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Beinart pins his thesis to the synagogue door

WASHINGTON – Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s quixotic 2004 bid to become the first Jewish president.

Pro Israel, with questions

Which is why he’s always been counted among the Washington pundits who defend Israel, Zionism, and the right of American Jews to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Beinart also frets about how Jewish his kids will be.

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Peter Beinart has pundits and Jewish officials debating about his recent essay asserting an increasing American Jewish alienation from Israel.

Which is why he worries about how Israel behaves, how it is perceived, and what it means for American Jewry. And why, he says, he published a lengthy essay in last week’s New York Review of Books arguing that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blaming U.S. Jewish groups for refusing to criticize the Israeli government’s perceived rightward shift.

“Having kids makes you react differently to things,” Beinart told JTA, speaking of what brought about his 5,000-word (not counting several subsequent rebuttals to rebuttals) piece.

“It made me think more, not about my own Zionist identity, but about what Zionism was going to be available to them,” Beinart said. “I began to grow more and more concerned about the choice they would make, which would have been agonizing for me to watch unfold” — between an American universalism stripped of Zionism or an “anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection.”

Beinart’s essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry, and has become fodder for lunchtime chats, insiders say.

“Everyone’s read it and everyone is talking about it,” said Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The essay comes as dovish and leftist groups in Israel and the United States are beginning to push back against the conventional wisdoms that define organizational American Jewish attitudes about Israel. The most prominent case is the rise in recent years of J Street, but there are other examples: B’Tselem, the human rights group, recently exported an Israeli staffer to direct its Capitol Hill operation.

Officials of Ir Amim, a group that counsels accommodating some Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem as a means of keeping the peace in the city, are touring the United States this week. They are sounding out Jewish leaders about how to make the case for a shared city to an American Jewish polity where dividing the city is something of a third rail.

For the most part, the debate has assumed something of the tone of an earnest, friendly exchange, with the combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.

In large part that’s because of Beinart’s biography and standing. Even his critics admit that Beinart — unlike other critics of U.S. Jewish support for Israel who have cast it as an anomaly at best and dual loyalty at worst — cannot be shooed away.

James Kirchick, like Beinart an alumnus of The New Republic, said in a critique published on Foreign Policy’s Website that Beinart’s arguments could not be dismissed.

“Beinart has never been part of American Jewry’s leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party,” Kirchick said.

Beinart’s synagogue-door declaration of independence from what he says is establishment Jewish orthodoxy (small o) is framed in the politest of terms, although he names names: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism,” he writes. “On its Website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to ‘free speech and minority rights.’”

Beinart says the Conference of Presidents declares that “‘Israel and the United States share political, moral, and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security, and peace.’ These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and west bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The response, on the record from the pro-Israel commentariat and off the record from some of Beinart’s targets: He’s moved on. Once an Iraq war supporter, he is now affiliated with the New American Foundation, the liberal-realist think tank that is home to a number of pronounced critics of traditional American pro-Israel orthodoxies.

Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post whose focus for years has been on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, wondered whether Beinart hadn’t made it a little too personal.

“It is a story worthy of telling, with careful attention to detail, with open mind,” Rosner wrote. “A story more interesting than the personal misgivings one Jewish liberal is trying to impose on the community as a whole.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at The Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart’s former colleague at The New Republic, chided Beinart for publishing his essay in The New York Review of Books, which has published material questioning the validity of a Jewish state. In response, Beinart has noted that it also has published tough defenses of Israel — and that it is an apt forum for a writer trying not only to reconcile Zionism with liberals, but liberals with Zionism.

More substantive complaints had to do with Beinart’s omissions: He mentions only in passing the Palestinian responsibility — through the failure to contain terrorism and incitement — for frustrating the peace talks, and also does not substantially treat the existential threat implied by Iran’s current rulers. He also focuses on Netanyahu’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” which severs the Palestinians from his vision of a peaceful Middle East instead of the prime minister’s more recent pronouncements acceding to a two-state solution.

Beinart, in follow-up essays in the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he glances by the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.

“My piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict,” he writes. “Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians.”

As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood was only grudging and came under intense American pressure.

Rosner also picks over Beinart’s statistical analyses, wondering if they hold up. The research, Rosner says, shows that American Jews who believe in trading land for peace — and who conceivably would be at odds with its current government — nonetheless describe themselves as attached to Israel, whatever its current political posture. Kirchick notes that attachment to Israel has traditionally increased with age.

