. Hass has chosen to make her home among the Palestinians for the better part of two decades; three years in Gaza, the balance in Ramallah. In a profile in the Independent, the sharply anti-Israel Robert Fisk adulated: “Amira Hass is among the bravest of reporters, her daily column in Haaretz ablaze with indignation at the way her own country, Israel, is mistreating and killing the Palestinians. Only when you meet her, however, do you realize the intensity—the passion—of her work.”
The passion, as she explains in a memoir, was imbibed with her mother’s milk: “My parents’ memories [were] told to me since my childhood and absorbed by me until they became my own….Holocaust survivors, Communists, southeastern European Jews living in Israel….My parents’ heroes were my heroes; the scenes engraved on their memories were stored in mine.” Her mother survived Bergen-Belsen, and Hass sees some kind of analogy in the plight of the Palestinians. She explains the core motivation of her work is to avoid indifference to suffering such as her mother observed in German women toward the plight of Jewish prisoners.
Her use of the expression “southeastern European Jews living in Israel”—rather than, say, “Romanian-born Israelis”—is not accidental. Her Communist parents’ refusal to embrace their new land was sufficiently demonstrative for Amira to grasp at a young age. “I was five when I asked them why they had come to Israel; after all, they had never been Zionists,” she writes. Even as the world changed, they apparently never reconsidered their ideological position, and she has remained as faithful to it as they did. She told Remnick in 2011: “I was what you call a ‘red-diaper baby.’ My tribe is Leftists, not liberal Zionists.” And as if to underscore the constancy of her views, she added a gratuitous swipe at a leading symbol of the Israeli peace movement—David Grossman, perhaps Israel’s foremost novelist. “David Grossman and the rest are always waking up too late. That is their hallmark—understanding too late.”
While taking a dim view of Israelis, Hass feels profound admiration for Palestinians. She contrasts the two peoples:
The Palestinians are heroes….To live this way and remain sane—that’s heroism….[T]he Israeli dictatorship over the Palestinians…is the champion of self-righteousness and arrogance [and] hypocrisy….Instead of going crazy with rage, the Palestinians know that these characteristics will hurt the Israelis themselves.
Anyone who has been harmed by the Israeli dictatorship feels alone, weak, angry and desperate. But every [Palestinian] family in its own way cultivates its humanity.
Every family? Given the hundreds of documented cases of “honor killings”; of murders of alleged “collaborators,” usually without proof; of killings and torture of Fatah members by Hamas and vice versa; given, too, the notorious brutality of the Palestinian security forces; the lionization of suicide bombers and others who take the lives of Israeli civilians; and the mass, spontaneous demonstrations of joy over the news of the September 11 attacks on America—given, in short, the abundant displays of egregious inhumanity, one can only conclude that Hass sees what she wants to see or what her ideological blinders lead her to see. This is not a sound qualification for a journalist.
Unsurprisingly, Hass’s reports have been challenged many times on the facts, often for taking Palestinian accounts at face value and also for twists of her own invention, as in her references to “Jewish-only roads” in the West Bank. There are no “Jewish-only” roads. Due to terrorist attacks, some West Bank roads are restricted to cars with Israeli plates, but these are open to all Israelis including Arabs and other non-Jews. Barring Palestinian vehicles from certain arteries may be harsh, but it is not racist, as Hass wanted readers to believe.
The second of the paper’s trio of columnists, Gideon Levy, boasts that “Noam Chomsky once wrote to me that I was like the early Jewish prophets.” But whereas the prophets’ hallmark was righteousness, and their goal was to summon Israel back to the true path, Levy’s hallmark is self-righteousness, and the Israel he describes is beyond redemption.
He numbers himself among “the lone few keeping the flickering flame of humanity burning” in the country, who for their pains are “accused, convicted and punished.” Naturally, he rages against the political right; but its members are not alone in villainy. “The political ‘center’ is hollow and imaginary,” he writes. “The damage they do is no less serious…they are accomplices to a crime.” Israelis, he believes, are suffused with “racism.” If they reject this characterization, that is only because “most Israelis…are masters of the lie, denial and repression.” They “deflect their fears and woes onto the foreigner….That’s how it was in Europe in the 1930s, and that’s how it is with us now.”
