10 Christmas horror movies to get you in the festive spirit

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas: eggnog lattes, mince pies, inappropriate kissing of work colleagues.

But nothing says Christmas like a Yuletide slasher movie, and there are more to choose from than you might think.

Mostly, this is due to the slasher boom of the early Eighties, when low-budget film-makers sliced and diced their way through every holiday imaginable.

Still, spooking moviegoers at Halloween or on Friday the 13th is fair game. Taking the most joyous festival of the year, one in which our hopes and prayers and fond childhood memories are invested, and making it sinister and creepy — now, that’s sick.

Yet the festive period is more susceptible to the horror treatment than might appear obvious. Christmas-themed slashers tap into our fear of being alone over the holidays, when everyone else seems to be snuggled up with family or significant others.

Loneliness and rejection are scary enough; add an axe-wielding Santa Claus to the mix and you’ve got yourself some genuine tinselled terror.

And when the plucky Final Girl turns the tables on the killer and beats him to death with a Yule log — what better symbol of the true meaning of Christmas? Hope, the triumph of good over evil, and body bags.

So, just to prove that your credit rating isn’t the only thing that gets massacred at this time of year, here are 10 festive frightfests to get you in the mood.

1. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

This Canadian-passing-for-American classic is the granddaddy of the slasher genre. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) may be the superior work of art but Bob Clark’s sorority-set scarer got there first. A house full of college girls is packing up to head home for the holidays but a deranged killer has other ideas, taunting them with obscene phone calls and picking them off one-by-one — and imaginatively; how many movies can boast a unicorn impalement scene? Innovative for aligning the audience with the killer’s POV, and featuring entertaining turns by John Saxon and an up-and-coming Margot Kidder (only she could pull off a dirty telephone exchange joke), Black Christmas never rises above B-movie schlock but its twisted kills and carol-scored thrills are more than enough.

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles Sellier, 1984)

When it was released in 1984, this Santa slasher was denounced by critics and family groups alike for its depiction of St. Nick as a brutal murderer. Three decades on, it’s easier to appreciate the movie’s cynical sense of humour and the scuzzy look of the ultra-cheap production only adds extra punch. Five-year-old Billy is mentally scarred after seeing his parents killed by a robber dressed as Santa Claus. He’s sent to live in a Catholic orphanage which, because this is Hollywood, is run by a sadistic mother superior who beats the notion that “punishment is good” into her young charge. Naturally, Billy is left somewhat funked up by all this and years later is pushed over the edge when his boss forces him to stand in as a store Santa at the last minute. Billy snaps and goes on a festive rampage, picking off his naughty list one by one until he reaches the now-frail mother superior. Four sequels, of rapidly declining quality, followed and were joined by a dumb-but-fun remake in 2012.

3. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

Also released in 1984, Gremlins is a snappily-paced horror-comedy about a teenager given a small, demonic creature as a Christmas present. As you do. The furry fiend begins to multiply until his owner has a small army of the creatures on his hands, and has to find a way to put their mayhem to an end.

4. P2 (Franck Khalfoun, 2007)

It’s like Die Hard in an office building. No, wait… Cat-and-mouse chiller P2 isn’t particularly original but it is packed with jumps and scares and lots of creepy little touches. Workaholic Rachel Nichols is the last person to leave her office on Christmas Eve but when she arrives at P2, the underground parking garage, she realises she’s been locked in. Rachel goes looking for security guard Wes Bentley but soon finds out that her confinement is not accidental. Can she survive the night against a stalker who has all the keys, all the CCTV cameras and knows every inch of the building? The highlight is Bentley as a homicidal obsessive with a twisted approach to romantic gestures.

5. Black Christmas (Glen Morgan, 2006)

This remake got a lump of coal in its stocking from most critics upon its release but it makes for a watchable update of the 1974 classic. Kristen Cloke and Katie Cassidy make a decent stab at bringing a pedestrian script to life and the sickness level is amped up way beyond anything the original dared to do.

6. Dead End (Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, 2003)

Proving that some things are even scarier than turkey with the in-laws, Dead End follows a family’s drive to visit relatives over Christmas which descends into the road trip from hell. Ray Wise stars as a father confronted by ghostly apparitions on a lonely stretch of backwoods road.

7. Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980)

One of the nastier entries on our list. Released four years before Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil hocks much the same premise. A kid witnesses a traumatic event involving Kris Kringle — he sees mommy doing a lot more than kissing Santa underneath the mistletoe, not realising it’s his father — and so naturally he grows up to become a serial killer in a Father Christmas costume. Working a minimum-wage job in a toy-making factory, he becomes convinced that he is Santa Claus and divides everyone he meets between his naughty and nice lists. So begins his Christmas Eve spree, complete with a massacre of parishioners leaving Midnight Mass. A little tasteless but worth checking out all the same.

8. Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

Three words: Killer. Snowman. Movie.

9. Don’t Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom, 1984)

Another Clausploitation flick from 1984, this time set in England and with a twist: Instead of dressing up as Santa and slaughtering people, the psychopath is slaughtering people dressed as Santa. That’s as original as it gets.

10. Wind Chill (Gregory Jacobs, 2007)

This indie horror offering starts out promisingly enough, with college student Emily Blunt slowly realising that her ride home for the holidays, Ashton Holmes, isn’t all he seems. There is an hour of solid stalker thriller in here but the movie leaves the road when it attempts to introduce an uninspired supernatural plot twist.

If you’ve had enough of those syrupy Hallmark Christmas movies and are looking for something a little darker, give a few of these flicks a try. And, for now: Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good fright!

Feature image © Inti by Creative Commons 2.0.

Song of Ascent

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation

By Yossi Klein Halevi
Harper, 608 pages

When the 18th World Zionist Congress met in Prague in August 1933, delegates were asked to choose an official anthem for the Jewish national movement.

The two main contenders were Naftali Herz Imber’s Hatikvah (“The Hope”) and Shir Hama’alot (“Song of Ascents”), an adaptation of Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.” Hatikvah’s secular yearning for freedom was favored over the psalm’s more overtly religious dream of divine intervention, but the latter retained a cherished place in religious Zionism for its promise of return and redemption.

It is apt that Yossi Klein Halevi should draw on the psalm of return for the title of his astonishing new book. Like Dreamers tells the improbable but true story of seven Israelis from very different backgrounds who, as reservists in the 55th Paratroopers Brigade during the Six-Day War, liberated the Western Wall and reunited Jerusalem, returning the Jewish people to its holiest sites. All the more remarkable is what happened after the war: Half of the paratroopers became settlers in the West Bank while the other half led the movement for the demolition of the settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.

These seven young men, from Israel’s rival kibbutz and settlement movements, were all dreamers, either of secular or religious dreams. One kibbutznik is a conceptual artist and studied outsider; a second is an aviation entrepreneur and free-market evangelist; a third is a musician dubbed “the Singing Paratrooper” for his war ballads; a fourth is an angry young Marxist who eventually betrays his country. Yoel Bin-Nun is the most fascinating of the three religious soldiers, spearheading the settler movement before becoming a critic of its excesses. The others are a journalist and founder of the settlers’ Yesha Council, and the first settler elected to the Knesset.

But before any of them became the men they would become, they had to pull off the victory that made their country what it is today. Halevi’s narrative finds them on the eve of hostilities in June 1967, with Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces amassed on Israel’s borders and Gamal Abdel Nasser promising the impending destruction of the Jewish state. Then, something remarkable happens. The tiny Jewish state launches a surprise attack, pre-empting its would-be assassins and devastating their armies. The war comes to be known by its duration—the Six-Day War—but the territorial victory is no less breathtaking. At the outbreak of war, Israel was at its narrowest point nine miles wide. By the cessation of hostilities, Israel holds the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The crowning achievement is the capture by the paratroopers of the Jordanian-held Old City of Jerusalem and with it the Western Wall and Temple Mount, the site of the Second Temple whose destruction marked the beginning of Jewish exile from the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, center of Jewish history and culture, was reunited and back in Jewish hands.

