Friday, June 26, 2015

Eighteen Years an Ex-Pat: What You See From Here, You Can't See From There

Leverage: How U.S. Presidents Use the American Jewish Community to Pressure Israel

A case study of the US-​American Jewish-​Israel triad by Elliot Jager

Decades ago policymakers realized that they could not force Israel back to the '49 lines if the American Jewish community stood in the way. It would just be too messy.

Available exclusively via Amazon on Kindle.


When I left New York City on June 23, 1997 for Israel, the World Trade Center dominated lower Manhattan's skyline.  I had not yet gotten around to visiting the south tower's observation deck.

Rudy Giuliani was mayor, George Pataki was New York's governor, and Bill Clinton was in the White House. I was not enamored with any of them.

The Long War had begun, but most Americans didn't know it. The 1995 bombing by right-wing fanatics of the Oklahoma City Federal Building which left 168 Americans dead had largely displaced memories of the comparatively less lethal 1993 truck-bombing of the WTC by Islamist terrorists.

Only later would it become possible to  connect the 1990 assassination in New York City of Jewish militant Meir Kahane with the perpetrators of both the first and the September 11, 2001 attacks.  

When I left, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich sat astride Capitol Hill. Monica Lewinsky was unknown. By December 1998, I watched from Israel as a partisan House moved to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his sexual peccadilloes. Gingrich was already gone, owing to the GOP's poor showing in the November midterm elections.

I was already in Israel a full year when the intelligence community made tracking a Yemeni-born Saudi named Osama bin Laden its top priority. It had connected him to the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Later, I watched from afar as Texas governor George W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 2001. America seemed exponentially more polarized than it had been when George H. W. Bush vacated the White House in 1993 for Clinton.

Being a news junky I worried about how I would keep track of all that was going on in my Old Country. Copies of the International Herald Tribune arrived in Tel Aviv seldom less than two days old. Fortunately, there was the BBC World Service for breaking news.

Internet outlets were in their infancy; modems were of the dial-up variety. Yahoo was around. Google only came into existence in 1998. There was no social media. Many of my friends back in New York had no home email.

The Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu was in his first term when I moved to Israel. He would be ousted by Ehud Barak's Labor Party in 1999. I landed in a country that was still riven by Yitzhak Rabin's assassination two years earlier at the hands of Yigal Amir. The dovish camp had appropriated what was a national tragedy to push an accommodationist agenda in a peace process that Rabin himself probably wouldn't have  embraced.

Hamas, founded in 1987, the violent offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, slaughtered its way onto the front pages after the 1993 Oslo Accords that Rabin signed with Yasser Arafat. 

The PLO leadership had been practically airlifted from Tunisia to the West Bank where Israel helped establish the Palestinian Authority. Hamas denounced Arafat for going wobbly on Israel. The PLO chief insisted that his embrace of negotiations was an astute tactic – that his strategy remained the destruction of Israel, albeit, in stages.

Meantime, I was trying to acclimate – learning modern Hebrew, deciding where to live, and growing anxious about work. Israel's cost of living was nearly New York-like, but the salaries, decidedly, weren't.

I'd assumed that Israelis shared the bourgeois values of American Jews – only that they spoke Hebrew.

I'd been willfully ignorant of the chasm between secular and Orthodox Israelis. In New York, I barley paid attention to the political and theological permutations within Israel's body politic. At the end of the day, weren't Israelis all in the same boat? Soon I discovered that secular Israelis were often illiterate about Jewish civilization, and ultra-Orthodox Israelis were mired in an insularity that was incompatible with civic duty in the 21st century.

Israelis generally detested the established Orthodox "church" yet the synagogue they didn't attend was Orthodox. Progressive streams like Reform and Conservative struck them as inauthentic.

Over the past 18 years, I found myself abandoning ideological and theological certainties. I arrived opposing a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. I changed my mind during the second intifada when Ariel Sharon seemed to embrace the idea. I backed the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Nowadays, I think that a pullback to any approximation of the 1949 Armistice Lines, to make space for a Palestinian state, would be wildly reckless.

"When the facts change, I change my mind," said John Maynard Keynes. Me too.

There are things I can see about Israel's predicament that its American friends-cum-detractors can't from 6,000 miles away. By the same token, I have a perspective on American politics that those caught up in its ruthless 24/7 views-cycle may be missing.

