The Anti-Defamation League, which describes itself as “the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry,” released a statment this morning opposing the building of the 13-story mosque near Ground Zero.
“In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right,” says the ADL. Full statement here:
We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.
We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.
However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.
The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.
The Anti-Defamation League has issued a statement opposing the construction of the Islamic community center a couple blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. (Earlier this week, a community board recommended that the Landmarks Preservation Commission allow the project to go through.) The release goes out of its way to grant Cordoba House’s organizers good intentions and to condemn the bigotry of some who oppose it. So what is the problem? “The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location,” the ADL argues, “is counterproductive to the healing process.”
Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.
Founded in 1913, the ADL, in its words, “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” Except when it does the precise opposite.
I have explained my support for the Lower Manhattan mosque project before, but let me restate two points:
1) The organization behind the project, the Cordoba Initiative, is a moderate group interested in advancing cross-cultural understanding. It is very far from being a Wahhabist organization;
2) This is a strange war we’re fighting against Islamist terrorism. We must fight the terrorists with alacrity, but at the same time we must understand that what the terrorists seek is a clash of civilizations. We must do everything possible to avoid giving them propaganda victories in their attempt to create a cosmic war between Judeo-Christian civilization and Muslim civilization. The fight is not between the West and Islam; it is between modernists of all monotheist faiths, on the one hand, and the advocates of a specific strain of medievalist Islam, on the other. If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side. It’s not that hard to understand. I’m disappointed that the ADL doesn’t understand this.
This is basically a concession that some of the opposition to the mosque is grounded in bigotry, and that those arguing that the mosque builders harbor ill intent are misguided. Yet ADL is opposing the construction of the mosque anyway, on the grounds that it will cause 9/11 victims unnecessary “pain.”
But look: The foes of this mosque whose opposition is rooted in bigotry are the ones who are trying to stoke victims’ pain here, for transparent political purposes. Their opposition to this mosque appears to be all about insidiously linking the mosque builders with the 9/11 attackers, and by extension, to revive passions surrounding 9/11. To oppose the mosque is to capitulate to — and validate — this program.
On this one, you’re either with the bigots or you’re against them. And ADL has in effect sided with them.
So let’s try some comparable cases, OK? It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (as I learn from my mailbox most weeks); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court. So would ADL agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare these people pain? No? What’s the difference?
One thing I thought Jews were supposed to understand is that they need to be advocates of universal rights, not just rights for their particular group — because it’s the right thing to do, but also because, ahem, there aren’t enough of us. We can’t afford to live in a tribal world.
But ADL has apparently forgotten all that. Shameful — and stupid.
Update: Times staff briefly removed the link to the ADL statement, because it seemed to be dead — but it was apparently just a case of an overloaded server, and I’ve put it back.
Humorist Will Rogers once said about the repeal of Prohibition, “Repeal is all right, but the wrong people are for it.” In this case, the wrong people are against Park51, and if Abe Foxman and the ADL can’t keep their personal feelings out of the issue, they should have just kept quiet instead of handing the Bigot Brigade a public relations gift. What a disgrace.
Let’s be clear. This is not about the proposed Islamic Center. There is already a masjid in the neighborhood, and it’s been there for decades. This is about giving political cover to right-wing politiciansusing anti-Muslim bigotry as a political weapon and a fundraising tool. By doing this, the ADL is increasingly eroding its already weakened credibility as a nonpartisan organization.
I learned a very important lesson in Hebrew School that I have retained my entire life. If they can deny freedom to a single individual because of who they are, they can do it to anyone. Someone at the ADL needs to go back to Hebrew School.
Today, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami released the following statement:
The principle at stake in the Cordoba House controversy goes to the heart of American democracy and the value we place on freedom of religion. Should one religious group in this country be treated differently than another? We believe the answer is no.
As Mayor Bloomberg has said, proposing a church or a synagogue for that site would raise no questions. The Muslim community has an equal right to build a community center wherever it is legal to do so. We would hope the American Jewish community would be at the forefront of standing up for the freedom and equality of a religious minority looking to exercise its legal rights in the United States, rather than casting aspersions on its funders and giving in to the fear-mongerers and pandering politicians urging it to relocate.
What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.
During the high-tide of anti-semitism, and then again during the civil-rights movement, and often since, the Anti-Defamation League transcended its Jewish origins to stand as a courageous American voice against prejudice. But now, it’s making a mockery of its original mission and, in the process, it has sullied American Judaism’s intense tradition of tolerance and inclusion. I miss the old ADL and so does America. Foxman should be fired immediately. (Meanwhile, hooray yet again for Michael Bloomberg.)
Had the ADL genuinely tried to apply its universalistic mandate to the Jewish state, it would have become something like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) or B’Tselem (full disclosure: I’m on B’Tselem’s American board): Israeli human rights organizations that struggle against all forms of bigotry, and thus end up spending a lot of time defending Muslims and Christian Palestinians against discrimination by Jews. But the ADL hasn’t done that. Instead it has become, in essence, two organizations. In the United States, it still links the struggle against anti-Semitism to the struggle against bigotry against non-Jews. In Israel, by contrast, it largely pretends that government-sponsored bigotry against non-Jews does not exist. When Arizona passes a law that encourages police to harass Latinos, the ADL expresses outrage. But when Israel builds 170 kilometers of roads in the West Bank for the convenience of Jewish settlers, from which Palestinians are wholly or partially banned, the ADL takes out advertisements declaring, “The Problem Isn’t Settlements.”
For a long time now, the ADL seems to have assumed that it could exempt Israel from the principles in its charter and yet remain just as faithful to that charter inside the United States. But now the chickens are coming back home to America to roost. The ADL’s rationale for opposing the Ground Zero mosque is that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.” Huh? What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue? Would the ADL for one second suggest that sensitivity toward people victimized by members of a certain religion or race justifies discriminating against other, completely innocent, members of that religion or race? Of course not. But when it comes to Muslims, the standards are different. They are different in Israel, and now, it is clear, they are different in the United States, too.
I don’t have any real problem with those who take offense at the decision to build this project a few blocks from Ground Zero, and particularly those who take such offense having had deep ties to New York on 9/11/01.
What I do have a problem with is those who have determined that this is an appropriate issue for political activism, and particularly those supposed advocates of “small government” who view it as appropriate that government would step in here to restrict the property rights of a private organization. What I do have a problem with is those who claim to advocate for “states rights” and federalism insisting that it is the job of the federal government to make sure that what is effectively a zoning decision of the New York City government is overruled. What I do have a problem with is those who are using this proposed building to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment by branding it a “9/11 Victory Mosque,” and who presume to know more about Muslims than Muslims themselves and in the process create an “inescable trap” wherein all Muslims are either lying about not being jihadi terrorists or are just “bad Muslims.”
The left continues to feign confusion (it is hard to believe its pundits are really this muddled) as to the reasons why conservatives (and a majority of fellow citizens) oppose the Ground Zero mosque. No, it’s not about “religious freedom” — we’re talking about the location of the mosque on the ash-strewn site of 3,000 dead Americans. The J Street crowd and the liberal defenders of the mosque seem very bent out of shape when Americans want to defend the sensibilities of their fellow citizens and when they look askance at an imam whose funding appears to come from those whose goal is anything but religious reconciliation. Again, no one is telling Muslims not to build or pray in mosques; we on the right are simply asking them not to do it in the location where Islam was the inspiration for mass murder.
It is interesting that the word mosque is not employed by those excoriating the mosque opponents. As a smart reader highlights, why is it described as a “cultural center”? Pretty dicey to articulate exactly what position the left clings to — namely, that we must allow a mosque at Ground Zero. Well, when you are that precise, it does highlight the vast gulf between the left’s perspective and that of average Americans. (And for the record, my objections to J Street obviously aren’t limited to the Ground Zero mosque. And I certainly do believe “you are either for us or you are for them” — when it comes to Israel and to America. That this notion disturbs the left tells you precisely why it is estranged from the vast majority of Israelis and Americans.)
