Apr 092014

Originally published in The National Interest.

Simon Schama’s new TV series and bookThe Story of the Jews is particularly timely, although he’s covering well-ploughed ground. Schama shows, in fine detail, the ways the Jews tried, in any way they knew how and inventing new ones, to become accepted by societies in which they found themselves over the 1900 years that passed since they were exiled after the destruction of the first state of Israel. They tried to “assimilate” by praying on Sunday instead of on the Sabbath, by using the local language instead of Hebrew, by playing an organ instead of the shofar—and so on. They zealously served the rulers of their host countries and contributed richly to their cultures and commerce. However, as Schama shows, again and again and one more time Jews were (a) never fully accepted and (b) sooner or later kicked out in the most violent ways. They found new host countries, only to have their bitter fate repeated.

Read the full article here.

 Posted by at 10:29 am
Mar 182014

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

President Obama needs to launch a project or two that he can start, develop, and complete successfully — or, at the very least, projects on which he can make major significant progress. He lost credibility and much of the high regard in which he was held by many Americans (and people overseas) by making very inspiring speeches that were not followed up by much of anything. He allowed US adversaries to run roughshod over his red lines. And, most recently, he embraced the trick Dick Morris taught President Clinton, namely to launch one mini-project after another, thereby seeming to do a lot without either expending much monies (over which he has little control) or upsetting vested interests with an election year in sight.

President Reagan had one shining “city on a hill” that he was fond of pointing to. President Obama has half a dozen. These include a world without nuclear weapons; domestic politics in which Republicans and Democrats cooperate while singing “Kumbaya”; a Congress that enacts gun control measures, climate change, and full-blown immigration reform — all in one year; and, most recently, restoring social mobility in America and building the middle class from the middle (whatever that means). All these mountains of rhetoric produce molehills so small that they are invisible to the naked eye.

Read the full article at The Huffington Post.

 Posted by at 2:27 pm
Mar 142014

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post


An old anti-Zionist argument has recently been reasserted by one of the mildest critics, Ari Shavit. In his book My Promised Land, Shavit promotes the thesis that the ultimate source of the trouble between Israelis and Palestinians is a grand illusion which was and is at the core of Zionism. Zionists are said to have believed that Jews were a people without a land, and that Palestine was a land without a people, and hence it provided the perfect place for the erection of a Jewish homeland. Shavit, like others before him, debunk this assumption by pointing out that Arabs already occupied the land. Hence, Zionism required that they be driven out, oppressed, or killed to make room for the new settlers.

I knew that the thesis was deeply flawed but was reluctant to give voice to my criticisms because they were based on personal observations. I then realized that there is strong statistical data to support my observations.

Read the full article here.

 Posted by at 10:20 am
Mar 112014

Originally published at The Huffington Post

If you were about to celebrate the end of the Great Recession and the decline in the unemployment rate, please re-cork the Champagne. The American economy — much like the economies of other developed nations — is entering a period of major upheaval in which many middle-class jobs will be lost. The digital revolution is increasingly allowing computers and machines, made smarter through software, to replace many of the better-paying jobs, namely those that require skills and are associated with the middle class.

A telling example is what is beginning to take place in higher education by the introduction of MOOCs. These “massive open online courses” are videos that capture lectures on standard academic fare given by some of the most renowned and articulate professors in the land. The pressure to fire a bunch of local faculty and replace them with MOOCs is very high because of the rapidly rising costs of college education, the great shortfall of public budgets, and the influence of trustees from the business community who are looking to make colleges more efficient.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Feb 062014

Originally published at the Diplomat.

As a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany as a child in 1935, I have a lifelong interest in the ways nations deal with their pasts. I am closely following developments in Japan, in particular the moves to revise Japanese textbooks in a nationalistic direction, the debate about the implications of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and, above all, steps to turn Japan’s military from a strictly defensive one into one with “normal” capabilities. Abe is hardly the first or only public leader to move in this direction. As Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the National Interest, points out, “Nationalists in Japan have never really conceded that Tokyo did anything wrong before or during the war. . . . You will be hard-pressed to find much, if any, mention of Japan’s wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. . . . Japan emerges as a power that was simply trying to defend its own interests. . . . Nationalists also bridle at the moral guilt that outsiders have tried to affix to Japan, whether it is the 1937 invasion of Nanking, which they argue has been falsely turned into a genocidal act, or the use of so-called ‘comfort women’ in Korea.”

