Archive for March, 2009

Is the Pope still missing the point?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

News item:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) — Pope Benedict has written an “anguished” letter to Church leaders admitting the case of a Holocaust-denying bishop was mishandled and warning the Church risked “devouring itself” with internal squabbles.

In the letter addressed to the world’s bishops, which the Vatican will release on Thursday, the pope also says he was pained by Catholics’ criticism of him and that the Vatican could have foreseen problems if it had used the Internet more…

The Vatican said at the time it did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier but critics said a simple Internet search would have found he had made such statements.

“Doesn’t the Vatican know about Google?” one prominent Catholic critic said at the time.

In the letter, the pope says he was told after the crisis exploded that better use of the Internet would have revealed some of the problems. He says he “draws the lesson” and adds that in the future the Vatican must “pay more attention to this source of information.”

The pope says he could not have foreseen that the Williamson affair would overshadow his intention of bringing unity back to the Church by lifting the excommunications of the bishops who belong to the Society of St Pius X [SSPX].

The Pope’s letter will be released tomorrow, but from the details in the Reuters article it appears that he is still missing the point. The real problem is not that Williamson is a Holocaust denier and antisemite, as evil as he may be. The real problem is the SSPX.

As I wrote before (“Pope’s judgment on Williamson flawed“), the SSPX did not even attempt to hide its clearly antisemitic doctrines. They claim that they are simply remaining faithful to ‘traditional’ Catholicism, but, for example, the statement — which appeared until recently on the SSPX website — that

The heads of [international] Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name and the destruction of the Catholic order, and for the construction of a world wide Jewish empire.

has nothing to do with religious belief, and everything to do with inciting hatred of Jews.

Catholic doctrines concerning the language of the Mass don’t concern me, obviously. Neither do Good Friday prayers which ask God to “illumine [my] heart” or even “lift the veil” from it (although I admit to being bothered a little by “perfidious Jews”). The critical piece of Vatican II for me is the Papal declaration of Nostra Aetate, which insists that while Catholicism is the true religion, nevertheless a Catholic must respect non-Christian religions, which represent other approaches to spiritual truth.

So, for example, the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter [FSSP] which was founded in 1988 by SSPX priests who were unwilling to separate from the Church also uses pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy and holds relatively conservative positions on other issues. But the FSSP does not reject Nostra Aetate and its doctrines are not antisemitic.

SSPX represents a sizeable number of priests and adherents, with over 100 chapels in the US alone and a presence in numerous countries. I’m sure it’s quite uncomfortable for the Pope to have such large organization in a schismatic position, especially since he is something of a ‘traditionalist’ himself.

In my opinion, reconciliation with the SSPX should require an explict statement that they accept Nostre Aetate. Judging by what I’ve read on their site and from their friends and apologists, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to obtain this. But we will learn a lot about the Pope — and the future of Jewish-Catholic relations — from how firmly he stands on this issue.

Update [11 Mar 2009 1604 PDT]: The full text of the Pope’s letter is available here. It includes this, I think, encouraging remark:

I intend to connect the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, which since 1988 is responsible for those communities and individuals who, coming from the Fraternity of Pius X or similar groups, want to return into full communion with the Pope, in the future with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This shall make it clear that the problems now being treated are essentially doctrinal in nature, especially those concerning the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Magisterium of the Popes.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Freeman supporters flunk elementary logic

Monday, March 9th, 2009

The most interesting part of the debate about the nomination of Chas Freeman for head of the National Intelligence Council is not so much the anti- side — where I find myself, unsurprisingly — but the rhetoric of his defenders.

The issue itself is simple. Freeman is President of the Middle East Policy council (or was, from 1997 until just recently; the MEPC website still lists him as president), originally called the American Arab Affairs Council, an organization receiving major funding from Saudi Arabia and which promotes the Saudi viewpoint. It would not be far from the truth to call him a paid agent of the Saudi kingdom.

Freeman was also a member of the “International Advisory Board” of Chinese state oil company CNOOC from 2004 until this February 1. Both of these connections raise serious questions of conflict of interest quite unrelated to his views about Israel.

