Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Abbas Unclothed

This week we were witness to a rare “the emperor has no clothes” moment. A federal court jury in New York City held the PLO and the Palestinian Authority liable for sponsoring, orchestrating, encouraging and financing acts of terror in Israel against Americans. These intertwined terrorist entities were ordered to pay $218M in regular damages, which under US law is trebled to more than $650M, to the victimized families. Once and for all, the official representatives of the “Palestinian” people were adjudicated to be terrorist hoodlums, something that anyone with eyes, ears and brains always knew but which was suppressed by the political and media elites for legal, political and diplomatic reasons.

And after the decision that vindicated a host of innocent Americans, Jews and non–Jews, and partly compensated them for the horrific pain and suffering they endured, the State Department had ……”no comment.” No comment?! How curious. And how unsurprising.

Under US law, funding to the PA must be halted if the PA is deemed to be a terrorist entity. The President has to certify annually that the PA is not a terrorist entity. All presidents since the 1990s have duly certified this fiction, which everyone knew to be false. This has enabled the PA to receive around $400M annually in our tax dollars, money which (in addition to feathering the nests of Arafat, Abbas and their cronies) we now know has been paid to terrorist prisoners and families of suicide bombers. In effect, our tax dollars helped underwrite these evildoers who exploded themselves on buses, streets, pizzerias, schools and shopping malls. It is sick, vulgar and horrifying.

And here’s what is equally sick, vulgar and horrifying: our tax dollars will continue to be provided to these two entities, as if the trial did not take place, as if the decision was not rendered, as if these organizations were not held liable, and as if the terror did not happen, is not happening and will not happen in the future. As if the current PA has no connection to the PA of a decade ago. As if current dictator Mahmoud Abbas was not the deputy to the murderous Arafat and was uninvolved in funding terror. As if Abbas did not personally approve payments to terrorists in the last decade, including some of the terrorists whose deeds were on trial in the federal court of New York’s Southern District.

In fact, the PA was found liable in the matter of Sokolow et al v. the PLO and PA specifically because the governing agencies of the PA were directly involved in sponsoring and funding terror and terrorists, and creating an environment in which terrorism was (is) not only acceptable but laudable. The PA leadership, the jury found, promoted terrorists, increased their salaries, paid their families a healthy wage, honored dead terrorists by naming town squares and summer camps after them, and generally incentivized terror.

I attended the defense summation last week (close friends of mine were among the plaintiffs), and the PA lawyer was certainly game. In essence, his argument was that the money paid to the terrorists was not an inducement to terror, the job promotions were not limited to the terrorists and the suicide bombers acted on their own (perhaps purchasing the suicide vests over the counter at the Ramallah shopping mall). He asserted, probably truthfully, that these terrorists would have acted even without the inducements, and under the principle of respondeat superior, an employer is only liable for the acts of his employee if the employee is acting within the scope of his employment and in furtherance of the objectives and goals of the employer. And of course, he claimed, these terrorists were not acting pursuant to PA doctrine but were rather free agents, moved by personal considerations. Even the fact that many terrorists – and behind the scenes organizers – were PA police officers was minimized or excused.

The jury rejected those contentions completely. The terrorists were acting in a way that promoted the objectives of their employer, who even compensated them or their families for their diligence in dismembering innocent shoppers and bus passengers. They knew that their superiors approved of what they were doing (especially when, um,  the superiors were involved in the planning). The PA could no longer hide behind its traditional fictions such as the ritual denunciation of terror to Western but not Arab audiences, the shell game of the creation of “new” terrorist groups with unusual names and acronyms (same thugs, different titles) and the fabricated attribution of terrorist acts to this or that alleged provocation. It was all planned, coordinated, executed and paid for by those two organizations and their derivatives, and with the connivance of too many others who preferred to look away rather than accept reality.

The defendants were found liable on every count. Finally.

This is a diplomatic earthquake.  It exposes the hollowness – again – of the failed and humiliating Oslo process, backed by more Israelis and American Jewish leaders than one cares to remember. The premise for two decades of the peace processors – American, Israeli, and European – has been that the PA wants peace, loves peace, has renounced terror forever and wants to be a civilized nation among the family of nations. That premise has been shattered as – what many of us have long known – a complete and utter hoax, an act of self-delusion among its proponents, especially many American Jews and most American Jewish organizations. Sadly, they will not be dissuaded by this decision. After all, the State Department had no comment, and therefore the decision has no practical application. To them. In the world of reality and truth, as opposed to the world of fantasy, falsehood and photo ops, it matters greatly.

What’s next? There will be appeals and further legal maneuvers. The U.S. government can step in at any time and save the PA’s skin, absolving it of its financial responsibility and announcing – when it decides to comment – that the decision related to the “old PA,” but the new PA, all good ‘ole boys, has nothing to do with that or them. The PA is already claiming to be on the verge of bankruptcy, not a great surprise for an entity that has no natural resources, no functioning economy, has been propped up for years by the West’s blackmail payments, and whose primary export is terror. (Israel this week temporarily suspended the provision of electricity to two major Arab towns for failure to pay their electric bills. Another Israeli anomaly: the Israeli taxpayer has been subsidizing its enemies’ electric needs for almost two decades.) The US government would have to allow PLO and PA assets (especially real property) to be attached.

The PA will do everything in its power and use every threat and gambit it can to avoid paying this new debt to the victims of their craving for terror.  And diplomats – stripped of the fig leaf that the PA is a civilized entity ready for statehood – have had their foundation torn out from under them. Well, that is true unless they deny what has happened, and continue to have no comment.

Not coincidentally this week, the Obama administration has doubled down in its antagonism towards Israel. The attempt to suppress PM Netanyahu’s speech has become obsessive; after all, it’s just a speech. Susan Rice, dispatched by the Obama administration (does it sound like Valerie Jarrett?) to lie about the causes of the Benghazi attacks, was irate, criticizing Netanyahu for “destroying” the US-Israel relationship, clearly an exaggeration  but something for which presumably she believes neither she nor her bosses have any – any – responsibility. How dare Netanyahu argue against the planned annihilation of his people! The nerve of those uppity Jews.

She, too, probably has no comment on the jury decision. Will she, the National Security Advisor,  recommend the designation of the PA as a “terror entity,” as common sense would demand in the wake of the verdict? Nah, the enemy is in Jerusalem, not Ramallah. It is best to ignore the jury ruling in New York.

One thing seems increasingly clear: Obama will recognize a Palestinian state before his term ends, either through a UN resolution or on his own initiative, or both. Snipers at Israel will attribute it to his poor relationship with Netanyahu, but the signs are already clear and a Netanyahu defeat in the elections will only hasten it, even as a victory will not forestall it for long. And when Obama does, his Jewish acolytes will continue to fawn over him and dote on his every word and gesture. But, his is not the final word. What happens in Israel will be decided in Israel – not in Washington and not by Obama.

