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 8 September 2003
[2] ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’ The White House  23 May 2013
[4] Blair, T ‘A Global Alliance for Global Values’ The Foreign Policy Centre September 2006
[5] ‘News Conference by President Obama’ The White House 4 April 2009
[6] See e.g. Milne, S ‘Britain’s wars fuel terror. Denying it only feeds Islamophobia’ The Guardian 29 May 2013
[7] Tenety, E ‘Sarah Palin at Faith and Freedom conference: ‘Let Allah sort it out’ in Syria, Middle East’ Washington Post 16 June 2013
[8] Welch, M ‘Rand Paul Mainstreams Non-Interventionism’ Reason 5 February 2013
[9] Brannen, K ‘Republicans Raise Questions About Defense Spending’ Defense News 8 July 2011
[10] Johnson, B ‘Don’t arm the Syria maniacs’ Daily Telegraph 16 June 2013
[11] Watt, N ‘Cameron says UK prejudiced for believing Muslims cannot manage democracy’ The Guardian 22 February 2011
[13] International Edition with Levy & Counsell, ‘Episode 11: Julie Lenarz’ Ricochet 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

Meet the Palestinians

The events in Syria have captured the world’s attention but it would be regrettable if they overshadowed an important study released last week.

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, published by the respected Pew Research Center, surveyed social, political, and religious attitudes across the Muslim world.

It is an in-depth report worthy of much study but one of the many fascinating insights it provides is a glimpse into the dominant attitudes amongst the Palestinian Muslim population. Seventy-five percent of West Bank residents are Muslim (eight percent are Palestinian Christians and a further 17% are Israeli Jews who live beyond the Green Line) and 99% of Gaza is Muslim. So, the Pew research provides a useful overview of Palestinian social attitudes as a whole.

The headline figure that has garnered media attention is the 40% of Palestinian Muslims who deem suicide bombing justified. While that has understandably raised eyebrows, it is only one of many disturbing findings in the report.

Western liberals fond of addressing Palestinians as “brothers and sisters” might be surprised to learn that their ideological siblings hold more than a few illiberal beliefs. Ninety-three percent say sex outside marriage is morally wrong while 89% specify that homosexuality is immoral.

Women’s rights aren’t high on the list of priorities: “A wife must always obey her husband,” insist 87%, while 77% object to abortion, and only 33% think a wife should have the right to divorce her husband. The Palestinians have evidently seen Jersey Shore because 81% say “Western entertainment” harms society.

“Islam alone leads to Heaven,” 89% told the Pew researchers. And they’re not talking a milquetoast one-hour-a-week Episcopalian Islam either. Seventy-five percent think Sharia is the “revealed word of God” and to that end 89% favor making it the law of the land.

And that’s where the fun really begins. Of those who advocate Sharia, 84% support stoning as the punishment for adultery, 76% backhudud punishments (that’s the hand-chopping and back-lashing stuff), and 66% want apostates to face the death penalty.

None of this accords with the narrative advanced by pro-Palestinian activists or Ramallah’s sympathizers in the international media. It is always Israelis who are extreme, “lurching to the right”, and voting for “hardline” parties, even at the last election when the voters lurched to the center and placed their hopes in the impeccably moderate Yair Lapid.

There are a few reasons to be cheerful. The study found 85% asserting the right of non-Muslims to religious freedom. Seventy-eight percent see no conflict between religion and science and 67% believe in evolution. Democracy is preferred over “a strong leader” by a margin of 55% to 40% and although two-fifths endorse suicide bombing, 49% view it as unjustified.

If a Palestinian state is to be created alongside Israel – and I believe one should – Israel has a legitimate interest in that state being organized around liberal, democratic, and pluralistic precepts. A Palestine that practises chauvinism will not only smother the possibilities of modern statehood but will be disinclined to maintain a long-term peace with Israel.

There are two lessons to be drawn here. The first is for the international Left that makes pilgrimage to holy Gaza, that has turned its university campuses into shrines to anti-Zionism, and that affords the Palestinians a reverence once reserved for the proletariat.

