Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
The theme of the week in the Syria conflict—that airstrikes are of only limited use in the struggle to degrade and destroy the Islamic State terror group—is about to be underscored in terrible fashion in the besieged border town of Kobani, which is under sustained, and mainly unanswered, assault by as many as 9,000 ISIS terrorists armed with tanks and rocket launchers.
I just got off the phone with a desperate-sounding Kurdish intelligence official, Rooz Bahjat, who said he fears that Kobani could fall to ISIS within the next 24 hours. If it does, he predicts that ISIS will murder thousands in the city, which is crammed with refugees—Kurdish, Turkmen, Christian, and Arab—from other parts of the Syrian charnel house. As many as 50,000 civilians remain in the town, Bahjat said.
"A terrible slaughter is coming. If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours," he told me. "It will be worse than Sinjar," the site of a recent ISIS massacre that helped prompt President Obama to fight ISIS. There have been reports of airstrikes on ISIS vehicles, but so far, Bahjat said that these strikes have been modest in scope and notably ineffective.
Kobani is located on the Turkish border, but Bahjat said he is receiving reports that Turkey is pulling its troops back, rather than risk armed confrontation with ISIS. "It's unbelievable—Turkey is in NATO, so you literally have NATO watching what is happening in this town. Everyone can see it—the TV cameras are there, watching. It's terrible."
He went on, "This just can't be allowed to happen. I'm upset personally as a Kurd, seeing my brethren killed. I'm upset as a secularist seeing the hope of freedom being murdered and I'm upset as a human being, watching these monsters commit genocide."
Kurdish fighters are outnumbered by ISIS, and they have no heavy weaponry. There are reports coming out of Kobani that at least one female Kurdish suicide bomber has struck at ISIS terrorists already. The situation is grim, growing grimmer, and one in which hesitation by the international community may not be easily forgiven.
A couple of weeks ago, Laurie Goodstein, in the Times, wrote of American pulpit rabbis who are sometimes too skittish to express their true feelings about Israel and, in particular, its current government:
Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days ...
I expressed the thought on Twitter (a famous vehicle for complicated thoughts) that it is pathetic for rabbis to avoid discussing certain subjects for fear of offending members of their congregations. What's the point of being in the clergy if you can't speak your heart? Many rabbis, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, have sometimes found themselves to the left of their congregations—or at least to the left of their most influential congregants—on matters related to Israel, but speaking truth to (synagogue board) power is a risk they are required to take.
Later that day, I also endorsed a seemingly contradictory position, one advanced by Peter Beinart, that pulpit rabbis would serve their congregations better by talking about Judaism, rather than about geopolitics (where, he suggests, they have no huge comparative advantage over such paid scribblers as Beinart and Goldberg). Here's Peter:
The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy. The American Jewish community represents an unprecedented experiment in what happens when you combine mass ignorance of Jewish law and tradition with radical acceptance by the gentile world. The result is tragic. It’s not tragic because more than seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry. People should grab love where they can. It’s tragic because so many of the young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding.
That evening, Goldblog Chief Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (who in his spare time also serves as senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington), emailed me with a question, which went, essentially, "What do you want from me?" But nicely, of course.
I acknowledged the seeming contradiction in my tweeting by telling him that I'd rather hear rabbis teach their congregants Judaism, but if you're going to talk about Israel, then you might as well say what you think. He assured me that that was his plan for Rosh Hashanah.
And he executed the plan very well. I've been collecting sermons from around the country on the subject of Israel, in order to understand where mainstream Jewish thought is today. (Hint: It's not where Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson think it is, but nor is it where the left might think it is—many rabbis, like many rank-and-file Jews, were shocked this summer by the ferocious return of anti-Semitism, and by the deep desire on the part of Hamas and its sympathizers to annihilate the Jewish state. So far, the sermons I've read seem less naive about the nature of the conflict than they have in the recent past.) I've read some eloquent writing, but so far I'm partial to Rabbi Steinlauf's, because he managed to be crystal-clear in his condemnation of Hamas and of global anti-Semitism, but also resolutely clear about the responsibility of Jews to keep hate from hardening their hearts.
Through much of the summer, I was trying to explain the actual nature of Hamas, which is a hard thing to do when the prevailing narrative has the group playing the role of the aggrieved resistance. Steinlauf solved this conundrum by doing something deceptively simple. He read from Israel's Declaration of Independence, and then from the Hamas Charter, as a way of illustrating the radical moral difference between two competing understandings of the world:
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics. We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place. On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things. Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice. In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “... unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
He then went on to caution against the temptations of hatred:
Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler. But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children—we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level. Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism. If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must no longer be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians. ... It is not about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace and those who do not yearn for peace.
And he continued:
We must ... realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world. There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself. The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, "... for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, 'My parent was greater than your parent.' ... There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself! The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam. Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts—but as a religion it is not evil. [The evil] is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
I remain partial to the view that American Jewry is threatened more by its own ignorance than by anything that may happen in the Middle East. But if rabbis are going to speak about Israel, then they should speak with clarity, as Steinlauf did at Rosh Hashanah.
President Obama, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, just delivered a speech that reminded me of Hillary Clinton at her most pugnacious, and of John McCain at his most tranquil. He reminded me of the second-term George W. Bush as well.
Obama labeled ISIS "evil" (remember the trouble Bush created for himself when he used such terms?) and promised the destruction of its "network of death"; he excoriated Russia explicitly and at length for bullying its way into Ukraine; he made a direct demand on the Muslim world to disassociate itself from the extreme Islam of ISIS; and, most striking for us here at Goldblog headquarters, he dashed the hopes of the linkage-meisters, the foreign-policy analysts who continue to believe that Israel and its problems represent the core crisis of the Middle East. "Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure ... the illusion that Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main source of problems in the region,"he said. Five years ago, in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama labeled the Israeli-Palestinian dispute one of the three major sources of tension between the U.S. and the Muslim world. This bit of analysis has been overcome by events. (He did, though, talk about the unsustainable status quo in the West Bank, something he has talked about before.)
