Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks on Iran in a Nutshell

Lee Smith in Tablet:
What comes through most strongly from the Wikileaks documents, however, is that U.S. Middle East policy is premised on a web of self-justifying fictions that are flatly contradicted by the assessments of American diplomats and allies in the region. Starting with Bush’s second term and continuing through the Obama Administration, Washington has ignored the strong and repeated pleas of its regional allies—from Jerusalem to Riyadh—to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in the documents is the extent to which both the Bush and Obama Administrations have concealed Iran’s war against the United States and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states, even as those same allies have been candid in their diplomatic exchanges with us. U.S. servicemen and -women are being dispatched to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are fighting Iranian soldiers and assets in a regional war with the Islamic Republic that our officials dare not discuss, lest they have to do something about it.

The Death of Linkage - Andrew Sullivan Sobs

Clearly, the story of the moment is the unauthorized Wikileaks release of hundreds of thousand of confidential US diplomatic cables. Much has been said, even more has been written, new revelations could come at any minute, but one thing is finally, totally, undeniably clear - Linkage is dead.

The one thing we’ve learned from this episode is that the Middle East still functions the way some of us always knew it did, which is to say, without a shred of “Linkage”. Apparatchiks like Andrew Sullivan who spent the last two years making a case that another townhouse in Gilo or a Jewish family adding a second story to their home in Elkanah were destroying the chance for Mid-East peace... Well, it’s kind of like in Jurassic Park, where the guy hides from the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Port-a-Potty, and the dinosaur knocks all four walls and roof down. That’s where the “Linkage” pimps are now, crapping their pants and reaching for toilet paper, just as the jaws of reality close around their head.

Yes, just like that. Reality bites, hard.

Not incidentally, Andrew Sullivan has newly reframed our erstwhile Sunni Arab allies as "Arab autocrats". He's literally peppered the phrase throughout his posts today - Pwning Douthat, Goldblog's Straw Man 2, Ctd, Goldblog's Straw Man, Ctd. That's how he now describes our "moderate" Sunni allies, the ones we only recently desperately needed on our side, so much so that Andrew spent the last two years hyperventilating about the necessity of pressuring Israel into making all sorts of concessions detrimental to the Jewish state's security, in order to please what we now know are "Arab autocrats".

So, I decided to check exactly how long Andrew has been speaking "truth to power" to these terrible autocratic Arab leaders. It turns out, not that long. In fact, I couldn't find a reference to "Arab autocrats", or variations of the phrase, on Andrew Sullivan's blog, ever, until yesterday. He's made sure to make up for lost time, however, inserting this pernicious little phrase no less than four times in three blog posts, all the while assuring us that...
And, as you can readily see in the posts I have cited, I have long known and written about Sunni Arab autocrats' desire for Israel and the US to launch World War III against Iran for them.
Except if you follow that link, to an article he wrote just weeks ago, he writes nothing about the desires of "Arab autocrats", and instead despairs that stubborn Israeli policies are making it difficult (for Andrew, no less) to coral those peace-loving Arabs to confront Iran, avoid World War III and save Israel from itself.
Why, under those circumstances, would Netanyahu not be more willing to make concessions on illegal settlements, in order to bolster relations with the US and the Sunni Arab states that are crucial to Israel's strategy to isolate Iran and weaken Hezbollah and Hamas?
If the "Arab autocrats" are so desperate for the US and Israel to destroy Iranian nukes, as Andrew has "long known and written about", why would Israel need to make painful concessions to earn their goodwill in isolating Iran and its proxies? Can Andrew follow his own logic on this one, without reaching for more toilet paper?

Moreover, yesterday, these were "crucial" Sunni Arab states. Today, they're "Arab autocrats". Funny how that works, eh, Andrew? The man could teach Rumsfeld a thing or two about slimy realpolitik. And how is calling these "crucial" Sunni Arab regimes "autocrats" going to help "bolster relations"? Is Andrew now trying to sabotage President Obama's outreach to our Sunni Arab allies? Isn't that what he was accusing those of us who rejected Linkage from the beginning? It's a sad sight, to watch a grown man squirm around on a toilet seat, in real time. Linkage is dead and it's pimps are disgraced. When it comes to Israel, Andrew simply insists on embarrassing himself. Life goes on.

As for Iranian nukes, let's boil all the nonsense down to what those of us with heads on our shoulders have always known:
Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate, told a senior US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”
Sanctions, carrots, incentives… all that matters in the end is whether Obama pulls the trigger, and everyone knows it, including the Iranians. I don’t think he’ll do it, and I think you don’t think he’ll do it either. So then why punish 80 million Iranians with increasingly crippling sanctions, when the policy of this government - of the entire international community - is a farce? When did the Obama Administration make the wrong choice between starving Iranian children and destroying Iranian nukes? Has Iran become the world's largest open air prison yet? I'm just asking.

Israel is the Enemy

Lamis Andoni of Al Jazeera English explains:
The WikiLeaks revelations will further erode the image of Arab leaders in Arab public opinion and make it more difficult for them to publicly advocate a war against Iran. Even if some of the fears expressed by Arab leaders are shared by segments of the Arab people, any official Arab attempt, beyond the closed doors of meetings with US officials, to make Iran, rather than Israel, the enemy will backfire.
Any questions?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Global Untermenschen

There exists a people in our world reviled by all of humanity. They are an obstacle to peace, to brotherly love, to human rights and human dignity. They are the root of war, the root of violence and despair, the very seeds of hatred and animosity in our time. To their wombs is our world hostage, to labor of their hands and the toil of their backs.

The Jewish settlers are the new global untermenschen. Everyone agrees this is so, the entire world, and everyone is really glad, jovial even, to be united against a small, marginalized community without access to media or competent political representation to defend itself. It just feels so good, doesn’t it? You can say anything you want about them and everyone will agree. Really, try it, say the most abhorrent thing you can imagine, and you will be applauded - the more vicious the charge, the louder the applause - because deep down, we all know they deserve it. Thieves, racists, butchers of children, genocidal miscreants, the lot of them and their degenerate offspring.