What’s Obama’s biggest fear about Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech to Congress? It is not just that the Prime Minister will oppose the pending sellout to the Iranians; let Obama make his case why he thinks it is a good deal. But Obama’s greatest fear is that Netanyahu will be gracious and statesmanlike, showering praise on Obama for what he has done for Israel and critiquing the dangers implicit in abandoning the US commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu will sound like a leader, a stark contrast to the pettiness, and verbal and legal thuggery, that the Obama administration has routinely employed against its perceived enemies, domestic and foreign. Netanyahu could wind up more popular – in America, at least – than Obama is, as the nation is yearning for leadership and an assertion of American exceptionalism.

It should frighten all Americans that the Obama administration has spent its last six years empowering every American enemy across the globe and alienating every ally. Israel is in Obama’s cross-hairs for several reasons, but primarily because Obama sees Israel as the impediment to the United States’ rapprochement with the Arab-Muslim world that Obama imagines will bring “peace in our time.”

It is strange that the loquacious Obama, like his State Department, has had no comment on the verdict in New York, and all because it does not fit his narrative of events, past and future.  But good people do not forget the reign of terror of the evildoers and forever extol the virtues of those who fight the good fight trying to thwart them. The Jewish people especially have a long memory – certainly this week we do – of the Amalek of old and of the Amalek reborn in our generation, and what has to be done in order to defeat it and redeem the world. The tide of history is on the side of Mordechai and Esther – those unafraid to speak truth to power and will vigorously defend the interests of the Jewish people.

 

Of Course!

Of course PM Netanyahu should address Congress on the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran and the ongoing threat of Islamic terror. If not him, then who? If not now, then when?

For one reason, Netanyahu will be in Washington anyway for the AIPAC Policy Conference. That, too, is on his agenda notwithstanding its proximity to the Israeli elections. There is a second reason as well: while Netanyahu is the probable winner in those elections and therefore will head the next government, that is by no means assured. The election campaign – as tawdry and sordid as it is – has changed no minds. Israel’s electorate is as ideologically frozen as the New Jersey tundra this winter, and the outcome will be based on the obvious: turnout of one’s supporters, as it invariably does. The percentage of Israelis actually voting in elections has steadily declined over the last two decades and is slightly above the poor participation rate in the United States. The notion that Netanyahu is coming here in order to win votes is risible. But who knows if a Prime Minister Herzog – not the strongest personality in the country – will project the same resolve or even deign to oppose an Obama whose campaign team was dispatched from the US to get him elected? It might be the last time that Netanyahu has a chance to sound the alarm.

There is a third reason why he should come and speak, and was right in accepting Speaker Boehner’s offer to become only the second foreign leader – Winston Churchill was the other – to address a joint session of Congress three times. Who will alert Congress and the American people to the clear and present danger of a nuclear Iran and the epidemic of Islamic terror – Barack Obama? He is preternaturally incapable of even uttering the phrase “Islamic terror” and has no plan to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. Obama, in just the last few years, has eviscerated the effect of two decades’ worth of diplomacy, UN resolutions and the sanctions regime that was weakening Iran, all in exchange for nothing.

Obama has two goals, both of which have combined to make him the weakest American president in the last half-century, and perhaps in the last century: he is determined not to send any American troops abroad to fight in a war of his choosing (becoming the first President in generations to accomplish that “feat,” and completely oblivious to the cost to American and human life, and world stability, now and in the future); and, he has no objection to the Iranians acquiring a nuclear capacity – as long as they don’t do it on his watch. In essence, he wants to kick the can down the road, pacify the Iranians with the carrots of trade and sanctions relief, and threaten the Israelis into inaction. Obama is today the mullahs’ best friend, and through passivity has allowed Islamic terror – of which the Iranian bomb is just one facet and future tool – to proliferate, all while he denies it really exists.

No wonder Obama reacted apoplectically to the Congressional invitation. (The lie that his minions proffered – that the White House was unaware of the offer until after it was extended and accepted – has already been exposed by the NY Times.) It was the breach of protocol – that wasn’t. No matter.

There are two issues that Netanyahu will raise that threaten to undermine the Obama plan: one is the imminence of the Iranian threat. The pending deal essentially leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich at will and produce a weapon at the time of its choosing, even assuming that it will adhere to any limitations placed or to an inspections regime. The current president, Rouhani, who headed the Iranian negotiating team over a decade ago, admitted lying back then in order to build new facilities, conceal them from UN inspectors, and continue enrichment surreptitiously. If necessary, they will lie again, except for this: Rouhani has been quite open that nothing will deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear capacity and any agreement will have to recognize that right.

Contrast his candor with Obama’s repeated assertions that he will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon – this from the same person who said “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”; who said there is “not a smidgeon of evidence of scandal” at the IRS; and who does not believe that Islamic terror even exists.

Netanyahu will burst that bubble and acquaint Americans with the dangers that an Iranian nuclear capacity poses to them and not just Israel and that the deal now pending will make Iran a nuclear power within a short time. Better to state that publicly – loudly and clearly – before the deal is finalized than do it after the deal is formally reached when such opposition by Israel’s leaders will be perceived as a frontal attack on the American President.

There is a second aspect to the Obama disenchantment with Netanyahu of which Americans should be aware. At present, Obama has no intention of bringing an accord with Iran to the US Senate for approval. He wishes to bypass Congress – again; immigration reform, anyone? – and shape US foreign policy on his own. He doesn’t care about constitutional limits; his attitude since he became president is to do what he wants and let the courts sort it out, which takes years.

Netanyahu’s address to Congress essentially re-asserts Congressional supremacy in treaty-making but, more importantly, Congressional relevance in foreign policy. It would be extremely hard for Obama to ignore Congress after Netanyahu has roused them – even subtly – in asserting their constitutional prerogatives. If I had to choose, I would suggest that this reason plays more of a role in Obama’s current disenchantment than the first, and even more than his visceral dislike of PM Netanyahu.

Allegedly, Netanyahu is being “punished” by being denied an audience with President Obama. Well, some people are glad they are not meeting. Would that they never meet again! Those meetings have never gone well for Israel, and they are always accompanied by the expectation that Israel will provide some concession in exchange for the great privilege of sitting down with the most hostile president to Israel in memory. It’s no honor, no privilege, and no good comes out of it. Sometimes a curse is actually a blessing in disguise.

Many suggest that Netanyahu’s visit threatens a rupture in US-Israel relations. Hogwash. The US-Israel alliance and friendship is not based on Obama – or even on Netanyahu – but on the American people’s recognition of justice. A poll this week showed support for Israel among Americans to be four times greater than for the Palestinian “cause,” and a majority supporting Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. And given Obama’s unpopularity in Israel – despite the way Israel’s media elites fawn over him – a confrontation with Netanyahu can only benefit Netanyahu, even if he doesn’t seek one.