Now let’s get to his defenders. Stephen Walt, co-author of the notorious attack on American Jews and Israel “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” said

The Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby is gradually losing influence, because more and more people understand that its policies are disastrous for both Israel and the United States, and because its repeated efforts to smear people and stifle debate are deeply damaging as well as un-American. — Walt, “Have they not a shred of decency?

Walt doesn’t mention Freeman’s Saudi and Chinese connections while he attacks his detractors for “McCarthyism” and claims that

What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy.

Of course this is nonsense. See, for example, this letter by Congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) opposing the nomination. Note that the word ‘Israel’ does not appear therein. And Wolf is not the only member of Congress expressing similar concerns; at least 10 others have done so.

Walt commits the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi (“Red herring“) by ignoring the arguments about conflict of interest and replacing them with accusations against the ‘Israel lobby’ and its undue influence. In his use of emotion-laden terms such as “McCarthyism”, “Likudnik”, “smear” and — last but definitely not least — “un-American”, Walt is guilty of the fallacy of “appeal to emotion“, the attempt to replace real arguments with emotional trigger words. In his statement that “more and more people understand…”, he commits the fallacy of “appeal to belief“, since the number of people who believe a proposition is irrelevant to its truth.

For these, plus an overall tendency to substitute ad hominem attacks for reasoning, I am giving Walt an F in Logic 101. Maybe he will do better next semester.

While Walt only hints that Freeman’s critics are motivated by their er, ‘ethnicity’, slimy M. J. Rosenberg, being Jewish himself, is allowed to say it explicitly:

…Jonathan Chait of the New Republic is an interesting case. He’s liberal on every single issue but Israel (on which he is pure neocon), not only liberal but brilliant. But when it comes to Israel, he just can’t get beyond the ethnic pull. Even worse, he does not understand that his ethnic blinders (and that is all they are) have led him to support an approach to Israel that, if it succeeds, will destroy it.

Rosenberg thinks that Freeman’s critics exposed their “ethnic” bias by opposing him because they think he will be bad for Israel, and only pretending to care about the Chinese connection (he doesn’t mention the Saudi connection).

M. J., step into my office: you have received an F. The motivations of the “usual suspects” don’t matter. Only their arguments do (argumentum circumstantial ad hominem). And the argument is that Freeman has serious conflicts of interest.

Rosenberg even admits that he, personally, supports Freeman because he thinks he will be anti-Israel (OK, he uses the phrase “honest broker”):

It’s the same reason I’m writing about Freeman. I want an honest broker. He doesn’t. The only differences between Chait and me on the issue are (1) We have diametrically opposed views about what is best for Israel (2) I know the issue and (3) I am up front about what my interest in Freeman is.

No, the difference is that he has a legitimate argument which you prefer to ignore for ideological reasons!

Richard Silverstein just lays it on in the thickest partisan terms: a “Republican pro-Israel witch-hunt” orchestrated by the “pro-Israel Right” of the Republican Jewish coalition.  He claims that one cannot be opposed to Freeman without also being opposed to Obama’s employment of advisors such as Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross because they have received money from “pro-Israel sources”.

Richard, I’m giving you a D for not understanding that ‘pro-Israel sources’ are not the same as ‘foreign governments’. And I’m reducing that to an F because a) providing advice is not the same as vetting intelligence, and b) what Obama does with Ross and Indyk is irrelevant to what he should do with Freeman.  This argument, if you can call it that, tries to be an argumentum ad hominem tu quoque (“you too”) which would be fallacious even if it were parallel, which it isn’t.

Personally, as a Jewish Likudnik Democrat neo-con (I am not exactly a neo-con, but I will accept the label if it means ‘pro-Israel’, which it seems to in this context) I dislike Freeman for a lot of reasons.

But as an American, I simply don’t want a paid Saudi or Chinese agent preparing intelligence summaries for my President.

Update [10 Mar 2009 1424 PDT]:

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2009 (AFP) – A veteran US diplomat and vocal Israel critic, Charles Freeman, has withdrawn from contention for a top US intelligence post, US intelligence director Dennis Blair announced Tuesday.

Freeman “has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret,” Blair’s office said in a statement.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Compassion for the cruel

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

This Shabbat I’ve been asked to give a dvar Torah. It’s political enough to also be a blog post.