One thing hasn't changed. The fate of my birth country and that of my ancestral homeland remain coupled. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Snowden, Fabius, Putin, and Wikileaks: Cui Bono

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has called-in Jane Hartley, the American ambassador to the Quai d'Orsay, in response to media reports— citing Wikileaks— that the National Security Agency kept successive French presidents under surveillance,  The Wall Street Journal reported.

Wikileaks-released material shows that the NSA tracked former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac as well as President Francois Hollande who has been in office since May 2012.

Six documents disseminated by Wikileaks appear to be sourced in confidential data purloined by Edward Snowden, the renegade NSA contractor now based in Moscow. 

The NSA had previously been shown to have conducted surveillance on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Wikileaks noted.

Hollande's office put out a statement which said that "France will not tolerate any acts that compromise its security and the safeguarding of its interests."

A White House spokesman said that the U.S. does "not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose" and that the policy "applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike."

Some of the alleged eavesdropping related to discussions about French-German relations and Greece's economic collapse and took place between 2006 and 2012, according to the Journal.

Hollande plans to parlay with key lawmakers to discuss the Wikileaks material, the AP reported.

A Wikileaks press statement quoted Julian Assange as saying, "We are proud of our work with leading French publishers Liberation and Mediapart to bring this story to light."

Assange has been holed up in the Embassy of Ecuador in London for some three years. He is avoiding extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning regarding accusations that he assaulted two women in 2010.

Ecuador, led by left-wing populist president Rafael Correa, is a key Wikileaks supporter. 

Under Correa, Ecuador also recently opened a Ramallah-based embassy in "Palestine."  In a separate incident, to a political opponent who called him a "fascist," Correa offhandedly tweeted "Heil Hitler."

While some 4,000 Jews found refuge in Ecuador during the Second World War, fewer than now 300 Jews remain in the country.

Snowden's leaks have played into the hands of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. They sow division within Europe and between Europe and the U.S., according to German analyst Josef Joffe, writing in the Journal

To maintain his bona fides and avoid being dismissed as a Moscow stooge, Snowden has lately leveled mild criticism of Putin. 

Max Boot, writing in Commentary speculated-- reasonably to my mind--
that it is likely Snowden's living expenses are being picked up by the Kremlin.

There is little question that Snowden's "whistleblowing" has mostly served Russian interests. A search of Wikileaks for any negative reporting on Putin comes up empty.

While Snowden's revelations exposed intrusive metadata gathering and possibly violations of civil liberties, they may have also undermined efforts to track Islamist terrorists. According to analyst Max Hastings, "Some small loss of privacy seems a fair price to pay for defense against the fanatics, who have already shed innocent blood enough."

Further reading:

Monday, June 22, 2015

Paris & Amsterdam – Random Impressions

One of the pleasures of traveling for me is returning home feeling glad that I'm back. But also feeling that I've learned something about the places I visited.

We are just back in Israel after five days in Amsterdam and another five in Paris.

We encountered two very different Jewish communities.

From a Jewish perspective, Paris is at once vibrant and moribund. There are over 300,000 Jews living in France. Some claim there are 500,000. On our final day, we had to wait for a seat in a kosher dairy restaurant during the lunch hour rush. There must have been 75-110 people inside; the place was buzzing.

At the imposing Grande Synagogue de Paris, where we davened on a Thursday morning and over Shabbat, security was airport-like intense. At the Thursday service it took 45 minutes until a minyan of 10 men could be gathered. On Shabbat the decorous and better attended service includes a choir.

Jacques Canet, the synagogue's genial president told us that after the January terror attacks authorities had asked Jewish leaders to cancel Saturday services. The community responded that if they were able to maintain services during the Vichy era they were not about to go into hiding now.

We spoke with some young people over Friday night dinner (also at the synagogue) and none saw much of a future for themselves in France. One spoke of moving to LA where his Persian family is concentrated.

Hundreds (probably thousands) of Jews who can (financially) leave France are doing so or making plans to do so or doing some on a part-time basis. Anecdotally, I can say that we've never heard so much French spoken in our neighborhood as we have in the past year. 

Over 1,000 Jews made aliya in the past year from France.

We found it helpful to speak in Hebrew (rather than English) at many Jewish restaurants and shops.