Leftists are often accused of relativism but in their fetishization of Palestinian society they are guilty of a myopic universalism. Activists and academics who suppose that their sexual egalitarianism and secular liberalism are shared by their victim-idols should read Pew’s study carefully to understand the social and attitudinal forces at work. Palestine is not simply Vermont with falafel.

The second, and substantively more important, lesson is that the institution-building approach pursued by Salam Fayyad brought economic growth and a decline in corruption but did not dilute the reactionary persuasions of many Palestinians. For that, there must be a new program of institution-building within civil society that directs resources and political willpower towards the formation of a liberal Palestinian middle class that is capable of creating a country. Not a “Westernized” Palestine but one that, like Israel, can balance Western ideas about individual rights and market economics with the insights of national culture and religious philosophy.

That also means educating the next generation of Palestinian children not to hate Jews but to realize the common interests and mutual benefits in a forward-looking Palestine that cooperates with and learns from Israel. With Fayyad gone, and unlikely to be replaced by a comparably thoughtful reformist, the current chances of progress towards this kind of society are slim.

The suffering of the Palestinian people – and make no mistake, it is real and cruel and shameful – must end and they must have their own place to call home. But the attitudes expressed to Pew’s researchers paint a worrying picture of what that home would look like.

Originally published in the Times of Israel. Feature image © Andrew E. Larsen by Creative Commons 2.0.

What’s the point of Israel?

Few countries have achieved what Israel has in its first 65 years.

From a war-torn desert has sprung a land of prosperity and innovation; from the brutalities of successive colonial impositions a thriving polity, democratic and disputatious; and from a desperate immigrant refuge a proud Jewish homeland.

Achievements, the gleaming medals of past endeavor and sacrifice, were the talk of Independence Day 2013 and Israelis deserve to congratulate themselves and their parents and grandparents on the successes of the Zionist project. But we should remember that Tuesday marked merely the 65th anniversary of the re-establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael. The Nation of Israel reaches back almost 4,000 years to the covenant between God and Abraham; 65 years is a grain of sand in the hourglass.

The issues that drive debate in the Knesset and the coffee shops – the housing crisis, the burden of service – are important but there are bigger questions about Israel’s historic role that must be addressed. Because we take Israel’s existence for granted we have stopped thinking of Zionism as an active project and come to see it as a historical event. We must stop and ask: What is the point of Israel – and what does it mean to be a Jew, a Zionist, an Israeli in 2013?

The man who has come closest to articulating a contemporary Zionism is Naftali Bennett. Beyond the inspirational campaign videos and his tic of referring to everyone as “brother”, the Bayit Yehudi chairman captured a theme during the run-up to the January election. He spoke of an Israel united by shared Jewish values and carrying forward the pioneering spirit of the ’48 Generation in its attitude towards innovation, education, and national self-improvement.

Bennett is a new kind of right-winger for whom the struggle for Eretz Yisrael HaShlema (the Whole Land of Israel) has been replaced by a commitment to Am Yisrael HaShlema (the Whole Nation of Israel). He describes an Israel for all the Israelis, secular and religious, left and right, Jew and Arab. He has taken the old Mizrachi ideology – “Am Yisrael b’Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael” – and universalized it.

Bennett, though, is a religious man of the right and Israel sorely needs left-wing and secular leaders to start tackling these questions with a similar energy and alacrity. For some on the left, the purpose of Israel is peace in a narrow sense of military accord and political coexistence. But peace with the Palestinians, while a fetish for the international community, is a relatively minor issue in the long term. A just solution to the conflict is a moral imperative, of course, and in my view Israel should return the dowry or marry the bride, but the struggle to which Israel must dedicate itself is the struggle for a deeper peace, of the kind Jabotinsky envisioned when he wrote: “From the wealth of our land there shall prosper / The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew.”