Dan Senor is not confused in the least. He pens an open letter to the Ground Zero mosque imam, which gets to the heart of the matter. Recalling the 9/11 attack “committed in the name of Islam,” he explains:
We applaud and thank every Muslim throughout the world who has rejected and denounced this association. But the fact remains that in the minds of many who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the Cordoba House will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim “military” victory—a milestone on the path to the further spread of Islam throughout the world. …
Rather than furthering cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, a Cordoba House located near Ground Zero would undermine them. Rather that serving as a bridge between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples, it would function as a divide. Your expressed hopes for the center not only would never be realized, they would be undermined from the start. Insisting on this particular site on Park Place can only reinforce this counterproductive dynamic.
This is not some right-wing, extremist view. It represents the views of a large majority of Americans and of mainstream Jewish leaders like Malcolm Hoenlein — as well as Juan Williams. But the left – which has become obsessed with universalism and finds particularism and nationalism noxious – thinks it unseemly for Americans to look after the interests of Americans, and Jews to look after Jews (as to the latter, we can only be grateful that so many pro-Zionist Christians do as well).
“I’ve also read some things about some of the people involved that make me wonder about their motivations. So I don’t know enough to reach a conclusion, but I know enough to say that this thing is only going to create more division in our society, and somebody ought to put the brakes on it,” he said. “Give these people a chance to come out and explain who they are, where their money’s coming from.”
9/11 remains a deep wound for Americans—especially those who experienced it directly in some way. They understandably see the area as sacred ground. Nearly all of them also reject the equation of Islam with terrorism and do not blame the attacks on Muslims generally or on the Muslim faith. But many believe that Ground Zero should be reserved for memorials to the event itself and to its victims. They do not understand why of all possible locations in the city, Cordoba House must be sited so near to there.
A couple things are striking about this argument. First, Senor claims that “Ground Zero should be reserved for memorials.” But the Muslim center is not being built on Ground Zero. It’s being built two blocks away, in a site that doesn’t feel especially connected to Ground Zero. Senor is suggesting that nothing but memorials should be built within (at least) a two block radius of Ground Zero. Forgive me for feeling skeptical that such a standard is being applied to any other proposed construction.
Second, there’s a very weaselly relativism at work here in his not-prejudiced plea to relocate the center. Senor is arguing, I support freedom of religion, and I believe that your group doesn’t support terrorism, but other Americans don’t feel this way. Of course this is an argument for caving in to any popular prejudice or social phobia whatsoever. Hey, I’m happy to let a black family move into the neighborhood, but other people here think you’re probably crackheads who spray random gunfire at night, so in order to prevent racial strife you should probably live somewhere else.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has emerged as the unlikely but passionate defender of the planned Muslim community center near ground zero, today traveled to Governors Island off the tip of Lower Manhattan to deliver a stirring plea for sanity in what he called “[as] important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes.”
The Daily News’ Adam Lisberg reports that Bloomberg choked up at one point as he delivered the speech surrounded by religious leaders of different faiths, with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
Rather than attack the bigotry of the opponents of the so-called “ground zero mosque,” Bloomberg made several positive arguments for building the center. He traced the struggle for religious freedom in New York and affirmed the rights of citizens to do as they please with their private property:
The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
It’s worth noting that three Jewish leaders — Rabbi Bob Kaplan from the Jewish Community Council, Rabbi Irwin Kula from the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and Cara Berkowitz from the UJA Federation — were present with Bloomberg during the speech, despite the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the project
Few events in recent memory have called up the resonant ideological debates of 9/11 as forcefully as the mosque being planned near the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. It appears these are debates we will keep having, as New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has voted to let the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement proceed with their plans. Along with those plans will come more discussion of religious freedom, taste, and the specter of a Western/Muslim cultural World War
Writes the NYT, reporting the city’s 9-0 vote against designating the building on the site a landmark. Now, as a matter of freedom of religion, it really was crucial not to let religion (or political ideology) affect the question whether that building should be classified under the law as a landmark, thus limiting the property rights of the owner. The requirement of neutrality in decisionmaking like that is fundamental to the rule of law.
One by one, members of the commission debated the aesthetic significance of the building, designed in the Italian Renaissance Palazzo style by an unknown architect.
That is clearly the way it had to be done. But what should not be lost, in understanding that, is that the owner’s freedom means that the owner has a choice. The owner is certainly not required to build a Muslim center and mosque on that site. Because it is a choice, it’s not wrong for the community to ask: Why are you making this choice? Why are you doing something that feels so painful to us? The community isn’t wrong to plead with the owner to choose to do something else with that property. It’s not enough of an answer to say we are doing it because we have a right to do it.
Today’s meeting between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama has the potential to repair the U.S. administration’s frosty posture toward Israel. In March, Obama publicly snubbed America’s only democratic ally in the Mideast by rejecting a joint Bibi-Obama press conference at the White House. Now Obama has an amazing opportunity to refill U.S.-Israeli relations with meaning and content.
What issues are front and center on Israel’s diplomatic agenda? Stopping Iran’s accelerated quest to obtain nuclear weapons; preserving Israel’s nuclear-ambiguity policy; securing U.S. pressure on Turkey so that it recoils from its threats to sever relations with Israel; and a peace process with the Palestinians that does not entail terror attacks and violent anti-Semitic propaganda.
The president’s decision to single out Israel for criticism at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, while not mentioning Iran’s illicit atomic program, was one of the lowlights of his administration so far. After nearly unanimous congressional votes in favor of new energy and financial sanctions on Iran, Obama signed the robust anti-Iran legislation last Thursday. One of the litmus tests of a restart in U.S.-Israel relations would be a hard-hitting enforcement of these sanctions.
How often do you hear Mark Twain quoted at a high-level diplomatic summit? Not often enough, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to do his part to fix that: In his brief appearance today at the Oval Office with President Obama, Netanyahu announced that, pace Twain, rumors of the demise of the U.S.-Israel relationship are greatly exaggerated. In fact, they’re “flat wrong.” (Video here; transcript here.)
It was the first joint appearance by the two men in months, and a departure from their recent pattern of press blackouts and leaked reports of snubs. But with Israeli-Turkish relations maybe on the (slow) mend and both the Israelis and the Palestinians making refreshingly positive noises about the prospects for moving from proximity talks to direct peace negotiations, whatever topics Netanyahu and Obama needed to discuss, in “robust” fashion, in private—settlements, Iran, nuclear non-proliferation, the World Cup—were evidently overshadowed by the importance, for both, of giving off the impression of being copacetic.
So, in front of an audience limited to the American and Israeli press pool, they sat side by side, Bibi in a black-and-white striped tie and Obama in a red one, tag-teaming to give sunny responses. Is Netanyahu a partner for peace? “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” Obama assured. How quickly will things move now that we’re heading into the last few months of the settlement-construction freeze? “When I say the next few weeks, that’s what I mean. The president means that, too,” Netanyahu insisted.
For many hawkish and pro-Israel commentators, there are few events that are more infamous than Obama’s speech in Cairo last summer. Though he reaffirmed in that speech that the U.S.’s bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” many analysts have simply ignored this fact and pointed to Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world as proof of anti-Israel intent.
So it’s a bit surprising that at their joint press availability today, Netanyahu actually praised that Cairo speech, specifically citing it as proof that the President does not harbor ill will towards Israel. From the White House transcript, just out:
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:
So I think there’s — the President said it best in his speech in Cairo. He said in front of the entire Islamic world, he said, the bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable. And I can affirm that to you today.
Hard to square that with the conservative interpretation of that speech, isn’t it?
Also key: Jake Tapper asks whether Netanhayu’s suggestion that the two men talked about moving the peace process forward in the coming weeks means that there could be peace talks on the agenda.
“We’re nowhere near [former President Bill] Clinton and [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” veteran U.S. diplomat Aaron Miller commented on the warm body language of today’s meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, their fifth since taking office in early 2009. But still, Miller said, the concerted demonstration of good will today between two leaders who have had more strained encounters in the past “was impressive.”