Worse, Americans are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Obama’s stewardship and America’s declining role in the world. It is not just Obama’s bizarre refusal to underscore the problem of Islamic terror; that is just part of the pro-Muslim bias that clouds his thinking about world affairs. Consider: when Muslims (in America) were killed recently, they were killed – as per Obama – because they were Muslims. When blacks are killed, they are killed because they are black. But when Jews are killed, or Christians are killed, across the world, they are killed because they were “random folks” caught in the web of some never-to-be-named “violent extremists.”

Thus, to combat Islamic terror of all stripes and varieties, this is the Obama track record: Boko Haram and its kidnapping, raping, murdering and pillaging – nothing (except for a twitter campaign, for what that is worth); Syria and Iraq – next to nothing. ISIS – a barrage of verbiage, even with Americans being tortured and murdered. Al Qaeda – reborn. Afghanistan – pending withdrawal, which will again empower the Taliban. Yemen – fall of that country to Muslim radicals. Libya – the same. Some of these groups are themselves rivals but they all share one thing in common: they are not Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians or Shintos. And the enemy remains unnamed.

At a certain point, this denial moves from the realm of willful blindness into the realm of pathological blindness. And we have moved from an inability to state the truth openly – because of fear or other reasons – to an inability to state the obvious with clarity.

How many innocent heads have to roll in the Middle East before the United States reasserts its indispensable role as a force for good in the world?

Let Netanyahu come as the voice of reason and leadership, and let him sound the alarm. Those Senators who forever proclaim their love for Israel – Schumer and others – let’s see whether their Jewishness and love for America exceeds their fear of Obama and commitment to the Democratic Party. If they find an excuse to absent themselves, they should be called to account. Now is crunch time, time for Jews to move past empty expressions of support for Israel by a host of politicians and demand forthrightness, courage and action.

Those who are unwilling to face the truth and prefer to be ensnared in Obama’s tangled web will have to answer for their poltroonery. Let Netanyahu come, and let lovers of Israel, America and truth show their support for him, and for combating this generation’s greatest foe.

 

Dust Storms

Here in Israel, the election campaign is as brutal and nasty as the winter’s weather has been in New Jersey. It has, though, elicited this rare agreement among all the competing parties. They all agree that anyone who is not a candidate from their own party is a scoundrel, unfit to lead, and will guide the country toward imminent catastrophe if he/she is allowed anywhere near the reins of power. Not all unity is comforting.

The contentiousness is attributable in the first instance to the parliamentary system extant in Israel, with proportional representation that sees many small parties competing for small shares of the pie. Such an unwieldy system has never produced a majority party; yet other parliamentary democracies have not engendered the same viciousness in its campaigns or incapacity to govern after the elections have taken place. (There are eccezioni.) More likely, the acrimony is due to the fragmentation of the electorate and the inability of any leader to project a vision that is appealing to, or even interested in, a majority of the nation.

This “group identity” politics was pioneered by FDR, who concentrated on attracting support from a variety of disparate interest groups (labor unions, farmers, Jews and blacks, to state the four leading blocs) and handily won his elections from that base. In Israel, the “victorious” party will win – if it is fortunate, and if that indeed can be called a victory – anywhere from 20-25% of the national vote. Said another way, the new Prime Minister will be opposed by 75-80% of the nation. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement or a formula for success in governance.

As such, each party seeks just enough votes to get a seat at the governing table, enabling it to provide the benefits (usually money in one form or another) to its voters. These voters reflect different elements of society who each desire its share, and, however incomplete and in no particular order, include: labor unions, peaceniks, settlers, Russians, Arabs, religious Zionists, Haredim, working people, non-working people, the rich, the poor, the middle class, the honest, the not-yet-honest, et al. Each group wants something – and usually something that other groups do not wish to give: increased welfare allowances, more government spending, less government spending, higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for everyone, more army service for all, less army service for all or for some, a more religious state, a more secular state, amore socialist state, a more capitalist state, etc. The various parties contort themselves into finding some way into the governing coalition, get enough of what they need to mollify their base, and then jump ship when they can’t get more. And we wonder why no government is stable or able to effect any meaningful changes in policy.

There are daily polls measuring the sentiment of the electorate. Israelis poll themselves like a hypochondriac measures his pulse: incessantly and always with the direst possible conclusions. It augments the tension that already exists, owing to the constant threat of Arab terror, the Iranian bomb, the perceived unfriendliness of the American President and other such trifles.

The Jewish Home Party (Habayit Hayehudi) is one of the few parties that does aspire to national leadership and seeks to expand its influence beyond its natural base. That is both its strength and its weakness. The fact that in the last election the party list included men and women, religious and secular, was, as noted here, an honest reflection of what today’s Jewish home looks like. It was a welcome and, for the most part, unprecedented development in Israel.

But leader Naftali Bennett stumbled recently in using one of his personal picks for the party list to nominate a secular soccer player. The hostile reaction encouraged the former athlete to decline the offer. Certainly, Bennett meant well – it was an attempt to be trendy, appeal to Sefaradim and to other secular voters. Nonetheless, he violated one of the first rules of politics: do not offend your base! Secure your base and seek to expand it, but do not repel your natural electorate and assume they have nowhere else to go. The most damaging accusation against the “Jewish Home” is that it constitutes just a “Likud B.” If so, then voters will naturally be drawn to “Likud A.” This precipitated a recent decline in the Jewish Home’s standing in the polls, but it seems to have righted itself. And just in time: it is the party of the right, staunch advocates of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, a strong defense both militarily and diplomatically (summarized in the best campaign slogan: “we have ceased apologizing”), and the application of Torah to modern circumstances.

Its other weakness is that, notwithstanding its outreach to all sectors of the population and its desire to be a national party, most of the country is still locked in to the parochial, sectoral, zero-sum politics of the past. Many (most?) voters still want that – the small party that will wield outsized influence and earn them some of the spoils of government. It is as hard to compete against free stuff in Israel as it is in America. (Labor Party billboard with the year’s most astonishing political promise: Efes kshishim aniyim toch shana – or, “no poor elderly people within one year.” Huh? Does anyone believe that?) And so voters remain drawn to the narrow, partisan vision rather than the broad vision, and some secular voters will never vote a religious party no matter how it is constituted.

Most other contestants are essentially vanity parties, led by individuals who want to exercise power for a small group and protect that group’s interests, not to mention their own perks. These parties are headed by Lieberman, Deri, Lapid, Yishai, and Kachlon. Sadly, the Haredi party – Degel HaTorah – has never aspired to national leadership and has little to offer to the debate on the application of Torah to a modern society. It is still mired in the old politics of trying to grab as many things off the table as is possible – welfare, child allowances, kollel stipends, military service exemptions – before others cry foul. That is sad. If Haredim would take a more active role in society, in the public debate, and in the development of the Jewish state, Israel would be a different country.