Steven M. Cohen, one of the sociologists whose work Beinart cites in his essay, thinks Beinart is right to say younger Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, but wrong to blame it on politics. Instead, he argued in a response published by Foreign Policy, the main factor is intermarriage — more specifically, the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”

That said, Cohen added, “Jewishly engaged young adults” are turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in Jewish communal circles.

“If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews,” he wrote, “organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative — one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”

Whatever the dimensions of the threat, even some of Beinart’s named targets — speaking off the record — agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues.

“Is my diagnosis as dour as his is? No, I’m probably not as pessimistic as Beinart is,” said one official. “But anybody’s who’s not worried about” disaffection among younger Jews, “whether they believe his thesis or not, is fooling themselves.”

Beinart’s best point, this official said, is that young Jews are not as prone to see themselves as victims as the establishment is.

“The most correct part of his analysis, the challenge for us, is a Jewish community that is changing,” the official said. “We have viewed ourselves as having been powerless and weak, but we have evolved into a community that is powerful and strong.”

Plenty of previous debates over Israel and the pro-Israel lobby have descended into name-calling and generated plenty of hostility. Not this time, according to Beinart.

“In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn’t surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing,” Beinart wrote in an exchange with Goldberg. “There’s been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It’s made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.”

JTA

 
 

Article fuels speculation, debate over possible strike against Iran

JERUSALEM – If the United States doesn’t attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next eight months or so, Israel probably will.

So says journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine in an article that is fueling debate and speculation among many Middle East experts.

Goldberg bases his conclusion mainly on three premises: In the Israeli view, Iran will be in a position to produce a bomb by next spring or very soon thereafter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking seriously persistent Iranian threats to wipe Israel off the map and is resolved to prevent a second Holocaust. And Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argue that even if Iran doesn’t use the bomb, a nuclear threat hanging over Israel could destroy the Zionist enterprise, with Israelis leaving the country and prospective immigrants staying away.

Goldberg makes much of the prime minister’s reverence for his 100-year-old historian father, Benzion Netanyahu, who sees history in terms of successive threats to the existence of the Jewish people. And it is true that Netanyahu at times depicts himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, whose life’s mission is to save his people.

Nevertheless, Goldberg gives many reasons why Israel would think twice before launching an attack on Iran.

On the tactical level, a strike against Iran’s well-protected and far-flung nuclear facilities might have limited effect. Also, the operational complexity of having to fly great distances, over American lines or Arab territory, is a military planner’s nightmare.

Far worse, though, on the strategic level, is the fact that attacking Iran without an American green light could lead to a major rupture between Jerusalem and Washington. And if distanced from or even abandoned by America, Israel could quickly become a pariah state isolated on the international stage.

The widespread international condemnation of Israel’s action against a Turkish “peace” vessel last May is an indication of where things could go.

Moreover, any Israeli strike against Iran would almost certainly trigger a major regional war, with Israel under missile and rocket attack from Iran, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also possibly from Syria and Hamas in Gaza. That, in turn, could lead to spiraling oil prices, for which Israel would be blamed. And Iran and its proxies almost certainly would unleash terror attacks against Jewish targets worldwide.

For reasons like these, outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is said to be unenthusiastic about launching an Israeli strike. Although the Israel Defense Forces reportedly has conducted simulation exercises as far afield as Greece, and is continually fine-tuning its operational plans, Ashkenazi would prefer not to have to carry them out.

Ashkenazi is not the only senior military man with doubts.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and one of Israel’s sharpest military analysts, argued in a much-touted position paper late last year that there is no way Israel would risk harming its key strategic relationship with the United States for the lesser gain of putting Iran’s nuclear program back by a few years. Moreover, he said, if there is to be a military strike, the chances are that the Americans would prefer to carry it out themselves.

According to Eiland, some U.S. Army chiefs maintain that since America would be affected by the fallout of any strike, it should bring its greater military prowess to bear to ensure success.

In Eiland’s view, for Israel to have a realistic strike option, the following conditions would have to pertain: a clear failure of the current sanctions against Iran; American unwillingness to take military action despite what some of the generals have been saying; and American understanding for Israel’s need to act. Then Netanyahu would have to make his own personal calculus — bearing in mind that failure could leave the Gulf unstable, Western interests undermined, Israel blamed and isolated on the world stage, and worst of all, Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons accorded a degree of legitimacy.

Zeev Maoz, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, adds another concern. In a mid-August article in Haaretz, he suggested that an attack on Iran could lead to international pressure on Israel to dismantle its presumed nuclear arsenal and to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Israel refused to buckle, it could be ostracized, Maoz wrote, and if it did buckle under pressure, it would be losing a key bargaining chip for the creation of a new regional security order.