Israelis would have every right to rest on their laurels. No one could blame them for turning inwards, away from a world that has done precious little for and wreaked volumes of bloody history against the Jewish people. Or Israel could look outwards and forge a path of purpose that helps transform the world for the better. Zionism is not merely a historical struggle that rested at the return of the exiles to their homeland. It is a living, breathing philosophy of Jewish faith, values and promise. Zionism is chosenness in action.

Israel needs political leaders equal to the challenges it faces, men and women who can lead Israel to new feats of greatness, who can unleash the dynamism and creativity of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland. Israel needs a vision for 21st century Zionism, a purpose that will convince Jews around the world to climb aboard a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Will this mission come from science and technology or something older, the redemption of religion as a vital force in the public square? Will Israel feed the world’s hungry or nourish the souls of young Diaspora Jews who struggle to reconcile Judaism and universalism, Israel and liberalism? Or will it help shape a generation of Arab and Muslim Zionists who come to speak of “al-Nakba” as Yom Ha’atzmaut?

Israel must decide what it is, what it’s for, where its borders lie, and where it is going. Perhaps Israel needs a new holiday: “Yom Ha’atid”, a day to look to the future and choose what that future will be.

Originally published in the Times of Israel. Feature image © Oren Peles by Creative Commons 2.5.

צילום: אורן פלס

Margaret Thatcher, mensch

Margaret Thatcher is being remembered in the United Kingdom and around the world as the fearless conviction politician who rescued Britain from its decline into sclerotic socialism and helped Ronald Reagan bring an end to the Evil Empire and freedom to the enslaved peoples of Eastern Europe.

But she should also be remembered as a proud friend of the State of Israel, if by no means an uncritical one, and an ally of the Jewish people. She felt an instinctive affinity with Jewish enterprise and endurance, the sense of self-reliance and community. She would write in her memoirs: “I have enormous admiration for the Jewish people, inside or outside Israel. There have always been Jewish members of my staff and indeed my Cabinet. In fact I just wanted a Cabinet of clever, energetic people — and frequently that turned out to be the same thing.”

Her first encounter with a Jew was perhaps the most impactful. As a young girl growing up in the Lincolnshire market town of Grantham, the rise of Nazism in Europe was an abstract evil until the arrival of Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old refugee who came to live with Thatcher’s family after escaping Nazi-annexed Austria. Muhlbauer told the young Margaret that Jews were made to scrub the streets in Austria. It was an image the future prime minister was never able to forget.

When she was elected Conservative leader in 1975, Thatcher took charge of a party that, despite having provided Britain with its only Jewish prime minister thus far, still harboured a strain of country-house antisemitism. Thatcher was contemptuous of her predecessor Ted Heath’s attempts to curry favor with the Arab states during the Yom Kippur war and later said she had followed the news from the battlefront “hour by hour”.

Her Finchley constituency was home to a significant Jewish population and she was acutely aware of the concerns and aspirations of British Jews. As prime minister, she elevated Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits to the House of Lords, making him the first rabbi to become a Peer of the Realm, and the two developed a great friendship of shared political and social viewpoints.

Another first was her May 1986 visit to Israel, the first ever by a British prime minister. The visit strengthened her warm relations with Shimon Peres and introduced her to the “eloquent and respected” Abba Eban but she found little common ground with Yitzhak Rabin, still a hawkish defense minister in his pre-Oslo days, and Yitzhak Shamir, whom she described as “a hard man, though undoubtedly a man of principle”.

Her relationship with Menachem Begin was notoriously frosty. She could never forgive the former Irgun commander for ordering the execution of British soldiers and the bombing of the King David Hotel during the pre-state struggle. The Iron Lady also found the Likudnik obdurate and impractical and deemed his policy of building settlements in Judea and Samaria “absurd”. (Thatcher, a patriotic ideologue for whom compromise was weakness, was more like Begin than she realized or cared to admit.)