When their crops are destroyed, they deserve it. When they are shot on the roads, they deserve it. When their children are stabbed or stoned or murdered, they deserve it. Say it proudly, THEY DESERVE IT! We all know it’s true. They have no rights - not to property, not to livelihood, not to their very lives. If they were murdered en mass tomorrow, the killers would be celebrated heroes, venerated in festivities the world over, because the settlers deserve nothing. They don’t bleed. They don’t cry. They don’t feel. They don’t dream. They don’t hope. No punishment will suffice for these dregs of humanity, these inhumans. They deserve it, all of it, and much more. So say we all.

With one abstention.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Peanut Butter Shabbos Time!

Or PBST for short. For months now, perhaps as long as a year, as Shabbos nears, I've been reminding Jews around me that PBST approaches. Today, I was challenged to explain myself, as in, "Victor, once and for all, what the *bleep* is Peanut Butter Shabbos Time?!"

PBST has little or nothing to do with peanut butter, at least where I'm eating. It's a take on the "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" song by the Buckwheat Boyz, which went hyper-viral a few years back thanks to an amateur animation that was posted online. A good friend of mine got into a habit of break dancing into this little tune, in the most inopportune moments, though I think that was the point. He succeeded in driving this annoyance deep into my subconscious, where it ruminated until it found expression in PBST. Here's is the original animation:

Peanut Butter Shabbos Time. Sing it!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Resistance

Uzi Landau:
According to Landau, the conditions for the deal are far different than those being portrayed in the Israeli media, which is telling Israelis that in exchange for a “small” Israeli gesture of an additional three month freeze, Jerusalem will receive a bundle of benefits, including additional advanced F-35 fighter jets, and an American guarantee to veto any anti-Israel proposals at the United Nations and other world bodies – and to similarly smash any attempt by the Palestinian Authority to seek U.N. approval for a declaration of independence for an Arab state in Judea and Samaria. [...]

"All the American promises share a similar characteristic – they lack specifics, and are not carried out if they are found to be damaging to American interests.” That was the case with the 2003 letter Bush presented Sharon, ostensibly recognizing Israel's right to retain the “settlement blocs” in the event of a deal with the PA; in the end, that American promise has been rescinded by President Barack Obama because he has decided it is in American interests to do so.

“Here too, with the Obama promises, we must see the structure of the deal – and you see that the Americans are demanding that we come to a full agreement with the PA in order for the benefits to kick in,"Landau explained. "You only get the benefits in the event of a final-status agreement – only when everything is over.” Given the history of Israel-PA negotiations, the likelihood of that happening is “very low,” he added.

Perhaps even worse, Landau said, the understandings between Israel and the United States – which included American opposition to a unilaterally declared PA state – are apparently no longer extant, and have instead been turned into a “sword of Damocles,” to be held over the head of Israel.
Israel Harel:
The Americans, as is their wont in every field of endeavor, are determined to rack up achievements. And only Israel can supply them.

But once they have been supplied, the Palestinians will, of course, refuse to accept them. After all, they know that after every refusal of theirs, Obama will once again come down on Netanyahu like a ton of bricks. And he, one of the most defeatist politicians ever to occupy the post of Israel's prime minister, will capitulate in exchange for a mess of pottage of some kind or another. And on and on.

Obama, contrary to what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman claims, is not at all fed up with Netanyahu. Quite the opposite. He is Obama's strategic asset. Obama recognizes his unique added value - a weak Likud prime minister outflanking the left from the left - and applies incessant pressure to him, including via psychological warfare. Some of this warfare is conducted via the articles of his good friend, Friedman. To Netanyahu, unlike to most Americans these days, what is written in the New York Times is holier than Holy Writ.

The Seductive Logic of American Incentives

Israel's English language media went into overdrive this week over reports that the Obama Administration has offered Netanyahu's government a generous package of incentives, including twenty advanced stealth aircraft, merely in exchange for imposing a three month freeze on building in Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, but definitely not in Jerusalem, but also in Jerusalem, and an American promise to end further requests for settlement freezes, as long as they get to keep requesting settlement freezes.

It is the nature of the diplomatic wrangling in which Obama has ensnared both the US and Israel, that specifics reported with great pomp just days ago must be repudiated with cynicism just days later, pending approval from the kingpins of Ramallah - Abbas and Fayyad. It is therefore useless to discuss such issues in specificity, because let's face it - the American administration is too weak and too beholden to Arab interests and Arab pressure to force the Palestinians into returning to the negotiating table under any conditions. Thus, whatever agreements Netanyahu makes with Obama today on issues that the Palestinians may find objectionable will be vetoed by Abbas tomorrow, or the day after, or in three months, forcing the Americans to redouble pressure on the only negotiating partner doing any negotiating - the Israelis.

I do not meant to imply malice on the part of the Obama Administration, not at all. The present situation is a natural byproduct of linking, with good intentions but fuzzy logic, the success of American policy throughout the Middle East with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, thereby placing all of America's most vital chestnuts into the Palestinian nutcracker. When the Obama Administration decided to offer the lives of American soldiers deployed in Baghdad and Kabul as a bargaining chip to Palestinian negotiators, it lost the ability to function as an honest broker that can impose conditions on both sides, and became hostage to Ramallah's demands, with time developing a Stockholm syndrome to boot.

It is therefore useless for us to debate the settlement freeze, it's specifics, or the possibility for future settlement freezes. Like the American President, on these issues we should simply pick up the hotline to the Arabs and begin taking dictation. Instead, I would like to focus on the sole American settlement-freeze incentive which is relatively isolated to the bilateral relationship with Israel - the much talked about package of 20 F-35 stealth fighters.

Israel retaining a qualitative military superiority over its neighbors has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Levant since the 1973 war. As Lee Smith has written, by making Israel too powerful to defeat, America forced most of the Arabs to end their flirtations with pan-Arabism and Soviet communism, and crawl to Washington for their security and concessions from Israel. In a stroke of foreign policy genius, Kissinger turned a small, stubborn country of three or four million Jews into American leverage over two hundred million Arabs.