“Obama and Bibi have set the parameters for their friendship pact for awhile,” Miller said. “There was no reason for a fight and every reason to do the proverbial reset. Still, lurking below the surface is an expectations gap that will test each leader. In the end, everyone will want to know how do we get to an agreement, given the gaps, particularly the Palestinians who have got to be wondering what the game really is.”
But the American Task Force for Palestine’s Hussein Ibish said he was encouraged by Obama’s comments during the press conference.
“The most significant thing said during the presser was support for state and institution building led by Abbas and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad, and a clear indication from the president of the United States that the area of their control needs to be expanded in the West Bank,” Ibish said. “This is highly significant.”
It’s never a bad thing for the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister to be chummy in public. Nevertheless, it’s apparent that whenever Israel is the topic, Obama’s focus is on the “peace process” and not on the mullahs’ nuclear program. That is a central, but certainly not the only, failing in Obama’s Middle East policy.
Don’t listen to what Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama said at their buddy, buddy press conference Tuesday afternoon. Listen to what they didn’t say. Netanyahu volunteered that “I very much appreciate the President’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The only problem: Obama didn’t say that. He said Iran must “cease the kinds of provocative behavior that has made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community.” That’s a whole lot vaguer, and it points to the crux of the dispute between the two men. Netanyahu wants Obama to do whatever it takes to prevent an Iranian nuke, including going to war. Obama doesn’t want to box himself into that corner. But putting Obama in a box is exactly Netanyahu was trying to do.
As for Netanyahu, he didn’t utter the word “Gaza.” Obama praised Israel’s easing of the blockade on Gaza Strip, but signaled that it wasn’t enough. “We believe,” the president declared, “that there is a way to make sure that the people of Gaza are able to prosper economically while Israel is able to maintain its legitimate security needs.” All well and good, except that Netanyahu doesn’t want the people of Gaza to prosper economically. For public relations reasons, he’s willing to allow more goods into the Palestinian enclave. But he’s still banning virtually all exports, which means that most Gazans can’t afford to buy the goods Israel is now allowing in. The truth is that Israel is still punishing the people of Gaza for having elected Hamas; it’s just doing in a more subtle, less cruel way.
The second words Netanyahu didn’t mention: “Palestinian state.” Obama not only used the “S” word, he doubled it; referring to a “sovereign state” that the Palestinians “call their own.” Netanyahu, by contrast, talked about a “political settlement for peace” but not a state. In other words, he wouldn’t even go as far as he went last summer, under intense U.S. pressure, at Bar Ilan University.
Which raises a question: what kind of schmuck does Netanyahu think Obama is?
In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.
The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe the situation.”
That Luntz encountered indifference was not surprising. In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.” In 2008, the student senate at Brandeis, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.
Luntz’s task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” When Luntz showed them a series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled “Proof that Israel Wants Peace,” and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land. Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
What prompted the essay? Why now, when you previously have not written much about Israel?
Having kids definitely played a role. I think it made me think about not just my Zionist identity, but what kind of Zionism was available to them. And the more I thought about that, the more I began to worry. I also think that we all operate at intellectual levels and emotional levels, and for me I just decided … There was this story in the New York Times about the Gaza War, about the house in Gaza where they found the children whose parents were dead. What you may find, if you do have kids one day, you are affected at an emotional level more strongly by certain things, in a way you may not be entirely prepared for. I think that’s a good thing, it’s primordial. I know people develop all kinds of shrewd and sophisticated and clever ways of explaining anything that happens, but when I read the story I just thought I was not in the mood to try in some clever way to explain it away. And the fact that I felt I was supposed to just sickened me a little bit.
That’s not to say there are never gonna be civilian casualties in war. But knowing the people who are running Israel now. … The amazing thing about Netanyahu’s book, which is a pretty long book, is there is not a single word of human empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians or Arabs. It was for me such a chilling book in its willingness to essentially. … there was something so inhuman about it, I felt. I just felt like that wasn’t something that I wanted to apologize for.
Why did you publish the essay in the New York Review of Books, which has a reputation of being distinctly left-wing, particularly on the question of Israel?
In all honesty, it was originally supposed to be New York Times Magazine. I don’t have any ill will, but there was a stylistic disagreement, not an ideological one.
There are not very many places anymore where one can write long, serious essays. Secondly, although my piece is a piece about liberal Zionism—I don’t believe in a binational state—Jeff Goldberg is my friend, but I disagree with him when he saysNYRB is an anti-Israel. It publishes some of the most important people on the Israeli left. … We should draw inspiration from those people who share our values in Israel. If you’re going to tell me the New York Review of Books is an anti-Israel publication, that just makes no sense. I don’t think I’m anti-Israel. I think people throw around these terms way too promiscuously.
But doesn’t this make it easier for those who disagree with you to simply dismiss the piece given where it appeared?
I did think about that. You’re right: People will say that. And I think it’s a little bit silly. I wrote 5000 words. If you disagree with what I said—and there are reasonable disagreements—if you just say, ‘Oh well, it’s in the New York Review,’ that’s a sign that you’re looking for an opportunity not to engage with it. Tell me where I’m wrong! I can think of counterarguments.
Peter Beinart’s new essay indicts American Jewish organizations — AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents first of all — for, as he sees it, apologizing for an extremist and racist Israeli right. It will cost him friends, and start a conversation, particularly in the shrinking space occupied by liberal, Zionist* voices like his, Jeffrey Goldberg’s, and Jonathan Chait’s.
In its intellectual style, Peter’s piece reminded me of another attention-grabbing essay he wrote – “A Fighting Faith,” his 2004 manifesto in TNR urging Democrats to purge their anti-interventionist wing. Both essays exude an almost masochistic “tough love” toward groups which Peter (and I) feel affinity, urging them to adopt positions that Peter (and I) share or else face political annihilation. Both also suffer from analytical shortcomings – Peter’s latest less so than his last one – that leave me a bit intellectually queasy.
First, both reflect Peter’s highly idealistic conception of the world, in which political setbacks are the consequence of a failure to confront difficult truths, and intellectuals themselves hold a decisive place in the course of events. Peter’s 2004 essay argued that liberals had lost the presidency, and would continue to lose the presidency, because they had failed to confront the anti-war tendency within their base:
[L]iberals don’t have a sympathetic White House to enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies. But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will.Likewise, his current piece places the blame for the lack of Zionist passion among secular Jews upon the failure of the Jewish leadership to confront Israel’s right-wing lurch:
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.You can see the polemical imperative of such warnings. But a bit of reflection makes clear that they bear little relationship to reality. Democrats managed to sweep the two elections that came after “A Fighting Faith” without undergoing anything like the rigorous ideological cleansing Peter prescribed. I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself. Peter argues for such reforms as bringing pro-peace Israeli students to campus. I suspect that such things, or even a dramatically more liberal turn by the American Jewish establishment, would have little effect on the opinion of young Jews. Sometimes virtue must be its own reward.
Second, Peter can over-react to the most recent political setback, all the better to lend urgency to his call to arms. 2004 was not just another electoral setback, but a harbinger of existential crisis for the Democratic Party:
Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.In the same vein, Peter now paints Israel as falling almost inexorably into the grip of the far right. “The Netanyahu coalition,” he writes, “is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society.” There is certainly some truth to this – Russian immigration and the higher Orthodox birthrate have altered the face of the Israeli electorate. On the other hand, it was not that long ago that left-of-center parties governed Israel. Demography does not work that rapidly. Though he concedes that Israeli government can move in and out of power quickly, the tone of his essay has the same two-minutes-to-midnight urgency. I hope that, just as he rethought the stridency of “A Fighting Faith,” he’ll eventually look back on this piece as somewhat overwrought.
Finally, and most seriously, the stridency and clarity of Peter’s argument comes at the cost of shaving off the rough edges of reality that would otherwise intrude. Just as he once all-too-quickly dismissed the flaws of George W. Bush’s foreign policy for the good of urging Democrats to move rightward, he seems to have again temporarily blinded himself to counter-argument. Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians “wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.” It’s an odd contrast with his description of the Israeli polity, every problem with which he portrays as reflective of a deep cancer on the Israeli soul. Moreover, if you examine the respective public opinion, it’s not actually true – most Palestinians want to undo the Jewish state altogether, while most Israelis accept the need for a two-state solution.
