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Erasing History? There’s an App for That

There is no cause so noble it can’t be made ridiculous by 21st-century activism. The Confederate flag debate is fast becoming another chapter in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taking Offense. According to toucharcade.com, Apple has removed American Civil War games from its App Store because they show the Confederate flag. They don’t celebrate the South or encourage racism. They simply show the flag in its proper historical context. “As of the writing of this story,” writes Tasos Lazarides, “games like Ultimate General: Gettysburg and all the Hunted Cow – Civil War games are nowhere to be found.”

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There is no cause so noble it can’t be made ridiculous by 21st-century activism. The Confederate flag debate is fast becoming another chapter in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taking Offense. According to toucharcade.com, Apple has removed American Civil War games from its App Store because they show the Confederate flag. They don’t celebrate the South or encourage racism. They simply show the flag in its proper historical context. “As of the writing of this story,” writes Tasos Lazarides, “games like Ultimate General: Gettysburg and all the Hunted Cow – Civil War games are nowhere to be found.”

But if swastikas are your thing, you’re all set. As these still shots from the iPhone version of Wolfenstein 3-D reveal, Apple is still ok with games that show the Nazi symbol:

 

Hitler swastika

The point is not that those of us offended by Nazism should now fight to enjoy the same sanitized game environments as those who are troubled by the Confederate South. It’s that this micro-policing—indeed self-policing—of the culture does not spring from serious moral reflection but from headline-driven cowardice.

Taking a stand against the honoring or legitimizing of evil is a moral obligation. As the writers on this blog have said repeatedly, take down the Confederate flags that fly over state capitals. But erasing all representations of a particular evil is a moral offense that turns justice into self-righteous sport. What’s more, it cuts us off from dark realities that we forget at our own peril. Worst of all, the obscurantism will never stop. Once we decide we’re simply uncomfortable with historical reality, history becomes a grand project of erasure. What makes video games different from movies or books or television shows? In the end, they’ll all be smothered by the big “shush.” And the Union will have won a strange victory for freedom indeed if it prohibits all reference to its greatest blow against human bondage.

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The Price of Liberty

I recall the events of 9/11 as an earlier generation recalled the death of President Kennedy. The difference being that this was not a tragedy I saw on television. Having worked downtown at the time, I was on my way to my office when the two hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers and I arrived in time to see one of the towers fall. The grey clouds of ash still float across my memory, interspersed with mental snapshots of people falling to their deaths.

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I recall the events of 9/11 as an earlier generation recalled the death of President Kennedy. The difference being that this was not a tragedy I saw on television. Having worked downtown at the time, I was on my way to my office when the two hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers and I arrived in time to see one of the towers fall. The grey clouds of ash still float across my memory, interspersed with mental snapshots of people falling to their deaths.

I could never imagine, at the time, that there would be a 9/11 museum. Not only because the events of that day seemed too horrific and surreal to fully digest, much less to recall with the luxury of time and distance, but also because I never expected that those events would be as unique as they have remained. Seeing America under attack on 9/11, I had little doubt that we would witness attacks of equal if not greater magnitude in the years ahead. For weeks afterward I half cringed every time I walked through a crowded public place in Manhattan, knowing that so many people clustered together could be an irresistible target for a suicide bomber.

Mercifully, my worst fears have not come true. To be sure, there have been terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11–attacks such as those on the Boston marathon and at Fort Hood. There have been even more foiled plots such as the one at the Mohammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. But neither Al Qaeda nor any other group has succeeded in pulling off an attack of 9/11-scale.

I thought about that as I walked Sunday through the 9/11 Museum in downtown New York across the street from where I used to work. It was a haunting and moving experience–especially seeing the pictures of all the victims and hearing the recordings of passengers on the doomed airplanes calling their loved ones, telling them not to worry, something has gone slightly wrong but everything will be ok. It was nearly unbearable.

It caused me to reflect that we were monumentally unlucky on 9/11 and we have been monumentally lucky ever since.

But that doesn’t mean we can or should expect our luck to continue indefinitely, especially not if we dismantle the defenses that have kept us safe. That seems to be what a left-right coalition of House and Senate members is trying to achieve by making it harder for the National Security Agency to search telephone records for links between terrorists. The Patriot Act, the cornerstone of homeland security since 9/11, is due to expire on May 31 and these lawmakers are holding its renewal hostage until they get what they want–which is weaken our defenses against terrorism.

Their rationale is that the current system, as exposed by Edward Snowden, trespasses on our liberties even though there is no evidence of the NSA abusing its authority in any way. Contrary to what the fear-mongers would have you believe, the metadata collection does not allow government gumshoes to listen in to your calls to your Aunt Sally; that still requires a court order.

I couldn’t help wishing, as I toured the 9/11 Museum and ground zero, that all of the lawmakers who are blocking passage of the Patriot Act should be required to take the same tour–to remember what it was really like on 9/11 and how easily the deadliest attack ever on American soil could have been prevented if there had been better intelligence collection and law enforcement work beforehand. The post-9/11 reforms have corrected many of the problems that used to exist, but we have become so complacent in the years since that it is all too easy to forget the kind of threat that we faced then–and still face.

The core of Al Qaeda may have been greatly weakened by American actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan but the jihadist threat has since metastasized and in many ways it’s gotten worse than it was on 9/11. Osama bin Laden may be resting in his watery grave but groups from ISIS to Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula have proven themselves to be every bit as fanatical, if not more so, and in many ways they are also proving even more successful and resourceful.

On 9/11 Sunni jihadists controlled most of Afghanistan. They no longer control Afghanistan but they do control a vast caliphate encompassing half of Syria and a third of Iraq. They also control substantial areas of Pakistan and Yemen. Meanwhile their opposite numbers among Shiite jihadists are taking control of much of the rest of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Now is no time to let down our guard. Rather it is time to remember the horrors of 9/11 and to vow that we shall do whatever it takes to avoid another such calamity. And if that means a slight and inconsequential infringement on civil liberties, so be it.

The next time we won’t have the luxury of saying we could not anticipate what was to come. If you want to experience the shadow that looms over our future as well as our past, all you have to do is visit the 9/11 Museum.

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Obama Insists It’s ‘Not a New Cold War,’ But It Sure Looks Like One

It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

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It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

It seems like a generation ago that the president embarked on an effort to “reset” bilateral relations with Russia. The administration imagined that Moscow had mounted a cross-border invasion of neighboring Georgia and carved off Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a response to George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy.” The White House was shown the error of their ways when Russia invaded another neighboring country, this time outright annexing occupied territory rather than erecting the complicated fiction that these provinces had been liberated from their oppressive former parent states. In the interim, Barack Obama leveraged Russia’s desire to preserve their client Damascus so as to help extricate him from his commitment to enforce his “red line” for action against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by force. In doing so, Barack Obama consigned that country to years of a bloody civil war characterized by the repeated use of chemical weapons on civilian populations.

While the administration steadfastly refuses to address the conflict in Ukraine outside the context of financial sanctions, none of which have had an appreciable effect on Russian behavior, the United States appears to be getting serious about the threat posed by Moscow’s irredentism.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin revealed that the United States is preparing to respond aggressively to alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The West believes that Russia violated the terms of that Soviet-era treaty by developing and pledging to forward deploy nuclear delivery vehicles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. “The State Department admitted publicly last July that the U.S. government believes Russia is violation of the treaty,” Rogin observed. “Privately, top administration officials have known that Russia was in violation since at least 2012, because it has tested ground-based cruise missiles with the prohibited range.”

Two U.S. officials briefed on the options said that the Pentagon has submitted a list of potential countermeasures to the National Security Council, but the White House has yet to schedule a high-level NSC meeting to discuss and decide what to do. Some of the more aggressive options would include deploying more land-based military hardware to NATO allies for missile defense near the Russian border, to counter the new Russian cruise capability. Expanded targeted sanctions and added patrols near Russian space are less aggressive options on the table.

The European theater is not the only space in which the West and Russia are waging a sub rosa conflict. On Monday, American officials were informed that Russia had closed a key military transit corridor that allowed NATO allies to support and resupply forces serving in Afghanistan with non-lethal aid. Russia determined to close that transit route that had been in use since 2008 due to the fact that NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December of last year, although over 12,000 foreign servicemen and women remain deployed there.