Such strategic foundations justified four decades of American military assistance to Israel, but it is not clear if the paradigm Kissinger created still holds, at least in the minds of the Obama Administration. America has many more pieces on the board now than in 1973, and an impossibly complex set of regional interests that a unitary focus on Israeli strength is no longer able to single-handedly manage. Indeed, in a region which the Obama Administration is desperate to extricate itself from, Israeli strength remains an American leverage over the Arabs, but in reverse, to be bargained away in exchange for Arab cooperation on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

The crux of the issue is like this: If a strong, assertive Israel remains a cornerstone of American policy in dealing with the Arabs, then it is an American interest to supply the Jewish state with the armaments it needs to retain its military edge, regardless of progress on the peace process, or lack thereof. In this case, Israeli concessions to the Palestinians on settlements are irrelevant to wider American interests in the region. If Israel does not make these concessions, it will receive the armaments regardless, maybe next month, or next year, or under the next American government, but it will receive them because America needs a strong Israel.

However, if a strong, assertive Israel is no longer a cornerstone of American policy in its relations with the Arabs, then whatever armaments Israel receives in the context of bilateral negotiations now it will anyways not be allowed to use without American approval, except in a case of clear self-defense. The F-35 is not a defensive but an offensive platform, designed to project power and defend (or impose) interests across borders - and in Israeli hands, to impose Israeli power and Israeli interests on their Arab neighbors, including deflating Syrian nuclear ambitions or guarantying upstream water flow to the Jordan River. If a strong, assertive Israel is no longer the foundation of American policy in the region, then it will not be allowed to project its power and interests, with Iran's nuclear program a case in point.

That is not to say that America's commitment to Israel's basic security has been undermined. American support for Israel is too broad-based, and too deep, for any American president to violate the covenant of Israel's survival. Israel will continue to receive the weapons it needs for self-defense - witness American largess in building up Israel's missile shield - but American confidence in the utility of Israeli power projection to American interests has been broken. Therefore, whatever additional capability Israel receives for power projection has already been neutered in the womb, rendering the platforms of power projection, such as the F-35, utterly worthless.

By bargaining away settlement freezes for fighter jets, Israel is increasing its military capability but losing the freedom of action to deploy that capability in a way that meaningfully enhances Israeli security. Meanwhile, vital Israeli negotiating positions vis a vis the Palestinians are being compromised, perhaps irretrievably, with no tangible diplomatic gains. Indeed, concessions designed to provide Israel with diplomatic deterrence are instead being used to justify ever deepening concessions. The original, one time Settlement Freeze has now spawned Son of Settlement Freeze, and in three months will produce a Daughter of Settlement Freeze, and so on, until there is an entire family, with not so much as a thank you from the American President for allowing the peace process to limp along on the sore back of Israeli concessions and unchallenged Palestinian rejectionism.

Twenty advanced warplanes cost the Obama Administration nothing - it's the equivalent of a $3 billion jobs stimulus program for Lockheed Martin. Nor does another squadron of aircraft, no matter how advanced, contribute meaningfully to Israel's security. The seductive logic of transient American incentives being finagled for permanent Israeli interests - at the very least, constituting vital negotiating leverage with the Palestinians - is in fact empty of substance. If concessions are to be made, then they must be traded for nothing less than tangible diplomatic achievements in the context of final status negotiations. Until then, Israel should reconcile itself with a frustrated and misguided American President badly in need of a foreign policy victory leading up to the 2012 campaign.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lieberman For the Win

Around a week ago, I made the following comments on Yaacov's blog:
Actually I was looking for much more from [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman on the Former Soviet Union front. If there's one place where you'd think he would provide the appropriate atmospherics, it would be there. I'm not looking for much, a state visit from Putin or Medvedev would do.

A Soviet born, Russian speaking Foreign Minister of Israel (the first, or was that Golda?), whose party represents one of the largest Russian diaspora communities in the world... you'd think he would be able to do more with Russia and its environs, publicly, than he has.

So far I'm not impressed.
If there is one place where Lieberman could help, it would be in restoring balance to relationships that are greatly out of balance solely for reasons of now irrelevant history. The Russian-Israeli relationship is still greatly out of balance, reflecting the Soviet-Israeli interests of 30 years past.

I'm just saying, I don't see him trying all that hard.

In light of recent articles and events, I've had to reappraise Lieberman's performance, at least as far as Russia is concerned. First came a revealing article which demonstrated - in spite of itself, it being Haaretz - that Lieberman is quite the well-behaved, forward thinking diplomat, when he wants to be. Then, it was announced today that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to make an official state visit to Israel in January, the first by a Russian leader in five years - precisely the kind of metric I had previously described as indicative of Lieberman's success or failure.

There is little choice but to conclude that Lieberman is adeptly managing and expanding the Russian relationship, which has traditionally been a challenging one for Israel, even in the best of times. I stand corrected.
As a sidenote, Medvedev's visit is all the more interesting given that he is a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother and the first Jew to become President of Russia, much less enter the Kremlin in any capacity besides the following: doctor, scientist, military hero, foreigner.

I've personally confirmed Medvedev's Jewish identity with former Muscovites, who say that Medvedev's mother regularly attended the main synagogue in Moscow. The subject has not been broached much in Russian media, as Medvedev is Putin's man, and, well, Russian journalists know what's good for them, or they have an accident - there is freedom of choice in Russia. I wonder if anyone's bothered to tell the Arabs.

Bradley Burston is a Settlement

You heard me. Actually, he's more of an illegal outpost. Or, as some would say, a hilltop youth encampment, an illegal one, of course (is there any other kind, for Jews, that is?). In all seriousness, by his own definition, based on "the classic characteristics of a settlement":

1) He is "on disputed land." Check.

2) He causes "direct, prolonged damage to relations between Palestinians and Israelis." Check

3) He "erodes the basis of Israeli sovereignty, and bolsters allegations of Israeli arrogance." Check.

4) He "tarnishes Israel's image as a democratic state respectful of the rights of other faiths and peoples." Check.