When the war ends, the men of the 55th Brigade attack peacetime Israel in radically different ways. Businessman Arik Achmon fights government bureaucracy and labor obstructionism in his mission to turn socialist Israel capitalist. Musician Meir Ariel struggles to find fame with a series of accomplished but commercially unviable albums before turning idiosyncratically to religious faith. Udi Adiv makes headlines for a different reason. The paratrooper who helped liberate Jerusalem shocks Israel by joining a Palestinian terror cell, betraying his country, and passing military information to Syria. (Later, Adiv made the somewhat less shocking move into academia.)

Like Dreamers is a historical portrait of the changes Israel underwent in the years that followed the Six-Day War, and how the men who helped secure that victory came to embody those shifts, or, as Halevi puts it, “how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” The socialist dreamers who settled Palestine pursued the dream of a collectivist utopia, embodied by the kibbutz:

The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world, and that seemed natural. The very existence of a sovereign Jewish state after two thousand years of homelessness defied the natural order, and so did the kibbutz. One utopian dream symbolized the other.

The kibbutzniks dominated the political establishment and the IDF and came to see themselves as the guardians of pioneering Zionism. They comprised four percent of Israel’s population in 1967 but represented a quarter of fatalities in the Six-Day War. However, that conflict changed not only Israel’s borders but also its political and social landscape. A new generation of Israelis, observant and nationalist, grew restless with the National Religious Party’s habit of shoring up left-wing governments hostile to the aims and ambitions of religious Zionism. Led by paratroopers Yoel Bin-Nun, Yisrael Harel, and Hanan Porat, this vanguard set about uprooting assumptions about left and right, showing Orthodox Jews that their aspirations could be realized through the political process while forcing secular Israel to accommodate the religious as part of the Zionist national story.

Ground zero for Bin-Nun was the area the world called “the West Bank” but which he, a student of Torah, knew to be the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, the mountainous heart of Eretz Yisrael. Bin-Nun formed Gush Emunim, “Bloc of the Faithful”, a campaign to settle the territories and ensure they could never be ceded to Israel’s enemies. Soon, communities were springing up across Judea and Samaria, often by stealth and despite government objections, and Bin-Nun hoped the left would come to accept the security benefits, if not the spiritual bounties, of Israel’s expansive new borders.

His wartime comrades, however, were horrified to be ruling over a hostile Arab population. The paratroopers’ victory, Halevi notes, “had turned Israel into an occupier—true, history’s most improbable occupier, having gone to battle not to conquer but to survive. No one had intended this. But now kibbutzniks, the children of utopia, were suddenly occupiers.” Avital Geva, a peacenik paratrooper who had channeled his politics into abstruse modern art, turned serious and founded the Peace Now campaign to uproot the settlements and transfer Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians. Israel still lives in the shadows of these men and their actions; their war and its glories, their peace and its consequences continue to reverberate down the decades.

The book’s author is a fascinating figure in his own right. Halevi’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist recorded his youthful dalliance with the Jewish far right, led by Meir Kahane, and he now identifies with that most unloved of creatures, the Israeli political center. His background is probably why the settlers are portrayed here as more than the messianic fanatics of CNN reports and New York Times editorials, and, in a way, his own youthful radicalism might have helped him understand the lonely frustrations that drove Udi Adiv to commit treason.

Like Dreamers is not the sort of book one expects to read about Israeli soldiers. In Israel, most soldiers are not professional fighters but civilians in fatigues, “every mother’s son.” Natan Alterman, poet of Israel’s national rebirth, hymned them as stoic warriors who “stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death” and “fall back in shadows/And the rest will be told/In the chronicles of Israel.” The temptation, then, is to lionize the paratroopers. But Halevi avoids this trap, laying bare their character flaws, such as Ariel’s promiscuity, Achmon’s arrogance, and Adiv’s indignant self-righteousness. In Halevi’s chronicles, heroes do not stand like giants as events unfold around them; they are complex men who help shape events, whether scaling Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem in 1967, pinned down by Egyptian tanks in the Sinai in 1973, or going to war in civilian life to realize their vision of Israel. They are not men made for history but they make history nonetheless.

Like Dreamers is a majestic study of love and death, war and dreams, the evolution of Israel and the meaning of Zionism. There is no special pleading and no caricatures of plucky little Israel against the world. The soldiers and the men who command them are allowed to be human; Israel gets to make mistakes and do ugly things without undermining the justice of its existence and its entitlement to peace and security. Although never emotive, Halevi’s rich prose captures the emotional morality of Zionism.

The novelistic style allows us to witness Israeli history through the eyes of the paratroopers: intelligence officer Achmon’s pre-war preparations ready us for the Six-Day War, we see the Yom Kippur War from Bin-Nun’s foxhole-sukkah in the Sinai sand, and it is through Bin-Nun’s correspondence with him that we learn of Yitzhak Rabin’s final days, the settler having struck up an unlikely friendship with the signer of the Oslo Accords. Like Dreamers has depth and expanse but most of all it has insight. In writing one of the most sparkling histories of the Jewish state, Halevi has also written the Great Israeli Novel, made all the greater because it’s true.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר by Creative Commons 2.5.

Conservatives in crisis

Amid the angry exchanges which have ensued between true believers and “the establishment” since Congressional Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, failed to defund Obamacare by shutting down the federal government, a discordant note demanding attention.

The always tempered and considered Jonathan S. Tobin, an editor at Commentary magazine, threw up this possibility:

A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

He is not the first conservative commentator to suggest the possibility of a schism, but he is the most thoughtful. The occasion for his warning was the fallout from an important editorial in the forthcoming issue of National Review. The piece, “Against Despair”, by editor Rich Lowry and staff writer Ramesh Ponnuru, argues that the actions of those House Republicans who forced the shutdown, against the wise counsel of substantial conservative figures, are undermining the ability of the GOP to win elections. In fact, Lowry and Ponnuru assert, some on the right have all but given up on winning elections:

Among the most dismaying developments of the shutdown fight was the explicit assent given by a few conservative writers and politicians to the notion that it is a pipedream to seek to elect more conservatives who will then, for example, repeal Obamacare. That is asking a lot of a party, exponents of this view said, that has won the popular vote for president only once in the last six contests.

The diehards, while perhaps well-intentioned, have confused the ideological fervor of those who agree with them with the political instincts of the American people. There are times in American history when the aims of a movement or its leaders have broadly coincided with the values of the American people: Lincoln and slavery, FDR and the New Deal, Reagan and anti-communism. The movement for limited government has no such standard-bearer at present and some of its footsoldiers forget that Lincoln, FDR and Reagan worked hard to bring people around to their way of thinking.

But the focus of conservatives’ problems and the means of their solution, National Review contended, lies not in ideological purity but in the art of persuasion and the difficult and prosaic business of electoral coalition-building:

The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.

National Review said what needed to be said. Conservative ideas can flourish only if they are tested and recalibrated and the only way to do that is through policy implementation, for which you need to be in government. That does not mean abandoning conservatism but presenting the voters with an appealing right-wing platform, a conservatism that can win.

Erick Erickson of Red State, a smart and committed conservative activist, shot down National Review’s editorial in a hail of denunciations and quotations from the magazine’s mission statement, as penned by William F Buckley, Jr.

He writes:

The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan.

Later adding:

Unfortunately, since Mr. Buckley died, the magazine has drifted. It is no longer true north for conservatism. It has drifted from its position at the pole of conservatism into the currents of a political party. It is the house publication for the Republican Party. And there is a difference — a difference this latest editorial highlights. Republicans are about the acquisition of power to advance policies and goals designed to keep the GOP in power. Conservatism is about human freedom. Conservative publications need not be stenographers of the party.

Before a final parting shot, worthy of a grounded teenager’s howl over a slammed bedroom door:

I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.