Israel, in other words, is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. And if the country appears to be a democracy, that’s not because its people want it to be one. What Levy believes Israelis really want is to live in George Orwell’s 1984:
Let us imagine the dream-country of most Israelis—without criticism, neither from within nor from without. It speaks in one voice and is eternally united, with devotion and cohesion; all-Jewish, that goes without saying. It stands unanimously behind its government….There [are] no human rights organizations or peace movements, no nonprofit associations and no critical reports that are published here, or, heaven forbid, abroad. Its press never criticizes, never exposes, never investigates, publishing nothing but praise and admiration for the government and the state.
The pro-Israeli media-monitoring group, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), has documented numerous factual errors in Levy’s reporting. He tripled the number of Palestinian casualties on one occasion, halved the number of Israeli victims on another, characterized Hezbollah fighters as “civilians” on another, and so on. Late in 2012, Levy embarrassed himself and his newspaper with a story that, in his telling, confirmed his dark take on Israelis. Haaretz carried a page-one headline: “Survey: Most Israeli Jews Support an Apartheid Regime in Israel.”
According to Levy’s report, 58 percent of Israeli Jews “already believe that Israel practices apartheid,” even while a large majority says it is satisfied with life in Israel. Most glaring, “69 percent objects to giving…Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank.” This was the essence of the South African system: Blacks were citizens but not allowed to vote. Levy glossed his article in an accompanying column titled, “Apartheid Without Shame or Guilt.” Here he gave full throat to his “prophetic” voice. This survey, he said,
lays bare an image of Israeli society, and the picture is a very, very sick one. Now it is not just critics at home and abroad, but Israelis themselves who are openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists.
We’re racists, the Israelis are saying, we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state.
Weaknesses in the story were exposed within a day, but not before Levy’s version had been echoed in the European press. For one thing, the poll had been commissioned and designed by a leftist advocacy group. When asked about the poll’s ideologically driven cast, a spokesman for the group replied: “So let the Right do its own poll to refute the results.” What was problematic about this was that the questions used the word apartheid in an unusual way. The pollster acknowledged that the term appeared to be insufficiently understood by respondents. But more important, the critical finding that 69 percent would deny Palestinians the vote if the West Bank were annexed to Israel was reported without its essential aspect—namely, that respondents opposed annexation.
The poll did not ask directly about annexation except about annexing Israeli settlements. These cover less than 10 percent of the West Bank’s landmass, and every Israeli government has said that at least some would be annexed to Israel in any peace deal with the Palestinians. The real news in the poll was that a preponderance of Israelis opposed this. By a plurality of 48 to 38 percent, respondents said they were against annexing the settlements. If a plurality opposed annexing even settlements, then it is virtually certain that an overwhelming majority, had they been asked, would have opposed annexing the entire West Bank. Respondents were then asked the hypothetical question whether, in the event of annexation of the entire West Bank, they would favor giving Palestinians the vote. Sixty-nine percent said no. This implied nothing more than an unwillingness to live under Arab rule. It was, in short, a meaningless exercise.
Signing Anew, the activist group that designed the poll, had received key support from the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning philanthropic organization that draws prestige from the large sums of money it distributes and from serving as the channel for the Ford Foundation in Israel. The New Israel Fund hastened to disown both the poll and the group that sponsored it, and its spokesman took to the Daily Beast within a day of the Haaretz story’s publication to denounce Levy’s account: “[It] seems to amount to a misrepresentation of the data. The poll actually shows that Israelis want to separate themselves from the West Bank.”
Hass and Levy are unabashed about their ideological slant; Akiva Eldar, the third of Haaretz’s exemplars, expresses open pride. During the second intifada, the three were taken to task by Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for failing the “lynch test.” That is, Barnea charged that they were unable to condemn Palestinian actions unambiguously, even when Palestinians lynched Israelis, as they had done to two reservists who got lost in Ramallah. He likened their devotion to the Palestinian cause to John Reed’s devotion to Bolshevism, saying their support was “absolute,” adding: “It does not derive from feelings about human rights but instead other motives. Some are prisoners of love of Palestine. Some of their hatred of Zion….They have a mission.”
In an article in the Nation in 2008, Eldar invoked Barnea’s accusation, and rather than deny it, he reveled in it. “I admit to being guilty as charged,” he wrote. “I am a journalist with a mission, and also no small amount of passion. Every Israeli with a conscience, in particular one who watches reality from up close on a daily basis, cannot write about the occupation from an objective observer’s neutral point of view.”
