Category Archives: Israel

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.

Fear and Courage

It is hard to deny that fear pervades much of the civilized world these days, fear in a variety of forms. There is fear of terror, fear of violence, fear of driving on certain roads or visiting particular neighborhoods, fears stoked by the sense that Western political leaders have no answers, fears of the outsized reach of dictators as evinced by the recent contretemps involving North Korea, Sony, and the awkward release of a movie comedy,  and even fear of repercussions – public ridicule and the like – for saying the “wrong” thing, using politically incorrect language, or otherwise not toeing the ideological line imposed by elite thinkers.

There is a sense that matters are escalating out of control across much of the world, that the civilized world is in the gun sights of the evildoers, and that – as an older and wiser person suggested to me last week – the malevolent forces are unstoppable.

That attitude, while plausible, has engendered a world of fearful people and that is an unhealthy development for two reasons: it robs life of its vitality and purpose and it only further encourages the evildoers. When FDR said at his first inaugural, in the throes of the Great Depression, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (a late addition to the text, and apparently borrowed and paraphrased from an advertising slogan), he knew exactly of what he was speaking.

The Talmud (Berachot 60a) relates that a disciple of Rabbi Yishmael was walking in the market of Zion, and the teacher saw that his student looked petrified. Rabbi Yishmael said to him, “you are a sinner, because the verse in Yeshayahu (33:14) reads, ‘the sinners were afraid in Zion.’” The disciple countered, “but doesn’t Scripture (Mishlei 28:14) also teach, “Fortunate is the one who is always afraid”? There is a value in being fearful! It keeps one alert and vigilant to all dangers, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Yishmael explained that the latter verse – extolling the virtues of fear – relates only to Torah matters. We should be afraid of forgetting our knowledge, so that we will review our studies constantly. Similarly, we should be afraid of sin, so as to make us more attentive to our temptations, shortcomings – and strengths.

Rav Shlomo Aviner commented that the only true fear we should ever have is about our status before G-d. All other fears are a frivolous waste of energy, especially fears of human beings and their evil. This echoes something that Rav Soloveitchik wrote – the one fear (of G-d) should overwhelm any other fear that a person has. Consequently, those other fears become trivial, and succumbing to those fears betrays a lack of faith.

While in exile, fear was always a constant companion of the Jew. “And your life will hang in the balance. You will be frightened night and day and not be sure of your life” (Devarim 28:66). It is a measure of the unprecedented safety that Jews have felt in the United States in the last half-century that we are markedly uneasy with even the slightest threats, however vague, to our well-being. It is not like that elsewhere in the world – where threats are real and palpable – and not even in Israel today where, notwithstanding the statistical improbability of being attacked by terrorists, there is a foreboding sense that any driver/shopper/pedestrian can encounter stoners, shooters and worse, not to mention the threat of war on the northern and southern borders.

And, of course, the situation in America can change on a dime if too much deference is paid to anti-social forces or purveyors of terror. No geo-political situation is permanent.

That is why even in Israel caution rather than fear is warranted, and the same could be said for here as well. Certainly, the Torah has promised tranquility to the Jews dwelling in Zion, even if that serenity is conditioned on good behavior and rational, Torah-based responses to one’s enemies. If we are neglectful on either front, then evil will gain the upper hand, as it has several times in the past. But the capability of feeling serene and unruffled even amid occasional chaos is a gift to Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But it has to be embraced and not neglected.

The backlash by the American public – demanding to see (what is by many accounts) a bad movie – is a constructive response to the spinelessness that has afflicted much of the Western leadership in recent years. Perhaps it will serve as a wakeup call because decision-making by fear and the coddling of bullies is not restricted to the film industry.

We have grown accustomed to the sight of rioters having their way, unchecked and unrestrained. Whether their grievances are legitimate or illegitimate is not relevant; no grievance gives anyone the right to rampage, run amok, burn down the buildings and loot the property of innocent third parties. Yet, America has been treated to that sight several times in the last few months. Mobs are allowed to vent – at the expense of the innocent – out of fear that the violence will be worse if the looters are challenged, thwarted or arrested. But such reticence is a victory for the bullies over the civilized.

Whenever Israeli soldiers run from Arab rioters who are throwing stones, burning tires or otherwise causing mayhem – most recently in Jerusalem itself – it only emboldens the perpetrators of violence, and leaves the good people wondering to whom they can turn for protection and justice. Something is wrong with all those pictures.

Free speech is a casualty of fear. Truth is a casualty of fear. Suppressing an articulation of one’s values is a casualty of fear. Even the right of self-defense can be a casualty of fear. Those casualties take a very high toll, not in life but in self-confidence and personal happiness and on the norms of civilization.