This week’s parasha is Parashat Tetsaveh (Exodus 27.20-30.10), which deals mostly with the clothing worn by the Cohanim and the sacrificial ritual surrounding their ordination. There is plenty of interesting material here, but my regular readers will not be surprised that I want to talk about another aspect of this Shabbat.

It is Shabbat Zachor [“remember”], the Shabbat before Purim. And in addition to the regular portion,  we read a special one from Deuteronomy (25.17-19):

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heaven — you shall not forget! [Artscroll tr.]

The special Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (I Samuel 15.1-34) amplifies the message, telling the story of King Saul who, commanded to totally destroy Amalek — men, women, children, even animals — kept some of the nicer animals and failed to put the king, Agag, to death. For his disobedience, Saul lost his crown (and the prophet Samuel finished off Agag).

Now I do not think that Hashem wants us to wipe out the families of the enemies of Israel, men, women, children and animals. This is what he commanded Saul to do, specifically to the Amalekites. Today there’s no identifiable tribe of Amalek, although part of the commandment to remember Amalek is to be vigilant in defense of the nation of Israel against its enemies.

And many of them, throughout the ages, have been identified in Jewish tradition as Amalek. The Romans, Haman, Chmielnicki, Hitler, Stalin, Yasser Arafat and today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all have been seen as manifestations (in the case of Haman “the Agagite”, a descendant) of Amalek.

Like The Joker, Amalek often reappeared after being apparently destroyed; somehow there were Amalekites left around after Joshua, Saul and David all defeated them and put them to the sword.

Although some like to talk about Amalek as a representation of evil influences inside us — as a spiritual enemy — it still, unfortunately, makes sense to think about the commandment in relation to our physical enemies. Let’s look more closely at it, specifically this:

…when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you … you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek … you shall not forget!

The last part may seem contradictory — are we commanded to wipe out its memory or to remember it? The answer is both. When, finally, Israel is secure from ‘enemies all  around’, it will be possible to relax, to wipe out the memory of the persecutions, the Holocaust, the scuds, the Qassams and so forth. Then we can forget. But for now we must keep the memory of Amalek before us so that we will be better prepared to fight today’s enemies.

People ask why Jews are so obsessed with antisemitism and persecution, why are they so paranoid, always expecting another Holocaust (although now that Iran is about to get nuclear weapons they don’t ask so much). This is one reason: we are remembering Amalek.

The description of Amalek attacking the weak naturally strikes a chord with us. Isn’t this precisely the nature of terrorism, shrinking from combat with the IDF but murdering children? Who is Samir Kuntar if not an Amalekite?

The story of Saul’s battle with Amalek also has some contemporary lessons. Saul’s disobediance consisted of his failure to fully carry through with God’s command to destroy Amalek. Recently we have been in combat with Hezbollah and Hamas. Should we not have destroyed their armies and their ability to fight? Should we not have killed or captured their leaders? Obviously our situation is not identical with that of Saul, because we must not kill noncombatants or animals, but isn’t it parallel? Didn’t we fail in the same way?

And this, from Samuel:

Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, withdraw, descend from among the Amalekites lest I destroy you with them; for you performed kindness with all the Children of Israel when they went up from Egypt.” The Kenites withdrew from among Amalek.

One imagines Saul dropping leaflets on the Kenites, leaving messages on their cellphones.

Nevertheless, although today we are not fighting in order to  commit a genocide, although our methods are not those of our enemies, we are still required to remember what our enemies want to do to us — what Amalek wanted to do.

And we are commanded to fight to win, to not pull back, even though the task is disagreeable.

Y. Y. Jacobson, “When Love Becomes Evil, The Psychology of Gaza and Mumbai“, writes:

Because some people are so filled with hate, they are incapable of appreciating love. Concerning such people, the Talmud states [Berachot 58a], “He who comes to kill you, kill him first.” Or in the words of the Midrash [Kohelet Rabah 7:16], “He who shows compassion for the cruel, will end up being cruel to the compassionate.”