The main opposition to Likud is a revived Labor Party, cleverly renaming itself “the Zionist camp” even though its list contains candidates who favor the expulsion of Jews from their homes and the end of the Jewish settlement, who construe the Hatikva as racist, and whose leaders present as more post-Zionist than Zionist. Over her long political career, Tzippi Livni has been on every side of every issue at least once, while moving right to left, and, like a circus acrobat, can twist herself into any position for the sake of attracting votes. Her partner – Buji Herzog (with Bibi and Bogie, every Israeli leader seems to require a childish nickname) – is the choice of President Obama, who so admires his malleability that he has sent over part of his campaign team to assist the Labor election effort, much like Bill Clinton did – to Netanyahu in fact – in the 1999 election. One would think that Herzog has no chance but the Israeli public has long been fickle, and swings back and forth from right to left almost every other election since the early 1980’s. And the peace idol still lords over a decreasing but still sizable element of the population. Illusions die hard, but the real problem is that real people die as a result of those illusions.

That leaves the current prime minister and front-runner Binyamin Netanyahu. If elected again he may exceed David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister – hard to fathom given the antipathy so many media types have for him. However one feels about him, the daily accusations against him and especially his wife – and I mean daily – are really beneath contempt, and so obviously contrived as to be laughable. Sara was accused last week of stealing the deposit money on bottles used in the prime minister’s residence, and the two were accused this week of double billing on their overseas trips in years past (both charges quickly disappeared). In every election cycle for almost two decades, she has been attacked by disgruntled employees. In fact, I have yet to hear of even a single “gruntled” employee; they are all disgruntled. It is a shameful display of media distortion and excess and it is hard to imagine a politician who has been more consistently mistreated by the media than PM Netanyahu.

I am lukewarm towards the Prime Minister because, even though his rhetoric – especially during campaigns – is inspiring, he has been a very cautious leader, essentially maintaining the status quo in a very volatile region and gradually leaving Israel more vulnerable. He always seems to do enough so as not to be accused of doing nothing but never enough to actually make a difference and change the dynamic. Perhaps that is part of the tightrope that he walks daily balancing all the diverse interests of the nation, the entreaties of friends and the blandishments of enemies.

In effect, he responds to every enemy attack on Israel – but no more. He has led two invasions of Gaza, both with inconclusive results. He has stood up to a feckless and dangerous American president – but so far in words more than in deeds. He supports Jewish settlement, but officially froze it for almost a year and unofficially for far longer. He supports rights in theory – prayer on the Temple Mount, for example – but not in practice. He has forcefully spoken and written against craven surrenders to terrorists and yet released more than 1000 to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, and continued to provide electricity, food and fuel to Gazans even during the battles. He has championed the right-wing without doing many simple and basic steps that would appeal to the right-wing. Ultimately his words expose a much more determined leader than his actions alone would justify. He is a centrist because that wins elections, even if it disables his actual policies.

Worse, regardless of the campaign slogans, there is a real fear that a victorious Netanyahu will seek a national unity government with the left, if only because that will win him good local and international press and diplomatic plaudits. Whatever protestations are issued now will be ignored the day after the election, as they were in 2012, the last time this dance was held. But such a government would be a disaster for Israel. That prospect alone is worth this timely reminder: it has been Likud politicians who have surrendered most of the land liberated in the 1967 war. It has always been one of the ironies of Israeli political life that Labor proposes and Likud disposes. May Hashem protect us from that scenario again!

In this, Naftali Bennett makes a compelling case for a strong and large “Jewish Home.” It is not only that he is a better ideological fit for the Religious Zionist voter, but also that he is the only leader who can serve as a brake on Netanyahu’s populist ambitions. Today’s insults will be forgotten after the polls close and each party scrambles for its share of the water in the trough.

A large “Jewish Home” will ensure a government of the right that will be sensitive to the traditions and world view of the Torah Zionist world. A small “Jewish Home” will almost ensure the short-term popularity of the Israeli leaders with the most of the international community that has soured on the Jewish historical narrative, Jewish rights and Jewish self-defense but at enormous cost to Israel. It will almost ensure the reality of a second Palestinian state being created with all that entails for Israel’s identity and security.

The strongest argument raised by the left against Netanyahu is the facile appeal for “change.” Americans can surely warn Israelis about the disasters that come about in the wake of that empty call.

The dust storms now sweeping the country have fostered a murkiness that mirrors that of Israel’s political scene. The stakes are great, but then again, the stakes always seem great. Yet, as always, “there are many thoughts in the mind of man, but the plan of G-d that shall prevail.”

 

Modern Exodus

The Midrash (Tanchuma Beshalach 10) relates that when the Jewish people left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea,  the water was divided into twelve different paths, twelve bridges, one for each tribe. But why couldn’t we all cross on one bridge – why did each tribe need its own bridge?

I think the answer is that in redemption, as in life, one size does not fit all. Even in leaving a bitter exile, we did not all leave the same way (and we don’t all leave the same way), nor do we leave at the same time with the same motivation. Some bridges are smooth, others filled with potholes. Some have tolls – quite exorbitant tolls, which extract a very high price from us – and some are free, and include beautiful vistas. Some are heavily trafficked, and others are smooth sailing. But each tribe found its own way to cross.

Recently, I read a fascinating history of the Soviet Jewry movement that I recommend, published in 2011 by Gal Beckerman and entitled “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone” (from the Safam song of the late 1970’s). It depicts what is nothing less than a remarkable and miraculous chapter in Jewish history that today we take for granted. I knew some of the broad strokes and details, but much of it I did not know. It behooves us to learn it, to know about and to draw conclusions from it. Because we lived through it, as our Sages state (Nida 31a), we have trouble seeing the miracles that took place right before our eyes. What miracles?

It was a miracle that a semblance of Jewish identity remained after so many decades of Communist suppression of Torah, and paradoxically it endured because the Soviets were so obsessed with controlling the lives of their citizens that the government recorded their Jewish nationality on their internal passports. But for that, Jews could have completely assimilated. In essence, they were made to feel like they were Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc. – but not completely. Still outsiders. Even intermarriage didn’t help the Soviet Jew conceal his Jewish roots.

It was a miracle that Jewish groups were able to accomplish anything, with all the infighting that took place. As in most successful enterprises, a few passionate people led the way often against strong opposition until too many establishment Jews thought to make amends for what was largely American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust. Israel had an intelligence unit already in the 1950’s designed to encourage aliya with agents in America, and it also met resistance from American Jews who had a much more modest, even timid, profile back then. There was a long-running dispute between political refuseniks (who pressed the issue of human rights, freedom for all, etc.) and the cultural refuseniks, who wanted to deepen their connection to Judaism, Torah and Israel. They didn’t always work together, and the Soviets treated them differently as well.

There was a long-running dispute between those who favored quiet diplomacy and those who supported active, and occasionally violent, protests; those who supported Scoop Jackson – one of the righteous Gentiles of the last half-century – and his linkage of human rights and freedom of emigration to trade benefits for the Soviets, and those who were vehemently opposed to linkage (think Kissinger, et al); those who wanted to coddle the various presidents and those who wanted to challenge them. (As nothing ever changes in history except the names and the dates, the exact same debate is taking place today over the United States’ dealings with Iran, the threat of renewed sanctions, and the call in Congress for legislation that would immediately implement sanctions when the talks break down in June. And – again, echoes of the past – between those who want to indulge the President thinking that access and photo ops equate to power and influence and those who want to challenge and publicly defy him.)