Obama's critics will say that he has shed his public diffidence on matters related to the conflicts of the Middle East because pollsters have been telling him that Americans want a less professorial president. But my impression from watching him in recent weeks, and from talking to people who know him well, is that two sets of recent events in particular have actually shifted his thinking about the relative importance of "soft power"; about the nature of America's adversaries; and consequently about the role the U.S. must play in the world, in order to keep these adversaries at bay.
He understands now that Russia's new czar worships power, and is immune to appeals based on notions of rational self-interest. Obama's forthright promise to stand with America's NATO allies in Eastern Europe, made recently in Estonia, can now be understood as prologue to today's speech.
And he has been truly shaken—as have many people—by the depths of ISIS depravity. And more than that, he realized that no other country apart from the United States had the will or capability to stop ISIS's advance. In other words, Obama understands today that the U.S. is the world's indispensable nation. (Two areas in which Obama was notably discreet: He did not criticize Iran, with which he is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal; and he was distressingly silent on the subject of Bashar al-Assad, who is in many ways the father of ISIS, and is certainly the cause of Syria's collapse. Unlike John McCain, Obama is not interested in confronting Assad at the moment.)
Obama's advisors say that this speech can be placed on a continuum of previous statements. The deputy national security advisor, Benjamin Rhodes, in an e-mail sent after the speech, wrote, "President Obama has always had three themes that appeared prominently today: Calling on nations to meet their responsibilities to uphold international norms; no safe haven for terrorists; (and noting that) ordinary people can bridge divisions of race and religion, and deserve governments who do the same. Remember the August 1, 2007 speech when he said he'd go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Or the Nobel address. I think this is in a direct line with those."
Rhodes may be right, but this speech did feel, temperamentally at least, like a break with the past.
So, our reluctant, hesitant, wan, diffident loner egghead of a president somehow managed to pull together a potent Arab coalition and launch an air war against extremists of the Islamic State terror group on their home turf. Very surprising, given his reputation.
Defying expectations is one thing; winning a war in which victory has not yet been adequately defined is another. And yet, President Obama has taken the first, significant steps to at least slow, and possibly reverse, ISIS's expansion.
Four quick, early morning observations (to be followed by more, I hope):
1. The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the "red line" crisis of last year. That said, Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.
2. It is true that there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory. The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on toward Baghdad, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can "win" this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.
3. This struggle is now owned by the United States. President Obama has spread around the risk, but make no mistake, this is an American fight. If President Obama wasn't convinced that the U.S. is—and should be—the world's sole remaining superpower, he is now. Our reluctant president came to the conclusion that it would be insane for the civilized world to allow the barbarians of ISIS to overspread the Middle East. He looked around, and realized that the only country that could lead the anti-ISIS campaign was his. He's right, alas, and this leadership has a cost. ISIS was mainly interested, for the moment, at least, in securing its own borders, and building the infrastructure of a state. I have a feeling its long-term planners woke up this morning newly interested in finding ways to hurt Americans.
4. This American-led campaign isn't unalloyed good news for Bashar al-Assad. ISIS has been, in practical terms, his best friend this past year. The threat of ISIS caused numerous anti-Assad parties to think twice about calling for his removal. And ISIS did a great job on Assad's behalf of eliminating the more moderate Syrian opposition. Nevertheless, American bombs are falling in Syria, and they're not falling on Assad. Very few people a year ago could have predicted this.
A few days ago, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted the following statement: “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.” Roth provided a link to a New York Times article about the rally, which took place in Berlin.
Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse. Anti-Semitism in Europe did not flare “in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza,” or anywhere else. Anti-Semitic violence and invective are not responses to events in the Middle East, just as anti-Semitism does not erupt “in response” to the policies of banks owned by Jews, or in response to editorial positions taken by The New York Times. This is for the simple reason that Jews do not cause anti-Semitism.
It is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice. Just as Jews (or Jewish organizations, or the Jewish state) do not cause anti-Semitism to flare, or intensify, or even to exist, neither do black people cause racism, nor gay people homophobia, nor Muslims Islamophobia. Like all prejudices, anti-Semitism is not a rational response to observable events; it is a manifestation of irrational hatred. Its proponents justify their anti-Semitism by pointing to the (putatively offensive or repulsive) behavior of their targets, but this does not mean that major figures in the world of human-rights advocacy should accept these pathetic excuses as legitimate.
A question: If a mosque in Europe or in the U.S. were to be attacked (God forbid) by Islamophobic arsonists, would Ken Roth describe such an attack as a manifestation of “anti-Muslim hatred that flared in response to the conduct of Muslim groups in the Middle East?”
The demonstration in Berlin, at which the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, denounced anti-Semitism in un-Rothian fashion—which is to say, she denounced it without excusing it—was meant to protest the rough treatment of Jews, and Jewish institutions, across Europe, mainly at the hands of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. These events included the sacking of synagogues; the desecration of Jewish cemeteries; arson attacks on Jewish-owned stores; and physical attacks on people who dress in an identifiably Jewish manner. The demonstration in Berlin was also meant to protest much of the discourse at anti-Israel rallies over the summer: “Death to Jews,” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” were two of the slogans heard at rallies in Germany and elsewhere.
The people who perpetrated these violent acts, and who made these genocidal statements, were not protesting Israeli army policy. They were giving vent to sharp and negative feelings about Jews, feelings that obviously predated this summer's war (Jews were victims of hate crimes in Europe before the latest round of fighting in the Middle East; the massacre of Jewish children at a school in Toulouse, and the fatal attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, are two examples.)
There are, of course, non-anti-Semitic ways to protest Israeli policy and decision-making, and many in Europe walked this path: Demonstrations denouncing Israeli behavior were staged outside Israeli embassies; other anti-Israel activists called for arms embargoes, and so on. Many hundreds of opinion pieces critical of Israel were published in Europe over the summer, and I’ve only seen a handful that resorted to anti-Semitic tropes in order to make their case.