No one can doubt Erickson’s commitment to the conservative movement, to which he has devoted his adult life, but his need to cast his opponents in the role of pantomime villain undermines what little argument he has. The talk of a Republican “establishment”, a trope which has regained currency in the last few weeks, is preposterous. True, when Mr Buckley set up National Review, promising to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”, the GOP was dominated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Republicans, a caste of patrician liberals who did little to conceal its contempt for radical upstarts like Mr Buckley. The Rockefeller Republicans are long gone; nowadays, high-handed, to-the-manor-born seat-clingers are more likely to be found in the dramatis personae of the Democrat Party.

Today’s Republican Party is one in which not a single Senator or Congressman voted for Obamacare. The last two Presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and John McCain — were moderates, but only in the sense that they weren’t tick-all-the-boxes ideologues. Both men espoused orthodox conservative positions on everything from abortion and guns to taxes and national security. Where they tacked center, they did so as a blue-state Republican or as a Republican in an increasingly competitive state. That’s nothing new. The GOP has always been home to conservatives of varying hues and tones.

The notion of spunky grassroots warriors versus establishmentarian sell-outs, the Tea Partiers against the Cocktail Partiers, is a fitting populist narrative for the Republican Party inside some people’s heads but it bears no relation to the Republican Party as it exists in reality.

And reality is what’s lacking. Reality and perspective. The diehards think those criticizing them right now are surrendering principle to electioneering. The conservative debate over Obamacare has always been about tactics, not political principle, but it’s worth remembering that principle without power is like a car without gas. It looks nice and feels great to sit in but it goes nowhere.

It’s not quite right to say that Republican ultras have no alternative plan; it’s just that their plan is the same souped-up bromides about communicating better, being more populist, and something something Ronald Reagan. (On that last point: Would Reagan, a divorced Hollywood Republican who raised taxes and legalized abortion, make it through the GOP primary process today?)

That’s where Jonathan Tobin’s post comes in. The possibility that a sizeable chunk of conservative voters stays at home in future elections, or throws its support behind a third-party candidate, would be disastrous for the conservative cause. It would hand Democrats control of the White House and likely both houses of Congress and give license to an even more liberal Democratic Party passing legislation that would make Obamacare look like the work of Friedrich Hayek. It would be a curious conservatism that damaged the only vehicle available for the advancement of conservative ideas.

A lesson on third parties from Britain: In the 1980s, the British left was divided between the socialist Labour Party and the more moderate Social Democratic Party, which had broken away from Labour over its ideological extremism. This schism meant Margaret Thatcher got a free pass to pursue a radical economic agenda that even many Conservative voters did not agree with. Labour’s dogmatists made a philosophy out of rigidity and calcified ideology into a catechism, denouncing as traitors those who wanted to achieve the party’s egalitarian aims through anything other than “the common ownership of the means of production”. Had the left remained united, and tailored its vision to the industrial and social changes reshaping Britain, it could very well have ousted Thatcher from office. In the end, Labour would remain out of power for 18 years, returning to government only after it had learned these lessons the hard way.

The politics of America are changing and so too are the demographics. The GOP has to respond to these changes and appeal to new constituencies. Elections are about winning over center-ground voters, somewhere conservatives should have an advantage thanks to the popularity of conservative policies on everything from education reform to taxes. The Republican brand, though, is in the doldrums. Gallup’s party favorability rating now places the GOP on 28%, the lowest number for either party since records began in 1992. That rating is a backlash against the shutdown but it is also a reprimand for a Republican Party that has spent the last decade talking — more often than not, shouting — at itself rather than engaging with the American people.

Conservative diehards are standing athwart crosstabs, yelling “Reagan”. Fighting to keep the conservative flame alive is important but the flame is growing dim without the oxygen of new ideas and fresh faces. “My dogma’s purer than your dogma” is not a mission statement around which an electoral coalition can be built. The franchise in national elections extends beyond callers to the Michael Savage show. Conservatives have to speak to America as it is, not America as it was or should or could be.

All successful political parties are coalitions bound by shared goals and common ideals and motivated to win elections to put those ideals into practise. It’s good that right-wingers are up for a fight but it should be a fight with the Democrats, a fight to regain the Presidency, and not a fight with themselves. The hard work should begin in earnest, with a review of GOP policy, operations, funding and organization, all with the same question at the top of the list: How do we regain the trust of the American people?

That’s not selling out, it’s stepping up to the pitch, where the game is won or lost.

 Feature image © Benh LIEU SONG by Creative Commons 2.0.

9/11/13

The twelfth anniversary of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks seems to have crept up on us, in a way that previous anniversaries did not.

Every year of the first decade of the new world, we prepared ourselves for that awful configuration of numbers, 9/11. We stiffened our sinews and watched again, for brief and painful seconds, the footage of the planes plunging into the Twin Towers, like a dagger driven into the heart of freedom and decency and human civilization. We felt a tear, a flash of anger, and we rebuked ourselves, depending on political temperament, either for emotional weakness (“Do not let the terrorists win”) or vengeful thoughts (“Hatred only begets hatred”).

We always — always — paused the video before those souls, faced with the choice of burning or jumping, leapt from the 90th floor. What must go through your mind, we asked, to jump, all the while knowing— But we couldn’t finish the question and it seemed futile because we could not answer it anyway. No one could.

Those images, and 9/11 was a day in which in terrorist acts and terrorist symbology coincided in monstrous synchronicity, are too horrifying still, defying in their enormity the human capacity for understanding.

We will never forget, we told ourselves. How could we? And yet, this year is the first where there is no large-scale effort to commemorate the events of twelve years ago. Almost 70% of Americans say they have “moved on from September 11th,” according to a survey reported by USA Today. Only 12% plan a formal observance, with half opting to mark the day in an informal way. Nearly one-third said they would do nothing.

In Israel, the victims of terrorism are memorialized every year on Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance). A siren sounds and everything stops: work, speech, commerce; even the cars come to a halt on the highway. Public television broadcasts the names of every Israeli soldier killed in war and every civilian killed by terrorists. These commemorations immediately precede Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day. In Israel, “they died so that we may be free” is no mere cliché.

We would expect the rawness of 9/11, our basic emotional connection to the events of that day, to fade with time. No forward-looking society can nourish itself on a diet of fear and retribution, and none should. But our moral and intellectual relationship to 9/11 also seems to be loosening, our understanding of what the attack on America and the West meant and means. Living in a time of 24-hour news, five-minute YouTube videos, and 30-second commercials may have robbed us of our sense of historical import.

In the month following al-Qaeda’s onslaught, President Bush signed into law a House resolution designating September 11th “Patriot Day” (President Obama later added “and National Day of Service and Remembrance”). However, Patriot Day is not a federal holiday, like Memorial Day or Veterans Day, and without this governmental heft it has been largely forgotten. The absence of a formalized day of remembrance, on which schools and businesses close for prayers and memorials and great speeches, will only exacerbate the fading of 9/11 in the popular imagination. America needs its own Yom HaZikaron.

Last year, we had another 9/11 in the shape of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. (Perhaps the anti-Americans who so enjoyed taunting us about “the other 9/11”, the 1973 coup against Chile’s Marxist president, will be satisfied now there is another “other 9/11”. Perhaps not. As I write this, on the night of September 10th, the website of Democracy Now! — the digital St Peter’s Square of the post-American left — is carrying six stories about the Chilean coup on its homepage and not one about 9/11. The radicals should at least have the honesty to clarify that when they talk about “the other 9/11”, the attack on America is the “other”.)

The terrorist murders of J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone S. Woods were an Islamist attack on the United States. They were not the result of some anti-Islamic video nasty but another blow against democratic liberalism and Western civilization by a wicked and fanatical enemy, an enemy that spills not one drop of blood less, that takes not one life fewer because we seek to deny that it exists, that it is a threat, and that its perverse ideology and not our historical slights is the cause of its malevolence.

I fear we are forgetting these things; forgetting who we are, who they are, why we must win — and why we deserve to. I fear that 9/11 is becoming another date to us, a tidy historical event dulled by the polite formalities of chapter headings and footnotes. For an optimist, these fears are unbidden and unwelcome but, try as I might, I cannot shake them. I can only hope that I am wrong, trust in the wisdom of free people guided by grace, and offer my benediction of love and defiance: God bless America.