On college and graduate school campuses across America, there are certain words that can no longer be uttered and certain opinions that are deemed unacceptable for discussion (whether pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-Israel, etc., depending on the campus and on the professor). The WSJ recently noted that a law professor was asked by some tender students not to use the word “violate” in class (as in, “said conduct violates the law”) because the word “violate” also connotes, to some, a sexual assault, and therefore might cause pain to some of the listeners. This strikes me as not normal, as there will always be some person taking offense for anything said by anyone. It is as if some people demand a guarantee that they will pass through life never being offended by anyone, or else. Or else… what?

One of the worst fates a person can suffer today – in certain circles – is being branded a racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, etc. Proof and evidence are superfluous; the indictment itself is tantamount to a conviction. These are bullets fired recklessly that bring some political or social gain to the accuser, and cause people to bite their tongues when they should be speaking out. By contrast, some accusations don’t matter. Accusing someone of being anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-white, anti-American, etc. simply carries no weight; they are blanks that are fired, make noise but have no consequences except for the intimidation of members of the besieged groups.

The only way to reverse the trend is to live without fear and speak freely – of course, without giving needless offense to anyone – but fearlessly and freely nonetheless. To allow unlimited rights to intimidators and fewer rights to the intimidated is not a recipe for societal harmony or the triumph of justice.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that “courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.”

It is a lesson that the Western world needs to re-learn and that Jews in particular forget at our peril. Ultimately, that courage comes naturally to people of faith. It is the message that we reinforce to ourselves when we conclude the reading of each book of the Torah – “be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” – and the mandate given us by Yehoshua when we first entered the land of Israel: “Chazak ve’ematz – be strong and courageous!”

It will work as well today as it did then.

 

The Cuban Initiative

President Obama’s overture to Cuba – reversing a staple of American diplomacy of more than fifty years – fits the pattern of his conduct of foreign policy since he took office. He has routinely courted enemies and alienated friends. The latter approach – think Israel, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. – is peculiar both in statecraft and in life. The former approach at least, in theory, has the merit of fulfilling a dictum of our Sages: “Who is powerful? He who turns his enemy into a friend” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Ch. 23).

That is in theory. In practice, it is laudable only if the enemy actually becomes a friend, as opposed to remaining an enemy exploiting the weaknesses of the moving party to strengthen itself, enrich its rulers and further enslave its people. Judging by the early statements from the Cuban dictators, only a dewy-eyed optimist or a person of the political left who is ideologically comfortable with Marxism would anticipate any success here. Obama’s rationale – “if something hasn’t worked for fifty years, it is time to try something different” – begs the question: what exactly hasn’t worked? If the goal is to isolate Cuba to force political liberalization, then Cuba has been isolated, is impoverished, and is not self-sufficient. Every inducement to change is in place, if the dictators so desired. But political liberalization has always been a pipedream, as dictators rarely need to be responsive to the needs of the citizenry, and especially not when the regime’s opponents are regularly jailed for long periods of time for even mild protests.

The Cuban government has certainly expressed an interest in American dollars and investment, but it is farfetched to conclude that any of that bounty will filter down to the average citizen. In any event, rogues find it relatively easy to wait out a sanctions regime, and in recent years have dangled spurious concessions in front of Obama’s diplomats to successfully induce their dismantlement (Iran, Russia). There is no reason why this should be different and every reason why it should be exactly the same – same game, same tactics, same outcome.

That being said, what exactly is the value of a boycott? It seems to have worked only with the apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia but those were unique situations – minority governments suppressing the majority population. (Few seem to care that, at least in Zimbabwe, blacks are persecuted more today living under the Mugabe regime than under the white government.) Otherwise, boycotts are usually not successful, and not only because they create an underground market for needed goods and services. I have seen Cuban cigars for sale in Canada, Denmark, Russia and Israel. Most of the world’s countries do not seem to be bothered by the excesses of the Cuban regime. Even the United States exhibits selective outrage against Communist dictatorships, doing business with Russia and China for decades while shunning Cuba. Certainly the human rights records of those two countries inspired Cuba for much of the last half-century, and America’s relaxation of sanctions against Iran has enabled big business to restart relationships with that human rights-abusing, Holocaust-denying and nuclear bomb-building government.

So, why was Cuba singled out?

A number of possibilities exist. Cuba under Batista was an American ally and a magnet for investment (especially mob investment). The loss of that capital surely grated. Cuba is also a scant 90 miles from Florida, and the presence of a Communist outpost so close to US soil was always a cause for concern. Of course, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 gave the US a black eye and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange, both of which surely underscored Cuba’s negative image in the American eye. And the Cuban émigré community is a potent political force, especially in Florida, and consists of people who suffered enormously to other US nemeses in that part of the world,under Castro. Many have relatives who are still stuck in that island prison. Those reasons are surely valid but do not explain the shunning of Cuba as compared to other US nemeses in that part of the world, such as Venezuela in the last 20 years.