(There are separate questions about proportionality of coverage, and Israel-centered obsessiveness among elites, that are important to consider when discussing the reaction to any events involving Israel, and Matti Friedman addresses some of these questions in his famous essay on the topic. This is not my subject for the moment, nor is a related question concerning the nature and meaning of the term “anti-Zionist.” Suffice it to say that a demonstration of “anti-Zionists” demanding “Death to Israel,” a call that was heard frequently in Europe during the summer protest months, is not philo-Semitic. But even “Death to Israel,” with its promise of violence, and its contempt for the rights of the Jewish people to have a state, does not compare to “Jews to the gas.”)
I don’t know what motivated Ken Roth to blame the Jewish state for the violent acts of anti-Semites. I do hope that he reconsiders his position on the root cause of anti-Jewish prejudice.
A president is axiomatically having a bad week when his understanding of warfare is criticized, in public, by the most revered living Marine general. This is what happened yesterday when retired Gen. James Mattis, the legendary former chief of U.S. Central Command, told the House Intelligence Committee that, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do.”
Mattis is referring to President Obama’s promise to avoid deploying ground troops, no matter what, in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. (There are, of course, already U.S. troops wearing boots that touch the ground in Iraq, but they are not meant to join the frontline fight against ISIS, though they could obviously get hurt anyway, this being Iraq.)
Mattis's argument is simple: Never tell your enemy what you’re not going to do. “If this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground,” Mattis said. “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”
Even Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who is not a lean-in sort of commander in the Mattis style, has acknowledged the possibility of an eventual need for ground troops.
President Obama’s caution in the matter of ISIS is not the disaster many people make it out to be—his sobriety and thoughtfulness may one day be remembered more fondly than they are understood now—for a couple of reasons: The first is that ISIS doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the United States, because, unlike al-Qaeda, it is mainly interested in building up its own state, not in attacking the far enemy. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, Obama hasn’t let anger over the beheadings of two Americans blind him to the current nature of the threat. The second is that he has a proper appreciation for the limitations of American allies in the Middle East, and he knows that true victory against ISIS will only come when our allies are capable of taking the lead in this struggle. It doesn’t matter, in other words, if Obama puts 20,000 troops, or 200,000, into this fight. Without capable partners to secure the victory these troops would obtain, there’s no point in making such a commitment.
But: Obama has committed himself to the eventual destruction of ISIS, and so it is counterproductive strategically to signal to ISIS his plans and intentions.
There is a way for Obama to reframe the American role in the fight against ISIS, without committing to any specific course of action. I didn’t come up with this new rhetorical and policy path; Obama did, in interviews with me, and others, and in public statements over the past several years. The subject of these interviews and public statements was not the threat posed by Sunni radicalism, but the threat posed by the Shiite revolutionary state, Iran. When asked what he would do to stop Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon, Obama always answered the same way: “All options are on the table.”
“All options on the table” has an ominous ring to it. It is concise, ambiguous, and threatening, and I believe that its regular public deployment was one factor that motivated Iran to negotiate the future of its nuclear program with the U.S., rather than continue its rush to the bomb.
Using this slogan—as opposed to “no boots on the ground”—in the case of ISIS would also have the advantage of being accurate, because of course there are situations in which President Obama may have to use ground troops in the struggle against ISIS, particularly if U.S. assets, or allies, are directly threatened. Does anyone really believe that if ISIS were to make a move on Baghdad, which is home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, or on Jordan, that the president wouldn’t use whatever force necessary prevent a debacle?
A move from “no boots on the ground” to “all options on the table” would cause the Consistency Police (i.e. my profession) to go berserk, and would frighten the left, and also the non-interventionist right. But the decision to degrade and destroy ISIS has been made, so the most important goal has to be to frighten ISIS. I don’t want U.S. combat troops in the fight against ISIS—this is the responsibility of Arabs and Kurds. But I do want the leaders of ISIS to believe that Obama is capable of waging all-out war against them.
My friend and colleague David Frum makes a compelling case against America’s ramped-up war on the terrorist group ISIS. The thrust of David’s argument is that the U.S. will be waging this war on behalf of the Iranian regime, which, of course, is our prime adversary in the Middle East, one that is more wily, more consequential, and (of course) much closer to crossing the nuclear threshold than ISIS is:
The trouble with the policy of aid-Iran-but-don’t-admit-it is that the United States receives nothing in return—and specifically, no abatement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration may hope that by acting as Iran’s air force today, the United States may somehow gain Iranian goodwill tomorrow. Instead, the bizarre real-world effect of the administration's deny-the-obvious messaging is to empower the Iranians to act as if they were doing the United States a favor by allowing the United States to whomp their enemies for them.
David ends his post (you should read the whole thing, as they say) by asking, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”
Let me attempt an answer, even though I am myself ambivalent about this campaign, because I think the risk of escalation is great; because bombing Bashar al-Assad’s enemies is a morally unsatisfying thing to do (I’m going for understatement here); because the chance of meaningful (as opposed to stopgap) success is slight; and because I am tired of the U.S. waging war in the Middle East against terrible people on behalf of other terrible people. But here are a couple of arguments for why Obama is justified in intensifying his existing campaign against ISIS.
The first is that not all of ISIS’s enemies are terrible: The defense of the Kurds and of Jordan are causes worth pursuing. (Even the defense of Saudi Arabia is in American national security and economic interests.) An unimpeded ISIS threatens the Kurds, who are our allies and who have built for themselves something decent in their corner of Iraq, and it poses an existential threat to Jordan. If Jordan were to be overrun, this would spark both a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportions as well as a regional war between Israel (which would rush to Jordan’s defense) and the global jihadist movement, a war Iran would exploit to further its own anti-Israel and anti-Sunni objectives. ISIS infiltration of Saudi Arabia would be similarly disastrous. Even an ISIS move on Baghdad would be disastrous for the U.S.—imagine the mechanics of evacuating thousands of Americans from a city under ISIS siege. If you liked the fall of Saigon, you’ll love the pictures from besieged Baghdad.