Neocon Zombie War

World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)
Paramount Pictures

“The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,” Thomas Jefferson once counseled, albeit musing on generational obligations rather than zombie property rights.

The undead antagonists of World War Z would have bitten his face off and used his powdered wig as a napkin. For the living are decidedly on the back foot in Marc Forster’s disaster epic, an adaptation of Max Brooks’s 2006 novel in which a mysterious virus transforms its hosts into undead killing machines. The pandemic recruits an ever-swelling infantry of zombies who conquer continents. Only a few pockets of human resistance, led by jaded United Nations operative Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), remain.

World War Z is by far the most interesting genre film of the year. It is, and this really does have to be seen to be believed, a right-wing zombie-disaster flick in which our hero is an advocate of UN reform, the U.S. military is noble and selfless, the threat spreads because of lax airport security, and the security policies of the state of Israel are held up as the model for saving the world. There are Emergency Committee for Israel ads less neoconservative than this.

The zombie myth stalks the intersection between ethnography and popular culture, a macabre fascination with Haitian and West African religious practices developing into the dark fantasies of the pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft and the Pittsburgh moviemaker George Romero. The parallel with Judeo-Christian doctrines of the afterlife is obvious: Biblical resurrection promises life after death, but zombies enjoy the sacrament of eternal death. They are soulless bodies freed from the obligations of religion and the strictures of temporal moral codes.

It is that sense of casting off social structures that has made zombie fiction so appealing to the left. Zombie movies originated as apolitical penny dreadfuls, with the rare exception of Jacques Tourneur’s gently liberal I Walked with a Zombie, but the genre took a radical turn in 1968 with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The hordes of the undead became a metaphor for the lumpenproletariat, harboring the potential if not the consciousness for revolution, and the forces of order were racist rednecks who gunned down the movie’s African-American hero in the closing minutes. Robin Wood, a Marxist crank but a formidable film historian, detected in Romero’s allegorical broadsides against the nuclear family, capitalism, and the military an effort to “demolish, systematically, the central structures of what we still call our civilization.” He thought all that a selling point.

World War Z reconnects with the inherent conservatism of the zombie myth, which has always channeled a deep, unspoken fear, not of the undead but of the living, not of brain-devouring ghouls but of the potential for ghoulish behavior inside ourselves. This critique of human fallibility, unusually fuddy-duddy for Hollywood, is the root of conservatism: Liberty without order is license, and license will eventually destroy liberty as surely as it vanquished order.

That is why there is no happy ending to World War Z. The credits roll mid-action with the guardians of civilization celebrating a small victory but nonetheless outnumbered and outflanked by their undead tormentors. In a somber voiceover, our hero intones: “If you can fight, fight. Be prepared for anything. Our war has just begun.” The filmmakers were perhaps paying homage to the “watch the skies” monologue that closes the early Cold War frightfest The Thing from Another World (1951), but the rhetoric is unmistakably post-9/11 in tone. There is no self-doubt in the war on zombies: We are the good guys, they are the bad guys; now let’s beat them to death with a shovel.

The theme of civilization under siege is brought to vivid, metaphoric life in a subplot that boasts what is surely cinema’s first twin exploration of zombies and Zionism. Israel, we learn halfway through the action, is the only country not infected by the contagion, because it acted expeditiously on an intercepted cable from an Indian general warning of an undead uprising. The government erects a wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, not unlike the real-life structure erected to fend off suicide bombers during the second Palestinian terror war, and it manages to halt the spread of the virus. If this seems an overreaction to the implausible ramblings of a foreign military officer, some valiant exposition tells us that the Israelis, scarred by their unpreparedness and near defeat in the Yom Kippur war, now act decisively on every threat, however incredible. (The filmmakers know nothing about Israeli politics. If the Mossad ever intercepted such a cable, before any security wall could be built, the chief of the general staff and defense minister would squabble over who should take credit, Haaretz would editorialize against the hiring of non-union construction workers, and Peace Now would petition the Supreme Court claiming historic zombie ownership of Hebron.)

Israel, however, is too good for its own good and throws open Fortress Jerusalem, welcoming the Palestinians into a happy-clappy one-state solution where Jews and Arabs link arms, wave Israeli and Palestinian flags, and serenade the holy city with ecstatic songs of peace. Things go awry when “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” anthem of the tambourine-thumpers, is cranked out over the loudspeakers and the orgiastic cries of “peace will come upon us” bring the undead hordes over the wall to fress upon everyone in sight. Imagine a J-Street convention with a happier ending.

As a satire of the kumbaya merchants of the Jewish left who could see Israel pushed back to the shore of the Mediterranean and still call for compromise, World War Z is cutting, breathtakingly so. Not only does an ingathering to the land of Israel offer world salvation, but Israel’s olive branch to its enemies, abandoning historical destiny for mushy universalism, also leads to destruction. I suspect much of this subtext is unintentional, but, either because of ideological confusion in the screenplay or a tenuous grasp of Middle Eastern politics, the movie is remarkably conducive to a neoconservative reading.

World War Z isn’t a great movie, but it represents a welcome resurrection of the zombie as lethal predator after the campy irony of Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). The climax, in a besieged World Health Organization clinic, contains moments of high tension and genuine terror. Much of this, however, is undermined by the production values: huge, dazzling, and depressingly hollow, an object lesson in how budgetary extravagance can smother rather than kindle creativity. The budget, $190 million, is ludicrous for a genre picture, even one fronted by Brad Pitt, and speaks to a growing trend of movies trying too hard to be loved, throwing ludicrous sums of money and assaultive CGI at moviegoers in hopes of browbeating them into a prosthetic pleasure. But audiences are responding to this marauding, Godzilla-takes-Tokyo moviemaking style; they no longer expect to be entertained and will settle for being overwhelmed. We saw this in the summer’s Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Fast and Furious 6. They were soulless. They were bromidic. They made $2.5 billion between them.

Criticism is a blunt tool when ranged against the adrenaline-pumping kinetics and recession-baiting finances of the monster blockbuster. World War Z makes us think, and in an unexpected way, but its aesthetics and economics point to developments that do not bode well for cinema.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © chris_natt by Creative Commons 2.0.

Helen Thomas’s right of reply

“You ought not to speak ill of the dead,” a friend chided me. “They have no right of reply.”

I had just remarked that Helen Thomas, who died on Saturday aged 92, was a “bigot and journalist”. Of course, my friend was right: in general, one should not speak ill of the dead, or at least one should wait until the departed is beneath the ground.

Kavod hamet, respect for the dead, is a mitzvah in Judaism. Halakha details the proper treatment of the body before and even after burial and these prescriptions for bodily integrity are matched by a regard for the memory of the deceased. But there are times when speaking ill of the dead is legitimate, necessary even, if we are to prevent falsehoods from calcifying into received wisdom.

Truth is the first casualty of war but it doesn’t fare much better after the death of the revered, and the truth about Helen Thomas has been drowned in syrupy clichés and hagiographic hyperbole. The New York Times obituary praises her “keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy”; the Washington Post eulogizes its “feisty” subject for “her indefatigable pursuit of hard news”; “Ms Thomas,” the BBC intones, “was a pioneer for women in journalism”. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell tweeted: “Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed.” (The charge that Thomas is responsible for the career of Andrea Mitchell is perhaps the gravest we could lay against her.)

There can be no doubt that she was a consequential figure with a distinctly American story. This daughter of Lebanese immigrants, raised on a grocer’s salary in Detroit, broke through every glass ceiling she encountered in her chosen profession of journalism. She countered sexism with talent and tenacity and earned the respect of her colleagues who welcomed her into the National Press Club, the Gridiron Club, and the White House Correspondents’ Association. Thomas may have allowed her left-wing politics to color her work as a reporter, noticeably so when writing about Israel or George W Bush, but she seemed to have taken the epigram that “well-behaved women seldom make history” to heart and there was much to admire in her tireless heckling of authority.