I hence suggested at a recent press conference that Japan should send 200 public intellectuals and political leaders to Germany to learn how a nation can come to terms with the darkest parts of its history. Germany gradually came to fully acknowledge the evils of the Nazi regime, made amends when possible (e.g., by paying “reparations” to surviving victims), and made extensive mea culpas and apologies. Above all, it has instituted extensive, elaborate, and effective educational programs in its schools—and military—to ensure that Germany will never, ever again engage in the kind of horrific, barbarous conduct that took place during World War II. Today’s Germans—while also seeking a place for their nation as a “normal” member of the international community—have made it part of their DNA to reject xenophobia and racism. None of this happened in Japan. All of these steps should. Instead, it seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

There are basically two schools of thought as to where the international community ought to go from here. One holds that we should not make too much of the revisionists’ gestures, which are said to be merely minor political maneuvers of a far from formidable public leader. Moreover, according to this line of thinking, Japan’s military buildup and reinterpretation of its constitution are steps the nation is entitled to take now that two generations have passed since WWII.

And according to this school of thought, although the United States should continue to call on Abe and his associates to take into account the sensibilities of other nations, it is important to focus on the fact that Japan is destined to play a major role in “counter balancing” China. Moreover, Japan’s military buildup can be viewed as a welcome form of burden sharing in a period during which the Pentagon is under considerable budgetary pressures. While it is rarely stated publicly, U.S. State Department officials privately admit that the United States may have to put up with “unfortunate” comments by Abe because Japan’s contributions to core U.S. interests in the region are expected to grow substantively.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 10:37 am
Feb 032014

Originally published in the Atlantic.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, employs three arguments to justify his publication of leaked documents whose release has caused major damage to the national security of the U.S., the U.K., and their allies, according to their governments. The U.S. director of national intelligence has stated that the leaks have done“huge, grave damage” to intelligence-gathering efforts. NSA Director Keith Alexander has argued that revelations have caused “significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security.”  And the director of the Government Communications Headquarters (the NSA’s U.K. counterpart) recently testified that the leaks have been “very damaging” and will make the job of pursuing terrorists “far, far harder for years to come.”

Rusbridger’s first argument, a libertarian claim, is contradicted by his second. The second claim, a liberal communitarian argument, leaves a major question unaddressed. And the third argument is so specious that one must wonder if Rusbridger realized his case was unconvincing and ended up grasping at straws.

Throughout the first parts of the article, Rusbridger argues that the problem is not his publication of state secrets but, rather, the American and British governments’ attack on free speech and the freedom of the press. The issue was that the state “was threatening prior restraint of reporting and discussion by the press, no matter its public interest or importance,” and is “gagging” the press. The government is working to prevent the people from finding out that it is “seeking to put entire populations under some form of surveillance,” the aim of which was to “collect and store ‘all the signals all the time’—that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all the phone calls, texts, and e-mails we make and send each other.”

Rusbridger then turns to various rhetorical expressions to characterize these acts, arguing that if the Chinese behaved in this way, “there would be barely contained fury in the West.” Then follow the obligatory references to George Orwell and the East German Stasi, even though Rusbridger does not show that anyone has been killed, tortured, sent to the gulags, or even lost their job on account of the collection of phone records and emails. The main evidence of the actual harm these systems have inflicted so far (as distinct from what might happen were the U.S. and U.K. to be overtaken by tyrants) comes from claims Edward Snowden made, which Rusbridger quotes as if they were incontestable statements of fact:

The storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude to where it’s getting to the point—you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

If Rusbridger had stopped there, one would inevitably conclude that he agrees with those who read Benjamin Franklin as stating that those who give up even a bit of freedom in order to have security deserve neither—that the collection of such data is wrong on principle and should be stopped.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 11:24 am
Jan 232014

Originally published at the Jewish Daily Forward.

Recent news reports indicate that a major stumbling block in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the insistence by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on maintaining a military force on the border between the future Palestinian state and Jordan, along the Jordan Valley.