It would, of course, be lovely if the non-Iran-sponsored ground forces arrayed against ISIS were formidable. (Obama, as I’ve noted, has spent three years disparaging the fighting skills of the secularish Free Syrian Army, which has now become a linchpin of the American-led effort against ISIS.) But they are not. The only possible way to slow ISIS’s progress, and to possibly reverse it in some more-than-negligible way, is to provide air cover and intelligence and logistics support to our hapless allies on the ground.
A second reason: President Obama was careful not to speak of an imminent or specific ISIS threat to Americans, because none currently exists. But it is not implausible to argue that a Qaeda-inspired group of limitless cruelty and formidable financial resources, one that has an omnibus loathing for “infidels,” and one that has thousands of members who hold passports from countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program, poses a non-trivial threat to American civilians. Disrupting ISIS by attacking its leaders in their Syrian safe havens, rather than simply attacking their underlings inside Iraq, seems justifiable.
David is right to argue that the U.S. is functionally aligning itself with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, and this is a terrible thing. Other critics of the president’s plan are right to point out its flaws and limitations, and to ask whether our anger at the beheadings of two American journalists is blurring our vision. (It’s not the worst thing, at times like these, to have a president who leans in the direction of reluctance.) But the question for David is, what are the consequences for American national security of continued ISIS success?
President Obama—who will tell the country tonight that the U.S. is taking its air war against the psychotic, end-of-days Islamist terrorists of ISIS directly to their safe havens in Syria—has now comprehensively learned, six years into his presidency, that Michael Corleone’s fatalistic insight about the mafia also holds true for presidents in the Middle East: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” A president desperate to make at least a semi-graceful exit from a very large swamp has learned that there is no way out.
This will not be the Cairo speech of 2009, in which a buoyant, overly optimistic Obama forecast a future of productive and respectful (and, implicitly, low-maintenance) relations with the pre-Arab Spring, pre-Syria catastrophe, pre-ISIS Muslim world. Instead, this will be a particularly sober speech in which Obama outlines why his ramped-up campaign against ISIS is a national-security imperative for the U.S. The short-term, and even medium-term, goal of the Obama administration is not to reshape the Middle East; the goal is simply to avert further catastrophe, by degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. (In the speech, Obama will cite his campaigns against Islamist terrorists in Yemen and Somalia as models for the anti-ISIS campaign—no state-building here, just killing terrorists.)
What sort of catastrophe is he trying to avert? An ISIS march on Baghdad is one fear; so too is an ISIS infiltration of Jordan and, over time, of Saudi Arabia as well. (There is palpable worry among Middle East experts in the administration that Jordan, a resolute ally of the United States and an island of stability in a mainly unhinged region, could become vulnerable to an ISIS juggernaut). Another goal is to deliver public defeat to a group that appears to many young, disaffected Muslim men to be the strongest horse (to borrow from Osama bin Laden) in the Middle East, and to disrupt the movement of young Muslim men from Europe (and elsewhere) who seek to affiliate with ISIS, and who could bring ISIS terror back to their own countries. (It is worth noting that many of these thousands of young men hold citizenship in countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program.)
The president has promised the eventual neutralization of ISIS, but this task will be exceedingly hard, and he obviously knows that this is the case. He does have a couple of things working in his favor. The first is that the American public is with him. The videotaped beheadings of two American journalists have galvanized allegedly war-weary Americans for a fight in a way that we haven’t seen in years. The second is that leaders of moderate Sunni states are so frightened by ISIS that they seem ready to join the coalition Obama is building to fight the group.
But there are a daunting number of impediments to success. The first is that American public opinion is fickle. American pilots will be flying risky missions, and there are already American boots on the ground—special-forces boots, intelligence boots, trainer boots. American opinion could change if soldiers start getting hurt or killed, especially months from now, when the horrific images of those beheadings fade from memory. In any case, Americans are notably uninterested in sustaining long campaigns against even atrocious enemies.
The second obstacle is that the U.S. has no effective allies on the ground. An air campaign can achieve a great deal, but the campaign Obama is envisioning—slow and steady, rather than shock and awe—has the disadvantage of giving ISIS time to dig in. The U.S. will be counting on a dysfunctional Iraqi army; intermittently effective Kurdish guerrillas; Sunni tribes of dubious loyalty; and, of course, the Free Syrian Army—the force that Obama has spent three years disparaging as a collection of farmers and carpenters and engineers—to do the hard work of rooting ISIS out of presumably fortified towns and cities. Much of what Obama is promising in this ramped-up campaign is help for these outfits, but the U.S. has spent a dozen years training the Iraqi army, with negligible results.
Obama faces many other difficulties in this campaign. One of them is the quality of (so-called) U.S. allies such as Qatar, which plays every side of this conflict; and Turkey, which won’t even seal the border crossings across which would-be European jihadists travel on their way to ISIS recruitment stations. (This is not even to mention some of America’s European allies, who have provided millions of dollars in ransom to the ISIS treasury in exchange for their kidnapped citizens.) Another problem: End games are nearly impossible to envision at the moment, either in politically combustible Iraq, or in a collapsed Syria. Put another way, it is easier see the slippery slope than the exit door. Then there is a problem that recurs time and again in the Middle East: Will U.S. escalation against ISIS serve as a recruiting tool for the group? What will the U.S. do if ISIS terrorists launch successful attacks against American targets, either in the Middle East, Europe, or even at home? Further escalation will surely follow, but to what end? Without effective allies on the ground, fighting this fight on behalf of the U.S. and the civilized world, wouldn’t the U.S. have to eventually insert its own troops?
These questions are not meant to suggest that the underlying moral and national security case for an anti-ISIS campaign is unsound. It would not be tenable for the U.S. and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East. Our reluctant (or clear-eyed—take your pick) president understands this. What Americans will see on Wednesday night is a president who has convinced himself that this is a fight worth waging, despite his bone-deep desire to escape the morass of the Middle East.