None of these achievements, however, should obscure the fact that she was a rancid antisemite. If you doubt that assessment, or think it uncharitable or unfair, let us give Thomas a right of reply and allow her words to speak for themselves. In June 2010, she told Rabbi David Nesenoff that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” because the land was Palestinian and “not German and not Poland’s”. Asked where the Jews of Israel should go, she responded: “They could go home… Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who lived there for centuries?”

(We could be here a while correcting Thomas’s warped understanding of history. Instead, let’s hand over to Amos Oz, recounting his father’s experience of antisemitism: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine’.”)

She was retired by her wire service and issued a pro forma non-apology that tried to spin her antisemitism as a political statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But repentant she was not. Speaking six months later at a diversity conference (irony is a many-splendored thing), she told her audience: “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion.”

We might chalk this up to a fit of pique, a wounded cry at the residual pain of her defenestration. We may even seek mitigation in her age or background. But, again, let’s hear from Thomas. She gave an interview to Playboy in April 2011 in which she expanded upon her earlier comments.

“Everybody is in the pocket of the Israeli lobbies,” she explained, “which are funded by wealthy supporters, including those from Hollywood. Same thing with the financial markets. There’s total control… It isn’t the two percent. It’s real power when you own the White House, when you own these other places in terms of your political persuasion. Of course they have power.”

For good measure, she added to the interviewer: “You don’t deny that. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

Helen Thomas doesn’t want your attempts at exculpation, dear reader. “I knew exactly what I was doing,” she told her you’re-Jewish-aren’t-you interviewer, “I was going for broke. I had reached the point of no return.”

But there was still some broke left to go for, and she went for it, offering the magazine her thoughts on the Holocaust:

There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember? We’re not at fault. I mean, if they’re going to put a Holocaust museum in every city in Germany, that’s fine with me. But we didn’t do this to the Jews. Why do we have to keep paying the price and why do they keep oppressing the Palestinians? Do the Jews ever look at themselves? Why are they always right? Because they have been oppressed throughout history, I know. And they have this persecution. That’s true, but they shouldn’t use that to dominate.

That paragraph is an almost perfectly calibrated litmus test. If you recoil in horror at its minimization of the Shoah, its hoary straw men, its petulant self-victimization, its cynical logic of animus and duplicity, and its familiar theyification of the Jews, then you are probably not an antisemite. If at any point you stop and chew it over and permit yourself even the shallowest of nods of recognition, then you are almost certainly an antisemite.

The dead are due dignity but the living owe each other truth and the truth is that Helen Thomas was a bigot. She may have been other than a bigot but she was never more than one. The gushing tributes from colleagues and admirers, although genuine and heartfelt, are being paid to a sanitized version of Thomas. These panegyrics, in their obfuscation of who Helen Thomas really was, may not speak ill of her but they speak falsely of her, and that is surely the ultimate form of disrespect.

Originally published in the Times of IsraelFeature image © rachaelvoorhees by Creative Commons 2.0. 

 

American Dreamer

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
Warner Bros/Roadshow Entertainment

The Great Gatsby is the biggest, brightest, most thrilling movie of the year so far.

It sings and swings like a chorus line and smolders with the smoky intensity of a gin-soaked speakeasy. Leonardo DiCaprio captivates as the mysterious millionaire of the title and Carey Mulligan enchants as the object of his obsession. Baz Luhrmann, the co-writer and director, whips up an indulgent visual confection as his camera chassés across opulent ballrooms, swoops around cascading champagne fountains, and cranes over lush mansions.

And no one gets it, at least not the leading critics.

David Denby in the New Yorker dismisses the film as “merely a frantic jumble” and its director as “less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.” The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern excoriates this “spectacle in search of a soul” that “derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald.” Luhrmann “suffocates beyond resuscitation any dramatic interest the story might have generated,” snips Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, and “cudgels every instinct of naturalness” out of his actors.

To be clear, Luhrmann hasn’t murdered anyone; he has merely brought to life the fourth big-screen interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of ambition and self-destruction. The Australian filmmaker’s 3-D adaptation is unlikely to trouble any lists of cinematic landmarks, but it is marvelous kitschy fun that lends a digital dimension to the novel’s crystalline prose, if not its social analysis.

Movies have always been fascinated with the idle rich, documenting their gaudy excesses with the half-voyeuristic, half-judgmental tone of the scandal sheet, and the rich in return have given American and European cinema some of their finest films. Hollywood has long understood the potential for humor in the mishaps and missteps of the monied set, throwing patrician gentlemen and delicate debutantes together with brash up-and-coming strivers in movies such as My Man Godfrey(Gregory La Cava, 1936), You Can’t Take It with You (Frank Capra, 1938), and The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940).

European filmmakers, resentful of a class system in its last throes, produced heavier fare, with The Earrings of Madame de… (Max Ophüls, 1953), La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), and Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961). These were cultural markers of a radicalized European elite that had become convinced that the sweet life could be redistributed equitably through the machinery of the welfare state. (Faced with life’s misfortunes, Americans turned to screwball, Europeans to socialism.)

Fleeing rural poverty to make his fortune at an early age, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is a modern freedman who, like Trimalchio in the ancient Roman satire Satyricon, is “rolling in riches, and really can’t tell what he has and what he hasn’t got.” What he wants, however, is Daisy, a wealthy debutante he courted as an impoverished soldier but who instead married Yalie racist Tom Buchanan. The Buchanans take pride of place on New York’s East Egg, the American definition of old money even when old money wasn’t that old. Across the bay is West Egg, a hub ofembourgeoisement and home to Nick Carraway, cousin to Daisy, neighbor to Gatsby, and narrator of the novel and the movie. Gatsby exploits Nick’s connection to reintroduce himself into Daisy’s life, hoping to impress her with the grandiose galas he throws at his palatial mansion while lighting a slow-burning fuse in her marriage that will explode in death and desolation.

Fitzgerald’s masterwork is one of the finest struggles with the American dream ever put down on paper. The green beacon that flashes across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion is Fitzgerald’s metaphoric lament for the futility of American optimism: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

The disenchanted novelist could scarcely have known that he was writing only years before the dawn of the American century, when the United States would emerge as the global superpower, rescue Europe from Fascism, and become the green light to hundreds of millions around the world craving liberty and opportunity.

Fitzgerald’s critique is somber, but never sour, about the American dream. Gatsby is a distillation of the pioneering New World spirit and that distinctly American brand of unashamed ambition. Ultimately, though, while he succeeds financially, he fails spiritually, cut down unjustly for protecting a woman who doesn’t even care enough to show up to his funeral. The sense of thwarted potential is captured by Gatsby’s estranged father, who mourns his slain progeny: “He had a big future before him, you know….If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man….He’d of helped build up the country.”

The screenplay drops this scene and most of the novel’s social commentary; Luhrmann’s take is Gatsby without the politics. The director also glosses over an ugly blemish in the source text. Milton Hindus caused some consternation in these pages in 1947 when he dissected what he called Fitzgerald’s “fashionable anti-Semitism.” In the novel, Gatsby’s enabler is the shady and ruthless crime lord Meyer Wolfsheim, “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head,” “tiny eyes,” and an “expressive nose,” a grotesque appendage by which Fitzgerald is fixated, pausing only to give his Jazz Era Shylock cuff links made from human molars (these become a tiepin in the movie) and a difficulty with prepositions. Luhrmann tones down the caricature, casting Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role. These cosmetic changes are welcome, but Luhrmann misses an opportunity to tackle the novel’s coarse stereotyping more directly.

DiCaprio is dazzling to behold, a cool presence that anchors Gatsby’s adolescent romanticism. He had already emerged from a thousand teen magazine covers to cut a path as a serious actor with impressive performances in The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island. The Great Gatsby is not a career-defining movie for him, but it is one in which the audience may pause and reflect—the film is 142 minutes long, after all—on how a pin-up evolved into a movie star.