One of Eldar’s recurrent themes is to liken Israeli practices to South Africa’s apartheid. In 2004, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, Eldar wrote: “South Africa will be very interested in the Israeli disengagement plan published yesterday. The political, military, and economic aspects of the plan for the Gaza Strip and the enclave in the northern West Bank are amazingly similar to the homelands, one of the last inventions of the white minority in South Africa to perpetuate its rule over the black majority.” In 2010, he wrote: “It is hard to find differences between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule in the territories.” And in 2012: “In the territory under Israel’s jurisdiction a situation of apartheid exists. A Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority.”
Eldar also boasts that “John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cite me in their controversial book, The Israel Lobby, as one of the Israeli journalists whose criticism of the occupation is even sharper than their own.” The book argued that American policy toward the Middle East was manipulated to Israel’s advantage and America’s disadvantage by the machinations of an immensely powerful “lobby.” To top it off, it accused American Jews holding high office of using their positions for Israel’s benefit. And what authority did they cite for this? None other than Akiva Eldar. They quoted his 2002 column in which he had charged that Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, who served in sensitive positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush “are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments…and Israeli interests.”
Although Walt and Mearsheimer’s book sold enough copies to make them rich, it generally received harsh reviews in the American press, including from papers that are critical of Israeli policy. The New York Times Book Review, the daily New York Times (and International Herald Tribune), the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs, among others, gave it bad notices. One paper, however, that gave it a favorable review was Haaretz. In fact, it did so twice. Walt and Mearsheimer’s effusion had been published first as a “white paper” that was widely criticized as scurrilous and anti-Semitic, although they claimed to be “philo-Semites.” Johns Hopkins University’s characteristically circumspect professor Eliot A. Cohen put the matter this way:
If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information—why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.
Haaretz’s response was an op-ed by Daniel Levy, a leftist Israeli living in the United States, that defended the “white paper” and attacked its critics. When the book came out a year later, Haaretz might have shown its own neutrality toward it by commissioning a review with a different take. Instead, the editors went back to Levy, implying endorsement of his views. For this second shot, they allowed him 3,000-plus words to amplify his polemic against Walt and Mearsheimer’s critics and to render this summary judgment: “This is a difficult and challenging book. It is also an important book that deserves to be keenly debated.”
As reflected in the editors’ decision to give favorable treatment to The Israel Lobby, Haaretz’s caustic attitude toward Israel is not limited to the Hass-Levy-Eldar trio. For example, columnist Merav Michaeli wrote in 2012: “Here in Israel, we…have the deepest contempt for peace. We scorn any idea of agreements or cooperation; we disdain all solutions that are proposed.” And in 2010: “Hatred and racism were always here; they are now emerging more loudly.” Another take on Israeli “racism” by columnist Niva Lanir suggested that Israel might be on to adopting its own Nuremberg Laws.
Haaretz does run guest op-eds from a range of opinions including those contrary to its editorial position, and it even has some regular columnists from the right side of the spectrum, rather than the left. But these are not sufficient to counter its dominant thrust. Remnick quotes a member of the paper’s staff who quipped that regular contributors Moshe Arens, a former Likud defense minster, and Israel Harel, once the leader of the settlers’ movement, serve as Haaretz’s “shabbos goys.”
Columns are one thing, reportage another. Haaretz continues to hold a leading position as a news source. It is, however, nearly impossible to maintain views with the passion of Eldar, Hass, and Levy without its coloring the paper’s coverage—especially when the views and passion are shared by the paper’s owner. The page-one treatment of Levy’s misrepresentation of the dubious “apartheid poll” was one example. Another example was a 2009 Haaretz exposé of alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers during the 2008–2009 war in Gaza.
As with Levy on the “apartheid poll,” a single journalist reported the story in news columns and simultaneously offered commentary in the opinion pages. In this case the journalist was Amos Harel (not to be confused with rightist columnist Israel Harel). “Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive,” read Harel’s lead. The accounts came from a group of soldiers who gathered at the invitation of the head of a pre-military academy who had recorded and then leaked their recollections. Naturally, the story echoed throughout the international news media with the help of the New York Times, which picked it up the next day on its own front page.
Harel assured readers that “the soldiers are not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to.” And he drew a broad generalization from their accounts: “It seems that what the soldiers have to say is actually the way things happened in the field, most of the time.”