“Israel must never be expected to jeopardize her security,” she maintained. “‘Land for peace’ must also bring peace.” Yet, as a friend of Israel who unreservedly condemned PLO terrorism and Arab rejectionism, she felt she could be candid with Israeli ministers, warning them against missing chances to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. She insisted “there could be no lasting peace without a solution of the Palestinian problem”, adding that “the miserable conditions under which Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza were having to live only made things worse”.

(Her empathy towards what she called “the plight of landless and stateless Palestinians” didn’t win her a single friend on the British Left; some things are even more important to the English intelligentsia than Palestine.)

Thatcher was under-appreciated as a strategist but after leaving Downing Street she authored a book on statecraft that underscored her keen grasp of the geopolitics of the Middle East. Writing in 1995, she foresaw the rise of Islamist terrorism, “a threat approaching the gravity of the Cold War”, and of a belligerent nuclear Iran, “which has acquired — and continues to acquire — weapons of mass destruction… It has moved into nuclear research. It has close links with terrorist organizations and seems to feel no inhibitions about intervening to achieve its objectives…” Few politicians can claim such clear-eyed prescience.

Margaret Thatcher understood the moral case for Israel and appreciated the pivotal role of the Jewish people, their Book, and their state in the history of Western civilization. She was, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, “a staunch friend of Israel, a great supporter of the Jewish people”. This is how she should be remembered in Israel, as a pioneer Tory Zionist and a straight-talking mensch.

Originally published in the Times of Israel

Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady’s life and legacy in Scotland

On an icy February morning in 1975, a modest, unremarkable woman stepped out of a car on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, hoping to walk the retail thoroughfare and shake a few hands for the waiting cameras.

Instead, she was mobbed by a crowd of 3000 well-wishers, waving Union Flags and cheering “Maggie”. The throng surged forward with her every step, trying to catch a glimpse of the new leader of the Conservative Party, the first female Leader of the Opposition in Britain’s history.

As the overwhelmed politician reached the St James Shopping Centre, the celebrants rushed into the mall, crushing some of their number against windows. Fearful for public safety, police cut short the walkabout and needed the help of additional officers to bring the situation under control. “At least three women fainted, and others had to be helped clear,” the Times reported the following day.

Those scenes sound like events from a different Scotland, an alternative past, one foreign to our popular imagination almost four decades later. Margaret Thatcher would go on to win the 1979 election with almost a third of Scotland’s votes but soon she would again draw huge crowds, these ones protesting her radical economic policies and chanting for her downfall.

Scotland’s complex relationship with the Iron Lady has been thrown into sharp relief by her death. But who was Margaret Thatcher, why did she inspire such contempt, and what is her legacy north of the Border?


Born on October 13, 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was raised in the flat above her father’s grocery shop in the Lincolnshire market town of Grantham. Alfred Roberts was an alderman on Grantham Council and raised Margaret and her older sister Muriel in the twin doctrines of Methodism and self-reliance. Her childhood was modest and she grasped the value of money working in the shop while dedicating herself to academics at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School. She learned of the impending Second World War from Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee whom the Roberts family took in after helping to fund her escape from Nazi-occupied Austria.

Margaret read chemistry at Oxford and took a post as a research chemist with BX Plastics upon graduation in 1950. She married businessman Denis Thatcher the following year and raised their children Carol and Mark while studying to qualify as a barrister. Throughout this time, she sought selection as a Tory candidate for a series of seats, mostly in unwinnable Labour heartlands, and did not become an MP until she took Finchley for the Conservatives in 1959.

She would serve in a series of posts in government and opposition, entering the Cabinet as Ted Heath’s Education Secretary in 1970. Here her spending cuts, specifically to government provision of milk in schools, earned her the epithet “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”. When Heath lost the February and October elections of 1974, Mrs Thatcher challenged him for the leadership of the Tory Party and, against all the odds, won.

The Labour government of the day, led first by Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, struggled from crisis to crisis, dogged by growing union militancy that saw endless strikes and an economic decline that required an IMF bailout to keep Britain afloat. The Conservatives launched a poster campaign declaring “Labour Isn’t Working” and by the 1979 election they had convinced enough people to switch their vote, making Mrs Thatcher the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.