France, like so much of Europe, loves it's dead Jews. 

The Holocaust memorial (an imposing museum with an attached book shop) was protected by heavily-armed militia and police. Plaques on the museum's parameter wall, along the Allee Des Justes, are filled with the names of hundreds of Parisian gentiles who helped save Jews during the Second World War.

Opposite the museum is another plaque memorializing 11,000 Jewish pupils who were rounded up by the Vichy authorities (French collaborators with the Nazis) in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.

We were told not to miss the Islamic Center because of its interesting architecture. 

What we found at the entrance was a sign promoting "Palestine" – a reminder that Arab and Muslim mobilization against Israel is ubiquitous, worldwide, and unrelenting. 

A huge poster adorning the outside wall of the Islamic Center commemorating the protest against the January 2015 Islamist terrorists attacks. Israel's Premier Benjamin Netanyahu is airbrushed out of the photograph.

Those willing to pay the price of admission can see an exhibit on the Jews of the Middle East. It is unlikely the display notes that—in the best of times under Muslim rule, Jews were considered Dhimmi or second class non-citizens.

France has the second-largest Muslim population in Europe (behind Germany) with 4.7 million people or 7.5 percent of the population.

We very much enjoyed the Musée d'Orsay which contains a treasure of impressionist paintings. The structure is a converted a Beaux-Arts railway station constructed around 1898.

The Louvre Museum was overwhelming; more a circus and spectacle than a chance to contemplate great art. Still, there was plenty of great art and artifacts to see amidst the throngs of fellow tourists. From the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1754 BCE) 

 to Leonardo da Vinci's  Mona Lisa (circa 1503).

It may be that the museum does not like visitors from the Jewish state – but if you keep a low profile, and they don't know you are Israeli you can enjoy your visit just like anyone else.

Paris is a metropolis. Great Metro (endless warnings to watch out for pickpockets). Not many New York-like towering skyscrapers but heavy traffic and (very) occasionally menacing denizens.

Seemingly, people are constantly smoking outside stores and offices. Questions abound. How is it that Parisians are continually eating yet stay skinny? Why do Japanese & Chinese tourists line up to buy designer products most likely manufactured somewhere in Asia. 

Le Marais, the lower east side of Paris was bustling, mostly with non-Jewish tourists and young people. There were lots of kosher and kosher-style eateries and almost no security. The Chez Jo Goldenberg restaurant which was bombed by Palestinian Arab terrorists in August 1982 is now a clothes store.

We also traveled by railroad to visit an elderly relation in a once predominantly Jewish suburb. She told us that her synagogue still held regular services. Perhaps. Though from the railroad platform, on the way back to Paris center, it was the golden dome of the neighborhood's mosque that was visible.

AMSTERDAM'S COMMUNITY seems more at peace with its diminished prospects and circumstances.

There are something like 30,000 Jews in the country. Maybe at a stretch 0.3 percent of the population.

There are perhaps three Jewish neighborhoods in Amsterdam. One outlying area can be considered Jewishly self-sufficient.

Fewer kosher eateries (in stark contrast to Paris) but lots of good vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

We visited the historic (circa 1675) Portuguese synagogue several times.

It is near the Jewish museum and other Jewish heritage sites. 

Also worth a visit if you have never been is Anne Frank House (get your tickets in advance). It is said to be the second most popular tourist attractions. 

Don't miss the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt) and the Stedelijk Museum of modern art which has a special exhibit on Matisse this summer. 

Curiously, their book shop is loaded with anti-US (Chomsky), Marxist and pro-Arab (Said) books which don't have anything to do with the exhibited art. Go figure.

Suggestion: Buy the "I'm Amsterdam Card" as soon as you get into town at the visitor's center near the main train station. I'm told you can also purchase it at the airport. 

The card allows you to enter certain museums and gets you on public transportation. Swipe when boarding and de-boarding. Those of us from Jerusalem, where there is one tram line, can only marvel at Amsterdam's advanced tram system.

Amsterdam, though packed with tourists, the occasional beer lout, and a decided level of sleaze, is simultaneously quaint with picturesque canals and townhouses. It is walk-able (though watch out for the bicycles) & all around delightful. The city is in a good place right now – so this is the time to visit. Enjoy the parks. Tilt at a windmill.

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