Archive | Israel

N.Y. Times on “The Invention of the Jewish People”

On Monday, Patricia Cohen of the Times discussed Shlomo Sand’s claptrap, The Invention of the Jewish People.

Cohen, who based on prior writings and my prior correspondence with her, is a left-winger who likely has a fair amount of sympathy for Sand’s political views, bends over backwards to be “even-handed.”

Nevertheless, if you read Cohen’s piece closely, you see that she gets things basically right: what Sand has to say that is correct (e.g., Jews grew their numbers in part by conversion, that Jews are not ethnically homogenous–no surprise to me with my blued-eyed daughter and blond, blue-eyed grandmother–, and that there was no sudden and complete exile of Jews from the Land of Israel in 70 A.D.) is known to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.  His more “controversial” points (e.g., that Ashkenazic Jews are primarily descended from Turkic Khazars, that Sephardic Jews are primarily descended from Arab invaders who converted, or that the notion of Jewish nationhood was invented by 19th century Zionists) are thinly-veiled, ahistorical, politically motivated lies, contradicted by readily available evidence.

(As a related aside, I recently learned that I’m distantly related to Rashi, the great 12th century commenter on the Torah and Talmud.  Rashi lived in France, whereas my ancestors come from Eastern Europe; the Khazars don’t seem to have been involved.) [...]

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Human Rights Watch Update

1. My op-ed about HRW’s problematic Middle East staff appeared in the Examiner newspaper websites.

2. HRW added new members to its Middle East and North Africa advisory board.  Surprise, surprise, they include several individuals with a history of anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian political activism, and none with the opposite history.

3. HRW’s Iain Levine, talking to the Guardian, blames its troubles on a conspiracy “organized campaign” and “coordinated attacks,” by “right-wing blogs,” NGO Monitor, and the Israeli government.  Self-reflection and self-criticism are not HRW’s strong suit, as is apparent by Levine’s continued defense of HRW’s Israel-bashing fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, not to mention its apparent recent strategic choice of putting an employee with a Jewish last name out front on Israel-related matters, as if that makes any difference. [...]

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Bloggingheads TV on Moses as the essential American hero

Robert Wright’s BloggingHeadsTV is often the best place on the Web for highly intelligent conversation about politics and culture. Particularly excellent is a new episode, posted today, in which Wright interviews Bruce Feiler, author of the new book America’s Prophet, Moses and the American Story. Wright is a scholar of the history of religions, so the conversation is thoughtful, challenging, and enlightening. Wright finds himself astonished, by Feiler’s thesis, but admits that upon reading the evidence, it is irrefutable. As the book’s promotional material states:

The Exodus story is America’s story. Moses is our real founding father. The pilgrims quoted his story. Franklin and Jefferson proposed he appear on the U.S. seal. Washington and Lincoln were called his incarnations. The Statue of Liberty and Superman were molded in his image. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked him the night before he died. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama cited him as inspiration. For four hundred years, one figure inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses.

I will say that Feiler’s thesis is not at all startling to some of us who have studied religious rhetoric in American history. As when in 1858 Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in America, declared  that the American Independence Day was a second Passover: “the fourth of July tells us the glorious story of the second redemption of mankind from the hands of their oppressors, the second interposition of Providence in behalf of liberty, the second era of the redemption of mankind, the second triumph of right over might, justice over arbitrary despotism, personal and legal liberty over the power of the strongest and most warlike.”

When Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were chosen by the Continental Congress in 1776 to design a Seal of the [...]

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What Kind of People Affiliate with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Division?

This kind: Helena Cobban is on the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.  In a recent blog post, she took exception to the Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb criticizing her because “she likes to compare Israel to Hamas.” (H/T: Richard Landes)

Cobban was offended not because Goldfarb was wrong, but because in her opinion any rational person knows that Israel is comparable to (or perhaps, judging by her tone, worse than) Hamas:

So here’s the thing that Michael Goldfarb and people of his ilk really don’t seem to understand: For the vast majority of the people on God’s earth today, Palestinians are just as fully human as Jewish people, and just as deserving as Jewish people of our compassion and our understanding.

(She later suggests that Gaza’s Hamasistan dictatorship is just as “democratic” as Israel.)

And who are Michael Goldfarb’s “ilk”?  Jews who support Israel and/or criticize Human Rights Watch (you tell me if the following individuals have anything else in common)!

But the Michael Goldfarbs, the Norman Podhoretz’s, the Alan Dershowitz’s, and Robert Bernsteins of this world truly don’t get this. They truly think there is something so “special” about Jewish people and their experience in the world that somehow the [sic] (and especially the allegedly “Jewish” state, Israel) deserve to be given a free pass on the application of any neutral standards of behavior, such as would be applied to anyone else.

