November 28, 2010

Wikileaks, #cablegate, and a new dictatorship of information

What to make of the latest document dump via Wikileaks? The information is very interesting, partly because of which diplomat or world leader is saying what. 

Perhaps this level of detail isn’t necessary to drawing intelligent conclusions about international developments and policies. Most likely, the fact of who said what about whom will undermine some relationships going forward. Clearly, few if any crimes of note have been revealed thus far in the release of U.S. diplomatic cables. 

For some of us who fancy ourselves to be in the know, some of these revelations reduce the advantage of our “inside information”. I have heard from Arab officials of their sympathy for a U.S. or Israeli air strike on Iran, for example, but now that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is quoted to that effect in an official U.S. document, any account I can give seems both obvious and minor by comparison.

For those diplomats still serving in the posts from which they faithfully sent these leaked cables, their ability to continue performing their duties may face new barriers. How does one pass through a receiving line when everyone knows you reported to Washington on rumors about the hostess? 

The long-term danger is that cable traffic might get dumbed down to “just the facts”, eliminating the nuance that makes diplomatic decisions and the eventual history files so rich and sophisticated. With email, Twitter and blogs, however the sharing of information and opinions has already erased a certain level of privacy and thoughtfulness in ways that are probably irreversible. “Crowd-sourcing” may be great for many things, but it does not drive the powers of human imagination and creativity. 

Without denigrating or demonizing the Wikileaks team, who have definitely tapped into a fascinating set of documents, it is difficult to see justification for the wholesale dissemination of privileged communications. Will a military crisis or natural disaster be averted by this? Will democracy and freedom triumph over evil? Was this really done for the public good? 

In trying to stop a few would-be terrorists (which the evidence suggests it has failed to do), the Transportation Security Administration proposes to body-scan or feel-search every single airline passenger -- hoarding assets that could otherwise be devoted to actually catching terrorists. Is the Wikileaks "no more secrets" approach any less of a distraction from the real crimes of state taking place around the world, under our noses, while we immerse ourselves in mountains of cables?

Wikileaks is literally self-appointed and answerable to no one, so its leaders cannot claim to be acting in anyone’s interests but their own -- unless they purport to be virtual dictators. A dictatorship of information? And from the noise of thousands upon thousands of cables and revelations, will we be any wiser? Will our policymakers become any more sober, or less? Time to reach for my Bose noise-canceling head phones...

November 23, 2010

Almost a Manifesto

Just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it will come to pass, and just because something is unthinkable is no guarantee it won’t happen. 
Israeli-Palestinian peace seems to be a no-brainer, especially 17 years after Oslo. And yet, most Israelis are convinced that Oslo “failed”. What failed was the U.S. Congress, among others, to support the process politically and financially when the two adversaries were ready to move forward. Rabin knew that Israelis and Palestinians couldn't live together, so he sought to separate as quickly as possible under some diplomatic cover of night. The window of opportunity was wasted once Rabin was assassinated, demonstrating that at certain points in history it really can’t be bigger than one or a handful of individuals.
Reflecting on the 47th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination (which happened a bit before I was born), Cold War brinkmanship could so easily have led to full-scale nuclear war, if not for a few cool heads. Even for those of us old enough to remember just the 1970s and 1980s, the blanket of nuclear terror and the despair of Soviet-bloc police states are inconceivable in hindsight. One must travel to North Korea to grasp what I experienced as a young boy during one long summer in Ceaucescu’s Romania. 
The idea that things can get out of hand and that leaders and followers can lose touch with reality seems preposterous, and yet this happens with frightening regularity right here in the United States -- fear, paranoia, suspicion, hatred, willing suspension of disbelief. In ever-widening circles, the subversion of basic liberties and freedom masquerades as a triumph of American values. The Cold War may have ended, but history continues and our intellectual and spiritual struggle for genuine democracy and enlightenment is a daily challenge, even when we choose (yes, it is a choice) to ignore it.
Even as the cult of self-enrichment and self-absorption metastasizes throughout our political culture, many Americans stubbornly and proudly maintain the ethic of self-sacrifice and common good which JFK tapped, celebrated, and sanctified. For those of us, the purpose of government is to make America and the world a better place, because we have a purpose that must go beyond ourselves. At no other time in nearly a century has this assumption been so tested and demeaned. And yet, at no other time has it been as meaningful or critical.
President Kennedy famously said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
We have been to the moon, but we should still avoid the easy answers and the convenient black-and-white analysis, or the obvious path of polarization. We do these things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard...” Otherwise, we humans are wasting some valuable space back here on Earth.