5) He supports "a huge budget, aimed at establishing a superfluous, extrinsic, and lavish entity [a Palestinian state] in a surrounding environment of social need." Check.

Can a settlement hate a settlement? Does that make the first settlement a self-hating settlement? The answers to these questions and more, next time on: Bradley Burston runs out of writing material and stands next to a random construction site picking fights with security guards. (Just imagine if your father did that for a living.) I love this show!

Up next on Haaretz, Gideon Levy becomes a Mosque.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Rebbe in my Childhood

My own connection to the Lubavitcher Rebbe was formed haphazardly. I first knew of him as the faceless leader for whose health we Russian-Jewish kids were asked to pray for in a Chabad-affiliated summer camp, perhaps in '92 or '93, just a year or two after my family immigrated to the US. It was perfunctory, and somewhat strange, to pray for a man you never met, never mind to pray at all, for me, in those days. And who was the Rebbe? And why were we praying for him? I may have been the only child to ask my counselor, and very cautiously, when everyone else was distracted. What would I say, now, in his place, to a child who knows nothing? I would say whatever he told me, except I do not know now what that is - you do not prepare such words in advance, not for a child.

My brother, four years my elder, who had developed a interest in observing our Jewish faith even back in Moldova, quickly found a place for himself in the Russian youth division of the Chabad Shul in Milwaukee. The unflagging commitment of Rabbi Shmotkin, the Rebbe's Shaliach (emissary) to Wisconsin, to reach out to and provide programming for newly arrived Russian Jews in the early 1990s - which probably exceeded, by multiples, the efforts of the rest of the local Jewish community put together - practically bankrupted the institution for the next decade.

My brother's decision to embrace the movement came as a sort of slow-motion shock to my family. With my mother working two and three jobs, often menial positions beneath her gold-standard Leningrad education, and my father spending three and six month stretches on business overseas for an American firm building Siberian dachas for the Russian mafia (and who else in Russia had money to build dachas in those days?) my brother's growing activities in Yiddishkeit went unobserved, and maybe ignored.

I played my part in the secrecy, the deception, the underground life to which my brother belonged. We lived in the same room, my brother and I, and so I knew where the siddur was hidden, and the tzedakah box, and so on, and I told no one. We were strictly obedient children, certainly by American standards, born to strictly domineering, demanding parents. The only secret of a child is shame, and an adult, too, but not always. It was how we were raised, on secrets, and I had mine, and these belonged to my brother.

Secrets suited me. I never told. Even when he broke the last jar of tart and sweet Moldovan cherry jam that my father's mother had made, G-d rest her soul, I took the blame with stoic duty, for I was the younger and less was expected of me. Our code of honor forbade involving the parents, under the direst penalty of excision, in the maximalist clarity of a child's mind, until my brother broke the code and we did not speak for years, to the day I grew up and forgave him, and he forgave me, but all that was much later, and anyway it was never really the same again, and it still isn't.

I suppose my parents thought it better that he was spending time with Jewish mentors, venerable learned Rabbis, no less, and not with hooligans on the street. (I never met these hooligans, but we all knew they were there, ready to corrupt us with drugs and criminality, in dark alleys, but especially at night, in doubly dark alleys.) Whatever they knew of his other life, they did not learn from me. When it finally came out that my brother - strong-willed and bull-headed as any man alive - would no more eat my mother's unkosher food than drink from the toilet, it couldn't be hidden any longer, even with secrets, it was as if my parents were fighting for their own lives, and my brother was fighting for his. And I, I didn't know who should win, even as I felt us all lose. Against my father's terrifying anger and my mother's lacerating words stood my brother's stubborn will. If that didn't break him, then nothing will, and no one, but maybe it did, in a way.

It was then, when my brother did not come home for days, that he sometimes would call in the afternoon, maybe knowing that only I would be home, newly arrived from school, watching cartoons with one eye out the window, for there was homework left to do, and always more of it than what was assigned if I was caught watching cartoons. I was an obedient child, but with secrets, and shame; a sly child, my mother would say, her little partisan, with one eye out the window, and I was never caught watching cartoons. It was then, on the phone with my brother, after I pretended that his voice didn't sound so far away, and I delivered my report on the family situation, and when it would be safe to come home, and I never asked where he was and if he knew what he was doing - this is not the way of younger brothers - or that I spent the entire weekend looking for him on my bike, knocking softly on the doors of synagogues, that he would sometimes tell me that he wrote to the Rebbe. And maybe the Rebbe had passed away by then, I can't remember, but the letter would be read over his resting place just the same. My brother would write for peace in our home, peace between our parents, for all our health, and maybe even for forgiveness. I did not know how, but I knew it would help, that the Rebbe would help us, somehow, that someone had to. And sometimes, when things had calmed down for a while, and my brother was back home, I would remind him, or he would remind me, but we didn't dwell on it, with a nod is all, that he helped.

Mumbling playground blessings for his health and my brother's letters - all that the Rebbe knew of me - and I soon forgot, and for a long time there was nothing at all, until it was time to remember.

The Rebbe and Israel's Security

It's here! The video no self-respecting "friend of Chabad" bocher can live without. Jewish Education Media (JEM), an independent organization affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch, and headed by Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, the son of Rabbi Israel Shmotkin - the Rebbe's shaliach (emissary) to Milwaukee, and my shul's Rabbi - some months ago released a high production quality video, providing a glimpse into the Rebbe's communications, advice and instruction, throughout the decades, to Israelis involved in the country's security.

The Faithful and Fortified series provides a fascinating account as some of Israel’s top defense, intelligence, and government leaders discuss – for the first time on the record – their meetings with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, on topics ranging from public policy to military strategy.

Faithful and Fortified Volume 1 from Jewish Educational Media on Vimeo.

Thoughts? There is a volume two, as well.

Whenever Elkanah visits the shul, usually for a holiday or Shabbos, he's always full of select anecdotes from the hundreds and thousands of people that JEM interviews about their personal experience with the Rebbe. It is incredible how many people, even two decades after the Rebbe's passing, are still coming out of the woodwork to share their story, to preserve for future generations that singular encounter with the Rebbe that changed their lives.