So there you have it.  Among other Jews, Robert Bernstein, the founder, longtime president, and now critic of Human Rights Watch is not merely mistaken when he accuses HRW of anti-Israel bias, he is mistaken because he thinks Jews should be held to different, lower standards than everyone else because he thinks Jews are “so [...]

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JStreet–The American Kadima?

The mystery of just what JStreet is, or intends to be, is growing deeper.  “The party and the viewpoint that we’re closest to in Israeli politics is actually Kadima,” JStreet’s founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told the Jerusalem Post. (Hat tip: Ilya)

You mean the Kadima founded by that old Likudnik*Ariel Sharon, and run by another old Likudnik,* Tzipi Livni?  The Kadima that presided over the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon?  The Kadima that presided over the war in Gaza in late 2008-early 2009, a war that JStreet vigorously opposed?

Weird.  Opposing the war in Gaza put JStreet far outside the mainstream of Jewish opinion in Israel (and the U.S., for that matter); even the left-wing Meretz party supported the war, as did over 90% of the Jewish Israeli public.  So JStreet is respositioning itself from left of Meretz to right of Labor?

Ben-Ami added:

“our worldview is going to be out of touch with some of the Left” and predicted left-wing outrage as a result, some of which has already surfaced on liberal blogs during the conference.

“It’s going to come because we are pro-Israel, while there are many on the Left in this country at this point who believe in a one-state [solution],” Ben-Ami said.

“We don’t want to be defined as a left-wing organization,” David Avital, a member of J Street’s advisory council, explained.

So, the question is: If J Street is not a left-wing organization, is pro-Israel, is against a one-state solution, is for a two-state solution, and plans to promote views similar to a centrist Israeli Zionist party, how exactly does this distinguish J Street from existing Jewish and pro-Israel organizations?

I’m happy to have J Street around as a non-mainstream but pro-Israel organization that allows folks who hold peacenik views akin to, or even [...]

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Yglesias at JStreet

Matthew Yglesias:

I was debating with Jon Chait at a J Street panel this morning on the subject of “what does it mean to be pro-Israel?” As expected, we disagreed on a number of points, most of which I was right on and he was wrong on. But one thing he said in his opening remarks that I really disagreed with was that there was an ambiguity running through the J Street constituency as to whether the group was or should be pro-Israel at all.

That just struck me as kind of nuts. My J Street button said “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” It’s not a subtle aspect of the messaging. But when we moved to the Q&A time it became clear that a number of people in the audience really were quite uncomfortable self-defining as “pro-Israel” in any sense and that others are uncomfortable with the basic Zionist concept of a Jewish national state. I was, of course, aware that those views existed but it had seemed to me that it was clear that that wasn’t what J Street is there to advocate for. Apparently, though, it wasn’t clear to everyone.

Two comments:

(1) As I noted Saturday, JStreet is going to have to make it really clear that it is fact a “pro-Israel” organization, albeit a “progressive” and pro-peace one, if it is to gain any ultimate traction in the Jewish community.  And that means making anti-Israel people like those Yglesias describes unwelcome.   Meanwhile, it doesn’t help matters that the secretary of JStreet’s student division, Lauren Barr, announced that the division is dropping “pro-Israel” from the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan of the broader group, so as not to make people uncomfortable.  Memo to Ms. Barr: The job of a pro-Israel [political lobbying and organizing] group is [among other things] to [...]

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Some Friendly (Really) Advice to JStreet

JStreet, which bills itself as a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby, and aims to be a progressive counterpart to AIPAC, is having its convention starting tomorrow. Unlike some in the pro-Israel community, I’m not hostile to JStreet.  First, I know one of the bigwigs in JStreet, and though he and I don’t have much in common politically, he’s a good guy and certainly is “pro-Israel”.  Second, from approximately 1988 to Fall 2000, I held views on the Arab-Israeli conflict that would put me comfortably in the mainstream of the JStreeters.  Events in the Summer and Fall of 2000 led me to change my views, but I understand where many JStreeters are coming from, and I don’t think their views should be dismissed as “anti-Israel.”  Third, as a perusal of the comments on any major liberal blog will show, and as public opinion polls also show, Israel is quickly losing support on the American liberal-left.  It’s vitally important that pro-Israel “progressives” have a home in which they can advocate both for Israel within the left, and for peacenik policies within the general American political and pro-Israel contexts.

That said, I think JStreet has a few issues it needs to deal with:

(1) It needs to avoid being seen as an extension of the Democratic Party.  Many of the JStreet’s top people, including the guy I know, are bigshots in Democratic politics.  JStreet’s website repeatedly talks about how it wants to support “President Obama’s policies.”   AIPAC has been as successful as it has been in part because it doesn’t play favorites among the parties, but sticks to its pro-Israel knitting.  JStreet needs to show that it’s also even-handed, that it’s a lobby for what it considers pro-Israel, pro-peace policies regardless of who is advocating those policies, and not an effort to more generally [...]