The president is a superior terrorist hunter. He has also neutralized a profound existential threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, and denied ISIS access to vast storehouses of deadly chemical weapons. So why does he get no credit?
Here are five observations about President Obama’s frustrating and largely hapless encounter with the Middle East:
1) Inaction has its consequences, just as action has its consequences;
2) Just because you’re not interested in the Middle East doesn’t mean the Middle East isn’t interested in you;
3) Chaos and collapse in the Middle East cannot be solely, or even (perhaps) mainly, attributed to the mistaken or ill-conceived ideas, goals, speeches, and strategies of American presidents;
4) Obama, more than other presidents, gets no credit for his concrete accomplishments in the Middle East;
5) Obama’s presidency will be judged a failure in the realm of national security if al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups are still able to maintain significant safe havens across the greater Middle East when he leaves the White House in January of 2017, and if Iran remains on a path to the nuclear threshold.
I’m sure you’re fascinated by Observation Number Five in particular, but I also know that you are asking yourselves, “Just what are the concrete accomplishments of which you speak?” Washington has reached a consensus view that Obama has been hesitant, contradictory, and flinching on a range of issues related to the Middle East. It is true that his rhetoric has not often matched his strategy (see Peter Baker’s story on the disconnect between some of Obama's reassuring statements on the Middle East and the dispiriting reality of the place, and Richard Haass’s comments on Administration promises); it is true that early reports suggest that the strategy he is unveiling to counter ISIS seems limited and evolutionary; and it also true, as Ron Fournier, and others, note, that Obama has a tendency to tell America’s enemies what he won’t do to them, rather than what he will do.
Here are two things that are also true: Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency; and his successful push to disarm the Assad regime of the bulk of its chemical-weapons stockpiles has removed from the Middle East, and beyond, the possibility of an unparalleled cataclysm.
Why does he get no credit for these achievements? He gets no acclaim as a terrorist hunter for two reasons. First, Republicans will not credit him with any achievements in this endeavor because they won’t credit him with any achievement ever, for anything. He could concoct a cure for Ebola in Sam Kass’s kitchen and conservatives would criticize him for wasting time on a disease that doesn’t affect Americans. Second, the left-leaning Democratic Party base is hesitant to tout his record in the terrorist-killing department because it is uncomfortable with the idea of their president as a drone-deploying killer. No love from the right or left means that attacks such as the one that eliminated the head of Somalia’s terrifying al-Shabab militant group received relatively little notice. But I think the record will show that Obama has focused U.S. efforts on combating al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-like groups in at least half a dozen countries in a way that his predecessor did not. (And as for his predecessor’s predecessor, well, he did virtually nothing to stop al-Qaeda from metastasizing into what it became by September 11, 2001.)
On the second issue—the safe removal, and subsequent destruction aboard a U.S. Navy ship, of 1,300 tons of chemical agents from the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region in the world—Obama gets no credit in part because of the awkward and stutter-step manner in which the removal was originally negotiated, and also because it is not in the nature of humans to credit a leader for averting a theoretical catastrophe.
But the catastrophe averted here was plausible, even predictable. Just answer the following question: As the U.S. moves closer to open confrontation with ISIS inside Syria, is it a good thing that ISIS, and like-minded groups, and the regime itself, have no access to vast storehouses of chemical agents?
I did not think it was possible to remove the bulk of Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile in conditions of war, and I did not think Assad would agree to part with any significant portion of his stockpile, which, of course, represented his ultimate regime-preservation weapon.
On the one hand, it would have been emotionally satisfying—ephemerally, at least—to see Obama enforce his self-drawn red line by bombing Assad’s palace. But bombing Assad’s palace, or other regime facilities, would not have led to the removal of his stockpile. There are consequences to Obama’s last-minute about-face on the subject of airstrikes, though I find implausible the idea that Vladimir Putin would not be doing what he is doing if Obama had appeared tougher on Syria.
The truth is that Assad gave up his chemical weapons in good measure because he saw Obama’s threat of airstrikes as credible. The U.S. still has the ability to deter.
And what does the world get out of the removal of these chemical agents? Here is Laura Holgate, the senior director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council: “By having these 1,300 tons out of there, we’ve massively simplified the remaining challenges of the ongoing conflict. We’ve just removed an ‘x’ factor.”
The regime continues to use chlorine gas intermittently against civilians, and it is widely believed to have held back at least a small portion of its stockpile of other agents and precursors. But the bulk of the stockpile is gone, and with it, the threat it posed to such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, and the fear that sophisticated jihadist groups could lay their hands on these chemicals.
Holgate told me that “the existential threat these Syrian chemical weapons posed to Israel is gone. Period. It’s out of the country.” She went on to say, “That doesn’t mean that there are not discrepancies that remain, and we’re in constant conversation with Israel about that. We both believe that there are things that are undeclared, but nothing to the point of being an existential threat. Israel has stopped distributing gas masks to the population. What does it mean not to distribute gas masks? That’s a signal to the population.”
Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, called the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles a “big deal,” and then went on to say that it is “even bigger if you consider the most probable counter-factual: Had we bombed a limited number of sites, as planned and advocated for by all the ‘authorities,’ what are the odds that additional chemical-weapons attacks would have happened? Ninety-nine-plus percent.”
He went on to make the sobering point that “an international order that excludes killing with chemical weapons is not nirvana, but it is a much better world than one in which Assad and the folks fighting him are also using chemical weapons.”
I’ve been critical of Obama’s hesitation to take a more active role in shaping the Syrian opposition (in the debate between Hillary Clinton and the president on this subject—some of which appeared in this space a month ago—I lean toward Hillary’s view that the U.S. could have done more to help Syrian rebels early on, before the revolution was hijacked by jihadists), but it only seems fair to acknowledge that Obama achieved something important and tangible in his effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
As I mentioned above, Obama will ultimately be judged on whether he combats jihadism successfully (without, it should be said, forming an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or even the Assad regime itself, in the process). He was first voted into power in part by promising to refocus America’s attention on Sunni jihadism. But by removing a deadly ‘x’ factor from the equation, he has done the world a service that ought to be acknowledged.