“Russian observers said there was a clear political element to Mr. Medvedev’s order, in light of Russian unhappiness with Western sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea and suspicions that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is being extended indefinitely,” the Washington Times speculated.

Just days after pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine used a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missile to shoot MH 17 out of the sky, taking the lives of 298 primarily Western civilians in the process, Obama assured the press that America and Russia were not entering into a “new Cold War.” But with military balancing and counterbalancing ongoing in Europe and Central Asia, the return of nuclear brinkmanship, and diplomatic offensives designed to de-escalate tensions becoming an increasingly pressing priority, it sure looks like one.

The United States and Russia have always maintained a divergent set of strategic objectives, but the theaters in which Moscow and the West are coming into conflict are rapidly proliferating. If the president had entered office with a reasonable understanding of Russia’s perspective and its long-term strategic aims, much of the threat the Kremlin presently poses to the geopolitical order might have been managed more effectively.

Better late than never, I guess.

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Taking Sinatra Seriously

Frank Sinatra died 17 years ago today at the age of 82. Shortly before his death, COMMENTARY published the definitive appreciation of Sinatra’s artistry by Terry Teachout. From September 1997, here on this Throwback Thursday, is “Taking Sinatra Seriously.” Enjoy.

What will Frank Sinatra be remembered for? In the decade prior to his retirement in 1995, his singing became a grotesque and embarrassing self-caricature. His oft-reported ties to organized crime have figured prominently in the tabloids for years. And then there are the various cults that have formed around him. His most passionate fans, obsessed with his charismatic manner, celebrate his best singing and his worst indiscriminately. Meanwhile, another cult, a cottage industry of scholars specializing in “cultural studies,” neglects his art to focus on his status as an “iconic” figure in American popular culture; a conference to be held next year at Hofstra University on Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend, is typical of the breed.

Click here to read it all.

Frank Sinatra died 17 years ago today at the age of 82. Shortly before his death, COMMENTARY published the definitive appreciation of Sinatra’s artistry by Terry Teachout. From September 1997, here on this Throwback Thursday, is “Taking Sinatra Seriously.” Enjoy.

What will Frank Sinatra be remembered for? In the decade prior to his retirement in 1995, his singing became a grotesque and embarrassing self-caricature. His oft-reported ties to organized crime have figured prominently in the tabloids for years. And then there are the various cults that have formed around him. His most passionate fans, obsessed with his charismatic manner, celebrate his best singing and his worst indiscriminately. Meanwhile, another cult, a cottage industry of scholars specializing in “cultural studies,” neglects his art to focus on his status as an “iconic” figure in American popular culture; a conference to be held next year at Hofstra University on Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend, is typical of the breed.

Click here to read it all.

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Happy Birthday, Sir Nicholas Winton

Sir Nicholas Winton, who spent his life largely in finance, turns 106 years old on Tuesday, May 19. Many readers of COMMENTARY are surely aware of Sir Nicholas’ heroism and moral clarity, but if not, then this video is must-watch. In short, as a young man of 29, Winton cancelled a planned ski vacation in order to go to Prague at the request of a friend who worked with refugees. Winton created an organization that saved the lives of more than 600 Jewish children by arranging their transport through the Netherlands (which had officially closed its borders to Jewish refugees) and then, by ferry, to the United Kingdom.

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Sir Nicholas Winton, who spent his life largely in finance, turns 106 years old on Tuesday, May 19. Many readers of COMMENTARY are surely aware of Sir Nicholas’ heroism and moral clarity, but if not, then this video is must-watch. In short, as a young man of 29, Winton cancelled a planned ski vacation in order to go to Prague at the request of a friend who worked with refugees. Winton created an organization that saved the lives of more than 600 Jewish children by arranging their transport through the Netherlands (which had officially closed its borders to Jewish refugees) and then, by ferry, to the United Kingdom.

Winton kept quiet for decades after the war; it was his wife who confronted him about his actions when she found one of his old scrap books in the attic shortly before his 80th birthday. Even after his role became known, Winton bent over backwards to give credit to many others whom he suggests took far greater risks and whose role in the rescue was critical.

Mr. Winton’s homepage is here, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s discussion of his work is here. With the world seemingly in flames, and leaders in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, Doha, Pyongyang and, alas, in a more passive sense Washington pouring gasoline onto the fire, it is useful to remember the class and pure goodness that exists—or once existed—even against the backdrop of pure evil.

Let us hope that, as his birthday approaches, Sir Nicholas Winton understands just how needed and important his example of pure altruism, moral rightness, and humility are. I’m a few days early, but I wanted to be among the first: Happy Birthday, Sir Nicholas.

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Orson Welles on Pastrami

Yesterday Orson Welles would have turned 100 years old. That’s all the excuse I need to share this delightful COMMENTARY Symposium from July 1946, in which contributors, including Welles, offer their thoughts on the assorted pleasures of the Jewish deli. Pulled from the archives on this Throwback Thursday, here’s “From the American Scene: One Touch of Delicatessen”:

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New England Testimony
Samuel A. Persky

To Dismiss Ruth Glazer’s article on “The Jewish Delicatessen” as merely an amusing and nostalgic little essay, as I fear most readers might, would be a grave mistake.

My professional life, thus far bracketed between the reigns of Theodore and Franklin, has been devoted almost exclusively to the interests of malefactors of small wealth and bush-league economic royalists. Yet here I find myself spiritually attuned to a woman who has devoted her career to the labor movement.

Click here to read it all.

Yesterday Orson Welles would have turned 100 years old. That’s all the excuse I need to share this delightful COMMENTARY Symposium from July 1946, in which contributors, including Welles, offer their thoughts on the assorted pleasures of the Jewish deli. Pulled from the archives on this Throwback Thursday, here’s “From the American Scene: One Touch of Delicatessen”:

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New England Testimony
Samuel A. Persky

To Dismiss Ruth Glazer’s article on “The Jewish Delicatessen” as merely an amusing and nostalgic little essay, as I fear most readers might, would be a grave mistake.

My professional life, thus far bracketed between the reigns of Theodore and Franklin, has been devoted almost exclusively to the interests of malefactors of small wealth and bush-league economic royalists. Yet here I find myself spiritually attuned to a woman who has devoted her career to the labor movement.

Click here to read it all.

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The “Right Side of History” is Sometimes Wrong

A friend of mine, a minister, recently asked me about the concept of being on the “right side of history.” His concern is that being on the right side of history, as many people generally understand it, is not necessarily being on God’s side.

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A friend of mine, a minister, recently asked me about the concept of being on the “right side of history.” His concern is that being on the right side of history, as many people generally understand it, is not necessarily being on God’s side.

It’s an intriguing formulation. The term, “the right side of history” is often invoked by people on the left to signal that history is moving in a progressive direction — and that it’s best that we join the “enlightened” side early rather than late. They’d cite issues like the abolition of slavery and desegregation, rights for women, and child labor laws as issues that were controversial at the time but now seem obvious.

But even more than in the past I don’t find the appeal of being on the “right side of history” to be compelling. “History” doesn’t have a conscience — and sometimes-fashionable trends (like the divorce revolution, drug use, a constitutional “right” to abortion, and communism) have tremendous human costs. I’d rather be on the “right side of justice” or the “right side of human dignity” which may be in fashion at some points but may also be out of fashion at others.

The trickiness comes in determining what advances justice and human dignity and what sets it back. That isn’t always easy to know. It depends in part on which side of an issue one chooses — but even then, there are often complicated matters of tactics, which require wisdom. One could have been an abolitionist in the 19th century — but that still left open the question of whether one ought to adopt the approach of John Brown or Abraham Lincoln. Some of the abolitionists were on the side of justice — but they needed to have their passions channeled in a constructive way. William Wilberforce was an example of someone who combined justice with prudence and persistence, a rare and marvelous combination.

For those of the Christian faith, it’s worth bearing in mind that on several occasions in the Scriptures we’re warned that there will be tension and conflict in being a faithful Christian in the world. That doesn’t tell us how to act in any particular circumstance; but it does serve as a warning that when the world tries to dictate to us what the “right side of history” is, we don’t necessarily have to accept it.