The next day, accompanying more excerpts from the soldiers’ discussion, Haaretz ran a second opinion piece by Harel, this one criticizing the army for its initial reaction. The military had revealed that the man who had organized, recorded, and leaked the soldiers’ meeting had served a month’s military imprisonment for refusing an order to guard a religious ritual by settlers in the West Bank—and he might have an ideological ax to grind. Plus, a spokesman reported that the soldier who had recounted the most explosive incident—the deliberate shooting of a mother and two children—had been summoned by his brigade commander to whom he had explained that he had heard of such an event but had not witnessed it.
Harel suggested that the army was remiss in releasing these bits of data challenging the accuracy of the report, and he took a shot at the response of news outlets other than Haaretz: “It is disappointing—if not surprising—to see the enthusiasm with which major news outlets adopted IDF claims.” Haaretz carried another Harel story two days later, headlined “Testimonies on IDF Misconduct in Gaza Keep Rolling In,” but the article itself reported no testimonies whatsoever. It contained only quotes from a film clip of a blustery pre-action security briefing and Harel’s own assertion that “a number of officers told Haaretz…that the testimonies [in the original report] did not surprise them.” The officers were not named.
Twelve days after its first revelation, Haaretz reported that the military had completed its formal investigation and concluded that the reports of killings were all based on rumor. The military advocate general “said it was unfortunate that the soldiers, who discussed their Gaza experiences in [a] private…session that was later leaked verbatim to the media, had been careless about accuracy.” What had made the story sensational was the report that soldiers had attested to egregious misconduct that they had committed or seen firsthand, but there turned out not to have been a single case of that from this group.
Even a couple of days before the military investigation ended, the New York Times had run a lengthy story intended to counterbalance its initial report and revealing the questions that had arisen about the soldiers’ assertions. Haaretz did not run anything similar, although it did carry a moving piece by its correspondent Anshel Pfeffer, making clear his own anguish when the paper’s stories damage Israel’s international standing. Noting that the paper had “never made a secret of its opposition to the occupation,” he explained that “for the last 40 years, Haaretz has seen the promotion of this debate as its central role.”
But should a newspaper, especially one that purports to be a country’s newspaper of record, have a role that comes before reporting the news fairly, objectively, honestly? And has Haaretz aimed merely to promote a debate? The answer to the latter question was embodied in the person of David Landau, who edited the paper’s English edition starting in 1997 and then the Hebrew from 2004 until 2008. In 2005, when CAMERA, emailed Haaretz to request that it correct Amira Hass’s references to “Jewish-only roads” in the West Bank, an assistant editor inadvertently sent back a message that had been intended for internal circulation at the paper. The misdirected email read, “We have a quasi ‘policy,’ on orders of David [Landau], to ignore this organization and all of its complaints, including not responding to telephone messages and screening calls from [its] director.” Landau justified his position by claiming that CAMERA had a “vendetta.” But even if this were so, and there is no evidence that it was, the issue was whether or not CAMERA’s complaints were valid. In this case, for example, they clearly were.
Landau caused a stir in 2007 when fellow journalists revealed, and Landau later confirmed, that he had told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a private dinner that Israel was a “failed state” that needed to be “raped” by the United States in order to make peace with the Palestinians. Landau also vented his dim assessment of Israel in a 2010 column, saying: “Israel has slid almost inadvertently a long way down the slope that leads to McCarthyism and racism.” Going even further by allusion, he added: “As history, both ancient and more recent, teaches us, there is another component in the inculcation of a whole society with xenophobia. It’s the big lie.” By ancient history, he explained he meant Pharaoh; the reference to “recent” history was left unexplained, but the term big lie was an obvious allusion to the Nazi regime.
The person primarily responsible for Haaretz’s adversarial stance toward Israel was not, however, Landau but rather the paper’s owner, Amos Schocken. He had inherited it from his father and grandfather, and the legacy seems to have included an ambivalent relationship with the Jewish state. His grandfather, Salman, who had fled from Germany to Palestine, had been, according to Remnick, a supporter of Brit Shalom, an organization of Jews favoring a bi-national state rather than a Jewish one. The paper passed to Salman’s son, Gershom (née Gustav), who once wrote an essay about the need to remove the religious prohibition on intermarriage so as to encourage the emergence of a homogeneous Israeli nationality to supersede those of Jew and Arab. This seems to have been regarded as a kind of signature idea of his, since Haaretz chose to reprint it in order to memorialize him on the 20th anniversary of his death. Gershom’s son, Amos, acquired the paper upon his father’s death in 1990 and has given it editorial direction since then.