We should never underestimate what President Reagan did to liberate Soviet Jews, along with George Schultz and even then-Vice President George Bush. The Reagan administration was the first to raise Jewish rights at every meeting in every forum with the Soviets, alternately surprising, antagonizing and even insulting a parade of Soviet dictators. It was Gorbachev who, initially opposed to Jewish rights and emigration as were his predecessors, realized soon after taking power that the jig was up. Kremlin archives now reveal minutes of the Politburo meetings when he informed his cohorts that their nation could not sustain itself without Western assistance, and that assistance would not be forthcoming without human rights and freedom for Jews. (Brezhnev and others had stated among themselves in the 1970’s that the Soviet empire would not survive an open emigration policy. They were right.)

And Reagan was astute enough and humble enough to tell Gorbachev that he can do it at his own pace and announce it for his own reasons – as long as he does it – and that Reagan would not claim credit for it, and would not gloat or embarrass Gorbachev. And that is what happened.

The Soviet dictators present as something out of ancient history even though it was just a few decades ago – the evil, the capriciousness, the insecurity they bred throughout the public. They were true believers, at first incredulous that anyone would want to leave their Communist paradise, and then offended beyond reason when so many did. The numbers fluctuated – from tens of thousands of emigrants in some years to hundreds in others. (That was based largely on politics, trade, pressure, and other events on the world scene.)

Above all, the mesirat nefesh (the self-sacrifice) of the Jews is exhilarating to re-visit. The Holocaust loomed over everything. Even so, people with little connection to Jewish life knew that once they applied for emigration, their lives would never again be the same – loss of job, sometimes residence, sometimes imprisonment, family disruption, divorce, alienation from children, internal exile, Siberia, labor camp, eavesdropping, KGB harassment, etc. And yet they did it, by the tens of thousands, and later by the hundreds of thousands.

And the Jews did not know from one day to the next year what would happen to them – why some people were released quickly and others not for many years. There was no rhyme or reason to the decisions, part of the mind control fostered by the dictatorship. Even Natan Sharansky, before he was released, was moved from his labor camp to Moscow for two weeks, and not told anything about what is happening to him until the night before he was flown out of the Soviet Union when he had to sign documents renouncing his Soviet citizenship. People lived in the dark, and in constant fear.

The courage and dedication were inspiring – and legendary. Sylva Zalmanson telling her sentencing judge that she will live in Israel someday, regardless of her sentence, and saying in Hebrew – while being reprimanded by the judge for speaking a foreign language – “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither…” Unforgettable.

The road out of exile has twelve bridges, but always requires self-sacrifice like that of Nachshon who jumped first into the water – before the Red Sea had split. Someone had to start and great things then happen. Ironically, the greatest despair among the refuseniks occurred in 1985 – right before Gorbachev changed his mind. They felt there was no hope, no future, all avenues blocked, and no options left. And then, G-d’s salvation came in the blink of an eye – “the heart of the king is in G-d’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1).

When we think of miracles and astonishing events in Jewish history – we need not go back 3700 years; 37 years also works. When the history of the ingathering of the exiles as was prophesied in the Torah is written, we can say we lived through it. We saw it up close, even if we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. The exodus of Soviet Jews was unlikely at the time – and impossible to fathom in retrospect. It is no exaggeration to say that the Soviet Jewry movement brought down a mighty empire. It also brought American Jewry out of its shell, partly atoning for its silence during the Holocaust.

As in the original exodus, it was only at the end of the process of redemption that the people acknowledged G-d’s great hand. And we do today as well, even in this transition stage from exile to redemption. When we want to teach our children of heroes and heroines, of self-sacrifice, we need not go back millennia and centuries – decades will suffice. It is good for them to know that Jews – our contemporaries, people who still walk among us – sacrificed for Torah, for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. And they inspire Jews even today.

The Silver Era

What to make of the arrest of NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver? The allegations against him of taking bribes and kickbacks and trading on his power are certainly serious and distressing. He is accused of steering real estate companies to a law firm with which he was affiliated, in exchange for the firm paying him a substantial sum of money, and for referring patients of a doctor to another law firm with which he was affiliated, in exchange for compensation as well as the grant to the doctor of New York state research funds. Apparently, these arrangements were known for years.

The presumption of innocence should apply, of course, something lost on many people in this age of hysteria, hyperbole and sensational headlines. I cannot comment on his guilt or innocence as all the facts have not yet been adduced, and the media reports do not sound good.

But I am confused. Most of the charges against him are based on the so-called “Honest Services” law which has been roundly criticized by courts and judges for its ambiguity and disconnect from reality. So note the following:

In 2008, the investors in Solyndra donated more than $83,000 to the Obama campaign. One year later, the company was awarded a federal loan in the amount of $532,000,000 (that’s million, quite a return on their investment). That money – our money, taxpayer money – was completely lost in the Solyndra bankruptcy, although it stands to reason that the investors were somehow repaid before bankruptcy was filed. In essence, money goes to political campaign, victorious politician (in the guise of his Department of Energy) funnels money – a lot of money – to that company. Legal? I suppose so. It has never been prosecuted.

The current US Ambassador to France, whose presence at the great anti-terror march was considered unworthy of this great republic, is what is known as a “political appointee.” Jane Hartley was a prodigious fund-raiser for President Obama in the 2012 election, bundling together more than $500,000 for his campaign. She was then appointed Ambassador to France and Monaco (good gig). In essence, money goes to political campaign, and a government job – at taxpayer expense – is awarded to the fund-raiser. Legal? I suppose so. This has been going on forever, under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Some appointees are “diplomatic” (i.e., on the merits, such as career foreign service officers) and some are “political” (i.e., friends of or donors to the president). Hartley’s predecessor as Ambassador to France – he actually spoke French – was co-finance chair of the 2008 Obama campaign. Same deal, in effect. There are hundreds of similar examples that can be cited from across the political world and spectrum.

Is there a difference between these two cases and the Silver allegations? Maybe, but if there is, it is a difference in degree, not in kind. It is the same process. Perhaps in the aforementioned cases, the quid pro quo is not explicitly articulated but is winked at or self-understood; is that really a substantial difference, enough to distinguish between legal and illegal? Perhaps the difference is in timing – there was a delay of 1-2 years separating between the quid and the quo. But does that really matter?

This is emphatically not to say that “everyone does it” and therefore it is capricious to prosecute one when 100,000 could be prosecuted. “Everyone does it” does not make any particular action legal. But “everyone does it” can define what is common custom or, said another way, how modern politics is practiced in America today and probably always.