Shortly after I posted my interview with Hillary Clinton last month, I began hearing from liberal Democrats who were worried that her hawkish comments—on Syria, but especially on the Gaza war—would somehow provoke a primary challenge from her left (these conversations proceeded from the assumption that Clinton is running for president, which is a reasonable assumption). The Democratic Party base, the theory went, would be so offended by Clinton’s vociferous pro-Netanyahu positioning that it would agitate on behalf of a primary challenge. Elizabeth Warren, the populist Massachusetts senator, was the most likely candidate for the role.
As a reminder, here is some of what Clinton said about Israel and Gaza:
Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.
If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.
Tough stuff, and not the sort of thing you would have heard from her publicly when she was yelling at Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of President Obama for the past several years. After the interview, I came to a few conclusions about these statements:
They were made on purpose, as was every statement she made in the interview, including the line that got the most attention: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
They were made with the knowledge that she faces no serious foreign policy-focused challenge from her left. She does face a more serious and sustained critique from the left on domestic issues, but she felt that going hawkish on foreign policy would be low-risk.
They were made with knowledge that there are segments of the pro-Israel community that still mistrust her for kissing Mrs. Arafat a million years ago.
She believes what she said. She is just naturally more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state.
I’m now glad to report—only because I’d rather be right than wrong, all things being equal—that Elizabeth Warren has confirmed for us that, on questions related to Israel, Clinton has nothing to fear from her, at least.
At a town-hall meeting on Cape Cod last month, Warren answered critics of her vote in favor of a Senate measure to send an additional $225 million in military funding to Israel during the war. Here is a report on the town-hall meeting from the Cape Cod Times:
“I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," [Warren] said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel ‘indiscriminately,’ but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants.”
“But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.
Even if Elizabeth Warren chooses to run (unlikely), she won’t run as a tough-on-Israel liberal. There's just no percentage in it. Hillary knew what she was doing.
Michael Totten remembers Steven Sotloff, who was part of a roving band of very brave reporters covering hard wars in a new and terrible age. After the very brave and very smart (and very risk-aware) Danny Pearl was beheaded, I used to argue to colleagues that his death was the exception that proved the rule: Most terrorist groups still wanted reporters to carry their message to the world, or so we told ourselves in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. No more: The exception is no longer exceptional. The murder is the message.
Totten, a very brave reporter himself, just posted a remembrance of Steven Sotloff. Here is part of it:
When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way.
Maybe that's just a trick of the mind. Those of us who insert ourselves into war zones figure out ways to cope with anxiety and get it to drop nearly to zero. The human mind is extremely adaptable, and it’s easier to neutralize fear when it’s faced voluntarily. That’s why I felt calm in Baghdad most of the time. It’s also why exposure therapy works.
Steven was brave and unlucky, but he was not stupid. He knew how risky going to Syria was and, according to Ben Taub, he planned to take a hiatus from this nasty business after one final trip and possibly apply to graduate school in Florida.
The Islamic State took that from him, and they took him from us.
(Updated below, with odd statement from prosecutor)
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:
A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace's Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, according to news reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.
Here is part of a breathless, law enforcement-friendly report from WBOC, which describes itself as "Delmarva's News Leader":
He's a man with many names, and the books he has written have raised the concerns of the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office.
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.
Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."
Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.
Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace's Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
Imagine that—a novelist who didn't store bombs and guns at the school at which he taught. How improbable! Especially considering that he uses an "alias," which is apparently the law-enforcement term for "nom de plume." (Here is the Amazon page for The Insurrectionist, by the way. Please note that the book was published in 2011, before McLaw was hired.)
According to an equally credulous and breathless report in the Star-Democrat, which is published in Easton, Maryland, the combined efforts of multiple law-enforcement agencies have made area children safe from fiction. Sheriff Phillips told the newspaper that, in addition to a K-9 sweep of the school (!), investigators also raided McLaw's home. "The residence of the teacher in Wicomico County was searched by personnel,” Phillips said, with no weapons found. “A further check of Maryland State Police databases also proved to be negative as to any weapons registered to him. McLaw was suspended by the Dorchester County Board of Education pending an investigation and is no longer in the area. He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere.”
I've tried to reach the sheriff, so far unsuccessfully, to learn whether McLaw's "inability to travel anywhere" means that he is under arrest. It is somewhat amazing that local news reports on this case don't make clear whether McLaw is under arrest, and if so, on what charge. It is equally astonishing that the reporters on this story don't seem to have used the words "First Amendment" in their questioning of law-enforcement officials, and also astonishing they don't question the Soviet-sounding practice of ordering an apparently sane person who has been deemed unacceptable by state authorities to undergo a psychological evaluation.
It would be useful to know if McLaw is under investigation for behavior other than writing two novels—and perhaps he will be shown to be a miscreant of some sort—but so far, there is no indication that he is guilty of anything other than having an imagination, although on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as news reports make clear, his imagination is considered an active threat.
Dorchester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henry Wagner told WBO that police will be present at the middle school "for as long as we deem it necessary," and the sheriff said that law-enforcement officials across the Delmarva peninsula have been given McLaw's photo in case he shows up in their jurisdictions—though again, it is not clear if he is, in fact, in police custody at the moment.
If law-enforcement authorities in Dorchester County have additional information that implicates McLaw in a crime, or in the planning of a crime, it is imperative that they release it immediately. As it stands now, they appear to be violating the constitutional rights of a citizen, and also, by the way, teaching the children of their county something awful about the power of fear over reason.
UPDATE (September 2, 2:51 p.m.): According to The Los Angeles Times, a law enforcement official is saying that McLaw drew the attention of authorities not because of his books, but because of a "a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County." The report goes on to say, "Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities."
The story goes on to state, "McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."