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Andrew Sullivan on Human Rights Watch–Ignorance is Bliss

Sullivan quotes me: “I suggest that if Yglesias and similarly-situated bloggers want to address the root causes of R. Bernstein’s obviously painful decision to denounce the organization he founded and nurtured, they read this comprehensive report by NGO Monitor” (by the way, I’ve since heard from a very reliable source that R. Bernstein in fact came to his painful decision after both reading such critiques–I’m not sure if he read that specific report–,  doing his own due diligence to make sure they checked out, and trying to get HRW to mend it ways before going public):

So, does Sullivan actually bother to read the report?  You guessed it, nope.   Instead, he quotes my frequent (and persistent) critic, Kevin Heller:

Bernstein bases his recent posts on “reports” issued by NGO Monitor, an organization that — unlike HRW — makes absolutely no effort to be critical of both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict:

NGO Monitor’s objective is to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.

NGO Monitor at least gets credit for truth in advertising: every single report it has issued in 2009 has attacked an NGO or state or other organization that criticized Israel.

You know, I heard there’s a blogger named Andrew Sullivan who is concerned about marriage.  And here’s the crazy thing: every single  blog post he writes on the issue is supportive of gay marriage!  Every one!

This of course means that no matter what facts he marshals, no matter what evidence he provides, no matter how extensive his research, and no matter how darn persuasive he would be if we just read what he wrote, because he has a position on the issue, nothing he has [...]

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Yglesias on Robert Bernstein and HRW

I wrote yesterday that “I wonder how long certain liberal bloggers who have been reflexive defenders of HRW without bothering to seriously investigate the bill of particulars against it (e.g.) can continue to repeat things like ‘the idea that HRW is some kind of Israel-bashing organization is nonsense’ now that the founder and former longtime director [Robert Bernstein] has said just that.”  My link singled out, as an example, Matthew Yglesias.

The answer is, apparently, “at least somewhat longer.”  Consider how Yglesias starts his piece yesterday on R. Bernstein: “It’s certainly news that Human Rights Watch’s critics were able to get a former HRW chairman to slam the organization for having the temerity to hold Israel to the same standards of international humanitarian law to which it holds every other country.”

Yglesias provides no evidence that HRW’s critics “got” R. Bernstein to do anything.  HRW’s harshest and most persistent critics are a motley collection of bloggers and tiny NGOs like CAMERA and NGO Monitor, who are in no position to influence a person of R. Bernstein’s stature in any way, except of course through the force of their critiques.  It seems beyond Yglesias to acknowledge that R. Bernstein is simply a long-time human rights activist who is sincerely troubled by the sharp left-wing, anti-Israel turn HRW has taken.

And while R. Bernstein’s argument is muddled in a few places (I’m told by an informed source that the Times’ editorial staff mushed it up a bit), the basic complaint of HRW’s critics, including R. Bernstein, is precisely that HRW fails to treat Israel in anything remotely approaching an objective manner.  Recall, for example, the speech by HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson on human rights problem in the Middle East, covered previously on this blog, in which she [...]

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Heller (Kevin) Again

Just about every time I post something about Human Rights Watch, Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris, who served as HRW’s external legal advisor on the trial of Saddam Hussein, posts a nasty response.  His response almost never addresses the substance of my post, but instead provides readers with an attack on the messenger, i.e., me.

Today he neglected to comment on HRW founder Robert Bernstein’s astonishing disavowal and critique of the organization he led for twenty years.  Instead attacked my post on R. Bernstein for, among other things, suggesting that HRW not just anti-Israel, but  “anti-Western,” which he said was a new claim on my part. [Readers are free to go to Opinio Juris themselves, but I’m not going to link and increase Heller’s post’s Google rank.]

I responded in the comments,”I have linked to this post by Prof. Maimon Schwarzschild.  You may disagree, but I’d say that organizations staffed by people who implicitly hate the U.S. and Israel is [sic]  ‘anti-Western’.”   Maimon states, inter alia: “I’ve met one senior Human Rights Watch officer at several symposia in New York over the past few months, and I was genuinely taken aback at her visceral hatred not only for George Bush (that’s to be taken for granted in these circles) but for the US more generally.”

Heller then selectively reprints part of my response, without the link, and writes: “It takes a special kind of myopia to believe that HRW hates any country that supports Israel. (Or perhaps Bernstein thinks HRW hates the US because it opposes things like torture, illegal detention, and the like.  I hope he’ll enlighten us.)”

Now, Heller could have disagreed with my conclusion on all sorts of grounds, but he could have at least restated my argument fairly, or at least in a [...]