We should face one simple truth. How many Americans donate to political campaigns without expecting something in return? Sure, there are probably some that love an individual candidate (or hate his opponent enough) that they give on the merits. But the really big campaign money – from Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Business, Big Insurance, labor unions, teachers unions, environmentalist groups, etc. – is always proffered by those who are demanding something in return. (That is one reason why George Washington decried the formation of political parties, and felt they would promote endemic corruption in American life.)

Thus, people – good people, not necessarily scoundrels – donate to politicians because they want something. Some want a job – ambassador, cabinet, government agency, etc. (A job aspirant called President Coolidge in the middle of the night, and informed him that the Chairman of the Port Authority had just died, and the caller would like to take his place. Coolidge: “If it is all right with the undertaker, it is fine with me.” And Coolidge then hung up.)

Some want legislation passed that will benefit their businesses, give them an exemption from an existing law, stifle their competition, or smooth their way through some regulatory labyrinth. If they do not get what they want, they take their money elsewhere. Some corporations are wealthy (or desperate) enough that they will fund both opponents in a race, hedging their bets while retaining their influence. For some reason, if the money is transferred in an obvious and vulgar way (envelopes stuffed with cash, as in ABSCAM), it is a crime that purports to shock the conscience. But if the money is transferred in a more refined and indirect way – e.g., campaign contributions (or legal fees?)–  then it is construed to be a gracious political donation, protected by the US Constitution and rightfully so, and an indication of the donor’s sophistication and eagerness to participate in civic life.

All want access. And the money, once given to a politician, is his; certainly, if he leaves office, he takes that campaign money with him, in most cases. That can be a nice nest egg.

At the end of the day, however one parses the transactions, money is being assigned from one person to another in exchange for an imminent or expected benefit. Yet, one is legal and one is illegal. One person is deemed a criminal who deserves prison time and one person gets to spend time with the president and nights in the Lincoln Bedroom. That seems arbitrary, too fine a line on which to prosecute, convict and send someone to jail.

Other issues need to be understood as well. To a layman, the notion of “kickbacks” smacks of illegality and corruption. But in law, referral fees, as they are known, are a legal and accepted way of business. A lawyer without expertise in some area refers a client to an attorney who has expertise in that area, and receives a share of the fee in return. While a lawyer may not give a referral fee to a non-lawyer, it is legal and ethical to give it to a lawyer. That is part of the practice of law. Although the Code of Professional Responsibility requires that the referrer do some “reasonable” work on the case, the standard is very loose and rarely enforced. And even if it is: the law states that such applies to a lawyer “who is not a partner in or associate of the lawyer’s law firm.” But Silver wasn’t an outsider; he was a lawyer referring clients to firms of which he was a member. The standard is different.  Moreover, lawyers are routinely hired by firms for their ability to bring in new cases and clients. This is not sinister. This is business. And state legislators are allowed to earn outside income.

In effect, in one case, Silver allegedly referred real estate companies to a certain tax abatement law firm. That firm transacted legitimate business on behalf of those companies – business in which Silver was not involved – and for which the law firm paid Silver a salary. A further allegation is that Silver then used his position to enact legislation of some sort that would benefit those companies. Duh. Is it illegal – has it ever been prosecuted – for a teachers’ union (for one example) to give money to a politician in exchange for a bloc of votes and a favorable contract? Of course not. And that contract then provides the teachers (and the union) with more money to give to more politicians for more votes and an even more favorable contract! In New Jersey, the contract even mandates that the state (i.e., the taxpayer) essentially pays the union dues of each individual teacher. Other interest groups donate money in the hope of enacting favorable legislation. This happens every single day. When did the rules change?

Did Silver funnel state money to the doctor whom he persuaded to refer to his patients to a particular law firm? Well, assuming it is true, that might be questionable, but we should ask: did the doctor apply for those research funds properly? Did he receive the money and do the research? Was Sheldon Silver the only decision-maker? Would not politicians (or anyone) be more inclined to help people they know? Is that necessarily disturbing or criminal? If another politician gave a state job to the relative of a friend – who did good work and deserved the job –is that a crime? It seems that is exactly what happens every day, whether we like it or not.

Before people rush to judgment, we all should more carefully analyze what was done and not done, and how (whether) it differs from politics as usual, the legal kind. And we should realize that the US Attorney Preet Bharara has been a very aggressive prosecutor, which is fine, but has had a number of high profile convictions reversed on appeal, which is nonetheless devastating to the defendant. And realize as well that one of Silver’s predecessors as Speaker, Mel Miller, was convicted of fraud in 1991, and consequently lost both his speakership and his seat in the Assembly. Two years later, his conviction was reversed on appeal, and he went free.

Free – except that his personal and professional lives had already been ruined.

A cautionary tale indeed. Let the presumption of innocence exist in fact and not only in theory. That is both fair and just, and something that we would all expect for ourselves.

Fate of the Union

There was a character in Chicago who felt himself so inconsequential, so invisible, to others that he dubbed himself “Mr. Cellophane.” Barack Obama is neither invisible nor inconsequential, but he is so transparent as to deserve the moniker “The Cellophane President.” Just read or listen to the State of the Union address, and you can see right through him.

It is conceded that he delivers a speech well. Some of the boasts can be forgiven as well, despite their detachment from reality. The deficit has been cut more than half, not that difficult considering that he ran up multi-trillion dollar deficits in his first four years in office, an unprecedented feat. America leads the world today in the production of oil and natural gas, a fact having absolutely nothing to do with the White House which has stymied the production of both since 2009. The proliferation of energy is entirely due to the private sector, which has been clamoring for years for the right to drill offshore and build the Keystone XL pipeline and has been thwarted by President Obama. The price of oil has dropped precipitously, which he touts despite his utter uninvolvement.

The pleas for bipartisanship are by now so hollow as to be risible. He implores Congress to talk to him – and then flies off to Idaho and Kansas to complain that Congress won’t talk to him. Huh? Perhaps he should stick around for a day or two. He has pioneered the permanent campaign because campaigning is his natural skill: the articulation of sentiments and the dispensing of rhetoric, sometimes lofty and inspiring and sometimes rancorous and tenebrous, are his stock-in-trade. He should never be the CEO of any corporation (much less the US), but he would excel as Vice-President of Marketing. The marketer need concern himself only with selling the product, and not at all with the nature of the product itself – its uses, its viability, and its manufacture. Just sell the product. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor!” Enough said.

His method of governance, so to speak, is galling. Catch the words, not just the tone. Accept his policies or be castigated as “partisan.” (He is never partisan.) Adopt his “practical” solutions, or you are playing politics. If Congress tries to undo anything that he has done – whether or not it is working or popular – it will be vetoed. If he and Congress do not agree, then “work with” him where they do agree. The thought that he should work with them – indeed, the thought that any idea that he has not spawned has any merit – has clearly not dawned on him. And by the snarky but likely rehearsed crack (“I won both elections”), it hasn’t yet hit him that everyone on the flooe with him also won their elections. He is not the only elected official in the nation. Oh, and then lament the sour tone of modern politics. That’s rich. Or oleaginous. Or both.