Update [6 Mar 2009 0857 PST]:

Some people didn’t understand the points I tried to make in this post, and I apologize for being unclear. Here’s a summary of what I was trying to say:

  • The injunction to remember Amalek does not mean that we should try to figure out who is Amalek today and wipe them out. There was a specific command by Hashem to a specific person — Saul — to wipe out a specific tribe, which does not exist today. We are never commanded to commit genocide, even if our enemies would like to do so.
  • Today the commandment is not to wipe anybody out, but to remember — until Israel is finally at peace, perhaps in the time of the Mashiach, at which point the memory can be wiped out — that there are forces that want to destroy Israel, and to oppose them vigorously.
  • Saul made a mistake, which is that he did not carry out Hashem’s commandment completely. Although we aren’t commanded to kill the families and animals of our enemies, we are commanded to destroy those who try to destroy us. This is the meaning of “remember Amalek” and “he who comes to kill you, kill him first.” If we don’t do this — as we failed to do in Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza this year — then we are guilty of a mistake parallel to the one made by Saul.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Jihad — a fundamental right?

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

The film “Waltz with Bashir” about the first Lebanon War has been harshly criticized for presenting the actions of Israeli soldiers in total isolation, without context, without a reason.  I admit that I haven’t seen the film and don’t intend to.

But I have seen a short (90 second) animation about Israeli restrictions on Gaza made by Yoni Goodman, who was animation director for “Waltz with Bashir”. It was created for Gisha, an Israeli NGO “whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents”.

The short film shows a young Palestinian who is prevented from following a bird, representing his freedom or aspirations, by huge hands. They block him in every direction, even sink his rowboat when he tries to follow the bird out to sea. Ultimately the hands place the bird in a cage as well. At one point, he sees rockets fired at Israel — from a location far from him — and almost immediately he is buffeted by nearby explosions as Israel retaliates. That’s the context — no Hamas, no suicide bombings, no thousands of rockets over 8 years.

The position of Gisha is also presented on their website without context:

Since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s military has developed a complex system of rules and sanctions to control the movement of the 3.4 million Palestinians who live there. The restrictions violate the fundamental right of Palestinians to freedom of movement. As a result, additional basic rights are violated, including the right to life, the right to access medical care, the right to education, the right to livelihood, the right to family unity and the right to freedom of religion.

Ignoring the absurdities like ‘freedom of religion’ — is participating in jihad an absolute religious right? — it’s clear that the rights of Palestinians to complete freedom of movement conflict with the rights of Israelis (to life, etc.) because of the very real phenomenon of Palestinian terrorism. But the film, and Gisha, don’t mention Israeli rights, and this constitutes a major distortion of the moral question.

It might make sense to say that Israeli restrictions are not necessary, or too harsh. But it doesn’t make sense to ignore the aspect of the rights of Israelis.  How can Gisha be so ignorant or stupid not to see this?

The answer is not that they are ignorant or stupid, but that their distorted ideology does not recognize the equivalence of Israeli and Palestinian rights. The ‘post-colonial’ viewpoint that they apparently share with other contemporary left-wing groups, holds that in a colonial situation — which they think describes Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians — there is a fundamental asymmetry between the colonizer and the colonized.

For example, in this view the colonizer is racist, but the colonized people — even if they behave violently and hatefully toward the colonizers — cannot, by definition, be racist. In this view, racism is in part a power relationship, and it only flows one way, from the powerful to the powerless.

Another example is violence: when a colonized people uses violence, even terrorism, against a colonizer, that is ‘resistance’ and can be justified; but the attempts of the colonizer to protect itself are simply violence employed in the service of maintaining the subjugation of the colonized people and is never justified.

So it seems that for Gisha, there are not human rights. There are only the rights of those humans that — in their opinion — are oppressed.

And this is probably what underlies Gisha’s position. There is no need to look at Palestinian violations of Israeli rights because as  ‘colonizers’, Israelis have no rights. Q.E.D. 

When you watch the film below, ask yourself these questions:

  • What purpose is served by portraying the Palestinian as alone?
  • Why does the Palestinian have a face but Israel only has hands?
  • Why does the rocket firing take place far from the Palestinian?
  • Where is Iran in all this?

Gisha is funded in part by the European Union, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the UK Government Global Opportunities Fund. It lists as “primary funder” a US non-profit named Echoing Green, a charity which funds “social entrepreneurs”.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

On missed opportunities

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

The Obama administration and the EU are apparently moving full-steam ahead to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pressing Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to reach a peace agreement. As always, the idea is that Israel will withdraw from most of the West Bank, there will be compromises on Jerusalem and refugees, a Palestinian state will be established, and shalom b’yisrael.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her first foray into Middle East politics as US secretary of state, called for urgent action by Arabs, Israelis and the international community to break the cycle of Mideast violence and to move toward a comprehensive peace in the region…

“We cannot afford more setbacks or delays – or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made,” she said in apparent reference to the failure of previous peace initiatives.