There is another possibility: American foreign policy has always been a bit schizophrenic, in part because of the unresolved clash between the realists and the moralists. There has always been a moralistic streak in US diplomacy, which represents the highest aspirations of the American character. This country – until recently – always tended to embrace fellow democracies and other nations that shared core American values. Those countries were showered with support and embraced with friendship. But, by the same token, the realists recognized that no country has permanent allies or friends but only permanent interests, and the promotion of those interests has frequently demanded the maintenance of relations with some unsavory governments.

This type of diplomacy required “holding one’s nose” while doing business, and encompassed dictators across the globe, from Latin America to the Pacific to Africa. It was best exemplified by a statement attributed to FDR and referring to Nicaragua’s Somoza (the first): “Somoza may be an SOB but he’s our SOB.” Needless to say, that quote – and sentiment – has been applied to many other dictators who have been allied with America.

Such an approach is not completely unreasonable. The person or nation that wishes to associate only with the completely righteous will find itself lonely and isolated. It is unrealistic to expect the complete isolation of every scoundrel. On the other hand, that association will inevitably drain the good character out of even the most resistant entity. (Targum Yonatan, explaining the injunction in the Decalogue against murder, admonishes Jews “not to be friends or partners with murderers.” There is a moral price that is paid for those relationships; often, evil itself becomes less horrific and the innocent suffer even more.)

Furthermore, there is an argument to be made for non-interference by outsiders in another country’s domestic affairs (if only the world would leave Israel alone and not become apoplectic every time a porch is built in Jerusalem!), but that too can be taken to an extreme. That attitude would justify the world’s disregard of the Holocaust in its time, Stalin’s and Mao’s genocide in their own countries, and of course even lesser abuses of any country’s citizens. That would be unconscionable.

How then does the US retain relations with some evildoers and simultaneously maintain its self-image as defender of liberty, freedom and other moral norms? Perhaps – and this is pure speculation – by singling out some countries – like Cuba – for “special” harsh treatment as an affirmation of American values. Is it fair? Not really. But such is far better than turning into an amoral entity like Europe that for decades sought to sell out Israel for Arab oil and is presently just selling Israel out, period. Even paying lip service to core values has lasting significance.

It is a stretch to say that Obama’s planned recognition of Cuba is designed to “open up” Cuba so that the average citizen is lifted out of poverty, or that the air of liberty will suddenly waft through that Communist jail and transform the society, or even that a post-Castro Cuba will find its way back into the free world. Cuba is not destitute because of the US boycott; there is nothing marketed here that Cubans cannot import from the rest of the world – Latin America, Asia and Europe. Cuba is destitute because its rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the citizenry, and jail anyone with an untoward thought. Ceasing the boycott while keeping the same corrupt system of government will help the elites and not the people.

Many remember the Cuban boat people who risked their lives fleeing to US shores on rickety boats. The test of this relationship will be whether or not those who wish to leave are allowed to leave, those incarcerated for their opposition to Castro will be released, and those American dollars invested in Cuba better the material lives of those who stay.

Why then is Obama doing this? Because he can. He is a man much more comfortable with the rhetoric and ideology of the Third World, and sees the American boycott of Cuba as a relic of America’s imperialist past. Indeed, the moral preening of US diplomacy has, in recent years, only been exercised against Israel. One example suffices: a recent study reported that 96% of those killed in US bombing raids in Syria have been civilians, but Israel was forced to stand down from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza because roughly 30% of those killed were civilians. And, yet, Israel was accused by the State Department of “not doing enough” to avoid civilian casualties. Go figure.

Obama has sought to re-orient American foreign policy and the outreach to Cuba is part of that. The good news – if there is any good news – is that this reorientation is unlikely to be continued by Obama’s successor because it is empowering many objectionable agents. The bad news is that, by then, the power of Iran and the militarism of Russia, among others, will be very difficult to reverse.

NOTE: My new book “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” can be ordered at a discount from Amazon.com and at a slightly greater discount at  Sales@gefenpublishing.com, or purchased at fine Jewish bookstores. Enjoy!

– RSP

Jerusalem on Trial

How often does a United States Supreme Court decision affect you personally? The decisions of the Supremes certainly touch our lives, but usually without the immediacy of one case now awaiting decision.

Here in Israel, we have been blessed with the birth of a grandson, and his arrival brings not only great joy but also the confusion that has engendered the case of Zivitofsky v. Kerry. Our grandson was born in Jerusalem, and, under current US consular practice, his place of birth will be recorded on his American passport as “Jerusalem,” and not as is done elsewhere in the world, with the country name rather than the city name. Indeed, if he had been born in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, his place of birth would be recorded as “Israel.” Not so in Jerusalem, capital of Israel for, oh, going on 3000 years and the focal point of the impending holiday of Chanuka.