It is a clever polemical tactic – take credit for whatever good and ignore (or blame someone else – Republicans? Bush? Partisan hacks?) for the bad. Figures lie and liars can figure. One can parse the economic statistics in five different ways, pro and con. Official unemployment is down, but tens of millions of Americans have dropped out of the work force and/or are not looking for jobs (so they don’t register in the unemployment rate) or are working part-time (so they count as employed but cannot support themselves). The recovery would have happened if Donald Duck was the president – it’s the natural economic cycle – but growth, jobs and personal income are being artificially suppressed because of the increased costs to businesses for Obamacare and over-regulation. That is why his solution is more handouts to the “middle class,” rather than health care freedom, lower tax rates and deregulation. Tax and spend, again? Really?

But the President is most dangerously out of touch on foreign affairs. After years of saying that Al Qaeda is “on the run,” “decimated,” etc., a resurgent Al Qaeda went…unmentioned in the speech. Terror still has an amorphous provenance – “extremists!” – and not, perish the thought, radical Islam. How will decent Muslims deal with the catastrophe unleashed on mankind by their co-religionists if the so-called leader of the free world accords them no role in the process, indeed, deems it repugnant and inaccurate to link terror to Islam at all?

Perhaps nothing demonstrates Obama’s disconnect as much as this: the enemy de jour is ISIS (ISIL, as he persists in labeling them, contra their own designation), and that enemy’s advances have been halted, or so Obama opines. Well, here’s this morning’s report from the Institute for the Study of War, which daily tracks the conflict in Iraq and Syria, region by region, town by town:

      “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has begun to expand its presence in the Syrian central corridor which stretches from the Jordanian border through Damascus to the central cities of Homs and Hama. The “central corridor” is highly-contested key terrain for both the Syrian regime and its armed opposition, while ISIS presence has generally been limited in the area until recently. As one major exception, ISIS maintained a notable foothold in several opposition-held areas of Damascus in early 2014 before retreating due to pressure from local rebel groups. A small ISIS contingent, largely overlooked, endured quietly in the southern suburbs of Damascus throughout late 2014. Over the past two months, ISIS has once again escalated its military and public relations activities in this area, threatening to divert both regime and rebel resources away from active fronts in the Damascus area in order to contend with the ISIS threat. This development may provide an indicator of ISIS’s broader expansion plans in western Syria and the potential response of Syrian opposition fighters to this expansion.”

If you just peruse the map, you will see that ISIS, rather than being on the run, now controls almost half of Syria and most of western Iraq. Israel is well aware of the danger, as is Jordan, as is Saudi Arabia. Only Obama seems blithely dismissive of their prowess and progress, as the success of ISIS does not fit his political narrative as the omnipotent shaper of world events “from behind.” Yemen, a US ally, is about to fall to radical Islam. Obama has still not reconciled himself to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Finger-wagging does not seem to be a sufficient deterrent to people who readily wield hatchets and massacre with abandon.

As was forecast here several times, Obama has little interest in halting Iran’s nuclear program, and will negotiate and negotiate with them until the initial blast. His best scenario is kicking the can down the road so it becomes the next president’s problem. “Not my job!” That’s what makes Congress’ invitation to PM Netanyahu to come address a joint session next month on the twin threats of radical Islam and Iran’s nuclear ambitions so intriguing. Rarely does one find a congressional smack down of a president so blatant, transparent and delicious. The President can hardly complain that Congress did not consult him when he never consults Congress before acting unilaterally. And Congress – on a bipartisan basis, led admirably for years on this issue by our own Senator Bob Menendez – clearly is in favor of passing strong sanctions legislation now, to go into effect when the current round of negotiations fails in June.

In essence, few presidents have been distrusted by Congress more than Obama is by the current legislature, and there are few leaders in the world who are as disliked by Obama as is Netanyahu. What a triangle – Congress is using Netanyahu to poke and prod Obama, and rally support for the two-thirds Congressional majority that can override Obama’s expected veto of sanctions legislation. Netanyahu loves it as well.  Right in the middle of a heavily contested election campaign, Netanyahu gets to look magisterial in the well of Congress, defending Israel’s interests and tweaking an American president who is widely disliked in Israel. It can only win him votes and support, one reason why his visit might be sabotaged by the administration before he even arrives, and why Obama’s favorites in Israel ‘s upcoming elections – the malleable Herzog and Livni – will dutifully condemn the proposed visit as a gimmick. It is a chess game.

Except for the fact that there are real dangers in the world to which Obama seems detached as he pushes for universal child care or something, always paid for by someone else. Terror has grown exponentially on his watch. Country after country has been pulverized, and most security experts see another devastating attack in the US as simply a matter of time. America is the country most equipped to lead the world and engage the enemy. It has the capability. Does it have the will? The leadership?

Not yet. And no amount of verbiage, empty promises, recycled speeches, boasts and cellophane can cover that up.

Are We Charlie?

A letter writer to the Wall Street Journal wondered if the provocative cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were the American equivalent of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and whether the so-called journalists would have been better off desisting from antagonizing the wrong sorts of people.  Before noting the fecklessness of her suggestion, it is always amusing when people misquote Justice Holmes in Schenck v. United States (1919). Holmes actually stated that the First Amendment does not protect “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” not merely “shouting fire.” What if the theater, or the world, is on fire? Shouldn’t one then scream “fire” to all assembled and to the heavens?

The writer’s sentiment is drawn directly from the appeasement playbook and never works, but contrast that with the brash but brave declaration of one of the murder victims, the magazine’s former editor, who said two years ago, when he was first pressured by Muslim extremists, that he would “prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees.” (DISCLAIMER! Most Muslims are not extremists or terrorists! I am referring to those who are and their supporters.) It is fairly certain that even in his bravado, and in his worst nightmares, he never anticipated that a massacre such as the one that occurred could ever be perpetrated by fellow human beings on this planet.

But it can. It has too many times in the past, as it will recur – G-d forbid – in the future. The Paris rally that attracted every world leader who recognizes the danger of Islamic terror (and thus not the American President) demonstrated a temporary resolve but the book is open. The dispute over the presence of Israel’s PM Netanyahu and the subsequent invitation to the PA’s president-for-life Mahmoud Abbas (for balance, of course) does not bode well for the future. Abbas?? If Yasser Arafat was the father of international terror, Abbas was its godfather, Arafat’s right hand who was responsible for bankrolling the PLO’s reign of terror and today presides over the PA’s outsourced terror. Abbas?!

That invitation simply means that the countries gathered want to keep Islamic terror outside their borders but are not completely troubled by the terror that persists in Israel. As long as only the canary in the coal mine suffers, those outside the mine can continue to preach caution and restraint to the canary. But it is the same enemy in different guises, and that has not yet penetrated the international consciousness notwithstanding Netanyahu’s repeated efforts at making the equation. Those leaders may yet learn that the methods by which Israel fights terror – and for which Israel has been routinely and hypocritically vilified – are the methods they themselves will deploy in the war against terror – if not even harsher methods and if they choose to wage such a war.