The disappointment is Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway. The already passive narrator of the novel is placid, flaccid, and downright dull on the big screen. Maguire is an actor of limited range who trades heavily on his one facial expression, a bug-eyed stare intended to telegraph surprise but which resembles nothing quite so much as a man struggling to liberate a contact lens stuck under his eyelid. This poses little issue for someone who lunges across skyscrapers in a Spider-Man mask, but when Maguire is required to act, his somniferous timbre and ocular bulging simply don’t cut it.

But one bad turn cannot spoil this feast of distractions; not when there is the splendid British actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Catherine Martin’s luscious costume design, and the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack with its swaying, syncopated blend of jazz and hip-hop. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a portrait of Roaring Twenties libertinism that revels, sometimes reluctantly, in the champagne-soaked emptiness and dreamy decadence of a terrible and innocent decade.

Originally published in Commentary. Feature image © Molasz by Creative Commons 4.0.

Isolationists left and right: The new doctrine of avoidance

For America, there will be no going back to the era before September 11th, 2001, to false comfort in a dangerous world. We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.

George W. Bush, September 2003 [1]

That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11… These attacks were all deadly, and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

Barack Obama, May 2013 [2]

The impasse at which we have arrived in foreign and security policy inside the Western democracies is the result of a return to pre-9/11 thinking.

The substance of this reversion is to be found in President Barack Obama’s conviction that the struggle against Islamist political violence is not a war on terror but a police action, or in the President’s recent words: “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”[3] This reset strategy has endured despite the terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Benghazi, and Boston, and the attempted attacks on Times Square, Stewart Air National Guard Base, and Northwest Airlines Flight 253, amongst others.

The effect has been to shift the United States towards a post-neoconservative foreign policy which is best understood as the absence of an assertive or coherent foreign policy of any ideological stripe. This drift might reflect post-Iraq “intervention fatigue” on the part of public opinion but its side effect has been to deprive the West of much-needed leadership amid trying circumstances in the international arena. The symbol of this retreat may be found in the Obama administration’s preferred counter-terror measure, the unmanned aerial vehicle, a remote and impersonal tool for foreign policymakers who favour the clean passivity of aerial coordinates over the messy business of boots on the ground.

To separate foreign policy from security policy is a fool’s errand in the context of the Islamist threat. Borders are no barrier to the ideology of violent jihad and the lines between foreign and domestic threats are increasingly blurred. This interconnectivity of Islamist militants and oppressive regimes, of terrorist violence against Western civilians and tyrant violence against disenfranchised peoples, is symptomatic and causative of a cyclical calculus of human rights abuses multiplied by inaction producing resentment plus anti-Westernism. The proponents of acedia admit as much in their attempts to link terrorist outrages to the foreign policy actions of the United States and its allies, evidence for the futility of intervention in their estimation.

This new doctrine of avoidance differs from both the classical isolationism of the Right and the liberal global ennui characterised by Tony Blair as a “doctrine of benign inactivity”[4]. Instead, it is a reaction to a short period, broadly speaking from Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 until Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, in which humanitarian interventionism was, in a limited sense, in the ascendancy in political and policy elites. Today’s backlash isolationism, emboldened by the perceived shortcomings of recent interventions, rejects not only intervention but even muscular containment of the sort practiced against Saddam Hussein prior to his ouster. This avoidance doctrine is characterised by three main factors:

1) The desecuritisation of political violence. Key policymakers, particularly in the Obama administration, have sought to reposition Islamist terrorism as a criminal rather than military and ideological threat. The results have ranged from the substantive – the White House’s attempts to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian United States courts – to the rhetorical – the abandonment of the “war on terror” terminology.

2) De-emphasis of normative goals. The Bush administration’s appeals to normative constructs such as freedom and democracy have been replaced by language framing US objectives in realist terms. Values-based goals have all but been eliminated in the strategy and rhetoric of the current administration. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” Mr Obama explained in the early days of his presidency, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”[5]

3) Functional containment. The combination of the first two factors has resulted in an approach to diplomatic and military engagement that prizes functional containment, a series of tactics aimed at minimising a rogue actor’s threat to the United States but not restricting the regime’s potential for internal violence. Conventional containment tools such as economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and arms embargoes are eschewed in favour of strategic non-engagement which distances the Western powers from the hostile regime and its belligerency. Foreign ministries continue to issue cautiously parsed statements on human rights abuses and tepid resolutions expressing displeasure are passed at international fora but substantive conflict is avoided at all costs. The containment, therefore, is less of the regime than of the West’s scope for action against the regime.

While Mr Obama is the figurehead of the avoidance doctrine, he is far from its sole practitioner. It is now the reflexive instinct of those persons, organisations and institutions that broadly constitute the liberal-Left to evade the very moral responsibilities once deemed intrinsic to the liberal-Left critique. Avoidance in a rhetorical sense has also marked public discourses on terrorism, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the Woolwich attack shocked a country that had told itself violent jihad was a paranoid concoction brewed by power-hungry neocon imperialists at the (long since defunct) Project for the New American Century. The shock soon passed, however, and commentators and politicians took to the presses and the airwaves to assure us that random madness, not ideology, was behind the attack. Others went further, with The Guardian acting as the bulletin board for the masochist contingent of the British Left, publishing missives blaming Western military actions for Drummer Lee Rigby’s death – a role to which that once great liberal newspaper has become accustomed, apparently without perturbance, after every act of human vandalism carried out by Islamists.[6]

The liberal-Left’s hostility to Western assertiveness, of the political, cultural, or military variety, is bolstered by a recrudescence of conservative isolationism. This view was served up by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a recent speech in which she rejected US intervention in Syria, counselling the world to “Let Allah sort it out”[7]. Mrs Palin’s public statements do not give the impression of a woman whose thoughts are burdened by the nuances of life but her blunt quip, for all its apparent callousness, is a sincere expression of hostility towards the expending of American blood and treasure in far-flung lands. The former governor of Alaska spoke for a growing number of Republicans who impulsively supported military action in Afghanistan and Iraq but who now question the cost, efficacy, and ideological virtue of a neoconservative foreign policy.

Mrs Palin may speak the language of the Republican base but the political and intellectual case against interventionism is more reliably to be found in the votes and speeches of Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul, in the analysis of Reason magazine, “has figured out a way to sell anti-neoconservative ideas to audiences allergic to his father”.[8] The Kentucky politician does not blame American foreign policy for attacks on US interests; his is a federalist critique in which the pressing questions are not moral or consequential but constitutional. So he speaks about the legal authority of the executive and the rights of Congress to oversight and control of the purse strings. The appeal is still to cynicism and insularity but the talk of reigning in government has an obvious appeal to conservatives. Buttressing this legalistic critique, Tea Party conservatives on Capitol Hill, particularly those swept in on the anti-big government wave of 2010, are articulating a new Republican agnosticism about defence spending.[9]

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has cautioned against weighing in on the side of the Syrian rebels, urging the United States and the United Kingdom not to arm those groups fighting to topple Assad.[10] Although Prime Minister David Cameron helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and became the first world leader to visit post-Mubarak Egypt, he is a prisoner of his instinctive Burkeanism: an attraction to stability and order and an aversion to political radicalism and foreign entanglements. “I am not a naïve neocon,” he once remarked, “who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft.”[11] Stephen Harper of Canada has emerged as a world statesman, particularly in making Canada a serious player in the Middle East, but he too is restrained by public opinion and financial limitations.

These political developments reflect a mood of weltschmerz across the publics of the West, an appetite for insularity and a longing to withdraw from a fractious and complex world as if ignoring the threats ranged against us will vanish them from existence. However, these comforting myths are dangerous to our physical security and the moral integrity of Western liberalism. Threats do not turn benign because they are ignored and our ethical obligations do not cease simply because we have become inured to humanitarian catastrophe and suspicious of external (military) solutions.