With the Obama administration’s Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, seated behind her at a conference meant to raise billions to help the Gaza Strip recover from its recent war with Israel, Clinton said President Barack Obama would continue the Bush administration’s focus on seeking a two-state solution that entails Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state coexisting in peace…

“By providing humanitarian aid to Gaza we also aim to foster conditions in which a Palestinian state can be fully realized, a state that is a responsible partner, is at peace with Israel and its Arab neighbors and is accountable to its people,” she added. — Jerusalem Post

As Herb Keinon explains, there are significant differences between the US and the EU on the little matter of Hamas. Both seem to think that somehow Hamas must be integrated into the PA, but the US seems to be demanding that Hamas commit to the three original Quartet conditions for participation — recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past Israel-PA agreements — while the EU would like to somehow finesse the issue to get Hamas involved no matter what their position, ‘in the interests of peace’.

Right here the process founders, because there is no way that Hamas can be included in a Palestinian entity that will be at peace with Israel. None. Regardless of whatever formula Hamas can be coaxed to utter, acceptance of Israel contradicts the essence of Hamas.

My suggestion was that Israel should first eliminate Hamas, and then see what can be accomplished with the PA. But — since Israel has replaced the Arabs as the most appropriate subject for Abba Eban’s famous remark “[They] never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” — Operation Cast Lead ended with Hamas as strong, or stronger in some senses, as before. This was really a historic failure, one whose dimensions have yet to be appreciated.

One particularly dangerous idea is that Israel should release Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned on a charge of multiple murder, to be freed and allowed to unify Fatah and Hamas. Barghouti (see here and here), a Fatah leader, is no less committed to eliminating Israel then Hamas. Putting Barghouti in charge would probably be almost as bad a move as bringing back Arafat was in 1993.

Hamas appears to be the major obstacle, but what Obama’s people don’t seem to understand is that the problem goes far deeper than Hamas.

This weekend I attended a presentation by Aryeh Green, a remarkably perceptive observer. He and I share the view that one of the worst mistakes that Israel has made since 1948 was the decision to bring Yasser Arafat back from exile in Tunis to head the PA. Arafat did many things, like lying about his intentions, talking peace in English while calling for jihad in Arabic, financing and directing terrorism against Israel while pretending to fight it, and so on. If the early 1990’s were a short window during which the gap between Israel and the Palestinians could have been bridged, Arafat insured that it was not. If anyone closed the ‘peace window’, it was he.

One of the worst things he did was to develop the Palestinian Authority’s educational and communications functions — the schools, the media, the mosques, sports, summer camps, etc. — as a massive system with one goal: to teach Palestinians that the only way to end the conflict with Israel was to defeat it by violent ‘resistance’. Israel was portrayed as a demonic interloper that had stolen the Palestinian homeland, which would ultimately be taken back “with blood and with spirit”, as Arafat and other Palestinian officials enjoyed saying. Incitement against Israel from official PA sources continued all through the Oslo  period (in violation of the agreement) and continues today, including veneration of suicide bombers and vicious antisemitism.

Now it seemed to Green and it seems to me that if the PA was truly interested in peace with Israel that there would be some effort made to educate their population in this direction, remembering that PA media (etc.) are entirely under the thumb of the leadership. But of course nothing of the kind was ever done, and the present ‘moderates’, Abbas and Fayyad have continued the policy, proving that they are no more interested in a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel as Arafat was.

What is needed is not more Israeli concessions, and not more complicated diplomatic maneuvers like the Camp David talks.  Rather, the opposite: there must be no concessions, no aid, no rebuilding, nothing but isolation until some Palestinian leadership indicates — by ending the incitement as well as the terrorism — that peace is in fact what they want (hint: this would not be Barghouti).

Palestinians are fond of saying that they can wait hundreds of years, as long as it took to get the crusaders out of Jerusalem. Israel needs to show them that Jews can wait too.

Technorati Tags: ,