This discrepancy exists because, as is well known, official US policy does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, notwithstanding repeated promises and Congressional legislation to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. What is less known, and outrageous, is that official US policy does not even recognize Jerusalem as a city in Israel. That is a remarkable incongruity. Jerusalem is considered to be a disputed city whose ultimate fate is yet to be negotiated, and those born there, apparently, are stateless.

A number of years ago, the Zivitofsky family (Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky, the father, is a tremendous resource to the Jewish people in the realms of halachaminhag, science and now law) sued to have their Jerusalem-born son’s place of birth on his US passport be recorded as “Israel.” Their appeal was first denied by the Consulate, and a sympathetic Congress then passed a law mandating that any American child who is born in Jerusalem shall have his passport state that he was born in Israel. (That happened in 2002; the child in question is already Bar Mitzvah age, so long has the matter been meandering through the legal and political system.)  The bill was signed into law by President Bush, who nonetheless attached a signing statement arguing that this Congressional act was an unconstitutional violation of the president’s right to conduct foreign policy. The State Department, on those grounds, refused to implement the law. The Zivitofsky’s sued in US federal court, and the denial of their right to sue was upheld until the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered that the matter be decided on the merits.

When it was finally heard, their claim was systematically rejected on the grounds that this was a political/diplomatic question, and therefore solely the purview of the President. The appeal of that ruling is now pending before the Supremes.

How will the case be decided? The lamentable rule of thumb has usually been that “the Jews lose.” Most cases in memory of parochial Jewish interest have been decided against what could be called “the Jewish side.” It certainly does not help that the three Jewish justices who currently sit on the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan) were notably hostile to the appellant’s case. When one adds to that number the clear opposition to the law of Justice Sotomayor, it means that the Zivitofsky’s have to run the table – gain the support of all five other justices – in order to prevail.

It is certainly possible, although, as is frequently the case, Justice Kennedy might again prove to be the swing vote. Three other justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Alito) appeared to be favorably disposed to the law and appellant’s arguments (with Justice Thomas reticent as always). How is this for irony? If the Zivotovsky’s prevail, it will be because five Catholic jurists outvoted three Jews and upheld the Jewish connection to Jerusalem!

At first glance, the case appears to be unwinnable. The recognition of foreign governments and their territories is a presidential prerogative. The president is the official who is primarily responsible for the conduct of foreign policy, with Congress playing a subordinate role. Here, too, the government argued that registering the birth of an American citizen in Jerusalem as “Israel” would negate one of the norms of US foreign policy since 1948: that the status of Jerusalem is to be determined through negotiations between the parties and not unilaterally by either side. Recording in a passport that, in effect, Jerusalem is Israel (even so-called West Jerusalem), would undermine that, and presumably ignite the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

What are the counter-arguments? (The oral argument before the Court can be read and even heard in full; it makes for fascinating reading and listening.) Issues were raised by some of the justices in support of the law that even appellant’s attorney did not mention in oral argument. For example, the passport would simply record “Israel” (not Jerusalem, Israel), same as for a child born in Tel Aviv. There is nothing on the face of the passport that makes any kind of political statement; a reader would not even know that the child was born in Jerusalem.

Justice Kennedy suggested attaching a disclaimer to the passport to avert the political problem – to the effect that nothing recorded on the passport should be perceived as tantamount to recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such is done with Taiwan, which is not recognized as a country by the US but whose US citizens born there are listed as having been born in Taiwan, not, if appropriate, Taipei the capital.

Appellant argued in the alternative – that the information on an individual’s passport is a personal choice and therefore does not at all imply any formal diplomatic recognition, and that even if it does imply recognition, Congress has the right to override the president’s view, as was done more than a century ago when the Congress recognized Cuba over President McKinley’s opposition. (He later came around.)

Justice Scalia, logical as always, questioned whether recording a geographical fact in an official document amounted to formal diplomatic recognition, and asserted that Congress had the right to pass a law even if it angered the Palestinians or anyone else.

Indeed, Justice Alito underscored the farcical nature of this diplomatic dance by asking, rhetorically, does the United States recognize a birth certificate issued by Israel for those born in Jerusalem? Of course. Does the United States maintain that Israel is not sovereign in Jerusalem, such that Israel would have no right to prosecute a crime committed by an American in Jerusalem? Of course not. Additionally, diplomats and presidents who wish to visit with Israeli leaders and speak before its Parliament all go to Israel’s capital.

It emerges then that obviously some – in fact, many – attributes of sovereignty are exercised by Israel in Jerusalem and accepted by the United States – despite the State Department’s refusal to recognize the births of Americans there as occurring in Israel. As such, it falls under the purview of a congressional statute that should be enforced, regardless of the diplomatic consequences.