For those of you interested in archival work, JEM is spearheading one of the largest restoration and preservation projects of its kind in the nation, encompassing tens of thousands of hours of multi-format video, sound recordings and hundreds of thousands of pictures, which catalog the history of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, from the "old country" into the present.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On Dialogue with Arabs and the Old Testament

KabobFest is a collaborative blog devoted to issues of interest to English-speaking Arabs and Muslims, and fellow travelers. Many of its regular contributors live in the US, but descend from the Middle East. I was once a regular in the comments, years ago, but my prolonged efforts at dialogue with what I thought were moderate, educated, Westernized Arabs and Muslims (most are educated and Westernized, an elite, but are also quite radical - Marxists, Baathists and, increasingly, Islamists) were rebuffed and ultimately unsuccessful. I've long since nursed a phantom pain where once hope for dialogue resided; for Jews, peace with Arabs will not be built on dialogue. I still believe that peace can be built, but through coexistence - respecting each others mutual boundaries, developing ways of interacting to minimize conflict and getting on with our lives, not by discussing or debating those boundaries through dialogue.

Such an approach may seem jaded, and it is, though by experience, not bigotry. My personal experience, of which my efforts at KabobFest are but a drop in the ocean, is that the more prolonged the dialogue, the higher the levels of frustration, tension, polarization and radicalization, particularly in an open, internet format where a group dynamic emerges around the like-minded that reinforces maximalist positions, but often in private interactions as well. For dialogue to work, one or both parties must decide to compromise aspects of their core beliefs and fundamental understanding of the world, or tensions begin to build. While I've often found it helpful to understand what some Arab individuals believe, how they reason and perceive the world, I've never felt it necessary to compromise my own sense of reality, truth and justice. My intransigence isn't out of spite, just as I assume neither is theirs, but a rather a deep conviction based on identity, life experience and self-introspection.

I could continue to speak, at length, about issues of dialogue, coexistence and accommodation, but the reason for this post is altogether different. It is one thing to reconcile conflicting beliefs and ideologies, but yet another to correct the record. In my experience, Arabs know very little about Jews and our faith. Most of their knowledge is based on Arab media - itself recycling societal bias and cultural misconceptions - and their own faith tradition, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. There is nothing inherently wrong with viewing other cultures through the prism of your own spiritual understanding and historical narrative, so long as the things you know conform to the basic reality. In the case of Jews, more recent contributions in Jewish thought, by say the Rambam, give a general understanding of Islam in a way that is broad, but accurate - as a monotheistic faith of a people largely descended from Ishmael. So, a ruling was made, from the perspective of Jewish law, whether Islam was monotheistic or not, and also the Arabs who practice it are connected to an individual in the Jewish historical narrative.

The two reasons I still skim KabobFest, from time to time, are to understand the evolving perspectives among its contributors, and occasionally, when I see an egregious misunderstanding of Jews, Jewish laws or customs, to correct the record if possible. The later was the case yesterday, when I saw the following comment by Jamal, who I am having a difficult time placing as either Christian or Muslim:
"Israel," is a covenant between God and humanity
The concept is interesting, although the wording is sufficiently vague that Jamal and I could have widely divergent views on what this statement means. So, I asked him what he meant by this, where he learned of this concept, or from what sources he constructed it. He told me, in a mish-mash sort of way that wasn't nearly as interesting as I had hoped. He did, however, include the following sentence, and that - it's a long post, go take that potty break now - is where our journey begins.
Following the Old Testament literally would amount to a crime against humanity.
Ignore the modern legalism, and you'll see that this statement has been a common refrain from non-Jews throughout the ages. Alternative variations portray the Old Testament as that of an angry and vengeful G-d, with severe laws and even harsher punishments. Such depictions are usually contrasted with the New Testament, where G-d's love, kindness, and mercy for mortal sins, so long as man repents and accepts G-d in his heart, are said to be the primary themes.

Without engaging in dialogue, as I have no wish to challenge anyone's religious convictions, much less engage in a tit for tat over religious supremacy, but merely to set the record straight, to the extent that is possible, here is my response (with minor edits for clarity).
I don't know who said that you should follow the Old Testament literally, or who said that you shouldn't, but Jews said neither. The Torah is a code, a hyper-compressed code of infinite information, a blueprint for creation which preceded creation itself.

Two Torahs were given at Mt. Sinai - the Written Law (this is what Christians call the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses) and the Oral Law (the explanations and derivations of the Written Law, which Christians don't really know about, although more of them are studying it now than ever before). How do we know that two Torahs were given, which are really one Torah, split in two? Because the written Torah often says thing like, do this, but it doesn't say what "this" is, or how to do it. The oral Torah makes it clear.

In more recent times, after the destruction of the 2nd Temple Period, when the level of scholarship decreased sharply, and there was a risk that the knowledge would be lost, the Oral law was written down in a hyper-condensed format called the Mishnah. Codifying the Oral law in the Mishnah took about 200 years. After that began another process of 200 or so years, an unpackaging of the Mishnah, with more derivations, explanations, context, proper usage, and information of value to the historical and cultural record - called the Gemara. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud.

Loosely speaking, after the Talmud was codified came a period of another 400 years, where commentary was written for the Gemara, further simplifying and explaining roots of words, concepts, etc. This was followed by another period of 400 years or so, in which much of the actual daily, practical law and practice was codified in written form, so that a child could learn from a book, in case his father and mother did not know, what a Jew should do when he wakes up in the morning, and what not to do. Today we have commentary on the commentary on the commentary of the Talmud, and some commentaries on that, and so on.

The entire journey, from the giving of the Torah to today, is a drilling down, within, inside the Torah, layers of specificity upon layers of specificity. The Talmud, the Oral Law, is not merely a store of information and explanations of the Written Law, it is a way of thinking, a holistic approach to G-d, to life, to reason itself. All this, and I have yet to mention the Hidden Torah - mystical concepts, which permeate the texts, every letter, infusing with meaning even the crowns above the letters, every law, every thought, every deed, every corner of creation.