Analysts trying to measure the impact of the avoidance doctrine need look no further than Syria, where Bashar al-Assad continues to suppress threats to his position with extreme brutality and some of his opponents come to mimic his tactics and savagery. The international community’s refusal to intervene has legitimated these human rights abuses while facilitating the ascendency within the rebel forces of extremist actors linked to al-Qaeda and other Islamist affiliates. The human cost of these foreign policy failings is clear for all to see, with the death toll from the conflict now exceeding 100,000.[12] The Obama administration’s recent announcement of its intention to arm the rebels almost certainly came too late to achieve a parity between opposition and government forces. Moreover, the Islamist infiltration of the rebels is such that the United States risks flooding a civil warzone with weapons that could easily fall into the wrong hands. The only way forward on Syria is to demand both sides negotiate an interim power-sharing agreement until free and fair elections can be held under the supervision of international monitors. To press this solution, the Western powers should implement a no-fly zone backed up by the option of strikes against strategic regime or rebel targets in response to acts of unprovoked aggression or human rights abuses against civilians. There is, of course, scant hope of realising this strategy, given the determination of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah to keep Assad in power and the enervating weakness of the Obama administration in its failure to face down Putin’s obstructionism. The humanitarian and security crisis in Syria calls for clarity and resolve at a time when American foreign policy has been reduced to opaque statements and evasive manoeuvres in service of a gun-shy president who prefers benign inertia to the risks of decisive action.

The waning of American leadership and the current administration’s doctrine of avoidance may have marginalised interventionism in policymaking circles but this could prove a useful period for interventionists to regroup, contemplate the successes and failures of previous operations, and return to the intellectual and policy field with stronger arguments. The first step in this process of re-examination and renewal is to learn from past mistakes, such as over-reliance on intelligence sources, the drawbacks of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, and post-intervention security policy. Philosophically, interventionists should recalibrate their goals and their tone, both of which have been seen as excessively grand and optimistic. The United States is not an aircraft carrier for liberal democracy and the Royal Air Force is not the armed wing of Amnesty International. There are limits to what we can do.

A common charge laid by realist and neorealist critics is that interventionism is sheer quixotic universalism, a saviour complex for Western liberals. Much of this is crude caricature but there is also a kernel of truth. Interventionists, of liberal and neoconservative stripes, must find a way to negotiate their political goals and values with the practical facts of international affairs. To this end, the foreign policy commentator Julie Lenarz argues for an instrumental rather than ideological interventionism: “It would be a mistake to see humanitarian interventionism as a rigid, evangelical code of principles. We should see it as a flexible tool to achieve what it should achieve, and that is saving lives.”[13]

But rethinking should not be confused with ponderous soul-searching or self-flagellation. In appraising achievements and missteps, neoconservatives and muscular liberals would be justified in contrasting their prescriptions with those of their opponents. Interventionists are regularly accused of hostility towards multilateralism – a charge to which some neoconservatives would happily confess – but for multilateralism to be effective it must temper respect for the role of the United Nations with recognition of the sclerotic effect of UN bureaucracy and politics on the deliberative process. Muscular liberals must remind their flabbier confreres that the responsibility to protect, while by no means a blank cheque for military adventurism, is more than a statement of humanitarian ambitions.

The tyrannies of the Arab world serve to exacerbate anti-Western sentiment while the free movement of terrorists and weapons that can be best facilitated under an authoritarian regime ensures yet more instability in the region, threatening the security of Israel, and empowering radical Islamist groups always ready with a narrative and a suicide belt for every impressionable youth who comes their way. Fail in Syria and we risk kick-starting yet another vicious cycle of hatred and resentment that reaches from the killing fields of Aleppo to the planes and trains and coffee shops of Europe and North America. The opponents of intervention caution against the fallout from action but they must be pressed on the costs of inaction. Realists, after all, must deal with the real world.

Liberals and neoconservatives have always been uneasy bedfellows in the interventionism project and the outstanding questions about the significance and consequences of their divergent philosophies, goals and strategies deserve to be addressed more candidly than heretofore. But for the present, the two camps have a common interest in the defence of liberal democracy and the defeat of its enemies. Democratic polities, if they can rekindle their belief in political liberalism and recapture the instinct to win, can forge a moral mission not merely to defend at home but to assert around the world the promise and opportunities of Western civilisation, democratic institutions, and human freedom.


[1] ‘President Bush’s Address to the Nation’ New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/08/international/08PTEX.html?pagewanted=3&pagewanted=all 8 September 2003
[2] ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’ The White House http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university  23 May 2013
[3]Ibid.
[4] Blair, T ‘A Global Alliance for Global Values’ The Foreign Policy Centre http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/798.pdf September 2006
[5] ‘News Conference by President Obama’ The White House http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/news-conference-president-obama-4042009 4 April 2009
[6] See e.g. Milne, S ‘Britain’s wars fuel terror. Denying it only feeds Islamophobia’ The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/29/britain-wars-terror-islamophobia 29 May 2013
[7] Tenety, E ‘Sarah Palin at Faith and Freedom conference: ‘Let Allah sort it out’ in Syria, Middle East’ Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/06/16/sarah-palin-at-faith-and-freedom-conference-let-allah-sort-it-out-in-syria-middle-east/ 16 June 2013
[8] Welch, M ‘Rand Paul Mainstreams Non-Interventionism’ Reason http://reason.com/archives/2013/02/05/rand-paul-mainstreams-non-interventionis 5 February 2013
[9] Brannen, K ‘Republicans Raise Questions About Defense Spending’ Defense News http://www.defensenews.com/article/20110708/DEFSECT05/107080308/Republicans-Raise-Questions-About-Defense-Spending 8 July 2011
[10] Johnson, B ‘Don’t arm the Syria maniacs’ Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10124089/Boris-Johnson-Dont-arm-the-Syria-maniacs.html 16 June 2013
[11] Watt, N ‘Cameron says UK prejudiced for believing Muslims cannot manage democracy’ The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/22/david-cameron-uk-muslims-democracy 22 February 2011
[13] International Edition with Levy & Counsell, ‘Episode 11: Julie Lenarz’ Ricochet http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Julie-Lenarz 2 April 2013

A paper prepared for the Human Security Centre. 

The two-state solution and its enemies

Danny Danon, the rising star of the Likud, has been brought down to Earth with a bump.

After boasting during an interview with the Times of Israel that he and his fellow right-wingers in the government would block any move towards a two-state solution, the Deputy Defense Minister found himself under attack from the opposition while Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slapped him down and briefed against him to the Knesset press corps.

The Likud MK told the Times of Israel: “If you will bring [a two-state solution] to a vote in the government — nobody will bring it to a vote, it’s not smart to do it — but if you bring it to a vote, you will see the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.”

This is nothing Danon hasn’t said before. He is on record advocating a “three-state solution” — a risible notion documented in his book which I reviewed last year — and the partial annexation of Judea and Samaria. But back then he was just another MK addressing a rally in Hebron or appearing on the Glenn Beck show. Now he’s a minister in the government, and Deputy Defense Minister at that. The outrage at his remarks is understandable. They were ill-considered, undisciplined, and a public relations own-goal for a government that already struggles with its hasbara. What better propaganda tool for the Palestinians than an Israeli minister saying his government doesn’t believe in reaching a two-state solution?

That said, the world has been slower to anger over two other attacks on the two-state solution this past week. The first was the revelation, reported in the Times of Israel, that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rejected yet another offer of peace talks last year. Netanyahu proposed the release of 50 Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israeli jails in exchange for direct talks between the two leaders, a proposition which Abbas dismissed.

Another instance of Palestinian rejectionism came last week in an interview given by Palestinian Authority official Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and chairman of the Palestinian Football Association. Asked on Qatar’s Al-Kass sports channel if Barcelona Football Club’s forthcoming visit to Israel would include “the occupied lands”, Rajoub replied: “They are coming to the occupied lands. All of Palestine — from the river to the sea — it’s all occupied.”