In thinking this through, it also strikes me that one other way to view this is that God is the author of history — there’s a beginning, a middle and an end; there are chapters that will eventually comprise a glorious book — and so in some important sense, being on the “right side of history” means being on the side of the Author of history. Which means to be on the right side of history means being on the right side of God, His will, and His ways. That isn’t what the left usually has in mind; and it’s not a bad place to be.

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Israeli Independence Day, Then and Now

Today marks Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. In honor of the Jewish State’s 67th year of independence, here, from the February 1948 issue of COMMENTARY, is David Horowitz, then chief economic adviser to the Jewish Agency (established to oversee Jewish immigration to Israel), on “Founding the New State: An Expert’s Estimate of the Tasks Ahead”:

A world of dreams has come true against the background of twenty centuries of martyrdom and a tenacious struggle for survival—this was the first, the emotional reaction to the United Nations decision on Palestine. More than a state and a haven of refuge were created in that fateful hour. The ethnic identity and continuity of Jewish national existence was reasserted. An epoch of national renascence was inaugurated.

Click here to read it all.

Today marks Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. In honor of the Jewish State’s 67th year of independence, here, from the February 1948 issue of COMMENTARY, is David Horowitz, then chief economic adviser to the Jewish Agency (established to oversee Jewish immigration to Israel), on “Founding the New State: An Expert’s Estimate of the Tasks Ahead”:

A world of dreams has come true against the background of twenty centuries of martyrdom and a tenacious struggle for survival—this was the first, the emotional reaction to the United Nations decision on Palestine. More than a state and a haven of refuge were created in that fateful hour. The ethnic identity and continuity of Jewish national existence was reasserted. An epoch of national renascence was inaugurated.

Click here to read it all.

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Naming the Accomplices of the Holocaust

Last week, FBI director James B. Comey wrote an opinion piece about the importance of Holocaust education published in the Washington Post. But this seemingly anodyne exercise on Yom HaShoah has landed Comey in the middle of a diplomatic incident as well as earning himself a scolding from the Post’s Anne Applebaum for seeming to inaccurately describe the government of Poland as an accomplice of the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Applebaum’s defense of Poland goes a little too far. Though she’s right to draw a bright line between the complicity of Germany and that of other nations, especially Poland, in mass murder, she too somewhat distorts the issue by seeming to downplay the role anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe played in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry. But the main lesson we should draw from this brouhaha is that by engaging in arguments that seek to whitewash some of those who behaved atrociously during the 1940s, we are distracting ourselves from the real threats facing Jews, Poles, and Europeans in 2015.

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Last week, FBI director James B. Comey wrote an opinion piece about the importance of Holocaust education published in the Washington Post. But this seemingly anodyne exercise on Yom HaShoah has landed Comey in the middle of a diplomatic incident as well as earning himself a scolding from the Post’s Anne Applebaum for seeming to inaccurately describe the government of Poland as an accomplice of the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Applebaum’s defense of Poland goes a little too far. Though she’s right to draw a bright line between the complicity of Germany and that of other nations, especially Poland, in mass murder, she too somewhat distorts the issue by seeming to downplay the role anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe played in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry. But the main lesson we should draw from this brouhaha is that by engaging in arguments that seek to whitewash some of those who behaved atrociously during the 1940s, we are distracting ourselves from the real threats facing Jews, Poles, and Europeans in 2015.

Comey is in trouble because of the following passage in his Post piece:

In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.

That first sentence enraged Poles, who rightly pointed that either through bad punctuation or ignorance, Comey was lumping Poland in with Nazi Germany. That’s profoundly wrong as there was, as Applebaum rightly points out, no Polish collaborationist government as there was in France, Norway, and some other occupied nations. Moreover, unlike other ethnicities that were treated badly by the Germans but not treated as subhumans Poles were also singled out for atrocities by the Nazis and suffered mass slaughter. Polish Jews suffered far more than their non-Jewish compatriots and were targeted for extinction while most Poles were not. But Poles still are right to take umbrage at any notion that they were, as a people, direct accomplices in the way that many in the Baltic States and Ukraine, to take just two examples, were.

Applebaum is also right to note that the murder of Hungarian Jewry didn’t begin until that Axis ally collapsed as Germany assumed direct rule over Hungary.

But Applebaum goes too far when she claims that the sole fault for the Holocaust rests on “German state terror” or that participation in the mass murder on the part of Germans or their non-German accomplices was prompted primarily by fear and that those who did so “knew they were terribly, terribly wrong.” That interpretation of history serves some purpose for the people of contemporary Europe because it allows them to claim that those of their forebears who were part of the apparatus of death or cheered it were in some ways also victims. But such an assertion ignores the role that anti-Semitism played in Europe, especially in those countries of Eastern Europe where the most grievous mass slaughters of Jews took place.

Let’s specify that in a narrow sense Applebaum is right that Germany must always accept the lion’s share of the blame for everything that happened during the Holocaust. But it is disingenuous to claim that their task of singling out the Jews and then murdering them was not eased by the willingness of even the most poorly treated subject populations in Eastern Europe to treat Jews as worthy objects of persecution.

Nor can it be asserted with any credibility that the mass slaughters, especially those in areas that had been seized from the Soviets, were not materially aided by large numbers of non-Jewish local collaborators. While these populations had good reason to despise their Soviet overlords, nothing excuses their assistance of mass killings or the willingness of so many of their men to serve in volunteer units fighting beside the Nazis.

If they did so, it was not just because they feared the Nazis but because they, like so many Germans, believed the Jews deserved to be expropriated, deported, and or killed in cold blood. This “eliminationist” mentality, as historian Daniel Goldhagen described it, wasn’t so much the product of fear as it was of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism that rendered the Nazis’ ideology palatable to many who might otherwise have found it impossible to make common cause with what was a fundamentally revolutionary and socialist concept. Killers of Jews did not seem much troubled by their consciences, including those Poles that engaged in pogroms against the remnant of Jewish survivors that attempted to return to their homes after the war. The Nazis may have ruled by fear but they don’t seem to have needed it to convince so many people to either take part in their war against the Jews or to be quiet about it.

Applebaum, who is married to a prominent Polish politician, is understandably devoted to defending the good name of Poland, which, for all of the problems of its past, does not deserve to be lumped in with the Nazis as Comey seemed to do. But when Poles or other Eastern Europeans waste their time trying to parse this history so as to deny even minor complicity for the anti-Semitism that facilitated the Holocaust, they are wasting their time and ours.

Contemporary Poland is not responsible for the malevolent culture of Jew hatred that dominated its society in the 1930s and even during the war in which that country was also subjected to atrocities. Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, including countries whose populations did collaborate en masse with the Germans, now lives under the threat of Russian aggression. Thus, Poles have better things to worry about than whether some in the West are able to recall the role played by non-German Jew-haters in the Holocaust.

By the same token, Jews, who face a rising tide of global anti-Semitism fueled by an Islamist variant of the same eliminationist spirit that animated the Nazis, need not re-fight the battles of the past.

Comey should correct his punctuation but let’s not try and revise history to soothe contemporary national egos. Nor should we hold onto illusions about evil acts only being motivated by fear. As we face a new generation of aggressors like Russia and potential mass-murderers in ISIS and Iran, it’s a mistake to forget that evil is every bit as persuasive as fear.

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The Holocaust and History’s Many Lessons

Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

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Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

But first, one quibble. Pfeffer writes that the West would of course have noticed Netanyahu’s comment about Arab voters being bussed to the polls, and should have expected backlash. But in this lies a crucial point: it’s understandable to have been irked by the comment, but look at the double standard. When Iranian leaders make extreme comments the Obama administration dismisses them as intended for a domestic political audience, nothing more. The press isn’t exactly blameless here either. In fact, it should be central to the discussion.

When we talk about historical analogies and the Nazis, we often stress the comparison between regimes more than the comparison between reactions to the regimes by gullible Westerners. It’s not that we ignore the latter–we don’t–it’s just that we tend to focus on the evil party asserting its genocidal intent.