So, when you say, "Following the Old Testament literally would amount to a crime against humanity", it's not a statement that makes sense in a Jewish context. It is like someone looking at the surface of a quiet lake and thinking that it is made of glass. You simply lack the vocabulary to engage in any meaningful way on what you call the Old Testament. Most non-Jews, and even some Jews, don't know what they don't know, so they may quickly become frustrated or even take offense when learned Jews refuse to talk to them about matters of faith. Consider it from the Jewish perspective; how do you even start a conversation with someone about the Old Testament who doesn't know what Rashi is? (And if you don't know what Rashi is, you're living proof of my point.) The engineers at NASA do not debate with a child about the variable factors and precision calculations necessary to achieve orbital space flight. In the natural order of things, you first send the child to school where they play with wooden blocks, then they graduate to algebra, then geometry and so on. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, whether it is knowledge of fluid dynamics or the infinitely complex blueprint for Creation.

I recognize that Christians and Muslims have their own faith-tradition and their own historical narrative, but from a Jewish perspective, our covenant is unbroken since Mt. Sinai; everything we have, from the five books of Moses to the ruling of how to make plastic utensils fit for use in a kosher kitchen are one continuum, one Torah, one covenant, inseparable from the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, bound up with the One G-d.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Brothers in Paradise

I grew up among cats, above them, really. We were held hostage in our fourth floor apartment by them, when I think back on it, by those rabid, disease infested felines, but we didn't think so at the time. The sleepy Moldovan metropolis of Kishinev (Chisinau they now call it, in their de-Russified language), one point five million strong when I left it, was a cacophony of growling, hissing and meowing, and even yawaYAWAYAWing!

Every shady alley, every garbage dump, every garden had its share of the beasts, lurking, scheming, salivating at their good fortune of being born in a kitty version of the Garden of Eden. I never saw a single starving cat in Kishinev, ever, not once - I think they ate better than we did, a truly glorious and poignant victory for world socialism, inexplicably omitted from the proud, unfurled red banners of May Day, or Victory Day, or the many other Days. They should have put a cat on one of those banners, next to the golden likeness of Lenin, and Stalin, superimposed on bright red cloth, the finest, silky cloth like you couldn't find in stores, over blood red, the golden likeness of a cat, whiskers and all, boldly looking to our bright, socialist future - a brother in paradise.

Andrew Sullivan Loves the Mob, and Hyenas

Andrew Sullivan has been on quite on a roll, dishing out several Israel-related posts that he's quite proud of - they're three of his last five "Sully's Recent Keepers" (I, II, III). He's kept his head, his language civil, this wordsmith extraordinaire, perhaps still sore from The Spanking he received back in September (still waiting on that retraction, Andrew), of which this scratchpad of a blog played but a minor fiddle in. As the few proud souls who still frequent my "Stories" have likely surmised, I took a long-winded October break from blogging, save a few morsels, but I'm back, and Andrew is about to get a mouthful, Andrew Sullivan Watch Style. Shall we begin with the low hanging fruit? Open wide!

Regarding your post: "Debating Israel-Palestine III, Ctd"

Maybe the USA should just give up its veto power. Is it fair, after all, that we are allowed the right to veto the world's will in a way that 190 other states aren't? Shouldn't we just throw ourselves, kindheartedly, in good Christian spirit, at the mercy of world opinion? Why should the US be allowed to set its own foreign policies when they conflict with the rights and interests of other nations? Is that right, or fair, or just? Are American drones butchering civilians in Pakistan any different from Israeli drones butchering civilians in Gaza? And who can really tell anymore, civilians, terrorists - isn't everyone innocent, and such a nice, upstanding member of society, and always helping old people across the street, except that split second when they squeeze the trigger, and then they go home to kiss their children but rape their wives. Aren't American immigration policies, trade policies, energy policies, drug policies, space policies, agriculture policies and all the rest of them wrecking havoc across the globe, propping up corrupt and illegitimate oil sheikhdoms, decimating family farms in Africa and Asia, spilling acid rain in Canada and destabilizing Mexico? And who is to tell really, but someone will, just ask for volunteers and they will come, and some will crawl, from under rocks and off hospital beds, denouncements in hand.

Shouldn't we be held to account for our policies, before the world, the way you want Israel to be held to account for its policies? Like a man being forced out into a pack of circling hyenas to retrieve a rock he threw to keep them at bay. That savage, that serial animal abuser, to throw rocks, in this age. Yes, I already called PETA, and the local news, the nerve of him! And those poor animals just doing what they can't help but do, trying to fill their empty stomachs. Doesn't he deserve his fate, for littering the ground with rocks if nothing else, or maybe for lifting that boulder in such a proud, muscular way? The arrogance of it all, and they are such pure, beautiful creatures, wouldn't hurt a soul who wasn't there to begin with, and why was he there? It was unseemly if you ask me, such naked, proud strength, and certainly not for the polite company of hyenas.

Would it really be enough for you if the US stopped vetoing wet Arab dreams? Aren't we capable of dishing out more justice, much more, and looking damn good doing it? Shouldn't we do something more to stop that "irrational", "dangerous" "regime"? They're armed with nukes, didn't you know, and who is to tell who they will nuke next, maybe us? Isn't that what irrational, dangerous regimes do? Shall we make it a truly feel-good international effort and coordinate a precision bombing campaign? The Arabs might already have some targets picked out. We certainly can't display any favoritism to Israel, but we are free to proclaim our unbalanced disfavoritism, for a five percent bump in the Arab Street. Maybe even ten percent, or twenty, so long as no one is looking at those propped up sheiks our aircraft carriers keep in power, or the civilians we seem to keep splattering all over distant pavements, and all for a good cause, although not everyone understands how sad we are about that. Or those peasants in Africa who lose their farms trying to compete with our Big Agra, but wait, they're not Arab, they don't burn down embassies and they don't fly aircraft into office buildings. Of course, not all Arabs are terrorists - that's racist and silly, and everyone knows better - but we should really pay more attention to their sweet requests, and not the African farmers, you know, for no particular reason. So long as the frothy mob is distracted, or rather focused, on anyone but us - the Jews will do, and don't they always?