Appellant further claimed, slightly less persuasively, that individuals have the right to self-identify on their passports. The point was to negate the argument that recording “Israel” was the equivalent of recognition, but it leaves open the possibility of “Palestine” someday appearing on American passports as well.

Clearly, if the Court wished to do so, there are ample legal grounds to uphold the statute. There are also compelling logical grounds: for how long will the United States tap dance around the reality that Jerusalem is a city in Israel, much less its capital? Even farce should have its limits. We are no longer in1948. We are 47 years past the reunification of Jerusalem as one city under the sovereignty of Israel. If Barack Obama or John Kerry faced a Final Jeopardy question with their fortunes at stake that asked for the capital of Israel, they would both know what to answer. So,  why not stop the charade already?

In a week or so, hundreds of Jewish bigwigs will descend on the White House for the annual Chanukah party. Rather than making small talk with the President, half of the VIPs should ask him to free the ailing Jonathan Pollard and the other half should ask him to recognize Jerusalem as a city in the State of Israel. That would be an effective and intelligent use of their face time, perhaps accomplish some good, and vitiate the need for the Court to decide.

It would also justify the party itself, for Chanuka without Jerusalem is lame – just as Israel without Jerusalem is missing its soul. Let us hope that the people who attend and the Jewish organizations they represent can save one soul and redeem one holy city.

World War IV

(This was first published earlier today on Arutz-7, http://www.inn.co.il.)

It has been apparent for years, vividly clear in the last year, and certainly before our eyes this past week: the world is at war with Islam. Seven years ago Norman Podhoretz wrote the book entitled “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism,” but the need for political correctness has receded. Sure, sure, sure, there are Muslims who are against terror, who are decent people, etc.; there were also members of the Nazi Party that did not subscribe to all of Hitler’s excesses. The time has long past to play semantic games. Let the good Muslims stand up and re-capture their religion from those who they claim have perverted it. To date, the perverts are winning, and they consider those “good Muslims” infidels who should lose their heads.

In the meantime, civilization is reeling from the horrific blows this past week. A three-month infant girl was murdered in Jerusalem, mowed down by a Hamas terrorist. That terrorist was then extolled by Mahmoud Abbas as a “heroic martyr,” which should earn the “President of the PA” (whose term lapsed in 2009) additional visits from John Kerry, more money from the US and Europe, and more accolades from Jewish liberals – for whom all Abbas must be smirking with contempt. Yes, and he is the “good Muslim,” the “partner for peace.” Insane.

Newly minted Muslims showed their bona-fides by murdering two Canadian soldiers and seeking to go on a rampage in the Canadian Parliament building. Strange. Jewish converts seek to integrate into a Jewish community, study Torah, do the Mitzvot, and grow in piety. Muslim converts immediately seek to kill innocent people. Something is very wrong.

That is not to mention the dozens killed in suicide bombings in Iraq earlier this week by these same jihadists. It is no comfort that most victims of Islamic terror today are Muslims. Every single day some Muslim kills some innocent person somewhere in the world. At a certain point, one is left to conclude that the problem doesn’t only rest with radical Muslims, jihadist Muslims, Islamofascists, or other euphemisms we adopt to avoid the obvious truth. The civilized world is now at war, again.

We have seen something similar in the past: the generation of the flood. “And the earth became corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence” (Breisheet 6:11). Irony: the Hebrew word for violence is “Hamas.” Perhaps not an irony after all.

Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, the 19th century author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, asks in his commentary on the Torah, “Aperion,” why does the Torah emphasize that the world became corrupt “before G-d”? The generation of the flood was depraved, but before whom else would it become corrupt but G-d?

His answer is prescient and frightening: that evil generation’s degeneracy was revealed only to G-d – because they did not see themselves as corrupt. The immorality and debauchery of that society was so deep that they did not sense at all that there was anything wrong with their conduct. This was their “normal,” their way of life. These were the values they had. They worshipped their idols by pillaging, plundering, robbing, raping and murdering their fellow man. Their iniquities, to them, were acts of piety.

The Islamic world today (yeah, yeah, the radical/jihadi/fascist/Nazi division, all 150-200 million of them, to undercount) finds virtue in beheading , piety in homicide, and godliness in genocide. Their version of paradise welcomes murderers of infants, children, men, women, scholars and saints. Killing innocent people and causing mayhem across the globe are sacred acts, extolled and encouraged by preachers in their sermons. Theirs is a bizarre world where evil is good and malevolence is celebrated.

Rav Ganzfried continued such evildoers do not respond to criticism, reproof, rebuke, or appeals to morality or conscience. They have lost the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. They can only be destroyed; hence, the Great Flood with which G-d destroyed the world and then recreated it.