But what lessons have Westerners learned from their own history? Here, it’s instructive to glance at Andrew Nagorski’s book Hitlerland. One of the stories he tells is of Chicago Daily News reporter Edgar Mowrer, who was reporting on Germany in the 1930s and even wrote an early book on the emergence of the Hitler era. Nagorski writes:

Yet even Mowrer wasn’t quiet sure what Hitler represented–and what to expect if he took power. “Did he believe all that he said?” he asked. “The question is inapplicable to this sort of personality. Subjectively Adolf Hitler was, in my opinion, entirely sincere even in his self-contradictions. For his is a humorless mind that simply excludes the need for consistency that might distress more intellectual types. To an actor the truth is anything that lies in its effect: if it makes the right impression it is true.” …

As for the true intentions of his anti-Semitic campaign, Mowrer sounded alarmed in some moments but uncertain in others. “A suspicion arises that Adolf Hitler himself accepted anti-Semitism with his characteristic mixture of emotionalism and political cunning,” he wrote. “Many doubted if he really desired pogroms.”

Well, we know how that story ends. The point is, proper historical reflection takes into account not only whether and how the current Iranian regime is animated by common principles with Nazi Germany but also whether we can really say we’ve learned the proper lessons from the past if we’re still dismissing unhinged rhetoric as play-acting for a domestic crowd. (We also should ask if play-acting for a domestic crowd is, in light of history, really as harmless as we sometimes make it out to be.)

Nonetheless, Pfeffer’s larger point about how the Jews have been welcomed in certain corners of the West–America being the shining example–is well taken. So is his point about America’s staunch pro-Israel policies.

Yet there is a difference between treating victims a certain way and preventing others from becoming victims. This is where, I think, many critics are coming from.

Pfeffer’s column has the bad luck to be timed just as the release of hundreds of pages of newly declassified documents, reported first by Colum Lynch yesterday at Foreign Policy, draws new attention to Western inaction during the Rwandan genocide. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying dynamics all that much, though it does shift some more of the weight of the Clinton administration’s bystander role to Richard Clarke and Susan Rice.

Rice’s inclusion there should not be shocking. She is, after all, the official once quoted as cautioning Bill Clinton against recognizing the genocide for what it was because of the effect that could have on the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes in the congressional midterms. Here’s Lynch introducing the revelation:

But the recently declassified documents — which include more than 200 pages of internal memos and handwritten notes from Rice and other key White House players — provide a far more granular account of how the White House sought to limit U.N. action. They fill a major gap in the historical record, providing the most detailed chronicle to date of policy instructions and actions taken by White House staffers, particularly Clarke and Rice, who appear to have exercised greater influence over U.S. policy on Rwanda than the White House’s Africa hands.

Just as relevant here is the sentence that comes next: “The National Security Archive and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide obtained the documents during a two-and-a-half-year effort to amass long-secret records of internal deliberations by the United States, the U.N., and other foreign governments.”

The Holocaust Memorial Museum was a driving force in getting these documents released. That’s no coincidence. And Rwanda’s far from the only case of Western inaction. Not every mass killing amounts to genocide, but we’re seeing campaigns of ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing across the Middle East and Africa. The most recent example is the Yazidis of Iraq, which ISIS tried to exterminate. But the general treatment of Christians–Copts in Egypt, various Christian groups in Nigeria–suggests we are, unfortunately, far from seeing the end of such campaigns.

So has the West learned its lessons from the Holocaust? The honest answer is: some of them. It would be grossly unfair to claim they’ve learned nothing. But it would be wishful thinking to suggest they’ve learned everything.

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John Makin, 1943-2015

John H. Makin, for many years a leading figure at the American Enterprise Institute and author for a quarter century of an essential series of monthly analyses of the American economy, has died at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. In 2009, John wrote a wonderful piece for COMMENTARY called “The Keynes Bubble,” in which he allowed his quietly sardonic side to emerge: “As a former academic economist who at mid-career migrated into the worlds of policy and financial markets, I am sometimes asked how the latter experiences differ from the academic one. I reply—especially with regard to involvement in financial markets—that I get humiliated a lot more. The financial crisis, which reached its most acute phase just a year ago with the failure of Lehman Brothers, has resulted in some humiliation, or at the very least severe criticism, for academic economists who are said to have missed the whole problem and thereby contributed to its severity. The criticism comes from those who ask, in essence, ‘How could it have happened if you’re so smart?’”

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John H. Makin, for many years a leading figure at the American Enterprise Institute and author for a quarter century of an essential series of monthly analyses of the American economy, has died at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. In 2009, John wrote a wonderful piece for COMMENTARY called “The Keynes Bubble,” in which he allowed his quietly sardonic side to emerge: “As a former academic economist who at mid-career migrated into the worlds of policy and financial markets, I am sometimes asked how the latter experiences differ from the academic one. I reply—especially with regard to involvement in financial markets—that I get humiliated a lot more. The financial crisis, which reached its most acute phase just a year ago with the failure of Lehman Brothers, has resulted in some humiliation, or at the very least severe criticism, for academic economists who are said to have missed the whole problem and thereby contributed to its severity. The criticism comes from those who ask, in essence, ‘How could it have happened if you’re so smart?’”

John looked at the idea that the 2008 meltdown meant it was time to return to Keynesian ideas and was skeptical. He concluded the piece as follows:

One possible conclusion to draw from all this is that nothing works, that every theory has a terrible deficiency built into it, and that the real world will eventually test it, find the weakness, and expose its hollowness. But rather than abandon the brilliant thinking that has gone before…it is probably best for all camps to undergo a period of reflection. This has been a sobering time for economists of all stripes. Indeed, one can say that the Keynesian moment…may already have passed, since the stimulus simply hasn’t worked as promised. And, of course, conservative economists have been eating crow for a year or more. Perhaps, out of all this humiliation, a new humility may emerge, from which a new consensus can form.

It was this bracing intellectual honesty that characterized John’s work. We never have enough of that, and now, and very sadly, we have still less. RIP.

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The Incandescent Moral Power of Martin Luther King Jr.

You should do yourself a favor and watch (courtesy of C-Span) this amazing Meet the Press interview with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred almost exactly 50 years ago.

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You should do yourself a favor and watch (courtesy of C-Span) this amazing Meet the Press interview with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred almost exactly 50 years ago.

The interview, which took place three days after the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, captures the fragmented opinions at the time. Today the march is viewed by nearly everyone as a great success and a profoundly important moral achievement–but at the time, it was a good deal more controversial, and not only in the South.

NBC’s Lawrence Spivak begins the show by quoting former President Harry Truman, who referred to the Selma-to-Mongomery march as “silly” and flatly stated that it “can’t accomplish a darn thing except to attract attention.” There were questions from panelists about whether (among other things) the $300,000 expenditure for federal troops was too much to spend given what the march accomplished. And you’ll hear a reference to a column by Evans and Novak charging significant Communist infiltration of the civil-rights movement.

The power of watching events as they unfolded at the time is that they capture what was really going on and how our interpretation of things now was hardly the widespread interpretation of how things were then.

But the best part of this interview is Dr. King, who was essentially conducting a moral seminar on just and unjust laws. Dr. King argued that we have a moral obligation to obey just laws and a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws (like segregation). “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good,” he said. But Dr. King went out of his way to stress the proper way to conduct civil disobedience: openly, cheerfully, lovingly, civilly, and with a willingness to accept the penalties for breaking the law.

What comes through most of all is the incandescent moral power of King; his sophisticated understanding of moral philosophy; and his ability to make his case in ways that are at once accessible and elevated. “A just law squares with the moral law,” he said. And King spent much of his life articulating what the moral law was and how it applied to circumstances of his time.

If you like history and the drama of the American story, this is an interview for you. And I’m guessing that it will remind you, as it reminded me, how fortunate the United States was to have a man of Martin Luther King Jr.’s gifts and greatness when they were most needed.

The Reverend King belongs in the American pantheon, and this interview from a half-century ago demonstrates why.