You seem to have a lot of answers, you fan of frothy mobs with pitchforks, you. I look forward to hearing more of your wisdom, you lover of circling hyenas, you.

In good Christian spirit,
-Victor Shikhman

Friday, November 5, 2010

BDS Medicine

DivestThis!, the leading anti-BDS blog, has published a much needed handbook for the growing counter-divestment movement. Woot! [The new age equivalent of "Bravo!"]
This guide includes versions of a number of things that have appeared on this blog, as well as new material created to provide background, context and recommendations for anyone dealing with BDS campaigns within their communities. A number of fans have pointed out how hard the blog format is to navigate when you’re looking for information about a particular subject, or trying to find a piece you remember but can’t quite locate. Hopefully this new manual provides the most critical information that’s appeared on this site in one easily accessible place.
You can download the handbook here, and make sure you pass on word through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. DivestThis! has long been my first resource for contextualizing BDS and counter-BDS related news. Their understanding of the subject is heads and tails above most everyone else, and with a sense of humor to boot. DivestThis! is looking for assistance in printing the handbook, in case you're feeling charitable or know people who are. Were the Federation system on its game, this handbook would be funded and distributed by local Jewish Federations, Hillels and in politically-minded shuls, and with a few phone calls on our part, it just may be.

"We are rebuilding China"

Continuing my recent focus on domestic policy, Donald Trump, of all people, asks sensible questions:

We don't have free trade right now. We have a country, China in particular, that is ripping us like no one has ripped us before. And we are rebuilding China. Our country is so big in terms of what we buy, that we are rebuilding China. And in ten years to twelve years, China will have a bigger economy than us, which was unthinkable five years ago. [...]

How can you create more jobs when you have phony currencies in other countries that are making it impossible for us to compete. [...]

They [fellow Chinese businessmen] cannot believe what we're able to get away with it. They can't believe how stupid our representatives are.
If you look at OPEC, they have the best lobbyists you can imagine. How is OPEC allowed to getting away [sic] with fixing the price of oil? If you and I do that, you go to jail. If you have a store, I have a store, we fix up the prices, it's called jail time. Here you have 11 guys sitting around the table - and in this case it's guys, by the way - you have 11 guys sitting around the table, and they set the price of oil. [...]

They set the price. Oil should not be a $85 a barrel right now. There's so much oil all over the place. Every ship is loaded up with oil, they don't know what to do with it. They fix the price of oil. Why does this country allow them to get away with it? And we protect half of these countries that are fixing the price. Without us, those countries would be overthrown in 2 seconds. [...]

Iraq takes over Kuwait. The sheikhs, they go to London and New York and they take buildings and they stay. We then lose lives and spend billions of dollars on taking back Kuwait, and we hand it back to them. And now they're overcharging us for oil. You explain it to me. [...]

I'm not frustrated at all, I just can't believe our people can be so stupid. [...]

This country, it's no longer respected like it was. We love our country, we're proud of our country, but our country is not the force it used to be, it's no longer respected like it used to be. And in fact, just the opposite, people laugh at us, they laugh at the stupidity of the people running this country.

Sounds like my mother. Trump is part genius, part fool and part damn lucky bastard. His protectionist streak is transparently populist. The trade tariffs he argues for are a dangerous road and should not be necessary in a world filled with American led free trade associations, whose core objective has been to level the playing field. That the Chinese and Arabs are flaunting the values of free trade through currency manipulation and price fixing of vital resources should be addressed, aggressively, through the very free trade institutions whose membership rules they are blatantly violating.

As this country begins the process of once again growing our economy, violators of global trading norms who have manipulated American largess should be put on notice that their free ride is over.

Recap: The 2010 Elections

I don't usually comment on American domestic politics, and with good reason: I feel it necessary to preserve this blog's focus on the three subjects which best corral my extracurricular interests - Jews, Israel and storytelling, the last being the least practiced of my writing ambitions. Nonetheless, with the recent dramatic turnaround in my country's political fortunes, I do have some few thoughts, which I earlier prefaced with an introduction to where I stand in the spectrum of political belief.

With my political self-portrait complete, it should not be surprising that I have a nuanced view of the 2010 Elections. Since the last anti-incumbent wave swept the Democrats into power in the House in 2006, I have maintained that no great ideological shift to the left had taken place with America's center-right electorate. My feeling at the time, one that I expressed to friends - among which are those who occasionally read this blog - was that the public was weary of war, disillusioned by failed Republican promises of fiscal conservatism and sickened by the incompetent federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

In 2006, as in 2008, my perception was that Democrats ran for Congress almost to the right of Republicans on reigning in government spending and extending Bush-era tax cuts in some limited form, while pledging a responsible draw-down of American troops in Iraq. I felt that these were consensus positions, and that the Democrats risked overreaching were they to interpret their ascendancy as a mandate for government expansion. By 2008, I was concerned that much of the public was so relieved of coming out from George Bush's shadow, and so enamored with electing the first black American President, that Barack Obama's quite liberal record and explicit promises to vastly expand the size and reach of government were being drowned out amidst the excitement over his candidacy.

If anything, I was certain that the Democrats would wisely seek to address the 2008 Recession and get this country back on solid economic footing before picking up the costly legislative items on their agenda, such as national healthcare and cap and trade energy legislation. Were they to have focused first and foremost on economic stability and job creation, the thanks of a grateful nation would have ensured their reelection and resulted in acceptance of gradual policy shifts to the left. Instead, Obama's election led the dam of liberal frustration to burst, emptying a decade of unimplemented public policy from radical Democratic activists and think tanks straight to the gavels of Congress. As the economic crisis deepened, the American public responded first with disbelief, then growing anger to the massive (multi-thousand page!) bills being rammed through committees, sometimes in the dark of the night, with little substantive public debate.