Ben Smith has helped me figure out the source of the claustrophobic feeling I’ve been experiencing lately. It turns out that it occurs when you’ve been locked in a small room (decorated, ambivalently, in blue and white) with Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and…. well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning, pro-Israel and anti-occupation? There’s Leon Wieseltier, of course, but who else? Tom Friedman is in the same camp (and has been there for a long time) but he pays only intermittent attention to the problem.
I’ve only read through Beinart’s essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven’t already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.
To get the inevitable out of the way: back when I worked with Peter, the magazine we worked for, for all its professed love of Israel, would never be as frank and as brave and as honest and as morally urgent to publish a piece like this. It would be a hurtful shame if it continues its current pattern and instead either attacks Peter for writing it or dismisses the points he raises. Whatever some of you think about Peter, it takes a brave and reflective man to write this. Don’t hate, congratulate.
Now that that’s out of the way, Peter falls prey to a certain myopia when assessing the political options for the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Their problem is stark: younger generations of American Jews are liberals who greet the growing illiberalism of Israel with discomfort that tribal loyalty doesn’t assuage. (“In their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel” is Peter’s felicitous and, I presume, caustic and personal turn of phrase.) So if those organizations want to maintain their influence without challenging that growing Israeli illiberalism, what to do? Peter:
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, America’s Jewish organizations will need to look elsewhere to replenish their ranks. They will need to find young American Jews who have come of age during the West Bank occupation but are not troubled by it. And those young American Jews will come disproportionately from the Orthodox world.
Well, no, because there’s a different and vastly more sustainable political option for those organizations, and it’s one that’s been underway for decades. It’s to build more durable ties with conservative evangelical Christian communities, which have attachments to Israel based on millennial, eschatological commitments that are entirely untroubled by liberalism — or, for that matter, Jews and Arabs. All that matters to them is that Jews conquer the biblical land of Israel. So if you’re an organization devoted less to liberalism than to letting Israel do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it — well, then, Jews are nice, and your Jewish grandkids are nicer. But they’re nothing compared to tens of millions of motivated voters.
Matthew Yglesias insightfully calls this a post-Jewish brand of Zionism, and he’s exactly right. Peter is right that it’s the moral task of Zionist liberals like, well, himself and myself and the J Street generation to save Zionist liberalism. But if you’re Malcolm Hoenlein or Abe Foxman, why should you care what pischers like us think? You’ve got aspirant Republican officeholders tripping over each other to profess their deep faith in Israel.
That should underscore the urgency of the J Street generation. Liberal Zionism is as much an archaic and dying trend in American politics as it is in Israeli politics. What Peter might have more forcefully added in his piece is the hidebound hostility that the mainstream organizations express toward it. Well, what did these self-hating Jews say about Gaza? What did they say about Goldstone? How dare they connect the occupation to anti-American sentiment? Don’t they know Iran is an existential threat and the end of Jewish democracy isn’t! We left-wingers in the Shtetl live amidst a sentiment among our parents and grandparents that tells us that we can take the position that a Jewish democracy and two-state solution is a fine thing. But if we advocate for it too strongly — if we put it in the language of justice; if we see Zionism’s early universalism as demanding Palestinian statehood; if we plead for Israel to abandon its current anti-Jewish course — then we’re merely useful idiots giving aid and comfort to the enemy. To listen to our parents and grandparents in 2010 is to be told that you ought to have a mere superficial attachment to Jewish democracy and Jewish justice after all. And that’s why we don’t listen anymore.
But it’s also true that they don’t have to listen to us. And that’s the more vexing problem.
This is an excellent, well-argued piece by Peter Beinart about the moral failure of Jewish-American leaders with regard to Israel’s hard-right turn. I would hope that the leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League etc etc would read it and think about it carefully, and that it forces those who have refused to debate these issues–how unJewish!–to start a real dialogue.
But I’m sure that it’s only a matter of hours before someone calls Beinart anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew. How sad.
Come on, Joe! There is real debate all the time in the Jewish community, even within the ADL! I’ve been to national meetings of the ADL when actual debate broke out! I belong to the biggest and most established Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., and one of beloved rabbis is a leader of the hard-left group Rabbis for Human Rights, and you know what? No one cares. Liberal critics of Israel and the organized Jewish community are going to have to let go of this particular meme. (Please see my post on a related subject, the taboo that won’t shut up.) We live in an age when cartoonists — cartoonists! — are threatened with death for drawing pictures of the Muslim prophet, and yet an unseemly amount of space on the Interwebs is given over to condemning Abe Foxman for writing hostile press releases. It is not an act of bravery — physical bravery, spiritual bravery, intellectual bravery — to criticize Israel, not ever, and certainly not today.
By the way, I just asked Peter Beinart if he’s been called an Israel-hater or a self-hater today. His response: “Actually no one has. It’s been the biggest shock — and happiest one — of the piece. I don’t think my grandmother has read it yet, though.”
The problem, however, isn’t with leading Jewish organizations that defend Israel, but with liberalism. As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves. It isn’t too different from American liberal attitudes toward criminal justice or terrorism, where morality is turned upside down and the lines between criminals and victims become blurred, and in certain cases, even reversed.
In the case of Israel, what changed over time was that Israel went from a state that exemplified Jewish victimhood (a role that Jewish liberals are comfortable with) to one in which Jews were actually in a position of power, which liberals are not comfortable with. Meanwhile, Palestinians, aided by the media, effectively exploited Jewish liberals by portraying themselves as the real victims, and Israel as the oppressors. I experienced this first hand once when I went on a Birthright Israel trip (which is a paid trip for American Jews to travel to Israel). At one point, we went to the cemetery at Mount Herzl, which is sort of Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, and is located by Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust Museum. While stopping at the cemetery, we were asked to offer our feelings standing in a cemetery honoring fallen Israeli soldiers, and the first American Jew who commented was this liberal girl who reflected, “All I can think about is how many Palestinian graves there are.”
Israel, right now, is surrounded by terorrist groups dedicated to the nation’s destruction. Palestinian society teaches its children to aspire to slaughter Jews much in the same fashion as the Nazis indoctrinated their young. Suicide bombers who die in the act of killing Jewish civilians are celebrated as heroes. It’s a culture that glorifies death and uses women and children as human shields to gain sympathy from the international community — and especially liberal Jews. And the terrorists are receiving aid from Iran, a radical nation that vows to wipe Israel off the map within the context of seeking a nuclear weapon.
Yet against this backdrop, all liberal Jews want to do is to pin the blame on Israel’s efforts to defend itself, and engage in the magical thinking that more Jewish concessions will create peace and security. By doing so, they are helping the enemies of the Jews who are intent on finishing the job that Hitler started. While Israel has no shortage of critics, when Jewish liberals attack Israel, it’s that much more damaging, because Israel’s enemies can say, “See, even Jews admit that Israel is the oppressor.”
While I would never suggest that Jews who happen to be politically liberal would want a second Holocaust to happen, I do think that by participating in a campaign to defang Israel and prevent it from taking the actions necessary to defend itself, that Jewish liberals are making things significantly easier for those who do want to carry out a second Holocaust.
Luckily, though, there are a lot of Jews in Israel who are determined not to let that happen.
Whether Klein finds it sickening or not, the more important point here is that this doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t speak for liberal Jews, but my guess is that what causes them to recoil is the thought of fellow Jews imposing inhumane, unjust policies on people under their power. If it were simply a matter of self-defense, rather than one of sustained occupation and the attendant humiliations and degradations visited on a subject people, there would be far less criticism because the government’s policies would be much easier to justify. Nationalists here in the U.S. insist on uncritical support for our policies abroad because they see this as an expression of loyalty to their country “right or wrong,” and “pro-Israel” hawks insist on offering the same kind of uncritical support for Israeli policies regardless of their merits or their consequences.