November 18, 2010

Why not caring about peace may be good for Israel

A few months, ago, many pro-Israel voices were raised against Time Magazine for its cover story, "Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace." How was this article anti-Israel? How did it hurt Israel? 

In fact, it raised the bar for what Americans, Europeans and ultimately Palestinians might feel they need to offer in exchange for a deal worthy of Israel's interest. If the perception is that Israelis don't feel any urgency about peace, doesn't this strengthen the bargaining position of any Israeli government?

Given their own public and private skepticism, why should Israelis expect the media to look the other way? These days, Time may not represent the highest class of journalism, but for anyone who's been in Israel lately, they seem to have gotten this story right. Israelis are moving on with their lives and reaching new milestones every day.

With the U.S. offer now being finalized to secure a 90-day -- non-renewable -- Israeli settlement freeze, including a $3 billion F-35 deal, perhaps the Israeli Government owes Time a fat commission.

November 17, 2010

CWB quote of the day

"Jewish continuity" isn't a good enough reason to promote Jewish continuity.

November 15, 2010

Stop trying to convince Iran - just focus on stopping it

Especially since this month's midterm election gains by Republicans in Congress, President Obama has been getting much public advice to make sure Iran understands that a military strike against it is a credible threat. That can't hurt, but it misses the point.

My friend Nir Boms published a new piece on Iran, showing how Iran's economy is starting to go critical. Whether by sanctions or domestic policies, Iran's decline points up an important reality about that country's illicit nuclear program (and one with which Nir may or may not agree).

As much as Americans and Israelis may hope for a military strike that miraculously takes out Iran's far-flung and dug-in facilities, this would actually be the best boost for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his clerical backers. Iranian public opinion is clearly slanted against him, which is why he had to rig last year's election. Following his crackdown on post-election demonstrators and opposition leaders, and with daily life impacted by economic misery, a "Zionist" attack would be his deus ex machina.

If Iran does get too close to achieving a dangerous nuclear capability, a military strike may be unavoidable, given the costs of inaction. In the meantime, though, the Iranian regime is unlikely to abandon the nuclear program on its own (nor will it allow open inspections). The sanctions will not convince the regime, but they are definitely depriving the regime of capital and public support.

Whether the Islamic Republic runs out of money first, or is somehow overthrown (which wouldn't by itself end Iran's nuclear program), our default strategy should be to DEPRIVE the regime of its capacity to continue, not to CONVINCE it.

Iran is not the Soviet Union, and not only because it is not a rational, predictable actor. The existential threat Soviet ICBMs once posed to the United States was two orders of magnitude above the hypothetical threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Mutually Assured Destruction and nuclear deterrence theory are poor guides to dealing with today's Islamic Republic and its opportunistic regional ambitions.

In the end, Iran will not be deterred by the threat of a military strike, no matter how credible or severe. Iran's quest can only be denied, whether by the impact of economic weapons or by an actual military strike.

The most important mission of the military planning on Iran is to mean business, not to "look" like we mean business.

November 14, 2010

Israel gets paid to advance its own interests

Congratulations are owed to the Government of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu got a $3 billion U.S. fighter jet deal, plus more, just for a three-month, non-renewable settlement freeze. Whether it works or not, the freeze is meant to advance Israel's long-term security under the assumption that peace with the Palestinians is both possible and useful to the State of Israel.

Actually, Israel gets already $3 billion a year in U.S. assistance anyway, because they gave up Sinai 30 years ago and made peace with Egypt. Netanyahu can declare victory here, and Israelis can continue without a serious peace process for as long as they don't think it's worth it (or until they believe it's real). Maybe if Israel had a credible and robust left wing, there would be something to disagree with - instead of an irrelevant bunch of has-beens (ie, exactly what most people assumed Likid would have been by now). Their biggest asset remains the visionary and eloquent President of Israel, Shimon Peres, who must be 90 years old. He's the oldest of the bunch, and the most creative by far.

When countries must be bribed into making peace, that's bad enough. When they must be bribed just to return to the negotiating table, one has to wonder if the stars are properly aligned for such diplomacy. The Obama administration deserves credit for trying, and for maintaining the one key ingredient for superpower peace diplomacy - the will to believe.

Shai's Quote of the Day

On days when I don't have a full-fledged blog post, I'll be putting out one of my own one-liners. Here's the first one:

In this economy, the thought of living on fixed income sounds very appealing.