So, given the risks an attack on Iran would entail, would Israel consider a nuclear balance of fear with Iran?

According to Maj. Gen (Res.) Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, former head of military research and development in the IDF and the Defense Ministry, in such a balance the advantage would tilt hugely in Israel’s favor. He told JTA that the Iranians are trying to build a fission bomb that at around 20 kilotons would be about the size of the American bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Foreign experts assert that Israel possesses fusion bombs that can be from 50 to 250 times more destructive than the 1945 atomic bomb.

In late 2007, Anthony Cordesman, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, published “Iran, Israel and Nuclear War: An Illustrative Scenario Analysis,” in which he tried to gauge the outcome of a nuclear showdown sometime in the next decade. His bottom line: Israel would be able to survive and rebuild, while Iran would not.

According to Ben Yisrael, the Iranians are very well aware of this disparity and therefore would be unlikely to start a nuclear war against Israel.

“Maybe the Iranian man in the street doesn’t know these facts, but the engineers working on the Iranian bomb certainly do. And so does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” Ben Yisrael told JTA.

Nevertheless, Ben Yisrael, like most Israeli analysts, is adamantly opposed to Iran’s acquiring the bomb for two reasons: The Middle East almost certainly would go multinuclear in its wake, exponentially increasing the chances of someone mistakenly pressing a nuclear button, and terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear device with no balance of fear possible.

Indeed, most Israeli analysts see compelling American reasons for action. They argue that the Obama administration would be loath to see a Middle East nuclear arms race undercutting the president’s vision of a nuclear-free world. It also is crucial for America to prevent Iran from using a nuclear umbrella to promote terror and extortion against the West, or terrorists from getting their hands on a dirty bomb, or Iran from using its nuclear posture to gain control of Middle East oil supplies in the Gulf.

In addition, the failure to stop Iran from going nuclear could lead to a loss of American prestige and influence in the region, with wavering Gulf states moving from the American to the Iranian orbit.

So, if sanctions don’t work, and if a popular uprising in Iran led by the opposition Green Movement fails to materialize, the Israeli leadership’s hope is that America will see the necessity of taking military action, despite the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Israelis are careful not to spell this out, since they don’t want to be seen as pushing for an American attack.

Israeli analysts point out that what would be very difficult for Israel to achieve, militarily and diplomatically, the United States could achieve much more easily. According to Goldberg, Netanyahu himself often tells visitors “the secret” that the U.S. Army is much bigger than Israel’s.

Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama in early July was heartened, according to aides, by what he heard from the president on Iran. Indeed, it appears that U.S. policy is to prevent Israel from going it alone, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen urging Israel to bite the bullet, while Obama reassures Israeli leaders that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb.

But what if Israel and the United States differ in their estimates of the Iranian nuclear timetable? Or if the United States proves reluctant to attack when Israel feels that time is running out?

Will Israel, because of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, then take the risk of acting alone? And, crucially, will the United States then give Israel a green light to attack?

JTA

 
 

Will the real Imam Rauf please stand up?

Who is Feisel Abdul Rauf?

Initially the controversy over building a $100-million Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero was about location, location, location. Increasingly, however, attention has turned to the 61-year-old Sufi imam behind the project.

Depending on whom you ask, Rauf — currently in the Middle East as part of a U.S.-funded outreach program to the Muslim world — is a dedicated interfaith activist, a stealth apologist for Islamist terrorism, or something else.

Those looking to defend Rauf in Jewish circles have a new card to play: It turns out that the imam delivered a moving speech at the 2003 memorial service held in a Manhattan synagogue for Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan.

Invoking Pearl’s final words before his beheading, Rauf declared: “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul, ‘Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad — hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,’ not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one.”

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Supporters and detractors are debating whether Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf is a dedicated interfaith activist, a stealth apologist for Islamist terrorism, or something else.

The speech was cited last week by Jeffrey Goldberg on his influential Atlantic.com blog, and then mentioned on one of journalism’s biggest stages: Frank Rich’s lengthy Sunday column in the Week in Review section of The New York Times.

On his blog, Goldberg called Rauf “a moderate, forward-leaning Muslim,” and said the imam’s words showed courage because “any Muslim imam who stands before a Jewish congregation and says ‘I am a Jew’ is placing his life in danger.”

Rauf’s other supporters note that he is a frequent participant in interfaith dialogues, who condemns terrorism and fanaticism.