Of course, nationalists typically have a defective understanding of loyalty and a distorted understanding of patriotism, and hawks have a similarly defective understanding of what constitutes real, effective support for an ally. Encouraging a government in its worst habits and instincts, remaining silent in the face of its abuses and focusing all of their energies on attacking dissidents and critics are not the acts of friends or supporters. They are instead the acts of the blindly loyal who ultimately contibute to the ruin of the state they claim to defend.
P.S. As Beinart’s essay makes clear, it is the hard-line Israeli politicians who constantly invoke the history of Jewish victimhood to justify what they want to do. On the whole, it is “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. who grossly exaggerate the vulnerability and weakness of Israel’s position in the region to justify aggressive policies vis-a-vis Israel’s neighbors and other Near Eastern states. The trouble isn’t that Jewish liberals are uncomfortable with the power of Israel, but that “pro-Israel” hawks refuse to acknowledge the disparity between the power of the Israeli government and its enemies and the disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians. On the whole, Jewish liberals seem to be willing to accept responsibility that wielding such power requires. In the meantime, “pro-Israel” hawks prefer an Israel that wields power under the constant protection of invoking victim status whenever someone criticizes the Israeli government’s abuses of power.
This disagreement often falls across generational lines. As Beinart says, young Jews do not remember Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria massing forces in the run-up to the Six-Day War. They do not remember a coalition of Arab forces streaming across the Sinai on Yom Kippur in order to catch the Jewish state by surprise. Their understanding of Israel was not forged watching the weak and threatened state improbably repel the attacks of potent adversaries.
The absence of such definitional memories has contributed to a new analysis of the Israeli situation. Today, Israel is far, far, far more militarily powerful than any of its assailants. None of the region’s armies would dare face the Jewish state on the battlefield, and in the event that they tried, they would be slaughtered. Further stacking the deck is America’s steadfast support of Israel. Any serious threat would trigger an immediate defense by the most powerful army the world has ever known. In effect, Israel’s not only the strongest power in the region, but it has the Justice League on speed dial.
That is not to say that the Jewish state is not under threat. Conventional attacks pose no danger, but one terrorist group with one nuclear weapon and one good plan could do horrible damage to the small, dense country. That threat, however, is fundamentally a danger born of the Arab world’s hatred of Israel. It follows, then, that hastening the peace that will begin to ease that hatred makes Israel safer. Exacerbating the tensions that feed it, conversely, only makes the threat more severe.
And to many of us, it looks like Israel is making the threat more severe. Its decision to pummel the city of Gaza from the air in a misguided attempt to punish Hamas. The ascension of Avigdor Lieberman and the return of Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither an overwhelming assault certain to kill many Arab civilians or a political movement that seeks to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs — whose respected position in Israeli politics has long been a point of pride for Jews — seems likely to begin the long process required to get back to the place where peace is conceivable.
Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Peter Beinart here and here
Liberalism assumes that clever and and enlightened people can engineer happy outcomes for everyone. The notion that some peoples fail of their own deficiencies is anathema to liberalism, whose premise is that enlightened intervention can solve all the problems of any society. That is what Jewish college students are taught.
It certainly is getting harder and harder to be both a liberal and a Zionist. To support a Jewish state on purely secular grounds is the conceit of generations that long ago faded away. There is no more illiberal notion than the Election of Israel. To a generation whose heart bleeds for every endangered species, the prospect that peoples may perish of their own cultural failings is an unthinkable, horrendous, nightmarish proposition.
Nonetheless Israel’s position is stronger than ever in the hearts of Americans. The Orthodox may be fewer in number, but more young Americans are spending time in Israel, studying in Israel, and moving to Israel than ever before. The rapid growth of the young Orthodox Jewish population is making an impact on Israeli demographics (which are in excellent condition due to a fertility rate of nearly 3), and will make an increasing impact over time. Skullcaps are multiplying on American college campuses, and many of them sit on heads that spent a year before college at an Israeli yeshiva.
In absolute numbers, the support of young American Jews for Israel is stronger than it ever has been. Zionism is in no danger. The entity that is in trouble is Jewish liberalism.
I will leave the debate over the justice of Beinart’s portrait of both Israel and its American supporters to his fellow anguished liberal Zionists, Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait. What I wonder is whether the trend that Beinart describes — the diminishing bond between secular American Jews and the state of Israel — was more or less inevitable, no matter what policies were pursued in Israel and what kind of attitudes American Zionist organizations struck. Benjamin Netanyahu and Abe Foxman may have accelerated the process, but it’s hard to imagine that the more secular, more assimilated sections of the Jewish-American population wouldn’t have eventually drifted away from an intense connection with Israel anyway, in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that Italian-Americans are less attached to both Italy and Catholicism than they were in 1940 or so, or that Irish-American are far less interested in the politics of Eire and Northern Ireland than they used to be.
Say what you want about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but “he knows how to work a room.” So claims Flynt Leverett, the contrarian Iran analyst who, with his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, paid a visit to the Iranian president in New York City last fall. During the sit-down at Manhattan’s InterContinental Barclay hotel with a group of invited academics, foreign policy professionals, and other Iranophiles, the Leveretts marveled at Ahmadinejad’s attention to detail as the Iranian took copious notes and strove to pronounce their unfamiliar names correctly. “He addresses every person by name. He made a serious effort to address everyone’s issue,” Flynt says. “It was really striking, the retail politics aspect.”
As former Bush White House officials, the Leveretts might seem unlikely company for the diminutive tyrant. But Ahmadinejad has reason to admire the married Middle East analysts. They are, after all, the most prominent voices in the U.S. media arguing that he was legitimately reelected last June, and that the opposition Green Movement is a flash in the pan. “There is no revolution afoot in Iran, and the social base of this movement is not growing; it is, in fact, shrinking,” Flynt recently said on PBS’s “NewsHour.” He has made his case everywhere from msnbc to NPR to The New York Times op-ed page, where he and his wife have made three shared appearances since late May.
To the Leveretts, Ahmadinejad’s Bill Clinton-like personal touch underscores their argument that, far from a thug repressing his people, he is, in fact, a charming leader with broad Iranian support–and one whose true nature the United States fails to understand. And, in any case, they say, moral indignation over his regime’s character distracts us from clear strategic thinking. Both economic sanctions and the Green Movement will fail to contain Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions. America’s only choice is to engage Iran, nuclear bomb or no. For that, they have earned the enmity of former friends and colleagues–and even drawn death threats. “We are portrayed as un-American, stooges of the regime,” complains Hillary.
But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. And that makes for one of Washington’s most intriguing mysteries: How did two ex-Bush aides become the Iranian regime’s biggest intellectual defenders?
What happened? Some critics accuse the Leveretts of becoming corporate shills. Their salon dinners, for instance, have included executives from oil companies that have done business in Iran, including Norway-based Statoil and French Total. The Leveretts firmly deny that they are peddling access or trying to affect policy for corporate gain. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, says he recently conducted a review of their business ties and is “entirely satisfied there is no conflict. … The idea that their ideas are compromised is without foundation.”
Perhaps the Leveretts were transformed by what they saw as Bush’s blown opportunity to deal with Iran. Hillary says her dealings with Iranian diplomats as a Bush White House aide at the start of the Afghanistan war made her understand Tehran’s willingness to engage. “It seems that the Leveretts are almost frozen in time circa 2003 on this,” says Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner. The Leveretts have also come to accept the realist critique that Israel occupies too great a role in America’s foreign policy calculus; Flynt clashed with fellow Bush officials about what peace-process concessions Israel should be asked to make, for instance. “For a lot of pro-Israel groups, these [views of Iran] are non-starters,” he says.
Or perhaps, on some level, they have actually grown to admire Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In our meeting, I pressed them to say just how they feel about the Iranian leader. Geopolitics aside, did they consider him a despicable human being? “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt replied. “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” “[T]he idea that he’s stupid or doesn’t understand retail politics is also pretty divorced from reality,” Hillary added. But that wasn’t the question.