She embarked upon a policy agenda that would transform Britain within a decade from a sclerotic socialist society into a liberalised market economy. Across three parliaments, Mrs Thatcher’s government privatised national monopolies, allowed council tenants to buy their homes, and cut the top rate of tax from 83% to 40%. Reversing the post-war consensus between Labour and Tory governments, she focussed on controlling inflation rather than unemployment and by 1984 more than three million Britons were out of work.

The policy of privatising nationalised industries exacerbated the decline in coal and steel and sparked a wave of strikes, most famously the 1984-85 miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise, insisting that pit closures reflected the economic realities of the marketplace, and after a year of walk-outs, stand-offs, fly-picketing and violent clashes, the miners returned to work, defeated, and Mrs Thatcher had effectively ended what she called “government by the consent of the TUC”.

On the international scene, she forged a strong alliance with Ronald Reagan, her ideological doppelganger in the White House, and denounced the Soviet Union as “bent on world dominance”, a barb that earned her the sobriquet “The Iron Lady” from the Russian press. Her greatest test came when Argentina invaded the Falklands but after a two-month campaign the islands were recaptured and Mrs Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 on a wave of patriotic sentiment.

Even as her economic policies shuttered the industries on which many in the north of England and Scotland relied, Mrs Thatcher maintained an unassailable electoral position. Her determination proved popular with a large section of the public and her economic reforms were seen by many as necessary, if bitter, medicine. But she was aided most of all by the Labour Party, which had responded to Thatcherism by lurching to the far-left and promising to raise taxes, renationalise industries and repeal laws against secondary picketing. Labour’s commitment to full-blooded socialism frightened the electorate and gave new meaning to Mrs Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative”.


The Iron Lady’s eventual downfall came not at the hands of Labour or the voters but her own Cabinet ministers and backbenchers. Her stridency and stubbornness began to take their toll and colleagues ignored or rebuked grew hostile and rebellious. The Community Charge, dubbed “the Poll Tax” by opponents, tried to simplify local taxation but proved fiercely unpopular with even lifelong Conservative voters.

Mrs Thatcher’s problems were compounded by her regular clashes with the European Community and her increasingly vituperative rhetoric towards Brussels enraged pro-European Cabinet colleagues. In November 1990, Michael Heseltine challenged the Prime Minister for the leadership of the Tory Party. Although she won on the first ballot her victory was not resounding enough and she announced her resignation. After 11-and-a-half years, Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street and left a new Britain in her wake.

To many, Margaret Thatcher was the politician who tamed the unions, liberalised the economy, privatised the inefficient state monopolies, and gave working-class people their first opportunity to own property and shares. A hard, uncompromising ideologue but one who did what had to be done.

She is admired around the world, especially in the United States where her alliance with Ronald Reagan is credited with helping to end the Cold War, and in Eastern Europe where her furious denunciations of Communism were cheered by those living under Soviet rule even if they were condemned by opponents and diplomats at the time.


But then there is Scotland – and, to be fair, much of the north of England – where the Iron Lady remained till her final breath a figure of revilement. It is no exaggeration to call her the most hated woman in Scotland and that contempt is unlikely to subside with her passing. The Sunday school injunction against speaking ill of the dead will not be kept this time.

Asked why Scotland rejected his old boss, former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind posited: “She was a woman, an English woman, and a bossy English woman”. While she did stir that latent stream of Anglophobia that still simmers in some Scots and although sexist cries of “Ditch the Bitch” were common from the Left, gender and identity politics do not offer all the answers. The animosity felt towards Mrs Thatcher was largely inspired by her worldview, her personality, and her tone.

She was seen as remote and extreme, a cold practitioner of brutal policies that were contemptuous of the social democratic consensus that had embedded itself in Scottish national identity. Thatcherism became a byword for greed, selfishness and sharp-elbowed individualism, a break with the paternalist unionism that had hitherto defined the Conservatives in Scotland. When she attempted to reconcile free-market capitalism and Christianity in a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, her remarks were mocked as “The Sermon on the Mound” and roundly dismissed.