His critics, however, paint a different picture, accusing Rauf of paying lip service to such sentiments, while either failing to offer strong criticism — by name — of foreign governments and organizations engaged in terrorism, or making common cause with anti-American Islamists.

The critics come armed with their own set of quotes: Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the imam told “60 Minutes” that “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened; but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” In a radio interview in June with WABC’s Aaron Klein, Rauf described himself as a “supporter of Israel,” but declined to label Hamas as a terrorist group, saying, “I do not want to be placed nor will I accept a position where I am the target of one side or another.” And, this week, his detractors are trumpeting a 2005 speech in Adelaide, Australia, in which he cited the impact of U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq and asserted that “we tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than Al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.”

The stakes are high in the battle to define Rauf as an interfaith leader or terrorist sympathizer, as the controversy over the proposed Islamic center has quickly turned him into the most famous imam in America. How he is perceived by the wider public could play a key role not only in how Americans feel about the project — polls continue to show large majorities opposed — but also in influencing U.S. attitudes toward Islam in the years to come.

So far on his State Department-funded trip to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, Rauf reportedly has avoided answering questions about the controversial project, stressing instead his efforts to “Americanize” Islam and find a formula for Muslims to stay to true to their faith while assimilating into Western societies. The Bush administration sent him on a similar trip.

In an interview Sunday with ABC, Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, connected these efforts to the drive to build the Islamic center. She also said that her husband’s comment in 2001 about the United States being an “accessory” to the World Trade Center attacks was a reference to support that the United States provided to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in the 1980s. Regarding Hamas, the website of Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative states: “Hamas is both a political movement and a terrorist organization. When Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror, those actions should be condemned. Imam Feisal has forcefully and consistently condemned all forms of terrorism, including those committed by Hamas, as un-Islamic.”

Khan appeared on “This Week With Christiane Amanpour” with Rabbi Joy Levitt, the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan. Both women said that Levitt and the JCC have been advising the effort to build the Islamic center. Levitt said that the JCC had invited Khan and her husband to speak at the JCC in September, and called on other Jewish and Christian community centers to do likewise “because clearly what this whole controversy has unleashed is a tremendous amount of misinformation, lack of knowledge about Islam that we need to address.”

Such appearances seem unlikely to sway at least one opponent of building an Islamic center so close to Ground Zero at this time — Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father and a computer science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Pearl told JTA that while he was “touched” by Rauf’s appearance and speech at his son’s memorial, “many Muslim leaders offered their condolences at the time.” More to the point, Pearl said he is discouraged that the Muslim leadership has not followed through on what he hoped would come from his son’s death.

“At the time, I truly believed Danny’s murder would be a turning point in the reaction of the civilized world toward terrorism,” said Pearl, who engages in public conversations with Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies professor at American University, on behalf of the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding. The established Muslim leadership in the United States, Pearl said, “has had nine years to build up trust by proactively resisting anti-American ideologies of victimhood, anger, and entitlement. Reactions to the mosque project indicate that they were not too successful in this endeavor.”

He views the controversy to be a vote of no confidence in the organized Muslim leadership, not specifically against Rauf.

“If I were [New York] Mayor Bloomberg I would reassert their right to build the mosque, but I would expend the same energy trying to convince them to put it somewhere else,” he said. “Public reaction tells us that it is not the right time, and that it will create further animosity and division in this country.”

Israeli scholar Yossi Klein Halevi is another journalist throwing his hat in the imam’s bio ring.

He met Rauf in September 2001 at Drew University in Madison at a symposium for “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” Halevi’s chronicle of the year he spent learning about the three Abrahamic faiths.

Rauf was, Halevi told JTA, “one of the very few Muslim leaders who responded positively to my book and was willing to endorse it publicly even though it was written by an Israeli and from a Zionist perspective.”

Halevi called the stance “generous and kind,” and added “if he is not a dialogue partner for us then there is virtually no one with whom we can speak in the Muslim world.”

That said, Halevi, too, is opposed to the Ground Zero mosque, saying it is “not an effective way of bringing Islam into the mainstream, and mainstreaming Islam in America is Rauf’s goal.”

A better idea, he said, would be an interfaith center that would include a church, a mosque, and a synagogue as well as a common space for people of all faiths and none.

Like Pearl, Halevi believes focusing on the imam’s personality is misplaced.

“The question of building a mosque at Ground Zero is traumatic enough,” Halevi said. “We don’t need to create an artificial issue around the man behind it.”

JTA

 
 
 
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