The first three world wars (the Cold War was the third) were characterized by two critical factors: the determination of civilization to vanquish its foes and obliterate their sadistic ideologies from the face of the earth, and the rise of leaders (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Churchill, FDR, Truman, Reagan, Thatcher) with the resolve and courage to see the wars through to absolute victory.

Sadly, and dangerously, both are lacking today. The American President prefers speeches and golf to leading the free world to victory; he may lack the will, the temperament and the conviction to do so as well. For example, he favors a negotiated settlement with Iran – a piece of paper that will leave the world on the precipice of a nuclear Iran and the catastrophe that heralds, but might earn him a second Nobel Peace Prize that will be even more hollow than the first. Europe is divided despite its union, is usually feckless, fears its growing Muslim population, and reflexively blames Israel for the rise of Islamic terror. Both the US and Europe see Turkey as an ally in this struggle, a sign of intellectual and moral decadence. Asia is mostly silent, and Africa is devastated by a plague.

Israel, too, sends mixed signals. Still the first and favorite target of Muslim terror, it has not yet firmly squelched the incessant talk of appeasement, concessions, unilateral withdrawals and a (phantom) peace process as the way to security and stability. The rise this week of a “diplomatic caucus” in the Knesset that favors negotiations and concessions to the aforementioned Abbas, lionizer of baby killers, shows that much of the Israeli public still labors under the illusion that World War IV will simply go away, because we really wish it to go away.

The Jewish people are being called upon – across the globe – to articulate the problem clearly and to rally the resources of the entire civilized world against this most brutish enemy. Israel must stand firm, certainly against appeasement but even against demands that it ameliorate its war on terror. A population that can produce people who drive cars into crowds, that randomly and wantonly stab, shoot, or stone people, is an enemy population. It should be defined as an enemy population and treated accordingly, if necessary, restoring the military rule under which Israeli Arabs were governed until 1966. If the denizens of Shuafat continue to destroy their light rail station, Israel should stop rebuilding it. Despite the good feelings engendered in all of us, enemy populations (Haniyeh’s daughter?) should not be treated in Israeli hospitals. And there is much more. An enemy is an enemy is an enemy. It cannot be wished away, especially as it desires to destroy the Jewish state. Those who do not desire to live in the Jewish state should take their fight elsewhere, and if what they want is to fight and die, there are many Arab countries from which to choose.

To date, what defines World War IV is the reluctance of the Western world to characterize or fight it as such. The longer the political and ideological ostriches maintain that stance, the longer – and deadlier – this war will be. The Jewish people – despite our size but because of our destiny and divine mission – are called upon the light the nations out of the darkness that currently engulfs them.

Atonement

(NOTE: I again announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is written in English, available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!)

My new book (have you heard??) is entitled “Tzadka Mimeni” to recall a specific incident in the Bible that had enormous and historic ramifications. It was the phrase Yehuda (son of Yaakov) used to admit his complicity in the affair with Tamar, who refused to publicly identify him as the father of her child but subtly indicated so to Yehuda. Rather than deny, obfuscate, change the topic or blame someone else, Yehuda admitted his role: “Tzadka Mimeni.” She is more righteous than I am. She is right. I am wrong. It is my fault.

That confession not only saved Tamar’s life and was an act of moral courage; it also qualified Yehuda, in the opinion of our Sages, to become the progenitor of the royal house of Israel. It was the response of a real leader, who knows how to take responsibility for misdeeds and failures and not pass the buck to others.

Those days are long gone, at least here in the United States.

Barack Obama’s inability to take responsibility for anything has become a running joke, albeit one without humor and incapable of inducing laughter. These cannot even be considered gaffes, as they are second (or first?) nature to him. The most recent example is almost run-of-the-mill. Asked whether he was surprised by the rise of ISIL, Obama shifted responsibility for being surprised to the equally hapless James Clapper, even if the intelligence services had, indeed, warned of ISIL’s rise more than a half-year ago. “It wasn’t me! It was him! He didn’t tell me!

It is actually worse than that. I receive a daily briefing on the military situation in Iraq and environs (you can too!) from the Institute for the Study of War, complete with maps and analysis. Note this:

       “ISW’s Jessica Lewis assessed in July 2013 that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi literally aimed to declare an Islamic State: “When al Qaeda in Iraq last enjoyed this operational advantage, it chose to announce the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and to appoint emirs and Shura councils in every province. This historical parallel places Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent announcements of his envisioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the literal context of a deliberate campaign to establish governance over areas in Iraq and Syria.”

Check the date: July 2013. That was 15 months ago, at least six months before ISIL became better known in America, and 12 months before they started beheading American journalists.

In August 2013 (that’s over a year ago), ISW reported on ISIL’s territorial gains in Iraq and in Syria, a period that by pure chance coincided with the President’s annual Martha’s Vineyard location. What does ISW know that Obama doesn’t? Perhaps their analysts pay more attention to the intelligence coming their way than the President does to his. Perhaps the President should subscribe to ISW’s daily reports, although he would still have to read them.