Her term in office coincided with a decline in large-scale manufacturing, symbolised by the slow death of Ravenscraig, and the growth of the service and financial sectors. The Poll Tax, a complex and inefficient replacement for the rates system, was introduced in Scotland a year before its rollout in England, giving rise to the suspicion that Scots were being used as guinea pigs to test a harsh and unjust policy. This animosity was compounded by Mrs Thatcher’s abandonment of the Tory Party’s pro-devolution stance, convincing many Scots that only devolution could protect them from alien right-wing policies hostile to Scottish values.

For a skilled politician attuned unlike few before her to the aspirations and fears of Middle England, Mrs Thatcher was remarkably tin-eared when it came to Scotland. She could not understand the hostility she attracted, blaming a left-wing establishment that confused the moral imperatives of charity and compassion with state-engineered equality. Scotland, she felt, had abandoned its proud heritage as the nation of Adam Smith in favour of “nationalist myths” and “socialist illusions”.


However, the socialism to which many Scots were wedded had little to do with Marxist doctrine or historical materialism. It was a socialism forged in the grinding poverty of the late nineteenth century and roused to a movement by the oratory of Keir Hardie and James Maxton. Egalitarianism became the moral anchor of Scottish national identity, the ethical imperative of “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” finding life in the redistributivist state, and it was this worldview that Mrs Thatcher could not fathom and would not assuage.

Martin Amis quipped in his 1995 novel The Information that “everyone in England was Labour, except the government” and in the 1980s the social shibboleth “I didn’t vote Tory” did not square with the party’s electoral success. Scotland’s dirty little secret is that many did vote for Mrs Thatcher; even at her lowest ebb she secured almost a quarter of the votes north of the Border. Her Right to Buy policy was highly popular, with 500,000 Scots choosing to purchase their council house, and there is little appetite for a return to union militancy and state monopolies. She forced the Labour Party to move to the centre ground or face electoral oblivion and there is more than a hint of Thatcherism in Alex Salmond’s plans for an independent Scottish economy buoyed by corporation tax cuts.

Hatred has a long burn and conviction endures the passing of years but neither can resist the sweep of political reality. Scotland has its own parliament and decides its future and still the Thatcherite settlement remains, more or less intact. Baroness Thatcher lamented in her memoirs that “There was no Tartan Thatcherite revolution” but there was a quiet revolution that saw Scottish political culture tacitly accept the underpinnings of Thatcherism. There would be no more cheering crowds lining Princes Street, no more flag-waving well-wishers, but while her popularity faded her ideas endured, against all challenges, and transformed Scotland into the country it is today.

In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher may not change a single mind but she changed a nation, and that is her legacy.

An edited version of this article appeared on STV News.

My response to Richard Shulman

My review of Daniel Gordis’s The Promise of Israel, which was published in Commentary magazine in December, prompted some criticism, including correspondence from Mr. Richard H. Shulman. Click here to read Mr. Shulman’s letter to Commentary and see below for my rebuttal (which is also published here).

If you want to know what all the fuss is about, you can buy Gordis’s (masterful) book here.


Richard Shulman can hardly be blamed for his pessimism on the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The latter, lamented Abba Eban, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, whether over the 1937 Peel Commission, the 1939 British White Paper, the 1947 UN partition, the 2000 Clinton Parameters, or the 2008 Olmert plan.

Nevertheless, I must take issue with a few points. Mr. Shulman’s claim that Israeli support for the two-state solution is based on “push polls” does not withstand scrutiny. He asserts: “These polls base their question about statehood upon the stated assumption ‘if’ the Palestinian Arabs would make enduring peace with Israel.”

A December 2012 Machon Dahaf poll asked a representative sample of 500 respondents if they supported a Palestinian state with borders based on the 1967 lines, land swaps to meet Israel’s security needs and retention of the major settlement blocs, and Palestinian sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Overall, 67% of Israelis and 65% of Israeli Jews said yes. (Perhaps surprisingly, the proposal gained majority support from respondents who identified with the national camp, with 57% of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu voters and 53% of Bayit Yehudi voters backing two states.) A Rafi Smith poll published the same month asked the same question and yielded roughly the same response.