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In Defense of Tradition

Based on the recommendation of a friend, over the weekend I read the 1983 Jefferson Lecture by Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading scholar on the history of Christianity. In it, Pelikan said this:

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Based on the recommendation of a friend, over the weekend I read the 1983 Jefferson Lecture by Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading scholar on the history of Christianity. In it, Pelikan said this:

I am not altogether certain that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of a series of lectures in his honor that bore the title, “The Vindication of Tradition” — which is a nice way of saying that I am altogether certain that Mr. Jefferson would have disapproved. He thought that tradition was a hindrance, not a help, in the advancement of life, the protection of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Martin Luther had similar reservations, fearing the effects of “human traditions” on the uncontaminated, original word of God.

According to Pelikan (whose book The Vindication of Tradition was based on his Jefferson Lecture), both Jefferson and Luther wanted to move beyond tradition to authentic Truth, which was uncorrupted by history. Professor Pelikan held a very different view. He believed tradition could help us better understand both truth and contemporary life.

Professor Pelikan didn’t believe tradition was coextensive with truth, but he did insist that it “does present itself as the way that we who are its heirs must follow if we are to go beyond it – through it, but beyond it – to a universal truth that is available only in a particular embodiment.” It is to the tradition of Athens and Jerusalem that their spiritual descendants must return to, Pelikan writes–“not to linger there permanently, but to find there, for each generation of descendants, what we for our part shall not recognize elsewhere … unless we have first seen it here.” A living tradition must find itself connected to both the universal and the particular, and it must have the capacity to develop while also maintaining its identity and continuity.

I raise all this because it’s my impression that today conservatives appeal far more to abstract principles than to tradition, a word and concept that is rarely invoked. That wasn’t always the case, and it’s a problem for reasons my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin beautifully articulates in this brief interview. There’s a tension between tradition and progress, but tradition is necessary for progress, which builds on what we have. “We need to understand what we’re building on,” Levin says, “what’s best about it and what’s worst about it.”

Today the idea of progress doesn’t have much room for tradition. But to detach ourselves from tradition is to detach ourselves from the human story, from trials and errors, and so from a source of wisdom. “Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road,” G.K. Chesterton said, “but drawing life from them, as from a root.”

There’s something more to add on this matter, though: Our need for greater humility. By that I mean most of us are certain that our view of things is inherently superior to how people in the past viewed them. We see ourselves as the most enlightened age of all. C.S. Lewis referred to this as “chronological snobbery”:

the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

That is something rather off-putting about our self-congratulatory attitude, the belief that we are so much wiser than those who came before us. On some matters we surely are, but on some matters we surely are not. And ask yourself this: In matters of philosophy, theology, science, statecraft, literature, and music, who today is the equal of Aristotle, Augustine, Newton, Lincoln, Tolstoy, and Mozart? Then ask yourself whether you think they have anything to teach us.

In The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan uses the example of children and parents. He points out how, when we’re young, we often believe our parents are all-wise, blind to their foibles. But it is no less childish, once we discover their foibles, to deny them the respect and honor that is due them for having given us life and having sacrificed for us.

Maturity in our relation to our parents consists in going beyond both a belief in their omniscience and a disdain for their weakness, Pelikan wrote,

to an understanding and a gratitude for their decisive part in that ongoing process in which now we, too, must take our place, as heirs and yet free. So it must be in our relation to our spiritual and intellectual parentage, our tradition. An abstract concept of parenthood is no substitute for our real parents, an abstract cosmopolitanism no substitute for our real traditions.

That is an insight–a philosophical tradition, if you will–that conservatives above all should embrace.

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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Speech from the steps of the Capitol.

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Speech from the steps of the Capitol.

Inaugural speeches, with rare exceptions, are not memorable. They tend to be laundry lists of what the new or reelected president hopes to accomplish in his term in office, along with boilerplate on the virtues of democracy and representative government.

But Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is different. Despite being delivered in the midst of some of the most momentous events in American history, it is notably short. Indeed, so short it could be carved in its entirety on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, opposite Lincoln’s other famously short speech, the Gettysburg Address. It takes no more than five minutes to read and yet it encapsulates the whole agony of the greatest and bloodiest war this nation has ever fought.

Filled with biblical allusions, it eschews even a hint of triumphalism that the war was finally coming to a successful end and that the Union, the world’s “last, best hope,” would endure. Instead it dwells on the evils of slavery that brought the war about and how all Americans bear some responsibility for it:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

He ends with the quiet hope that the country “may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Leaving aside its historic importance, if that’s possible, just consider the prose. All who love the power and majesty of the English language and the heights to which it can soar when in the hands of a master—and Lincoln was the best writer ever to live in the White House—can only stand in awe of the Second Inaugural’s sheer literary perfection.

So I would recommend that you take five minutes and read the Second Inaugural. It is the greatest speech ever given on American soil.

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On the Death (and Life) of Martin Gilbert

Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.

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Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.

I emailed Gilbert my question. He responded with a warm note and emailed me a digital copy of a page of his manuscript for his book Churchill and the Jews. The book was already published (indeed it was already in paperback), so he could have referred me to the book. Had he wanted to be even more helpful, he could have given me a page number. But he sent me the page from the manuscript that he thought might be of the most help to my column in part because the page had his own notes on it. He was giving me not just the finished copy, but the thought process that led to it.

A few things struck me about the exchange. The first was that Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, had essentially volunteered to do my research for me. The second was that I had never met nor spoken to Gilbert before that, so it wasn’t as though he was taking this effort for a friend. Then I realized just how generous he must be with actual friends and colleagues.

But far more important for Gilbert’s legacy was what it said about his approach to historiography. Martin Gilbert had a rare combination of intellectual ambition and personal humility. On an issue related to Winston Churchill and also to the events leading up the founding of the State of Israel–two monumental subjects of the 20th century–there was absolutely no question that Gilbert was the man to ask. That is an accomplishment in itself.

It was made more impressive by the fact that Gilbert was very good at his job. Anyone seeking to understand the 20th century simply couldn’t avoid relying to varying degrees on the path Gilbert set. For example, among just the books currently sitting on my desk next to me are Gilbert’s one-volume biography of Churchill, his history of Israel, his history of the 20th century (another anthology that was also released as a single-volume edition), and two volumes he edited: one of Churchill’s speeches and writings, and the other a historical atlas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Gilbert wrote a history of the Holocaust, a modern history of Jerusalem, and a history of the Jews living under Islamic rule, and he was the editor of Churchill’s papers. The higher the mountain, in other words, the more eager Gilbert was to climb it.

Gilbert’s books also had defining characteristics. For one, his books eschew the Western trend of self-flagellation while still remaining fully faithful to the historical record. They don’t drown in guilt and don’t whitewash either. For another, Gilbert’s humility found its way into his books.

One example of this is in his introduction to the Churchill biography. The great man lived a well chronicled life, and anyone writing a book on Churchill faces a similar question asked of American historians seeking to write about Abe Lincoln: What could you possibly add to the historical record?

For Gilbert, this was less of a problem because he had begun his work early on, while Churchill was still alive. He had less of a need, at least at the outset, to self-consciously distinguish himself. It was those who followed the path he cleared who had to do so. But he also made it clear that he took his job to be a historian first and foremost and thus he did not pretend to know his subject better than his subject knew himself. Gilbert allowed Sir Winston’s voice to remain more prominent than his own:

The record of Churchill’s life is a particularly full one, for which a vast mass of contemporary material survives. It is therefore possible, for almost every incident in which he was involved, to present his own words and arguments, his thinking, his true intentions, and his precise actions.

It may seem downright radical in this age of revisionism and reinterpretation, but Gilbert’s history was living history, not a lecture.

He was also willing to learn from his fellow historians. In reviewing Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The Holocaust and the Historians for COMMENTARY in 1981, Gilbert opens with self-criticism. He notes that he had recently leafed through a new British biography of Hitler and was aghast at the shabby treatment of the Holocaust within its pages. But he said and did nothing else; he moved on. “Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s new book shows me how wrong it is to remain silent,” he writes, scolding himself for shirking a historian’s duty.

In reviewing Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews for COMMENTARY six years later, Gilbert treats his fellow historian’s work as a necessary corrective to the narrow lens through which many historians, himself included, view Jewish history. He writes that “what we now call the Holocaust has scarred, and will continue to scar, the Jewish consciousness, and will do so to such an extent that many students of universal Jewish themes, myself included, have already neglected, and will go on neglecting, the wider historical and cultural spheres for this one. It is for that reason as much as any that Paul Johnson’s new book is to be welcomed.”