Evan Bayh, a former Indiana governor and two term Democratic Senator from Indiana (who is retiring this January), was remarkably lucid in the wake of last Tuesday's electoral slaughter:

It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a “political realignment” and a “new progressive era” proved wishful thinking. [...]

We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today. [...]

[D]on’t blame the voters. They aren’t stupid or addled by fear. They are skeptical about government efficacy, worried about the deficit and angry that Democrats placed other priorities above their main concern: economic growth.

So, in the near term, every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?
To which the average American voter on the verge of losing their job screams back, "Why wasn't that the first priority all along?!"

As should by now be obvious, the conservative aspect of my political philosophy is encouraged by the strong showing of Republicans - but especially fiscally conservative Republicans - in last Tuesday's mid-term elections. In my own state of Wisconsin, strong conservative candidates swept the Governorship, both chambers of the legislature, picked up two congressional seats and brought down the venerable Senator Russ Feingold, an 18 year incumbent and liberal darling. Wisconsin is now in a strong position to address our budget deficit and improve an atrocious business climate that puts our state 8th to last in competitiveness and jobs.

Yet, even while I celebrate country-wide conservative gains, my progressive liberal side is growing concerned by the quality of certain candidates that conservative Republicans have recently brought to national fame and coalesced around as a response to liberal media attacks. Populist and photogenic, many of these candidates appear largely vacuous on matters of policy, sprouting the type of reason-starved dogma of which I spoke earlier. Alarmingly, and again, partly in response to a hostile media, some of them have gone further and refused to engage in a public debate on ideas and policies, preferring instead to attract support through the force of their personalities. It is almost as if their entertainment value alone has qualified them to engage in political discourse - shall we call it "politainment"? - except that no real discourse is forthcoming, only vacuous slogans.

All in all, the 2010 Election was a resounding correction in the direction of American domestic policy. As Senator Bayh noted, the economy is the only domestic priority of consequence, as it should have been all along. Let's hope the Democrats, who still control the Senate and Presidency, have heard the message.

My Political Philosophy

My political philosophy is rooted in two, seemingly conflicting ideologies - progressive liberalism and constitutional conservatism. Born in the Soviet Union, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the simple power and potential of human freedom, paired with an enduring suspicion of attempts to direct the lives of human beings through vast, poetic schemes at coercive social engineering. Endowed with a fine sensitivity to nascent illiberal thought, I have little patience for the desires of closet Marxists and aspiring Baathists to destroy more human lives.

The best of Soviet children's propaganda instilled in me a sense of fundamental equality among peoples, irrespective of skin color, faith or origin (except Germans, whose blood we all knew, growing up, to be green, or blue, depending on who I asked at the playground). I therefore feel innate revulsion at the racial identity politics practiced by American Democrats, and the shallow vanity of feel-good, do-little systems of government directed compassion they have created, which refuse results-based accountability even after decades of heaping failure upon failure - chief among them institutionalizing generational poverty among minorities while multiplying the ranks of costly, stifling bureaucracy. This unfortunate record is balanced on the progressive liberal side by an inspired general openness to new ideas, intellectual curiosity, honesty and rigor, along with a basic tolerance of non-conformist eccentricity, be it religious, cultural or personal.

The US Constitution is a document of immense wisdom and courage, as fine a balance of pragmatism and passion as anything ever written. America's Founding Fathers drafted this wonder of ingenuity by drawing on ancient and contemporary models of government, their faith in G-d, pragmatic life experience and also, being highly learned men, by skillfully employing the finest humanist ideas of the Enlightenment. It is with intense discomfort, then, that I approach a resilient vein of populist anti-intellectualism emanating from within the ranks of American Republicans. Disdainful of the European political class system, I find value in the potential for simple citizens to reach for and invigorate the heights of American political power. Yet, nothing is less conducive to good governance as self-justified dogma, starved of critical reason and impermeable to experience. Short these defects, constitutional conservatism, grounded in human liberty, limited government and free market capitalism, remains a mainstay of my political identity.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nefesh B'Nefesh: My Israel Campaign

Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul in Soul), a first class NGO specializing in Jewish emigration to and absorption in Israel has launched a new media campaign - This is My Israel. My Israeli readers should consider participating. I also happen to think that, at a time when vilification of Israel has breached the boundaries of basic decency, pictures of Israelis masquerading as normal human beings who sometimes take a break from butchering Arab children may have some public relations value, so feel free to pass it on.

Unilateral Palestinian Statehood

For some weeks now, I've been conversing with a number of people whose opinions I value on the subject of a plan by the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood in the Summer of 2011, irrespective of a peace agreement with Israel. The publication of David Horovitz's editorial in the Jerusalem Post, Unilateralism is no Mirage, picked up by Yaacov Lozowick, whose rather meek, somewhat resigned post on the subject generated a reader backlash in the comments, has brought the matter to the fore, and rightly so.

Despite official Israeli insistence that the threat of unilateral Palestinian actions are merely a negotiating tactic, clear and consistent declarations of Palestinian intent are increasing in frequency as 2011 approaches. Students of history, especially Arab history, should know that it is irrelevant whether a unilateral declaration of Palestinian sovereignty began as negotiating bluster, internal power posturing, or a clear-cut goal on the part of Fayyad. Riding the dual tigers of anti-Israel rhetoric and defiant populist sentiment has a long and sordid Arab history. With each passing day the Palestinian public is being primed with expectation, creating a self-sustaining momentum that will be difficult or impossible for Fayyad to extract himself from, no matter his original intent. Palestinian expectations in the months and weeks and days leading up to what Fayyad has promised them will be their Independence Day are likely to lead to violence should Israel or the international community intervene to abort this process. Should foreign intervention be necessary, whether it is successful or not, the parties responsible will pay a significant price in international opinion and concessions to the Palestinians.

In the following series of posts, I will examine these issues in depth. With Hamas deterred, contained and seemingly content to rule Gaza, I believe that Fayyad's initiative constitutes the dominant emerging dynamic in Israeli-Palestinian relations, presenting significant challenges but also opportunities for Israeli policy and threatening to transform the geopolitics of the Levant and American influence therein.

On My Bookshelf