Contrary to Mr. Shulman’s assertion, these polls did not gloss over Palestinian intransigence (has a poll yet been devised that could achieve such a feat?), and both explicitly referred to “a peace agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whose implementation would take place only after the Palestinians would fulfill all their commitments with an emphasis on fighting terror”.

So we know that two-thirds of Israelis support a hard-headed, practical plan for peace.

Mr. Shulman is right to point to Palestinian antisemitism, a corrosive ideology that perpetuates a double crime: one, against the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, and two, against Palestinian children who are fed Judeophobic propaganda in their school textbooks and on Palestinian television. International pressure must be brought to bear on the Palestinian leadership and it must be made clear that the only viable state that can arise beside Israel is a pluralistic, democratic Palestine. A state organized around Jew-hatred is not an option.

There are modestly positive signs coming from Palestinian society. A September 2011 poll asked Palestinians how they should go about ending the Israeli presence in the territories. 37% said peaceful resistance, 30% wanted negotiations, and 26% supported armed resistance. There will be no peace until a clear majority of Palestinians places its faith in negotiations but the decline in support for militancy, only a decade on from the second Palestinian Terror War, is to be welcomed. The persistence of Palestinian extremism is not an argument for continued Palestinian statelessness, rather the opposite. The Palestinians should get their state, take responsibility for themselves, and, with the guidance of the international community, build those institutions and social conventions essential for liberal democracy.

Ultimately, though, the two-state solution is as much about securing Israel as creating Palestine, and popular prejudices in Nablus and Ramallah should not stand in the way of protecting Haifa and Rehovot. The two-state solution, to paraphrase Churchill, is the worst proposal except for all the other ones, and the sooner peace is achieved the sooner Israel will have secure and permanent borders. The alternative of Israel extending its sovereignty to “Eretz Israel HaShlema” (the Whole Land of Israel) would destroy the State of Israel as we know it. Israel would be Jewish or democratic but it would no longer be both.

On the question of foreign aid, it is true that the United States provides assistance to Israel’s enemies but that is a function of the Machiavellian politics of aid, a discussion of which cannot be accommodated here, rather than a fissure in the Washington-Jerusalem alliance. Israel is a leading recipient of US foreign aid, $3.075bn in 2012, an investment that not only secures Israel in the most hostile environment in the world but reaps significant returns for the United States in military cooperation, defense development, political relations, trade, and science and technology.

When Mr. Shulman protests that “aid comes with strings that impair Israel’s defense industry”, he should consider, for example, the Iron Dome aerial defense system, which Israeli ambassador Michael Oren calls “the embodiment and manifestation of the close relationship between Israel and the US.” As of January 2013, the US has invested $1.1bn in the development of this system, which is estimated to have intercepted 85% of rockets fired by Hamas at Israeli civilians during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense.

There is much to criticize in the US government’s dealings with Israel, particularly the conduct of the present administration, but this is hardly grounds for insularity. Israel is alone in the Middle East, it must not be alone in the world.

Feature image © Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) by Creative Commons 2.0

A hechsher for a blood libel

They came with hatred in their hearts and knives in their hands.

The Turkish flotilla that laid siege to Israel’s embargo on Gaza on 31 May 2010 did so with full knowledge that the Israeli and Egyptian blockade was in place to prevent the import by Hamas of weapons from Iran. The “humanitarian activists” on board ignored offers from Egypt and Israel to collect the goods on board and transfer them to Gaza. They took no interest in Israel’s weekly transfer of food, medicine and other goods to Gaza, even as its leaders rain rockets down upon Israeli civilians and promise to “obliterate” the Jewish homeland.