It is interesting that the letter writer’s point of view was embraced in the recent past by both France’s Prime Minister and by the White House, who decried the offense to Muslim sensibilities by the magazine’s constant mockery of Islam. Both governments conceded the right of free speech but urged its judicious and more sensitive use (unlike the auteur of the Mohammed video that was falsely claimed to be the pretext for the Benghazi attack and who now languishes in an American prison). Indeed, although it was unintended, one facet of the writer’s suggestion resonated with me but for a different reason.

Obviously, nothing – NOTHING – justifies the brutal, evil, malicious, hideous attacks in France. Nothing the magazine published deserved death. We need to create a new vocabulary to describe the depths of evil to which the world is now witness, and across the globe, and almost daily. It is always the same; only the venue changes.

Nevertheless, before we all become Charlie, it is worthwhile to state that these were victims, innocent victims whose deaths were repugnant and worthy of condemnation and international protest and action. But we should be able to retain that conclusion and still reflect on another aspect of Western life.

It is not as if Charlie Hebdo was researching cures for cancer or finding new ways to relieve hunger. It is a media organ dedicated to mockery, scorn (especially of religion), and the slaughtering of both sacred cows and the notion of the sacred altogether. The media reports that it is irreverent, vulgar, juvenile and rude, and designed to offend. That business model – and its allure – are worth pondering.

It has become fashionable in liberal societies to mock religion, if only to justify to themselves that there is no objective morality, no real right and wrong, and no ideal lifestyle. Religion – of any sort – places restrictions on the pursuit of one’s fantasies and usually imposes some moral code that guides the adherent’s personal and public behavior. It thereby cuts against the grain of modern life and is a tough sell in the Western world. In some parts of the world – France, in particular, the disdain for organized religion is several centuries old.

But note the self-imposed limitations on publications such as Charlie and its imitators (even in America): would they ever direct their comedy against liberal shibboleths such as abortion rights activists or homosexuals? If they did, they would be construed as purveyors of hate, not satire, and even if they meant what they wrote as satire. The scoffers of religion are considered avant garde and generally lionized by the liberal media. I suppose the reaction depends on whose garde is being gored.

We should be able to mourn their deaths and feel outrage, horror and revulsion at their murder without simultaneously sanctifying or glorifying the practices that, despicably, inspired the monsters that murdered them. Death does not retroactively purify deeds that are impure, even when that death is wholly undeserved. Just because one dies for his beliefs does not mean that those beliefs are admirable; memo to Muslim terrorists.

What should be a civilized person’s understanding of the cherished freedom of speech? There are many free speech absolutists who at least embrace consistency but not always decency and common sense. Certainly, there are restrictions on free speech that we all recognize – libel, obscenity (certainly in public), incitement; many European countries ban the use of Nazi imagery or Holocaust denial. Those are all restrictions on free speech that are plausible and justifiable. On the other side of the coin, as noted here several times, there are places in the US today (college campuses in particular) where certain points of view are denied expression in public or in the classroom, where speakers – right-wing, pro-Israel, Christian, pro-traditional morality and others are not allowed to speak. Their lectures are not just boycotted by protesters – that would be civilized – but disrupted. They are shouted down and their audiences are deprived of the right to hear them. This has gone on for almost thirty years. The tactics of those protesters differ in degree, but not really in kind, from those who attempted in Paris – and will fail across the globe – to suppress the free speech of free people, even scoffers.

How do we censor offensive speech? The way it is done in America by civilized people – through social sanction. It is disgraceful to mock the cherished and valued beliefs that people profess, and decent people choose to disassociate themselves from those who do. (It isn’t hard to distinguish between acts or statements that are objectively repugnant – using icons in lewd and lascivious ways, as has been done in the United States with Christian figures – and mere depictions – such as the drawings of Mohammed – that are forbidden under Islamic law does not bind Westerners and is wrong if meant to ridicule or to be coarse but should never be illegal.  Nor is it reasonable to expect a secular textbook to remove drawings of pigs or dogs so as not to offend children, as Oxford Press has recently done. Nonetheless, an Israeli teen was sent to prison several years ago for distributing a crude Mohammed poster.)

Jewish law discusses extensively the parameters of permissible and impermissible forms of speech, and pious Jews study and try to implement those laws. Satire has its place, but not mean-spirited mockery, derision, the pervasive celebrity gossip that dominates too many people’s waking moments, the public shaming of people, etc. Charlie Hebdo should have the right to publish whatever it wants, but I don’t see how its publication makes the world a better place.

But unlike the letter-writer who admonished the victims for unwittingly provoking their own deaths, from which I strongly dissent, abstaining from ridiculing religions should come from elementary decency, not from fear. There are just certain things that decent people don’t do – in public or in private – because they wish to define themselves and be perceived by others as decent people.

Granted, a call for respect rings hollow now, and Muslims are not sympathetic figures for obvious reasons – the violence, and less obvious ones. Radical Muslims have attacked holy symbols of many religions across the globe – Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and even Sunni or Shi’a shrines, depending on the type of radical doing the damage. Some Muslim writers routinely belittle other religions, and even the Arab press in parts of the Middle East habitually calls Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs.”  It is a little duplicitous, to say the least, for the murderers to claim they are “avenging” alleged insults to the revered figures when they incessantly hurl invective at all other religions. But, despite the agonizing search for motives, terrorists commit their heinous deeds for no reason and every reason. There are very few people in the world who would take a human life because of such an insult, and very few who would want to give up their own life in doing so. The obsession over motive – “what X or Y must have done to deserve it” – is an empty and futile pursuit and ultimately demeaning to all victims of terror.

That is the reality of radical Islamic terror and the malady for which civilized Muslims must find a cure. It is important to add – and especially because of the sensitivity of the sensitive – that a French Muslim police officer was murdered in cold blood outside the Charlie Hebdo offices, reinforcing the sense that those bent on murder and mayhem will commit murder and mayhem regardless of the ethnicity of the victims. And to be eternally honored for the good he did is Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee at the kosher market who hid several Jews in the freezer and quite possibly saved their lives.

Those who claim to be “Charlie” would do well to use their freedom of speech to elevate and not degrade, to fight evil rather than accommodate it, and to become more fearless and not more fearful. As always, the way nations treat Israel in its current predicament and struggle against terror will go a long way to ascertaining their true position on Arab terror – a global scourge to be fought or a local inflammation best dealt with by keeping it outside their own borders.
It would be a better world if people actually pursued goodness rather than fame or notoriety. The innocent writers and cartoonists who were cruelly gunned down will not soon be forgotten, and rightly so. We should also bear in mind that just because something is legal does not mean it should be pursued. Man has a higher calling that emanates from the “image of G-d” that gives him life, and gives that life meaning.