I'm glad local authorities are releasing more information about McLaw, but these are the same authorities who last week told the press that McLaw was removed from his job because he wrote novels about a school shooting under a pseudonym (see, for instance, this CBS story: "Police: Md. Teacher Placed on Leave for Authoring Fictional Book of the ‘Largest School Massacre"). I've been trying to get the sheriff of Dorchester County on the phone, to no avail. It would be useful at this point for the authorities to get their story straight.
UPDATE II (September 2, 5:37 p.m.)
I just got off the phone with Matthew A. Maciarello, the state's attorney for Wicomico County, Md., where McLaw lives -- he taught in Dorchester County, which responded to his various troubles by sending K-9 units through the schools in search of bombs and guns. Maciarello told me that the issues here have less to do with McLaw's books and the overall state of his mental health. When I asked him if Dorchester authorities led the press -- and public -- to believe that McLaw was being removed from his job because of the books he had written, Maciarello said, "We have a different way in Wicomico County. I can't speak for Dorchester." (The Dorchester sheriff has not returned my phone calls seeking comment.)
"From our perspective, this was more about a health concern about Mr. McLaw than about a security issue," Maciarello said. Authorities grew concerned about McLaw after he sent a "four-page letter" to a school administrator over the summer. According to Maciarello, the letter contained no threats against schools or school personnel, but that it indicated that McLaw was not mentally sound. "Health care professionals were concerned, he was in a relationship that had just come to an end, he was talking about his mother as being overbearing, there was some thought that he could be a threat to himself." Based on the "totality of the circumstances," Maciarello said, McLaw was involuntarily committed for evaluation. Among those circumstances: Authorities said that McLaw had built a model of a school building in his home, and had asked an administrator to move classrooms, to one near the "point of ingress and egress" of the school.
Yes, I too was underwhelmed by that response. I asked Maciarello if the novels McLaw had self-published had been a factor in county decision-making: "The books are a factor," he said. "You cannot consider the total picture without knowing that he had this book, this other writing. This was very concerning to the administrators. It's 2014 -- you can't have a person who has mental issues, someone who's complaining about his mother, complaining about teachers -- it's all taken into totality. It was a very restrained response, actually. We didn't freak-out because of the books. The main impetus was the four-page letter. It was just out there, you know, it wasn't something you give to your employer. To quote our health officer, it was a cry for help." One other thing: "He had some Columbine material at his house."
I asked for specifics. He said the "Columbine material" consisted of a report on the infamous Colorado school shooting. It could have been meant for research for his novels, I suggested.
"Absolutely, that could be true. We played all the angles on that. You can't just dismiss every little thing in a situation like this, in 2014." He went on to say, "If someone wrote a novel about school shootings it wouldn't concern me. I person is allowed to follow their pursuits. I love fiction. I love expression. But some citizens did react to this, there were citizen complaints based on the book, but this wasn't an overreaction. If you add this to the model of a school that he was building -- is this a tortured artist, or is this someone obsessed about schools? But I don't know how this story got out there that he was placed on leave because of these books. The main concern here is therapeutic, that he gets the help he needs."
So I told Mrs. Goldblog last week that I had a revelation.
“Did you find Jesus?” she asked.
No, not quite that big, I said.
My revelation concerned German automobiles, I said. Specifically, it has been revealed to me that it is now theoretically possible for us, as a Jewish family, to buy a BMW. The chains of belief and sentiment and psychic unease that have kept me from making such a purchase have been sundered.
Mrs. Goldblog immediately registered her dissent, though she understood the source of my volte-face: It was the result of a visit we had just made to a dormant Icelandic volcano.
I will explain the Iceland link in a moment (and as a bonus, I will also include a gratuitous Leibovichian “This Town” moment) but first, some background on my longstanding boycott of German cars. Like many Jews, I have found the idea of associating myself in an ostentatious, or at least highly visible, way with German automobiles somewhat ethnically discrediting, and vaguely nausea-inducing. German industry was deeply complicit in the work of the Nazis, and I felt that putting some distance between my family and the Mercedes/BMW/Volkswagen combine (especially Volkswagen) was a way of honoring the memory of the Jews murdered by the Germans. My boycott doesn’t extend to German coffeemakers, or to Lufthansa (though its seats are very uncomfortable), or to visiting Germany itself. Why, some of my best friends are German! (Actually that’s not true, but not for any political reason. I just don’t know a lot of Germans.)
My boycott has targeted cars only. Many Jews, of course, don’t participate in this unofficial boycott (proof that it is only partially honored can be found in my synagogue’s parking lot on Rosh Hashanah) and I have recognized for a long while that this boycott is not rational, or rooted in smart policy thinking.
The first time I visited Israel, I was surprised to see a large number of German cars on its roads. Most taxis are German, and many trucks as well. This is the vestigial byproduct of the reparations paid to Israel, and to Shoah survivors living in Israel, by Germany. I’m guessing that many American Jews who see these vehicles in Israel are at first shocked, and then discomfited, and then find themselves accepting this strange post-World War II reality. I know a couple of people who bought German cars only after visiting Israel. (By the way, for an interesting discussion of German reparations, please see Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, toward the end of his important article on the issue of reparations for African-Americans.)
There’s an even deeper and highly symbolic connection between German industry and Israel—one of potentially world-historical importance—that has helped move my thinking on this subject, and that is the make-up of Israel’s submarine fleet. At this moment, nuclear-armed Israeli submarines are patrolling the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran, making sure that the regime in Tehran understands the second-strike consequences of threatening Israel’s existence. The first two Dolphin-class diesel submarines in Israel’s fleet were gifts from Germany, made in the days following the first Gulf War. (German companies had been identified as having sold chemical-weapons precursors to Saddam Hussein’s regime—a very embarrassing development.) Two more were subsequently purchased, and a fifth is on its way.
The point is, if German submarines are good enough for the Israeli Navy, they should be good enough for a Shoah-haunted American Jew.
Still, I was ambivalent on the subject, until last week.