Five of the vessels in the sextet of ships that attempted to run the blockade were peacefully halted by the Israeli navy. The sixth, the MV Mavi Marmara, was not. The terror trawler was sponsored by the IHH, a Turkish group banned in Israel and Germany for its financial ties to Hamas, and its passengers counted among their number agents of that radical organisation.

The Marmara mob, since immortalised as defenceless peace activists brutally cut down by Israeli commandos, consciously sailed into the eye of the storm. Their cargo was provocation, not aid, and their mission was less the alleviation of Palestinian suffering than the CNN-savvy dramatics of staged self-endangerment. Their politics was the familiar Russian doll of crude pro-Palestinianism: A shell of humanitarian empathy surrounding a radical anti-Zionist substructure concealing the same old antisemitism. Passengers sang openly for Al-Jazeera’s cameras about the killing of Jews and one told the Israeli soldiers to “go back to Auschwitz”.

The thugs – “activists” the BBC calls them, as if they were working mothers campaigning for better childcare provision — armed themselves, according to the independent commission which investigated the incident, “with weapons such as iron bars, clubs, axes, slingshots, knives and, in some cases, firearms”. They shot one soldier in the abdomen and another in the knee, stabbed another in the stomach, left two more with “significant head injuries” after beating them with iron bars, and broke the arms and hands of other soldiers as they fast-roped onto the vessel. Three soldiers were beaten, seized, and thrown overboard onto the lower deck, where they were beaten again.

The Israeli commandos, whose primary weapons were paintball guns, were forced to switch to their live-fire sidearms to save themselves from this high-seas lynching, killing nine of their attackers in the process. Turkey reacted with outrage and suspended its diplomatic relations with Israel, braying and bawling at lung-burning volume about the deaths, calculating correctly that in the cacophony no one would stop to ask why Ankara had allowed its citizens to mount an assault on a neighbouring country.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision, almost three years later, to apologise to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an inexplicable act of self-flagellation and his pledge to compensate the families of the dead only compounds the outrage. (Erdogan wants $1m for each Turkish national killed.) Death should always be accorded the solemn respect it deserves but to pretend the Mavi Marmara provocateurs were innocent victims is to throw solemnity overboard and set sail for Fantasy Island.

The Israeli government insists reconciliation with Turkey was essential with the bloody upheavals in the Arab world ranging on Israel’s borders, and occasionally spilling over. That would be a canny, if far from noble, reason to cut a deal with Erdogan if there was any hope of Turkey working with Israel to defend democracy and liberalism in the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that the Turkish prime minister, a man who calls Zionism “a crime against humanity”, who is running scared of his Islamist right flank and running daily into their arms to keep himself in position, is going to buddy up with Israel to stabilise the region is fooling no one but themselves.

Those who lay the blame with Obama are not wholly wrong. He chose to give Turkey free rein to lambaste Israel in the aftermath of the Marmara incident and has shown scant alarm at the once proudly secular nation’s Islamist turn. Obama doesn’t much like Israel but, worse, he doesn’t get it. His is not a mind attuned to the history and subtleties of the Middle East. When he pressures Israel to concede to its enemies, even to the point of apologising for being attacked, like a Bizarro World take on restorative justice, he cannot grasp the long-term impact on Israel and her adversaries. Obama sees all the pieces on the chessboard but he doesn’t understand how they move.

But, whatever pressure he came under from Obama, Netanyahu’s decision to beg forgiveness of Turkey is his own doing. And it is more than a strategic misstep. It is a concession born of weakness, a lie to appease liars, a hechsher for a blood libel. The Prime Minister of Israel has said it’s kosher to attack and attempt to murder Israeli soldiers and to lie about it; to distort an assault on the Jewish state as a rampage by blood-thirsty Israeli commandos. When antagonists of Israel come to include in their endless charge sheet against Jewish national rights the “Marmara massacre”, they will be able to footnote an Israeli Prime Minister, and a Likudnik no less, as a source.

This makes for an inauspicious start to Netanyahu’s new government and will leave even some of his most loyal supporters wondering whether his third term should be his last.