This humility and sense of personal responsibility permeates Gilbert’s staggeringly accomplished career, and is one of the many reasons he will be sorrowfully missed and justly celebrated.

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American Jewry, the Holocaust, and the End of History

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

In an essay at Tablet, Magid, author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, takes up the cause of Jacob Neusner and what he believes is Neusner’s “central thesis on American Judaism: The reception and in some cases mythicization of the Holocaust in American Jewry prevents American Jews from actualizing the distinct potential that exists for them to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution, or ‘negative Judaism,’ and toward a new identity that trusts the world enough to view itself as an integral part of an open society.”

It’s a long essay, so I hesitate to try to summarize it here. It’s also meandering, unsteady, and not quite able to stand on its own two feet, so I don’t want to attribute to it a clarity it doesn’t possess. But here is a coherent enough excerpt to get the point:

What is perhaps more distinctive to American Jewry is the second condition: the way the disappearance of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism as an imminent threat has obviated the need for a parochial social structure (I do not speak of the diminution of anti-Semitism worldwide, but only in America). When the need for social cohesion is removed, the perpetuation of collective identity must be generated from within. … Neusner argues that contemporary America, a society not plagued by anti-Semitism, is a new landscape that Jews must navigate in order to find resources other than pure ethnicity (ethnos) or negativity (the Holocaust) so as to construct a lasting sense of Jewish identity.

Given these two conditions, Jews in America have not abandoned the need, or desire, for a Jewish identity or “survival”; in fact, ironically, the notion of survival has arguably become an American Jewish obsession, as we can see by the collective Jewish hand-wringing that followed the 2013 Pew Poll. That is to say, survival becomes the primary concern, and even a dogma, of a collective void of any positive raison d’etre.

We’ll come back to the false, though mostly irrelevant, claim that survival is not a “positive raison d’etre.” The key here is that this argument is based on the conclusive idea that America is different. On its face, this is inarguable. But Magid, perhaps unintentionally, reveals what is so dangerous about this. He writes of the “Holocaust-Israel nexus” supposedly holding American Jews back: “it creates a Judaism whose foundations lie elsewhere (prewar Europe or Israel) making American Judaism ‘a spectator sport … spectators at someone else’s drama’.”

Well yes, American Judaism’s foundations lie elsewhere: Judaism is more than a few centuries old. American Judaism isn’t a separate religion—though many left-wing Jews in America do follow a politicized “Torah of Liberalism,” as Norman Podhoretz so accurately termed it. Judaism is not just its own history; Judaism is, in many ways, history itself. “Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision,” wrote Paul Johnson in the introduction to his History of the Jews. “It is world history seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.” What’s more, Johnson adds that writing a history of the Jews enabled him to reconsider the very question, “what are we on earth for?”

He was able to do this, he writes, because he was examining a history spanning 4,000 years. Pace Magid and Neusner, a Judaism that looks back on its history is not a “negative Judaism.” It is a Judaism of self-knowledge and inspirational, miraculous persistence. And a Judaism that looks ahead (to Israel, for example) is not a Judaism unhappy in its present moment but rather one that embraces the future and its own capacity for turning darkness into light.

In the Mishnaic book Ethics of the Fathers, the Jews are taught: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This is precisely what an American Judaism that self-consciously differentiates itself from the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Israel would do. Magid, Neusner, and others may see in Jewish history a depressing series of calamities. But that’s an incomplete interpretation that stems from giving up the “obsession” with survival. The full Jewish story is one of repeated triumph, courage, and piety against all odds.

That story is not a version of “negative Judaism,” and neither is a focus on survival. Too much intellectual and emotional distance from the Holocaust would not only erode Jews’ ability to see danger coming, if indeed it does. It would also downplay the real theme of Jewish history: our people’s ability to come out the other side.

Non-Jews tend to see this better than we do ourselves—historians like Johnson, but also politicians like Britain’s Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote that “Israel has its problems, but it will still be around when the EU is one with Nineveh and Tyre.” That is the lesson of both Europe and Israel, dismal as the landscape might appear at times. Today we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. Critics of American Jewry’s Holocaust commemoration habits would be well served by remembering not only Auschwitz, but its liberation.

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Even During the Six Days of 1967, War Was Hell and Context Was Everything

That a portion, albeit a small minority, of Israeli society is deeply critical of its army, and even of the Zionist principles at the core of the state’s purpose, is not a secret or news. Nor is this something that is limited only to Jews and Israelis as Gilbert and Sullivan made clear when they included a line about “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in The Mikado. But with Israel, the stakes are higher than those for Americans or 19th century Britons who always blamed their own country first. Thus the New York Times article lauding a new documentary that seeks to portray the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War in a negative light must be seen not only as an expression of free opinion in a democracy but also an effort to undermine the Jewish state’s self defense. Censored Voices, which was shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival this past weekend, may be based on historical testimony, but its purpose seems more to be to buttress efforts to undermine the IDF’s current efforts than telling untold truths about the past.

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That a portion, albeit a small minority, of Israeli society is deeply critical of its army, and even of the Zionist principles at the core of the state’s purpose, is not a secret or news. Nor is this something that is limited only to Jews and Israelis as Gilbert and Sullivan made clear when they included a line about “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in The Mikado. But with Israel, the stakes are higher than those for Americans or 19th century Britons who always blamed their own country first. Thus the New York Times article lauding a new documentary that seeks to portray the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War in a negative light must be seen not only as an expression of free opinion in a democracy but also an effort to undermine the Jewish state’s self defense. Censored Voices, which was shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival this past weekend, may be based on historical testimony, but its purpose seems more to be to buttress efforts to undermine the IDF’s current efforts than telling untold truths about the past.

As Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren acknowledged, filmmaker Mor Loushy is a leftist critic of her own country. Her only previous effort was a movie that sought to discredit the Israeli tourism industry as being too oriented toward bolstering the Zionist narrative of a nation reborn through pioneering struggle. But she did happen upon a treasure trove of testimony about the Six-Day War when she obtained tapes of testimony about that conflict taken down at the time, much of which was included in a seminal book The Seventh Day. That volume famously explored the misgivings of many Israelis about their unexpected triumph and the sacrifices that were required by war. In particular many spoke of their discomfort about and being the conquerors in the fighting rather than underdogs fighting against long odds. As author Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in his justly acclaimed recent book Like Dreamers, these discussions about the aftermath of that war, which was widely and rightly seen as one of self-defense and survival, presaged all the debates about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians in the decades that followed.

But not everything in the tapes used for the book were published. Some soldiers spoke of brutal behavior on the part of the IDF during the fighting as well as of claims of abuse of Arab prisoners. It is that material, obtained by Loushy from The Seventh Day’s editor Avraham Shapira, that forms the basis of her documentary.

The accounts upon which the film is based are contemporaneous and from soldiers claiming to be eyewitnesses. Thus, they must be treated as credible or at the very least as the basis for a reasonable investigation into any wrongdoing on the part of IDF soldiers. But Loushy’s motives here, as well as those that seek to laud this film, are not strictly objective. As Loushy tells the Times, she believes that if the topic of Israeli misbehavior were aired more thoroughly in the aftermath of the war, it might have made the country more amenable to accommodating its Arab and Palestinian foes.

This is, of course, nonsense. In the aftermath of its astounding victory in June 1967, Israel made clear its willingness to negotiate withdrawal from the territory that it had gained with the exception of the newly unified city of Jerusalem. The Arab world responded with its famous three “no’s”—no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations—to Israel. Nor have the Palestinians—even the so-called moderates among them—ever transcended their political culture in which rejection of Zionism is intrinsically linked with their national identity. Putting the onus for the lack of peace on Israel is not only illogical; it denies agency to the Palestinians.

But the focus on allegations of Israeli misbehavior—and it must be stressed that the incidents spoken of in the film have not been thoroughly or impartially investigated—also fails to put the issue in context. Israel was fighting for its life in June 1967. The world soon forgot the spectacle of isolated, tiny Israel in May of that year, preparing for an assault by nations whose leaders pledged to drive the Jews into the sea. Prior to the war, mass graves were dug in Israel’s cities in anticipation of large civilian casualties.