But that is only the latest example. The hallmark of this administration has been a headlong flight from personal responsibility – on Putin’s military advances, the botched rollout of Obamacare, the corruption and dirty-dealing at the IRS, the Benghazi attack, the failures at the Veterans Administration, etc., and etc. to the etc. Events seem to swirl around this President and he is often, apparently, the last to know what is happening on his watch and the least able to influence the course of events. He will look dutifully somber, and promise justice, getting to the bottom, etc., but without much passion, engagement, or real acceptance of responsibility. That the White House admitted this week that they learned at the same time the press did that an armed felon rode in an elevator with the President and an unsuspecting Secret Service along for the ride is par for the course (pardon the golf reference). All agencies take their lead from the chief; it stands to reason that the Secret Service is as detached as the man they are sworn to protect.

Indeed, judging by customary reactions from this White House, George W. Bush is more responsible for the events of the last six years than Barack Obama.

This diffidence has had the effect of reducing Obama and the United States on the world scene. Part of this is intentional: Obama believes the dispatch of the American military across the world to be an “evil,” which he will not do absent an attack on the homeland, and perhaps not even then. He does not perceive the US military as a positive, virtuous force (witness the “coffee salute”) but rather as a symptom of the “bad America” that he was elected to transform. And part of this is simply the natural effect of the way Obama is perceived by other world leaders, especially American allies who are counting the days and holding their collective breaths until January 20, 2017.

This week, and once again, Obama was rebuked in private by PM Netanyahu, admonished to “study the facts and details” before reflexively criticizing Israel’s municipal building plans. Foreign leaders have the advantage of piercing the cordon sanitaire that Valerie Jarrett has erected around Obama to shield him from criticism. In private, they tell him exactly how they feel, even if in public, they pay him deference, out of respect to his office and especially to the historic role of the US in world affairs which will outlive even Obama’s efforts to strangle it. Obama, after six years, is unaccustomed to hearing criticism or even dissenting voices and is visibly uncomfortable with it. But it exists.

Netanyahu, who is a serious man and proved it again this week (he also remains Israel’s most effective spokesman when he is overseas), knows that Obama will do nothing about Iran’s nuclear program. The American president lacks both the will and a plan, and, like with ISIS, will offer desultory demonstrations of resolve and might, however ineffectual they are. (In the case of ISIS, an air show that will change nothing on the ground, and in the case of Iran, an empty agreement that will also change nothing.) Personally, I found Obama’s repeated references to the PM as “Bibi” to be disparaging attempts to belittle him; Netanyahu, presumably, had the grace not to refer to Obama as “Barry.” (But did Israel’s PM have to traipse from one treif restaurant to the next in NYC, of all places, and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, of all times? There was a time when Israeli leaders had a little more Jewish pride, or at least, self-awareness.)

Incidentally, as noted here not long ago, Obama takes liberties with his conduct of “war” that he doesn’t allow Israel – e.g., bombing from the air (which he insisted that Israel not do in Gaza; for the most part, they ignored him). It is also fascinating how there seem to be no casualties from any US bombing run – neither terrorist nor civilian. Those really are smart bombs.

Leadership requires, first and foremost, the capacity to accept responsibility in a serious and sincere way. So does atonement. At the very heart of Yom Kippur is the recognition, stated again and again, that “I am responsible” for my sins. No one else is responsible. I cannot pound the chest of the person standing next to me, as tempting as that sounds. I cannot shift blame to others for my failures. I cannot hang my mistakes on the fellow who preceded me in my seat in shul.

If anything, the contrast between the modern world and G-d’s expectations for us is so stunning that it should force us to take a deeper, more introspective look at our deeds and misdeeds, our ambitions and objectives in life. Fortunately, Yom Kippur provides us the opportunity to do that.

Politics aside (this too shall pass), our inner world is the real world in which our moral perfection is sought and measured, and where it has true substance and makes an eternal difference. May we take such messages to heart, merit      G-d’s grace and forgiveness, and be inscribed for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace.

Obama’s War Rules

President Obama has belatedly come around to the necessity of confronting the murderers of ISIS before they threaten the American homeland directly, but better late than never. His goal – to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State – is admirable if open-ended. His chosen measures to accomplish this objective are somewhat wanting, as if he just wants to be seen as doing something more than actually doing something, but perhaps he has begun to accept one basic truth: sometimes you can’t choose your enemies; your enemies choose you.

And if his declaration that there is nothing “Islamic” about Islamic State is a tad overdrawn – the killing of infidels is a perennial and sacred obligation – something has awakened his displeasure, certainly the murder of innocents and the future threat to the United States … but also his plummeting poll numbers.