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Bernstein (Robert!) Denounces Human Rights Watch:

Robert Bernstein (no relation), the founder of  Human Rights Watch, has issued a stinging condemnation of the organization he led from 1978 to 1998.  Here’s a taste:

I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics….

When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East. The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region….

Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields….

Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression,

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Raiding Strategies with Predators

Patrick Cronin over at Facebook points to a new review essay from Edward Luttwak in the latest Times Literary Supplement, but unfortunately not up online.  (I subscribe but apparently Patrick gets this stuff a lot faster than I do.)  However, Patrick posted a couple of paragraphs.  Luttwak reviews David Kilcullen’s widely noticed book among several others, and apparently argues (from the bits I’ve seen) that counter-insurgency warfare (clear and hold, etc.) in Afghanistan is a mistake, and argues instead for raiding strategies using small teams of Special Forces, special ops, Predators and drones, and so on.  I will post a link to the full article if the TLS puts it up.  However, here is a bit taken from Patrick’s note on FB:

“Obama will soon learn how even small wars can drain all the oxygen from a presidency.”… “For there is is a far superior alternative to the occupation of worthless places at very great cost in policy attention as well as in dead soldiers and money: surveillance to detect gathering threats…followed by ground, air or naval raids to destroy them. Raiding is far more economical than counter-insurgency, if only because it requires intermittent action, and is eminently suitable for Afghanistan….”

I don’t take a position here regarding whether strategy in Afghanistan should shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism in the sense that Luttwak means it above.  That’s a big discussion, particularly without reading the whole Luttwak piece first.  There are several complicated possibilities, especially when Afghanistan and Pakistan are each considered:  among them are surge and counterinsurgency on the Iraq model, or using a raiding strategy as Luttwak describes above, or a combination (which is one way of looking at this current move by the Pakistani army, as well as the Swat Valley operations; massive artillery lead assaults against [...]

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Was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Born Jewish?

This could just be disinformation, but if true it explains a lot.  Note that some of the worst anti-Semites in history, including Torquemada and Karl Marx, were of recent Jewish descent, and used anti-Semitism to ingratiate themselves with their non-Jewish constituencies.

Ha’aretz: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s scathing attacks against Israel and his repeated denials of the Nazi Holocaust could be motivated by a desire to conceal his own Jewish roots, an Iran expert told The Daily Telegraph on Saturday.

The British newspaper examined the Iranian leader’s identity card which he displayed in public during his country’s elections in March 2008.

The ID card bears his family’s original surname, Sabourjian, which is a Jewish name that means cloth weaver, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The Sabourjians have historically been concentrated in the same region of Iran where Ahmadinejad was born, according to the report.

Ahmadinejad’s identity papers indicate that his family changed its name and converted to Islam after he was born, the British newspaper said.

Iranian observers suggested that the president’s constant verbal assault against Israel and Jews may be an attempt to prove his loyalty to Shia Islam while making every effort to hide his Jewish past.

UPDATE: Here’s the original Telegraph story.
FURTHER UPDATE: Admittedly it’s possible that Torquemada, et al., were just sincere anti-Semites, despite their Jewish descent.  But from medieval Spain until twenty-first century America (see War, Iraq), it’s been common for powerful persons of Jewish descent to be accused of using their power to further a secret Jewish agenda, whatever their expressed motives.  One way of trying to preempt such criticism is to get a reputation as a vociferous critic of Jews.

To get into more controversial territory, it’s certainly interesting that many leftists of Jewish descent who have no other connection with [...]

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Congo, Sudan, and Israel

It’s almost reassuring to see that the various controversies surrounding Human Rights Watch’s reporting on Israel–Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson’s fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, deputy director Joe Stork’s long history of anti-Israel activism, military analyst Marc Garlasco’s fetish for Nazi memorabilia–hasn’t led Whitson to even pretend she and HRW will treat Israel fairly in the future.  Indeed, the controversy seems to have made her madder, and even more impolitic.

Check out Whitson’s latest quote: ‘”The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free.”  Apparently, she can’t, or won’t, distinguish between what’s been going on in Sudan and Congo from what happened in Gaza last Winter.

A reasonable person could have phrased things this way: a U.N.-appointed panel has found that Israel engaged in war crimes in Gaza.  The report is controversial, and the U.N. Human Rights Council’s record is far from ideal.  Nevertheless, we find at least some elements of the report credible, and would urge the U.S. to insist on follow-through.  Thoroughly investigating even relatively minor, and contested, violations of the rules of war by an ally would give the U.S. that much more credibility when pursuing horrific, blatant human rights abuses that take hundreds of thousands of lives in places like Congo and Sudan. But a reasonable person would not have thought to analogize Israel’s action in Gaza to the wars in Congo and Sudan to begin with. [...]

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