It should also be stated that if Israel’s soldiers were wary of taking prisoners or aggressive in their conduct, their activities must judged against the behavior of the troops of Arab armies toward Israelis who fell into their hands and not solely via historical hindsight.

But even if we were to concede that some Israelis didn’t live up to their army’s high standards of conduct, that hardly makes them unique in history. The same sorts of accusations in terms of abuse or killing of prisoners could be lodged against a minority of U.S. troops during World War Two—the “good war” as far as most Americans are concerned. There is just as much, if not more material to splice together an account of G.I. war crimes that could, if taken out of context, make it seem as if the Americans were the bad guys in that war and the Germans and the Japanese were the victims.

But though there are documented instances of Americans crossing the line in that conflict, such an account would tell us nothing about World War Two or about the respective combatants. Whether the war is justified or not or even if the opposing army is composed of genuine villains, war is always hell and even good people may wind up doing bad things. What matters is context. On its own, this topic constitutes a marginal footnote to history. But to re-write the narrative of 1967 to paint Israel as the wrongdoer is more of a falsification of history than anything else. If the point of Censored Voices is to add credence to the efforts to arraign Israel in the dock of international opinion or in that of the International Criminal Court for its efforts to defend the nation against Hamas terrorists, it must be seen as part of the effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.

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Shabtai Teveth and the Whole Truth

Longtime readers of COMMENTARY might remember Shabtai Teveth, prolific author and the authorized biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth passed away on November 2 at the age of eighty-nine. He had gone silent twelve years earlier, following a debilitating stroke. It was on the pages of COMMENTARY, in 1989, that he launched one of the most thorough broadsides on Israel’s “new historians.” It repays reading now (as does Hillel Halkin’s COMMENTARY review of Teveth’s Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust). It’s also a reminder of how desperately Israel still needs truth-tellers like Teveth, who knew the flaws of Israel’s founders perfectly well, but never let that overshadow the nobility of their cause.

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Longtime readers of COMMENTARY might remember Shabtai Teveth, prolific author and the authorized biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth passed away on November 2 at the age of eighty-nine. He had gone silent twelve years earlier, following a debilitating stroke. It was on the pages of COMMENTARY, in 1989, that he launched one of the most thorough broadsides on Israel’s “new historians.” It repays reading now (as does Hillel Halkin’s COMMENTARY review of Teveth’s Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust). It’s also a reminder of how desperately Israel still needs truth-tellers like Teveth, who knew the flaws of Israel’s founders perfectly well, but never let that overshadow the nobility of their cause.

By the time I met Teveth, in the early 1980s, he was already renowned for his journalistic achievements at Haaretz, but also for his best-selling books, most famously his up-close account of the heroic armored battles of the June 1967 Six-Day War. (It appeared in English under the title The Tanks of Tammuz.) Approaching sixty years of age, he had set aside journalism in order to devote himself to a monumental biography of David Ben-Gurion, a project he had commenced some years earlier, when the Old Man was still alive and willing to talk.

I was new in Israel, and the native-born Teveth became a friend and my guide to the intricacies of the country’s history, politics, and journalism. In return, I helped him to prepare an English edition of a spin-off of his biographical project: a book eventually entitled Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, published by Oxford in 1985. In that work, Teveth argued that Ben-Gurion perfectly understood Arab opposition to Zionism, but also recognized the danger of acknowledging its depth. So he conducted a carefully calibrated policy that held out the hope of a peaceful settlement, even while preparing for confrontation. The book covered the 1920s and 1930s, but Ben-Gurion would implement the same approach right up to 1948.

Work on the book became a kind of tutorial course on the history of Israel, taught to me by Teveth. In turn, I taught him some of the odder subtleties of English. For years afterwards, he would call me at some ungodly hour of the morning, to ask how he might best render this or that Hebrew phrase into polished English without sacrificing even an iota of its original meaning.

Teveth wrote like a journalist up against a deadline. He would rise very early, go for a swim, head for his office (he didn’t work at home, but kept a separate apartment filled to the brim with his research materials), and then would bang out a few thousand words on his typewriter before lunch. I don’t think he ever had a day of writer’s block. Over the years, we developed a regular routine. Perhaps once a month, we would meet for lunch in a restaurant somewhere in north Tel Aviv where he kept his office. By lunchtime, Sabi (as his family and friends called him) had finished a full day’s work, and he was primed for competitive conversation, usually smoothed by a glass of Scotch, for which he had a refined taste. I couldn’t return all of his volleys, and the only real match he had in conversation was the late Zvi Yavetz, the historian of ancient Rome and a master raconteur in his own right. When Sabi and Zvi got rolling, showering the table with sparks of erudition and wit, the spectacle inspired awe and envy.

I once asked Sabi why he had set journalism aside, since his Haaretz columns had landed on the breakfast tables of the most influential people in Israel. His many books, prior to the Ben-Gurion project, had been contemporary reportage of the highest order, attracting large numbers of readers. (These included a biography of Moshe Dayan, a book on the first years of Israel’s post-1967 policies in the West Bank, and an exploration of poverty in Israel.) Sabi answered that he didn’t want to spend an entire lifetime breathing heavily over the doings of politicians.

The older I grow, the more I appreciate that decision to move from punditry to history. Teveth came to recognize the ephemeral nature of most journalism. He believed he was fortunate to have witnessed the last chapter in the founding of Israel (as a young soldier in the Palmach and then as an army journalist), and that this was a story that would be told again and again by future generations, each time from a point still more remote from the events. If he wrote that history now, meticulously and honestly, that telling would last beyond him.

The Ben-Gurion project, which ultimately reached four volumes (3,000 pages) in Hebrew, belongs to the genre of the big-canvas biography, of the sort exemplified by Robert Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson or Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Winston Churchill. Indeed, it was Teveth’s finest hour in 1987 when the 967-page English version of the Ben-Gurion biography (pre-1948) received a glowing review from Gilbert on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a photograph as well as a short profile of Teveth (written by Tom Friedman). This was before the Internet, and I remember rushing over to Sabi’s home to see the review section, urgently dispatched by his New York publisher.

The Friedman profile includes an odd quote. “Israel has been going through a difficult period during these last thirteen years,” Teveth told Friedman. “But all this time I feel as though I have been working in a bunker full of light and hope. In my bunker the Jewish state is yet to be born. The Jewish people have a strong leader and the world is huge.” I personally never heard Sabi talk of his historical work as a nostalgic retreat from contemporary Israel. He regretted the diminished quality of Israel’s leaders, but this only fortified his determination to remind Israelis of a moment in living memory when they had a leader equal to world history at its most demanding.

There had been a leader who might have risen to that stature: Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s favorite, who seemed poised to succeed the Old Man as the very personification of Israeli grit. Teveth had written a biography of him—admiring but not reverential—that appeared in 1971, while Dayan still basked in the glow of the Six-Day War. Dayan’s prospects were dashed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when suddenly he became the clay-footed personification of Israeli hubris. Teveth nevertheless remained loyal to Dayan, and it was he who mediated between Dayan’s longtime admirers and Tel Aviv University, to bring forth the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

The monumental biography of Ben-Gurion secured for Teveth the National Jewish Book Award in 1987 and the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, in 2005. But the project remained unfinished, in part because every few years he would suspend it to write a spin-off. He wrote a book on the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosorov. (Its conclusions so enraged then-prime minister Menachem Begin that he appointed an official commission of inquiry to refute it.) He wrote another book on Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust, and still another on the 1954 Lavon Affair (both also appeared in English). And there was that book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs. These digressions, while important works in their own right, took time from the biography, and when Teveth suffered his stroke, he hadn’t yet gotten to the year for which Ben-Gurion’s life had been a preparation: 1948.