For sure, Obama is a reluctant warrior, and we wish him (and us) well in the coming campaign. Before commencing the hostilities, though, he should become more acquainted with the modern rules of warfare to which he subscribes but will soon find encumber his success. They are as follows:

  • Never use disproportionate force. ISIS does not have an air force. As such, bombing their strongholds from the air would be overkill, not to mention unfair. Their favorite weapons are machetes and knives, and so, if the US Air Force is not going to drop sharp implements on the enemy from the air, we must at least ensure that the Arab forces that will constitute the boots on the ground will be so equipped. The use of disproportionate force is immoral and probably a war crime, even if it once was the key to victory.
  • Never injure or kill a civilian. ISIS forces routinely hide among civilians, do not always dress in military garb and are not always easily identifiable as fighters. Even when they are identifiable, if their military convoys are ensconced within civilian traffic, they are by definition off limits. If their homes and headquarters are located among civilian facilities or in residential neighborhoods, they are untouchable. If they wage their battles in civilian neighborhoods, it is critical to desist from any type of military activity that might harm a single innocent civilian, even at the cost of mission failure.
  • Ensure that casualties on both sides are equal. It is unacceptable that one side in a conflict should suffer many more casualties than the other side. That per se is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the use of disproportionate force. Thus, Obama’s coalition must mandate that the casualties of the allies must equal – to a man – the casualties of ISIS. If not, well, the specter of being tried for war crimes will hang over the head of every combatant, general, president or prime minister who has a hand in this confrontation.
  • Have lawyers and ethicists vet every potential target before striking. Human life is too precious to allow such decisions to be made only by generals and commanders whose only interest is victory. Objective third-parties – perhaps even United Nations Human Rights commissioners – should be able to review battle plans before every mission and even artillery coordinates before shells are launched. Although this also might jeopardize the mission, we must be able to maintain our moral standards and especially in the face of an immoral enemy. We should not lower ourselves to their level; rather we will impose on ourselves a double, if necessary a triple, standard to guarantee fidelity to our treasured norms.
  • Embed American journalists among the ISIS fighters. This serves a double purpose: it ensures that there will be television cameras recording every bomb that explodes (assuming the above-referenced advice on dropping only knives is not heeded) and that every civilian casualty can be noted and mourned for posterity. Of course, having reporters on the ground is the only way that survivors can be interviewed and their stories about the effects of the horrific bombing campaign of the evil Americans can be told. It is also the only way to effectively calculate the number of civilians who are killed. Sad to say, do not be surprised if it turns out that only civilians were killed, and that no ISIS fighters at all were harmed – the very definition of indiscriminate bombing, another war crime.

     It is also very important to get the ISIS side of the story out in the public domain. The bad PR they currently have is undoubtedly due to the rough treatment they have afforded journalists to date, but they will learn to befriend reporters or, at the very least, intimidate some (i.e., by letting them to retain their heads) into underscoring the casualties of every American strike and downplaying their own excesses or malevolence. After all, there are two sides to every story.

  • There is no military solution to this problem. Guns and bombs never settled any conflict, and if anything, only serve to prolong it. Violence breeds more violence, hatred engenders more hatred. The cycle of violence must stop. War is so 20th century, maybe even 19th Civilized people talk through their issues and settle their disputes through words, not weapons.

     Indeed, the bombing campaign cannot take more than one month. If ISIS is not eliminated within a month, then another way must be found to deal with them as it would be clear that the problem is only going to get worse over time, not better. No one wants another long war (like World War II or Vietnam) and America especially must focus on repairing its battered economy, finding its shrinking work force new, good-paying jobs, and concentrating on redistributing the wealth of the haves to the have-nots. The problems in the Middle East are distant, hazy images on a television screen, and do not really affect Americans in their daily lives. So, if ISIS is not eradicated in a month, negotiate.

  • Self-determination is a cherished, Wilsonian goal that is universally applicable. The people of ISIS have declared their independence in territory under their control. They have decided to rid themselves of their prior allegiance to the Iraqi tyranny or the Syrian tyranny by establishing their own, home-grown tyranny. And that is their democratic right. We should not be cultural imperialists imposing our values on other political systems. Who’s to say that the American values of freedom, liberty, democracy and human rights are inherently attractive to all? Perhaps the futility of war will convince all parties of the viability of the two-state solution, the three-state solution, or as many states as ISIS wishes to create. Neither Syria nor Iraq seem to need all the territory they claim for themselves anyway, and there is plenty of land to go around for everyone (unlike, say, in Israel).

These are only some of the hurdles Barack Obama will have to overcome in his war of choice. Undoubtedly he will, and we wish him the greatest success. The future of the free world might depend on it. And if somehow the rules of engagement change and the war is fought to win, with all the appropriate and necessary measures employed when wars were fought to win, perhaps those changes can be applied elsewhere in the Middle East as well…