This demand, and the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry seems to support it, so infuriated Mahmoud Abbas, head of the P.A., that Abbas went over Kerry’s head and appealed directly to President Obama. My suggestion for a way out of this impasse, which follows below, makes sense only once one realizes why both sides feel so strongly about this matter and why they both have good reasons for feeling this way.

Israel sees this force as necessary to prevent the new Palestinian state from turning into a Hamastan and to ensure, as Jackson Diehl put it in The Washington Post, “that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base.” As Netanyahu recently said, “We don’t want to see rockets and missiles streaming into a Palestinian state and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Jerusalem. If Israel does not maintain a credible military and security presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what could happen again.”

Given what happened in southern Lebanon, after Israel fully retreated (granted, from a place where it should not have lingered in the first place) and removed its forces behind an international border recognized by the United Nations and the nations of the world, one cannot deny that on this issue, Israel has a legitimate concern.

At the same time, the Palestinians hold strongly to the principle that Palestine will be a sovereign state. That suggests that the Palestinians “will not accept the presence of any Israeli soldiers within the borders of a Palestinian state,” said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator in the peace process. Abbas also stated that, “All the talk about an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is empty talk, because as long as there is a presence of the occupation army in the territory of Palestine, there will be no solution, and all the settlements on Palestinian lands must be removed.”

The Palestinian point is equally compelling. A sovereign state has a right to ensure that no foreign military forces be stationed in its confines.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 12:47 pm

Maligning Biden

 Uncategorized  Comments Off
Jan 222014

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — who presided over the failed war in Afghanistan and the failing intervention in Iraq — claims that Vice President Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Because of my interest in communities — including ethnic and religious ones — I followed particularly closely two major recommendations Joe Biden has made. I found that as far as can be determined, the United States — and many millions of people in the Middle East — would be much safer and better off if Biden’s counsel was heeded.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the U.S. Administrator, J. Paul Bremer, acting like a czar, decided to form a highly centralized government, which he assumed would allow him to run Iraq from Baghdad. He naively believed that he could turn Iraq not only into a stable state but also into a shining democracy. In contrast, Biden strongly urged for a government “based upon the principles of federalism” and advocated for a relatively weak central government with strong Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regional administrations. (A bill Biden introduced into the Senate in 2007 to this effect was passed 75 to 23, but ignored.)

Biden’s approach had much more promise because it was based on the sociological and historical reality of Iraq. First of all, most citizens’ loyalty and commitment was much stronger to their confessional and ethnic communities than to the Iraqi nation. Second, historically the small Sunni minority much suppressed and abused the Shia majority. Bremer plan — a centralized democratic model — meant ipso facto creating a tyranny of the majority, one that turned out to be very vengeful. The Maliki government increasingly is using the governments’ powers not merely to deprive Sunnis and to support death squads. If the Sunnis had been given a considerable measure of authority in the provinces where they are the majority, they would have been much better able to govern and protect themselves from retaliatory abuses.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 11:14 am
Jan 172014

Originally published in The Diplomat.

Making more explicit that which is viewed by many as an implicit understanding between China and the United States regarding the status of Taiwan would constitute a major step in defusing tensions between the two powers. The governments of both China and the United States have already shown considerable restraint in this matter, ignoring demands from Chinese who wish to use force to “reclaim” Taiwan as part of the mainland and from Americans who call for recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation. These measures of self-restraint should be made more explicit, by letting it be known that as long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan to become part of the People’s Republic of China (as it did with Tibet), the United States will continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state.

True, the way Taiwan is treated is currently a much less pressing issue than settling the differences about the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and other territorial matters concerning the South China Sea and the various re drawings of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) in the region. However, if one seeks to resolve simmering conflicts and to draw on such resolutions to build constructive relations between China and the United States based on mutually assured restraint – rather than containment or a Cold War-style arms race – clarifying the status of Taiwan could serve as a major step forward.

I recently asked eight experts on Taiwan whether there was an implicit understanding between China and the U.S. about the ways Taiwan should be treated. Five responded that there was no such understanding; two responded by saying that the answer to my question was not clear; and one held that indeed there was such an understanding. The range of their responses serves to verify that the issue surely could benefit from clarification. Indeed, it turns out that matter is far more complex than it may at first seem.

Read the rest here.

 Posted by at 12:54 pm