We are fortunate, then, that one of those digressions took the form of a direct confrontation with the so-called “new historians.” Avi Shlaim, one of Teveth’s targets, later called him “the most strident and vitriolic” critic of the self-declared iconoclasts who set about smashing the conventional Israeli narrative with reckless abandon. In the spring of 1989, Teveth fired off a barrage of full-page critiques in three consecutive weekend editions of Haaretz. (These pieces formed the nucleus of his later COMMENTARY article.) Teveth pummeled the “new historians” (Shlaim and Benny Morris), whose indictments of Israel’s conduct in 1948 he described as a “farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.” I recall waking up early each Friday morning and rushing down to my doorstep to grab the newspaper and flip to that week’s installment.

A year later, he published a 35-page review of Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pursuing error and bias into the most remote footnotes. This was Teveth at his forensic best: he had read the same documents in the same archives, and he showed that they did not always say what Morris claimed they said. “Morris’s work was received with great expectations,” Teveth concluded. “On examination, however, these have been disappointed. This problem [of how the Palestinian Arabs became refugees], therefore, will have to wait still further for a more comprehensive and honest study, that would be worthy of the great human and national tragedy it represents.”

The “new historians” retaliated by trying to label Teveth as “old.” True, he was a generation older than them, but the “old”-naming could reach absurd proportions. For example, Shlaim once described him, repeatedly, as a “member of the Mapai old guard.” Nonsense: Teveth was famously associated with Mapai’s young guard, and indeed built his journalistic reputation as a muckraker by attacking Mapai’s veteran party stalwarts.

Teveth concluded his COMMENTARY article by dismissing the “new historians,” since “history, thank goodness, is made of sterner and more intractable stuff than even their wholesale efforts of free interpretation can dissimulate.” This proved to be overly optimistic. Demolishing Israel’s “myths” and creating new ones turned into a popular pastime for younger academics and activists. Benny Morris’s book on the Palestinian refugee problem has become the most-read and most-cited book on the 1948 war. One hardly need wonder what Teveth would say about the latest iteration of “free interpretation” (pioneered by Morris in the revised edition of his book), accusing Israel of various massacres that somehow escaped notice until just now. Nothing good, I imagine.

I wish I could announce that Teveth’s legacy will be ever-enduring, but a younger generation of readers will have to discover him first, and that hasn’t happened yet. He wrote mostly in the era before the Internet, so his most important writings aren’t accessible at a click. He disappeared from the scene years before he died, so the obituaries were few and perfunctory. And he wrote big books that almost no one has read cover-to-cover. Teveth not only told truths about Israel, he told whole truths, and that required a minute retrieval and examination of all the evidence. There were reviewers who complained that Teveth left his readers “drowning in a sea of detail,” and that “intimate descriptions of daily doings” caused them to lose the “overall thread.”

Teveth was familiar with the criticism, and he rejected it. At one point, he had recited the list of groceries Ben-Gurion purchased while in London in November 1938. “Trivial,” he acknowledged, “yet how well this information helps the biographer in describing the loneliness of Ben-Gurion, who ate in his hotel room and there listened to the radio speeches by Hitler and Chamberlain, speeches that decided the fate of the world and the fate of both Europe’s Jews and Zionism.” Such level of detail assures that while the general reader may not persevere, every future biographer of Ben-Gurion will keep those four volumes on his or her desk. Perhaps that was Teveth’s aim all along.

I’ve missed Sabi very much these last twelve years, and suspect I’ll miss him still more with the passage of time. This is not only because he was my friend, but because I see no one who combines his mix of passion, energy, and encyclopedic knowledge in the pursuit of every recoverable fragment of evidence needed to establish the truth. My condolences to Ora, his wife, who sustained him through all the years of his disability and saw the last volume of the Ben-Gurion biography through to publication, and to their children and grandchildren, in whom Sabi took so much pride.

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MLK and the American Founding

As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. today, it’s worth recalling that among his great contributions was that King saw great injustice and sought to confront it within the American political tradition. This was very different than the approach taken by, among others, Malcolm X, who declared nonviolence to be the “philosophy of the fool.”

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As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. today, it’s worth recalling that among his great contributions was that King saw great injustice and sought to confront it within the American political tradition. This was very different than the approach taken by, among others, Malcolm X, who declared nonviolence to be the “philosophy of the fool.”

Consider what the Reverend King said during his commencement address at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961:

One of the first things we notice in this [American] dream is an amazing universalism. [The Declaration of Independence] does not say some men [are created equal], but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics.

And there is another thing we see in this dream that ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history. It says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given. Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and worth of the human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.

In that sense, King was very much like Lincoln, who continually urged Americans to embrace the truths of the Declaration of Independence and spoke about the “mystic chords of memory” that return us to the American founding and the American creed. In that sense, Dr. King was not a political revolutionary; he was calling on America to live up to its founding principles. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he said in his most famous speech, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King understood, as did Lincoln, that the United States is a nation founded on a proposition. Our greatest failures have been when we have deviated from them; when we have, as Lincoln put it, “descend[ed] from the high republican faith of our ancestors.”

This is in large measure why King succeeded. He took Americans from where we were to where we needed to be, and he did so in a way that appealed to our conscience rather than our hate, in ways that uplifted the human personality rather than degraded it, that aligned our nation with moral law rather than against it. He was an imperfect and yet supremely great man, among the most important America has ever produced. Which is why we’re right to honor him.

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Every Presidential Candidate Should Pledge Release of Missing 9/11 Pages

More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

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More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

And yet, so much remains inexplicably unknown about that day. President George W. Bush redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities report. A number of congressmen have read the redacted pages. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, said, “I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.” He added, however, “There is nothing in there that would affect our national security,” and suggested it was a desire not to embarrass some states that led the Bush administration to withhold the Commission’s findings. Steven Lynch, a Democratic representing Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional district, agreed. “These documents speak for themselves. We have a situation where an extensive investigation was conducted, but then the Bush [administration] decided for whatever purposes to excise 28 pages from the report,” he said, adding: “Maybe there were legitimate reasons to keep this classified. But that time has long passed.” Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has also been at the forefront of efforts to declassify and release those 28 pages.

Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, addressed the issue of the 28-pages in a recent New Yorker article:

A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations. Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations abuse declassification. Simply put, the purpose of classification is to protect sources and methods. Protection from political embarrassment and exposure of hypocrisy are not legal reasons to shield information from the public. Now, certainly, some of the information in the 28-pages might have been derived from sensitive sources, but more than 13 years on, the idea that keeping them secret would protect methods is risible. If the U.S. intelligence community and its capabilities haven’t evolved in the last 13 years, then the real scandal is how exposed and insecure the United States really is. Fortunately, however, the intelligence community has largely kept up with the times.

If any Saudi officials were culpable in the 9/11 attacks—or members of any other government—then the least of what they should be concerned about is embarrassment and public antipathy for their actions. The passage of time already inures the Saudis to the rage that might result; after all, Riyadh can claim that it is reformed and changed. While Saudi counter-terror cooperation was half-hearted at best up to and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, once Saudi Arabia began experiencing blowback from the monster it helped create and fund, it became a far more honest partner. Saudi Arabia today is no Pakistan, Qatar, or Turkey. But no country should get a free pass for the involvement of any of its citizens, princes, or officials in an attack on the United States. In effect, arbitrarily classifying material or delaying its declassification is politicization of intelligence, plain and simple.

As for the bin Laden documents: President Obama rhetorically both casts himself as the anti-Bush and has promised to be the most transparent president ever. And yet, when it comes to opacity on issues of terror, Obama is really no different than his predecessor. The issue for Obama is not simply the 28 pages. When Navy SEALS raided bin Laden’s compound, they removed millions of files. The second the SEALS landed in Abbottabad, there began a countdown on the utility of the intelligence seized.

The Obama administration, however, has ignored the bin Laden cache’s operational expiration date, and released only 17 documents. While still chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers argued that far more than the 17 documents might be released, and that the United States could learn from their contents. Administrations should stop underestimating the American ability to handle complexity and deal with the reality of the world, rather than the simplistic notion of adversaries and diplomacy that too often they seek to project.

On January 20, 2017, a new president will take the oath of office. Already, a handful of Democrats and perhaps a dozen Republicans are exploring their options, starting the carefully calibrated game of footsie with the press. Journalists should not let any candidate off the hook. Every aspirant to the presidency should pledge him or herself to full transparency and to complete the historical reckoning from 9/11 that all the victims, their families, and, indeed, every American deserves.

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