My family and I were in Iceland on vacation (very beautiful, very expensive, very wet) and we decided to visit a dormant volcano called Thrihnukagigur (no, I can’t say it, or anything else in Icelandic). This is the only volcano in the world, we were told by Iceland government propagandists, that can actually be explored from the inside. (For whatever reason, when Thrihnukagigur stopped erupting roughly 4,500 years ago, its magma chamber didn’t collapse on itself, perhaps in anticipation of future tourism revenue.)
There is talk about blowing a hole in the side of the volcano, which would allow easy access to the cathedral-like chamber. A rude, bad idea that I hope does not come to pass. For now, the only way inside is to be lowered down the throat of the volcano through a narrow vent at its peak. A few years ago, a group of clever people decided that a window-cleaner’s basket, connected to a pulley system rigged to a prone crane stretched across the volcano’s mouth, would represent an efficient way to deliver visitors to the floor of the empty magma chamber.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept. In particular, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of sending my children into a dormant (not, it should be noted, extinct, but merely dormant) volcano in a window-washer’s basket. Thrihnukagigur is not Bardarbunga, the volcano that is currently rumbling under Iceland's largest ice cap, but it ain't beanbag either.
On the three-mile walk to the volcano—through a desolate and lovely lava field—I asked a guide to explain the volcano elevator in detail. She said the process is simple: We strap you into a harness, and then you walk across a plank over the mouth of the volcano to the window-washer’s basket. You climb down into the basket (it holds six people) and then the basket motorman lowers you 400 feet to the floor of the volcano.
Does it ever break? I asked.
No, she said. “It’s a German engine. Very reliable.”
A German engine! They weren’t screwing around at this volcano! I was about to entrust the lives of my children to a window-washer’s basket dangling over the mouth of a volcano, and I was beyond pleased to learn that this machine was German. To my surprise, "German engine" brought to mind at that moment happy images of fastidious Bavarians in white coveralls, instead of the usual, which is to say, Himmler.
This is the moment I told myself that my boycott might have reached its natural conclusion. I was ready for a push anyway, but now, since the words “German engine” were filling me with hope and relief, then perhaps the car I use to transport my children should be powered by one.
The engine worked as promised, the basket was lowered successfully into the cold, empty chamber—which is beautiful and awe-inspiring and freezing—and more important, the basket brought us up 45 minutes later. It was actually quite thrilling, but there was no one to talk to about it on the long, lonely walk back through the lava field (I’m one of those people who overshares putatively interesting travel experiences with strangers—good luck sitting next to me on a long flight). Luckily, midway through the walk, a small group of tourists appeared in the distance—the next wave of volcano virgins. We were on a narrow path, and as the line of tourists passed us, I scanned their faces, looking for someone who might want to hear my excitement. Luckily, I found one.
“Mike Froman?” I said. One of the tourists was United States Trade Representative Mike Froman. That’s what I said to my kids—“Kids, it’s United States Trade Representative Mike Froman.” Mike was surprised to see me as well, because we were in a lava field in Iceland. No place is safe from the press.
When we got back to Reykjavik, I said to my wife, “Mike Froman, huh?" And then I said, "I was very glad it was a German engine. Weren’t you?”
“It’s funny. I was so happy that our Jewish children were going to be protected by a German engine. How’s that for irony?”
“Ironic,” she said, not ceding an inch.
I have two missions before me: Convince her that the boycott is over, and then find a way to actually pay for a BMW.
I’m hoping that United States Trade Representative Mike Froman might be able to help me find a deal.
On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.)
On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.
But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)
After a good deal of publicity following the incident, Sainsbury’s apologized to its Jewish customers. “This will not happen again,” its corporate-affairs director, Trevor Datsun, said, according to The Jewish Chronicle. “Managers will be told not to move kosher food because of some perceived threat.”
To the extent that it suggests that Israel and Judaism have been thoroughly conflated in the minds of many Europeans, the Sainsbury's kosher controversy is similar to other recent incidents. Kosher products—in the case of the Sainsbury’s branch in question, some apparently from the U.K. and Poland—were intuitively understood to be stand-ins for Israel itself, just as French Jewish males wearing kippot were understood by their attackers to be stand-ins for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
We have learned a number of unfortunate truths about the nature of the global anti-Israel movement this summer. One is that the war in Gaza is understood by many to be a continuation of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and not of the 1967 Six Day War. Which is to say, many protesters are challenging Israel’s very right to exist, not its policies in the territories it came to occupy in 1967 (or in Gaza’s case, territory it occupied in 1967 and then turned over to Palestinians in 2005). A second is that the line separating anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in at least part of their ancestral homeland—and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished.
And yet, the Sainsbury’s incident is disturbing not so much for what it says about the nature of European anti-Israelism, but for what it says about the broader response within Europe to forces of intolerance and hatred. Employees of the Sainsbury’s branch in central London seemed to have understood, based on an accurate reading of recent events, that anti-Israel activists posed a threat to their store, and perhaps to their own physical well-being. And so the manager made a decision to surrender to the mob and engage in what could only be called an act of self-preservational, but objectively anti-Semitic, preemption.
Cowering of this sort is a sign that a country is losing the ability to stand for the values it professes to maintain. In the U.K., it is also a sign that a society hasn’t fully grappled with the radical intolerance exhibited by some of its citizens.
The Sainsbury's incident happened in the same city in which recruiters for Islamic State, the too-radical-for-al-Qaeda group that executed American photojournalist James Foley, have been seen openly passing out propaganda. It happened in the same place where what appeared to be a jihadist flag flew outside a housing estate. As many as 1,500 Britons are apparently fighting for Islamic State's cause. There are said to be more British Muslims fighting on behalf of Islamic State than for the U.K.'s military. Foley’s executioner, currently the world’s most infamous terrorist, is widely believed to be a British subject.
Let me be clear—I am not equating street thugs who attempt to physically intimidate supermarkets into boycotting Israeli goods with the terrorists of Islamic State. I am not even equating the Muslim men who scream “Jews to the gas” with the terrorists of Islamic State. But I am arguing that there exists in Europe a continuum of prejudice, and that, on occasion, the U.K., like so many other European nations, has forgotten how important it is to be intolerant of intolerance.