Rajoub, who says “Jews are Satans, and Zionists the sons of dogs” and who insisted the Palestinians would use a nuclear bomb against Israel, is naturally a poster-boy for the Israeli Left — “one of the most important peace-seekers on the other side,” in the estimation of Zahava Gal-on, the credulous leader of the credulous Meretz party.

It is instructive to compare the reaction in Israel to Danon’s comments with Palestinian reaction to Abbas’s obstructionism and Rajoub’s rejectionism. While the Likud minister has been ferociously denounced within and outwith his party, there has been no comparable backlash against Abbas or Rajoub. Why is this? Probably because, while opposition to a two-state peace deal is a fringe position in Israel, it is the default position of the Palestinian President. A December 2012 poll conducted by Machon Dahaf found 67% of Israelis in favor of a two-state solution, including 57% of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu voters and even 53% of Bayit Yehudi supporters. So Danon, although a sincere democrat and a passionate Revisionist Zionist, is not a mainstream figure on this question.

Can we say the same about the Palestinian leadership? Can we be confident it doesn’t represent the 40% of Palestinian Muslims who told Pew that suicide-bombing of civilians was justified “in defense of Islam”? Or the 45% of Palestinians who say “armed struggle” is the best way to achieve statehood, plus the further 22% who support terrorism in combination with negotiations and non-violent methods?

This is the difference between Israeli and Palestinian attitudes towards a two-state solution. Israelis overwhelmingly want a peace deal and have in Netanyahu a tough-minded leader but one who wants peace. A segment of Palestinian public opinion also wants peace but is ignored by its leaders, who prefer to pander to another segment that wants to fight the old battles once again. Both Netanyahu and Abbas face internal political obstacles, as the last few days have shown. But there is a crucial difference. The challenge for Netanyahu is to bring his base along on something they don’t believe in; the challenge for Abbas is to bring his base along on something he doesn’t believe in.

One of the cruelest ironies of the Middle East conflict is that the two-state solution’s fiercest enemies are the very people who would benefit most from it. Cynics are fond of quoting Abba Eban’s lament that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But those words sound hollow and glib now, failing to capture the masochistic destructiveness of Palestinian rejectionism. The Palestinians’ refusal to make peace and accept a state is a protracted act of national self-harm.

It would be facile to suggest, as dilettante diplomat John Kerry has, that the two-state solution will be “over” if a deal isn’t struck within two years. But “two states for two peoples” does seem more distant today than ever before. The first step to getting it back on track, however, is recognizing that its true enemies are not to be found in the Likud faction in the Knesset but in the actions, pronouncements, and ideology of the Palestinian leadership.

Originally published in the Times of IsraelFeature image © I, Makaristos by Creative Commons 3.0.

Turncoat in a toga

A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus
By Frederic Raphael
Pantheon, 368 pages

It is no meager feat to defend a man whose own mother could not bring herself to forgive his sins—but this is the task to which Frederic Raphael sets himself in A Jew Among Romans, his apologia for the classical Jewish historian and arch-turncoat Titus Flavius Josephus.

Little is known about the biography of Josephus, born Joseph ben Mattathias in 37 c.e., other than his claim to priestly and royal lineage. The historical record—largely his own hand—first encounters him as leader of the Jewish rebels of first century Judaea in their Great Revolt against Rome. He offers himself as a pious Jew who is also a pragmatist, resisting the Empire’s petty impositions but equally frustrated by the Zealots who agitate for all-out war. Josephus is dragged into direct conflict with Rome and tasked in 67 c.e. with defending Jotapata, modern-day Yodfat, against Vespasian’s men.

When the hilltop fortress falls, Josephus escapes the suicide pact struck by his comrades and surrenders to the Romans, becoming first a prisoner and later, by dint of his supposed prophetic abilities, a counselor to Titus. He takes the Empire of its coin, even adopting the Romanized name Titus Flavius Josephus, and begins to document the ensuing sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple from his handsome sinecure as defeated Jewish rebel turned Roman stenographer. His Jewish War rails against the fanatic garrisons who, as he saw it, provoked the suppression of the Jewish polity in Judaea before dying by their own hand at Masada.

Josephus provided the world’s first case study in the internal struggle of the defector who reaps execrations from his ex-friends while being eyed suspiciously by his new ones. His decision to switch sides marked him as a shameful figure in Jewish history, serving the emperor whose army laid bloody siege to Jerusalem.

Raphael—novelist, screenwriter, translator, and Commentary contributor—does not seek to exculpate Josephus of the self-interest that partly motivates all defectors. A Jew Among Romans is no hagiography. But he casts his subject as a Judaean Cassandra, who “tried to talk the Jews into surrender, for as long as there was any hope of averting the culminating horror.” Once his people were defeated, he chose to live: “If he was a coward because he had failed to die, he was also egregiously brave; if a traitor, it was to a reckless nationalism he never favored, not to Judaism.”

Although Jewish historians, led by Louis H. Feldman, have come to recognize Josephus’s contributions to classical and biblical scholarship, his critics remain. The most compelling, Martin Goodman, frames Josephus as a creature of the Judaean and later Roman elite and suspects that his “instinct for apologetic overcame his conscience as a historian.” But it is against Yigael Yadin’s glib epigram—“he was a great historian and a bad Jew”—that Raphael sets his argument. The real offense of this “bad Jew” was not apostasy or treason but endurance: “He survived to report news no one wanted to hear.” Josephus had admonished his Zealot compatriots against suicidal extremism. He proved horrifically prescient, and lived to record the downfall of those who dismissed him. “Memory was the vessel of Jewish solidarity,” Raphael notes. Josephus tainted the heroics with ugly facts.

The Judaea of Josephus’s time was, for Desmond Seward, an interregnal land that “had long ceased to be Israel while it was not yet Palestine.” This duality was reflected in Josephus, the Hellenistic Jew who was a rigorous follower of Jewish law; the traitor to the Jewish cause who would write a defense of Jewish history and philosophy; a Romanized Jew who, for Raphael, “was never one of them, nor could he ever again be what he was before.”

In the eyes of Josephus, his nemesis, Zealot leader John of Gischala, was a man whose “desires were ever carried to great things.” He did not intend this as a compliment. Here Raphael’s apologia runs into trouble. If we are to draw parallels between Josephus and modern-era assimilated Jews, as Raphael thinks we should, may we not also read the cautious pragmatist as a forerunner to those integrationist and internationalist Jews who agitated against the establishment of a Jewish state in the 20th century? They also damned their opposite numbers as fanatics whose needless provocations would bring misery and destruction upon Jews everywhere. The reader who wonders if Josephus would have deemed Menachem Begin a latter-day John of Gischala, obsessed with “great things,” will not be alone.

There is another significance to Josephus’s legacy often overlooked in academic debates. His narrative, the sole surviving account of the fall of Jerusalem, documents the simple but stark fact that the Jews were there. The object of much contemporary anti-Zionist scholarship is the dejudaization of Palestine—writing the Jews out of the history of the land until the 19th century in order to characterize Zionism as an alien colonialism. This revisionist project has been so successful that statements of historical fact can be judged inflammatory or (that weasel word of enforced non-offensiveness) “unhelpful.”

Whenever an Israeli politician commits the sin of referring to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” a sort of linguistic settlement expansion in the eyes of liberal commentators, the New York Times rushes to label these terms “biblical names.” The secular schoolmarms of Eighth Avenue deem that a demerit, but thanks to Josephus’s writings, we know that these Jewish provinces thrived long after the days of the Torah just as they thrive once again today. Wherever the borders of Israel and Palestine are drawn in an eventual peace treaty, the scholarship of this “bad Jew” reminds us to whom the land ultimately belongs.

Raphael joins a distinguished line of historians of Josephus, but few have accounted for the outcast sage so vividly. Raphael’s motion for acquittal is written in such spirited, lambent prose that he deserves to succeed where previous scholars have failed. Far from a “bad Jew,” his Josephus is a chronicler of Jewish courage, misjudgment, and ruin. A flawed character, for sure, but a consequential historian, and despite his traitorousness, a Jewish one at that.

Originally published in Commentary