Occasionally, Amos Schocken has contributed opinion pieces, such as a 2007 column that commemorated the state’s 60th anniversary by urging that it replace its national anthem, Hatikvah, because it speaks of the Jewish people’s longing for Zion and thus is impossible for “an Arab citizen [to] identify with.” In 2011, he devoted a lengthy column to the problem of “Israeli apartheid,” which he said was shielded by “the power of the Jewish lobby” in the United States, and, apparently oblivious to the irony, he accused his political adversaries of resorting to “slander.”
Schocken’s main impact, however, comes from his management, not his columns. The first editor he chose was Hanoch Marmari. In The Jewish State (2000), Yoram Hazony sharply criticized Marmari as a post-Zionist, instancing an essay in which Marmari had called for repeal of the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew who immigrates. But the second intifada evoked a patriotic response in Marmari that set him and Schocken apart. As bombs slaughtered Israelis in buses and pizzerias, Marmari shaped coverage sensitive to the national mood, prompting Schocken to “complain…to our editor that he was taking too much account of the readers,” as Schocken himself put it, realizing the paradox. Marmari’s take on their rift was similar: “Amos was displeased because I was less radical than him. I felt the paper might derail itself to the point of irrelevancy.” Marmari was fired and replaced by Landau, who seemed akin to Schocken in his radicalism. But even Landau in the end proved not radical enough. He explained to Remnick:
You don’t have to soft-pedal your stance on the kind of racism or xenophobia or fascistic trends that are worryingly engulfing parts of Israeli society, but you can do it without casting yourself as antagonistic. There is a need in the paper’s rhetoric for a greater sophistication and empathy. The goal is to make the newspaper a place where people are being challenged but are also made to feel welcome.
Landau was replaced in 2011, but this time Schocken did not look for someone even more radical. Rather he promoted one of the paper’s longtime reporters, Aluf Benn, who did not have as sharp an ideological profile as his predecessors.
If Schocken intended by this to change the direction of Haaretz, that has not been apparent in its pages. Perhaps he concluded that he could set the tone as publisher without needing an equally opinionated editor. Thus, when Hass’s exhortation to rock-throwing caused an uproar in Israel, Schocken himself took to the airwaves to defend her point. “Sometimes you have to fight violence with violence,” he allowed.
When observers call Haaretz “liberal,” they are using that label in an expansive way, as when American journalists apply it to the likes of the unrepentant former Weatherman Bill Ayers. There is, of course, a camp in Israel that might be called “liberal,” as we Americans usually use that term, or more aptly, moderate left. It is centered in the Labor Party and includes a fluid array of other parties close to Labor that are critical of some or many of the West Bank settlements and that favor more forthcoming terms in negotiations with the Palestinians than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to offer. Historically, it might be said to include as well the original Peace Now movement that formed in 1978 to pressure then Prime Minister Menachem Begin not to miss the chance for peace with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and that protested against the extension of the 1982 war in Lebanon all the way to Beirut and the carnage that followed.
But Haaretz under Schocken’s direction and exemplified by Hass and Levy and Eldar represents something else again: the Israeli version of what has been called in America the “adversary culture.” In Israel, in addition to Haaretz, it includes also such “new historians” as Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, such advocacy groups as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and such public intellectuals as Uri Avnery, Avraham Burg and Meron Benvenisti. This culture rests on a worldview that finds one’s own country to be the embodiment of all that is wrong and evil, akin to apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany or any other symbol of unredeemed villainy. Do Palestinians throw rocks that kill Israeli infants? They are, per Schocken, only “fight[ing] violence with violence,” or only, per Hass, doing their “duty.” No doubt, were Israel not to harm them first they would be as humane and pacific as their brethren in the surrounding countries.
America’s adversary culture has mostly wafted off into the ether, and with the last existential threat to America having disappeared with the Cold War, who knows or cares whether traces of it are still to be found? Israel, on the other hand, is, alas, not yet beyond existential threats. And for those who wish its destruction, Haaretz has made itself a source not only of ready ammunition but also of encouragement and even justification.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?