Michael Crowley has a devastating piece out now on Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, the former National Security Council staffers and expert self-marginalizers. In it, the Leverett does something I didn’t think she was foolish enough to do, which is to tell a reporter what he actually thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The verdict: He likes him! Also, and more egregiously, he defends the Iranian regime for showing restraint in the face of pro-democracy demonstrator
I’ve never met the Leveretts, nor have I ever spoken with them about Iran. I have at times found their analysis on the post-June 12 upheaval a bit exaggerated, biased and even downright peculiar. That said, I think Crowley undermines his own article with this acknowledgment of their work:
It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong–especially in the wake of disappointing Green turnout last week on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution–although, in a state willing to beat, arrest, and even kill protesters, gauging the popular mood is never simple.OK, fair enough. But flip this around on those who have been cheer leading for the so-called Green Movement, and the same criticism applies. Analysts and experts – clearly wearing their green hearts on their sleeves – have been repeatedly proven wrong about the size and capabilities of the Green Movement, yet no one suspects these well-intentioned partisans of nefarious, or even treasonous ties to agents or officials inside Iran (and if you think the Green Movement is somehow operating outside of Iran’s inner-circle you simply haven’t been paying attention). While I reserve my own criticisms of the Leveretts, I find the very personal and often malicious attacks on them to be really uncalled for, not to mention a distraction from the debate at hand. (incidentally, the Leveretts have written a brief and fair response to some of the nastier charges levied against them.)
Disappointing many who had appreciated their earlier analysis, Leverett and Hillary Mann-Leverett, his wife and frequent writing partner, did not react the same way. Instead, they’ve dismissed the Greens and insisted on more engagement with Ahmadinejad, even comparing Obama to Bush. It’s a strange place to be, one that doesn’t seem to take into account the events of the last year.
Michael Crowley has written a piece exploring their position. He begins and ends his well-reported story with the suggestion that the Leveretts harbor some admiration for Ahmadinejad. Certainly, the Iranian president is despicable, but the restless urge to demonize people like Ahmadinejad has never paid dividends for the United States’ foreign policy; contests of who can hate more do not international achievement make. The Leveretts’ recognition of the Iranian president’s political abilities — and his rationality — is not an indictment of their arguments. Frankly, I’m more curious why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t make an appearance in the article, since he is generally recognized as Iran’s true leader.
To me, it seems the reason that the Leveretts are so keen to engage the Ahmadinejad regime is that they are realists. They have made the calculation that the Green movement is not likely to overthrow the government soon and that America’s near-term interests are more important than supporting human rights abroad. That’s not a liberal foreign policy, but it also doesn’t require some malign affection for a dangerous theocrat.
What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!
My main problem with the Leveretts is, like certain hawks, they project a false sense of certainty about the situation in Iran. No one knows exactly how the opposition movement will manifest. The Leveretts assert arguable claims as fact without explaining how they are reaching their conclusions.
The claims the Leveretts have made about the presidential election are substantially no different than those made by Stratfor analysts from the very beginning. All of them have made reasonable arguments that Mousavi voters in general and Green movement protesters in particular do not represent anything like a majority of the population, and they have made fairly common-sense observations that the Green movement has been losing strength as time goes on. Skeptics of the movement’s strength have also cast doubt on claims that the regime is widely seen as illegitimate by most Iranians. These claims have been central to the latest wave of regime change arguments, which have focused on helping the protest movement bring down the government, and the claims are probably wrong. The skeptics’ doubt is informed by what little apparently reliable evidence about Iranian public opinion we have. Compared with this admittedly sketchy and incomplete picture, the Leveretts’ critics cannot muster much more than anecdotal evidence whose importance they continually exaggerate.
No one has obsessively attacked George Friedman et al. as regime apologists or “intellectual defenders” of Ahmadinejad. It seems to me that the Leveretts aren’t being targeted with smears and insults principally because of their analysis, which Crowley does not really attempt to dispute, but because of the policy course they recommend, which is significant, sustained engagement with Iran. What Leveretts’ critics seem to want to do is identify this engagement approach with sympathy and collusion with the regime. This is the same thing that some of the Leveretts’ harshest critics were trying to do when they were attacking Trita Parsi as lobbyist for the regime.
The opposition camp has been critical of Leverett for his collaborations with Mohamed Marandi, director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies and the son of Khamenei’s personal physician, who appears to have facilitated Leverett’s upcoming visit. “The University of Tehran is the institution which has applied for our visas,” Leverett explained to me.
Leverett was offended when I asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in his invitation, and yet there’s little doubt that his co-author is personally and professionally close to the regime—and publicly justifies some of its most brutal actions. Since the June elections, Marandi has been the Ahmadinejad government’s key spokesperson in the English-language media, and he recently defended the regime’s sentencing opposition members to death. His true occupation may be even more unsavory. “He passes himself off as an academic, but he’s with the Ministry of Intelligence,” says Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentary Center and a professor of medicine at Yale.
Of course, if you need to make the case that you have a genuine channel to the regime’s inner sanctum, it’s hard to do better than to partner with a hard-core regime man like Marandi. In the realist view, Leverett’s strong stomach and lack of sentimental attachments is proof that he is coming from the right place. “Flynt comes from a very strong national-interest point of view and emphasizes energy security,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a frequent guest at dinner seminars at the Leveretts’ Northern Virginia home. “They’re background dinners, usually about eight to 10 people, weapons experts, energy experts, Iranian nationals, with varied points of view on the Middle East,” he says. While Frum explains that Leverett’s “domestic politics are on the conservative, not liberal, side,” it is also true that Leverett’s fame and acceptance in Washington policymaking circles rests on the fact that he was lionized by liberals for his opposition to the Bush administration’s Iran policy.
The story of Leverett’s rise and fall and rise embodies the upside-down weirdness of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when obscure Middle East experts and Washington bureaucrats occupied center stage of the national debate. It’s safe to say that in less turbulent times, and under a less controversial president, no one would have ever heard of Flynt Leverett. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Leverett earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University, earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton, honed his Arabic-language skills in Damascus, and joined the CIA during a period when the agency was not especially known for running agents, or paying much attention to Iran.
In 2001, after a decade at the agency, Leverett landed a plum position on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, then headed by Richard Haass, and was subsequently named senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff. In the interagency process that coordinates policymakers in the bureaucracies across Washington—defense, state, White House, CIA—Leverett earned a reputation for committing what are known as “process fouls.” “That’s when you intentionally exclude other policymakers,” says a former senior-level Defense Department official. “Leverett did that to us all the time, withholding a paper and cutting us out of the debate because he feared, rightly, we were going to disagree with him.”
But it was Leverett’s disagreements with the president that, in his account, compelled him, as he wrote in 2005, “to leave the administration.” However, as another former member of the Bush NSC staff explained, Leverett did not leave his post by choice. “The job of a director on the NSC staff is bureaucratic,” says the former Bush official. “If there’s a deputies’ meeting, you take notes. When you get a letter from a foreign government, you log it in and draft a response.” Leverett continually missed deadlines and misplaced documents, and the NSC Records office had a long list of his delinquencies. His office was notoriously messy—documents were strewn over chairs, windowsills, the floor, and piled high on his desk. For Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and a famously well-organized “clean desk” type, repeatedly missing deadlines and losing important letters was simply not tolerable behavior for an NSC officer, and Leverett was told to leave.
Returning to the CIA briefly before retiring from government service in the spring of 2003, Leverett moved on to the Brookings Institution, and then the New America Foundation, as he began to reinvent himself as an Iran expert with the help of his wife. Hillary Mann Leverett claimed that after rotating back to the State Department from the White House in April 2003 she had received a fax from a Swiss diplomat acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Iranians, offering what the Leveretts would come to call the Grand Bargain. According to the Swiss fax, she said, the Islamic Republic would cease support for terrorist organizations, terminate its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States would in turn guarantee that it had no designs to topple the regime.
So why didn’t the Americans bite? As the Leveretts explained in a series of interviews and their own articles, including, most famously, a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times published with redactions ordered by the Bush White House, it was because of Bush and the neoconservatives, who intended to lead the United States to war again.
In Mr. Goldberg’s previous attempts to write about Hillary (with whom he has, to this day, never spoken or sought to speak), he displayed a fact-free approach to journalism that we found truly unfortunate from someone who works for such a historically august publication as The Atlantic. In his current effort to portray Flynt (with whom Mr. Goldberg has also never spoken or sought to speak), Mr. Goldberg stoops to a new low in attempted character assassination—a low set by Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith’s “article” is chock full of unsubstantiated statements and fabricated allegations. For the record, we would like to respond to these unsubstantiated statements and fabricated allegations lies here.
Where to begin?! By way of background, we should inform our readers that we are planning a trip to the Middle East next week. Our itinerary includes Beirut and Damascus. If our application for visas is approved, we might also be going to Tehran. (As Middle East specialists, we travel to the Middle East multiple times each year. We have been wanting to visit Iran for some time, and accepted an invitation from the University of Tehran to do so.) It seems strange to us that people we don’t know have become so interested in our travel plans of late. Mr. Smith is certainly very focused on the subject. He bizarrely asserts that “Western scholars and policy wonks alike understand that access to the [Iranian] regime is a form of currency that can make you powerful or rich or both…all see access to the Iranian regime as the biggest prize in the foreign policy game”.
Considering the amount of grief we have to put up with because we actually want to talk to Iranians, including government officials, both inside Iran and outside the country, we are tempted to conclude that Mr. Smith is describing some parallel universe to the one that we live in. We don’t know of a single “Western scholar” or “policy wonk” (and we know a lot of people in both categories) who thinks that access to the Iranian regime is going to make them powerful, rich, or both.
It is true, of course, that access alone does not make anyone rich or powerful, but it is a prerequisite if you wish to act an intermediary between closed societies and Western companies, which is exactly what the Leveretts are up to in Washington. I obtained several emails sent by the Leveretts and pertaining to their business, one of which is a November 2007 message inviting Trita Parsi to one of their “background dinners.” These dinners, which the Leveretts present as a kind of salon, help to generate business for an energy and consulting firm called Stratega, whose CEO happens to be Hillary Mann Leverett. The guests that night included representatives from Norway’s Statoil company, including Ali Ghezelbash, an owner of Atieh Bahar, which is an Iranian consulting firm that in the past facilitated business with Iranian industries, especially in the energy sector, controlled at one time by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 2006, Statoil was fined $21 million for a 2002 bribe securing “development of a critical Iranian petroleum project.”
In Leveretts’ response to my article, they also claimed to have been quite offended when I suggested while interviewing them that their prospective trip to Iran “was facilitated via Muhammad Marandi on behalf of the IRGC,” or the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They charge that this information was made up, either by my sources or by me.
The Utah Senator’s first foray into Jewish music sets an extremely high standard for holiday-related content on this blog, but I’m hopeful that it can be matched by, perhaps, some Christmas Caroling from the New York delegation.
Ten years ago, I visited Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah and a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Capitol Hill. I was writing for The New York Times Magazine and Hatch was thinking of running for president. We talked about politics for a few minutes, and then he said, “Have you heard my love songs?”
No senator had asked me that question before. It turned out that Hatch was a prolific songwriter, not only of love songs, but of Christian spirituals as well. We spent an hour in his office listening to some of his music, a regular Mormon platter party. After five or six Christmas songs, I asked, him, “What about Hanukkah songs? You have any of those?”
I have always felt that the song canon for Hanukkah, a particularly interesting historical holiday, is sparse and uninspiring, in part because Jewish songwriters spend so much time writing Christmas music. Several years earlier, as a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, I sponsored a Write-a-New-Song-for-Hanukkah contest. I received more than 200 entries. Most were dreck. The songs I liked best were the ones uninfected by self-distancing Jewish irony, songs that actually wrestled with the complicated themes of Hanukkah—religious freedom, political extremism, the existence, or non-existence, of an interventionist God—in a more earnest way.
Hatch lit up at my suggestion. He asked me to jot down some possible themes, which I did. Then he got sidetracked by his presidential campaign. (He didn’t win.) Still, time went on, and no song.
It’s a delightful thing to have Orrin Hatch write a song for Hanukkah. Of course I appreciate the absurdist quality to this project, but I also deeply appreciate Hatch’s earnestness. His lyrics are not postmodern or cynical, which is a blessing, because I for one have tired of the Adam Sandlerization of Judaism in America. Yes, we are, as a people, funny (at least when compared to other people, such as Croatians) but our neuroses, well-earned though they may be, have caused us to lacerate our own traditions, which are in fact (to borrow from Barack Obama) awesome. The story of Hanukkah is a good case in point—maybe the perfect one.
I also appreciate the song because Hatch’s collaborator, Madeline Stone, has written music that, to borrow this time from Felix Unger, is happy and peppy and bursting with love. And I love the fact that the song’s producer, Peter Bliss, hired a delightful singer named Rasheeda Azar, who was not only a back-up vocalist for Paula Abdul (Jew) and Janet Jackson (not a Jew) but is a Syrian-American from Terre Haute, Indiana. Rasheeda’s participation closes a circle of sorts, since the Syrian King Antiochus was, of course, the antagonist in the story of the Maccabean revolt.
And so it was a very American day in a recording studio on West 54th Street in Manhattan when we gathered to hear Rasheeda sing. In one small room were Bliss; Madeline Stone, a Jewish songwriter who writes contemporary Christian music in Nashville; a crew of downtown Jews from Tablet Magazine; Hatch’s chief of staff, Jace Johnson, who didn’t seem to know exactly what he was doing there, but was very nice about the whole episode; and Hatch himself, who sang background vocals and even showed us the mezuzah he wears under his shirt. Hatch, like many Mormons, is something of a philo-Semite, and though he is under no illusions about Jewish political leanings in America—he told me that though he likes Barbra Streisand very much, he’s fairly sure she doesn’t like him—he possesses a heartfelt desire to reach out to Jews.
Hatch said he hoped his song would be understood not only as a gift to the Jewish people but that it would help bring secular Jews to a better understanding of their own holiday. “I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means,” he said. Jewish people, he said, should “take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people.”
If you were weirded out by Bob Dylan’s Christmas album, avert your ears: Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon Republican from Utah, has given Jews a “gift” by writing them a Hanukkah song. What is Yiddish for: “Jesus fucking Christ”?
According to the Times, Hatch wrote the song at the request of Atlantic writer Jeffery Jeffrey (thanks for the correction, Jeff!) Goldberg, as a gift to the Jews. So we blame you, Jeffrey, for ruining an already kind of lame holiday (as every Jew knows, Passover is where it is really at.) Though it doesn’t show, Hatch is apparently a prolific songwriter, penning such patriotic classics as “Heal Our Land,” which was performed at Bush’s 2005 inauguration. Which, OK, they deserved it.
It’s “Jeffrey,” by the way. And I find the Hatch song extremely catchy, if not as catchy as the love song Hatch wrote for Ted Kennedy and his wife (no shit, look it up). And Hanukkah is not a lame holiday at all. Someone, I forget who, called it “Armed Jews Week,” which connotes the non-lameness of the holiday. Tu b’Shvat is a lame holiday. Shemini Atzeret is a lame holiday. Not Hanukkah.
While associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are convinced that Emanuel is inciting the U.S. president against Israel behind the scenes – and providing the amateurish psychological explanation that he is “a Jew consumed by self-hatred” – people in Washington who disapprove of his conduct don’t look for profound psychological motives. Indeed, some sum up their viewpoint simply by saying: “He’s a jerk.”
With his coarse short-temperedness, Emanuel stands out even in a city like Washington, D.C, about which Obama himself once said, quoting president Harry S. Truman: “They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Emanuel can begin a conversation with the threat that if any of its contents are leaked to the media, none of those involved will ever see him or anyone else in the White House again, and finish it with an impolite hint that he needs to send an e-mail.
Now, Michael Goldfarb at TWS has already commented on the “self-hating” commenting:
Yesterday Haaretzclaimed that Bibi was privately referring to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod as “self-hating Jews.” You knew it wasn’t true because 1) Haaretz, like most foreign papers, reports a lot of things that aren’t true (see last month’s reporting in the same paper on the imminent release of Gilad Shalit for an example) and 2) the reporter buried the claim at the bottom of his piece — at the end of the eighth graph.
Now comes the perfunctory denial. Of course, even though the Haaretz story wasn’t true, you know Bibi calls these guys a lot worse than that in closed door meetings, and one can only imagine the colorful language Rahm uses to describe the Israeli Prime Minister when there are no reporters around. A far more interesting question is how do these two respective government’s describe, say, the Iranian leadership in closed door meetings? It’s not a huge leap to imagine Barack Obama asking Leon Panetta, ‘so should I send another letter to the Supreme Leader?’
The Benjamin Netanyahu-Rahm Emanuel “self-hating Jews” kerfuffle continued apace this week. To recap: earlier this month, according to Haaretz, Netanyahu called Emanuel, President Obama’s chief-of-staff, and David Axelrod, Obama’s top political adviser, “self-hating Jews.” Then, earlier this week, a spokesperson for Bibi denied that his boss said it. And today Haaretz runs a massive profile of Emanuel that quotes Emanuel’s father—a one-time member of the Irgun, the militant Zionist group of Mandatory Palestine—and others on the subject of just how ridiculous the notion of “Rahm Emanuel, self-hating Jew” is. “I’m simply surprised that in Israel they jump down his throat,” Benjamin Emanuel tells the newspaper of his son. “I love the country, my children are Zionists, they came to Israel every year, and I don’t know why they’re attacking Rahm. I support Netanyahu.”
The lengthy piece mostly focuses on the crazed, brilliant, mad, pleased-with-himself Emanuel rather than this contretemps specifically, and it contains little that will be news to those of us who have read the umpteen profiles of Emanuel that have showed up in the American press. But appearing in Israel, in the same newspaper that originally broke the alleged “self-hating Jews” remark, the article could repudiate not only Netanyahu’s particular characterization of Emanuel but perhaps also Netanyahu’s larger attempt to discredit the U.S.’s calls for a more moderate approach to the Palestinian question.
Why is Emanuel, the son of an Israeli pediatrician who served in the Irgun (the illegal pre-state underground), bashing Israel over settlements? The answer is simple, and well documented by the Israeli newspaper feature. His views have remained frozen in time since he arranged the 1993 handshake inthe White House Rose Garden between then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat, like those of Oslo Accord negotiator Yossi Beilin. He still believes with religious fervor in the old peace process, while events have convinced the vast majority of Israelis that it is a dreadful idea.
[…] After hundreds of death by terrorism and the Palestinian refusal to accept Ehud Barak’s peace offer as brokered by then President Clinton in 1998, the Israeli public repudiated Beilin’s ideological fanaticism. Not so American Jews, whose left-wing sympathies and sentimental attachment to secular universalism come cheap, like the poor man’s whitefish. Israelis pay for the experiments of leftist leaders in blood, and American liberals like Rahm Emanuel respond: “Believe me, it’s worth it.”
[…] There simply isn’t any arguing with liberal Jews. The only solution is the Biblical one: in forty years, all of them will be dead, like the feckless generation of freedmen who left Egypt with Moses. Secular Jews have one child per family, Reform Jews 1.3, Conservative Jews 1.6, and modern Orthodox nearly 4. A new Jewish majority will form over the next forty years, and it will be religiously observant, close to Israeli thinking, and politically conservative.
Normally David Goldman (”Spengler”) is astute, or at least astute enough to require serious thought in grappling with his arguments. But about this latest, I just don’t know where to begin. Courtesy of the opening anecdote, it appears to be an explanation of how, precisely, Rahm Emanuel is a “self-hating Jew” — not for still living in 1993 and believing in Oslo after its collapse (perhaps a subject worthy of critique without the petulant name-calling), but for “bashing Israel over settlements.”
[…] But there’s another reason to oppose the indefinite continuation of the present system, and it’s one that Goldman brushes up against with his sneering, over-confident final paragraph:
There simply isn’t any arguing with liberal Jews. The only solution is the Biblical one: in forty years, all of them will be dead, like the feckless generation of freedmen who left Egypt with Moses. Secular Jews have one child per family, Reform Jews 1.3, Conservative Jews 1.6, and modern Orthodox nearly 4. A new Jewish majority will form over the next forty years, and it will be religiously observant, close to Israeli thinking, and politically conservative.
The birthrate for Israeli Jews isn’t quite as low as that of American non-Orthodox, but it hovers, overall, right around 2 children per family; the overall Palestinian birthrate is, by most estimates, between 3 and 4. Even if those numbers are somewhat too high, as some claim, it doesn’t change the reality already present, as Michael Oren pointed out this May in Commentary
[…] Does this mean that there’s no room for leeway because of natural growth in Israeli settlements? Not necessarily. But I still cannot grasp the mindset of those who ignore the demographic reality. At which point, the only case for the continued existence of a Jewish Israel in the face of those eventual numbers is that of the Israeli religious right: G-d gave it to us, all of it to us.
But to make that argument means that one agrees to place the case for Israel in strictly religious terms. So while we’re there, still speaking from a strictly Jewish perspective, it’s high time someone pointed out the other side to that argument, the more dangerous side: while there is a right to dwell in the land, there is no inviolable right to dwell in the land at a specific time before the Moshiach. There have been expulsions before.
We (American and Israeli Jews alike) would do well to recall that the G-d who spoke to Isaiah and Jeremiah, laying the case, essentially, for the Babylonian Exile, is far more concerned with widows, beggars, and orphans than with the precision of Temple sacrifices. The latter without the former is not enough to fulfill the Covenant. It’s why it makes me sick to see “Orthodox” rabbis making the case that their “orthodoxy” is more than enough to compensate for their own disregard for human life.
I’ve received a lot of mail already in reaction to my post about the crisis in Israel — a crisis caused by the willful disregard of settler extremists to Israeli law, and by the Israeli government’s impotence in the face of such law-breaking — and I’ll post some of it throughout the day, but here’s one sample:
I’ve decided your a self-hating Jew. You would rather have the approval of Barack Hussein Obama and the self-hating Jews that are his lapdogs than of your own Jewish people. You want to make Israel Judenrein, and Heaven will punish you for that. Shame!
Shame is right. By the way, if I’m a self-hating Jew, then anyone who is not a rabid, land-stealing settler is a self-hating Jew. I believe such a category exists — though in my experience, the Jews who hate being Jewish and afflict the rest of us with their hatred generally tend, in an overall way, to love themselves very much. But what you have in this debate over self-hating Jews — remember, there’s a report out that Bibi himself has called Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod self-hating Jews — is the hijacking of Judaism by a group of extremists who have conflated support for the settlement project with love for Israel and the Jewish people.
I have to give up my HC gimmick for a moment because Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a great post that needs to be praised. I’ve criticized Goldberg, in the most assholic possible terms I know how to use, but this is just a great, great sentiment, and if I can’t recognize that, then I’m the asshole.
There Are Cordoba Guitars And Cordoba Houses, Part II
John McCormack at The Weekly Standard:
Marc Tracy at Tablet:
Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs:
Adam Serwer at American Prospect:
Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:
Peter Beinart at Daily Beast:
Mark Thompson at The League:
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
Peter Wehner at Commentary
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
Justin Elliott at Salon:
Chris Good at The Atlantic:
UPDATE: Will Wilkinson
William Kristol at The Weekly Standard
UPDATE #2: Dorothy Rabinowitz at WSJ
Alan Jacobs at The American Scene
Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene
Joshua Cohen and Jim Pinkerton at Bloggingheads
Mark Schmitt and Rich Lowry at Bloggingheads
David Weigel and Dan Foster at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #3: Alex Massie here and here
UPDATE #4: Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, his letter to Foxman
Abe Foxman writes a letter to Zakaria
UPDATE #5: Christopher Hitchens at Slate
UPDATE #6: Jillian Rayfield at Talking Points Memo
UPDATE #7: Charles Krauthammer at WaPo
Jonathan Chait at TNR
John McCormack at The Weekly Standard
UPDATE #8: Joe Klein on Krauthammer
Michael Kinsley at The Atlantic on Krauthammer
UPDATE #9: More Krauthammer
UPDATE #10: Adam Serwer at Greg Sargent’s place
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