November 12, 2010

Has Obama stopped beating his Israeli wife? Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love Obama

I've just been asked whether President Obama will continue making life difficult for Israel as a result of last week’s Republican victory in the midterm elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. My first response was that it’s a bit like asking whether he’s stopped beating his wife -- how does one answer such a loaded question?
The very premise is unsubstantiated. Whatever the Israeli public thinks of Barack Obama, the fact is that his only friction with Israel has involved some personal interactions with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Aside from tactical and strategic miscalculations (or worse) over the priority of Israeli construction over the Green Line, the man has been objectively “good for Israel”. President Clinton is still highly regarded in Israel, despite his famous tarmac standoff with then-Prime Minister Netanyahu at LAX, and all sorts of arm-twisting. 
There may never be a U.S. President with as much gut feeling for Israel as George W. Bush. Yet for all his love, empathy and resolve, Israel’s diplomatic and strategic position eroded during his eight years in the White House -- even after 9/11, with the wind at his back. My point here is not to point fingers, just to point out that what Israel really needs in an American President is neither a lover nor a cheerleader, but a provider.
And just what has President Obama provided for Israel? The week after last summer’s Flotilla fiasco (not Israel’s fault, but definitely not helpful), the Obama administration went to the mat in the United Nations Security Council and extracted new sanctions against Iran -- it’s doubtful President Bush would have had the wherewithal to get any new measures past the Russian and Chinese vetoes. The President has also implemented additional unilateral measures -- or tightened the enforcement of existing rules -- against Iran’s nuclear program.

November 10, 2010

Build in the West Bank, just don't call it "Jerusalem".

This week's announcement that Israel will construct hundreds of new apartments in "East Jerusalem" was obviously not helpful to advancing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but it was not intended to be. It's also doubtful that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was looking for such a development at this time.

A look at any accurate map of the region, however, reveals that the "East Jerusalem neighborhood" of Har Homa is neither east nor Jerusalem (hint: it's the summit adjacent to Rachel's Tomb and labeled "Jabal Abu Ghunaym"). It's Bethlehem, and would have been packed with Palestinian homes had the Arab population been allowed natural expansion. 

I remember emerging from an all-night consultation over 20 years ago at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, at Jerusalem's southern tip, and gazing further south in the crisp morning light to the deserted high ground dividing us from Bethlehem. Little did I realize, that high ground was none other than Har Choma.

Israelis may choose to build in integral parts of Jerusalem that are beyond the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice lines), they may decide to build in areas that are clearly the West Bank, and they may need to limit Palestinian construction for security or political reasons. And the Tomb of Rachel, which (judging by the map) catches morning shade from Har Homa, is irrevocably a Jewish and not a Palestinian shrine. But there is no way I can call Har Homa "Jerusalem" without contradicting the Torah account that Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.

Historically, geographically, geologically, Har Homa is not Jerusalem. Getting Israel's supporters to believe that it is only undermines our credibility and our capacity to advance Israel's case in Washington, at the United Nations, and with governments that might otherwise be helpful on a variety of issues -- including the effort to counter Iran's rogue nuclear program. If it's really so important to make a stand on Har Homa, it should be worth braving the truth.

November 8, 2010

Republicans - not Russian into anything in lame-duck session

If Republicans are looking to close off foreign policy as a post-midterm political outlet for President Obama, their renewed toughness on START and other U.S.-Russia issues may be about more than long-running suspicions against the Kremlin. 

The best way to humble the Administration could be to withhold cooperation on the very issues it has identified as its own priorities. In this case, that means pouring cold water on this President's "reset" strategy, even as an enhanced bilateral relationship has begun to bear fruit for such bipartisan U.S. goals as Mideast peace talks, Iran sanctions, counter-terrorism, and civilian nuclear cooperation.

President Bush also experienced pushback on Russia ties, from some Republicans as well as Democrats, notably on his efforts to expand trade. But it's doubtful either political party would have held up the new START teaty, a reasonably straightforward replacement for the recently expired -- and demonstrably effective -- START II. 

The "123" agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation will proceed despite the partisan positioning within Congress, entering into effect this month unless somehow a deadlocked Senate adopts a Resolution of Disapproval. That's the advantage of an "agreement" over a "treaty" (which would require affirmative Senate ratification). 

November 2, 2010

Child porn reveals the gap in human dignity

Another story out today about an otherwise upstanding community leader, who downloaded nine hours of child pornography out of "curiosity". NINE HOURS. How can we talk about women's empowerment and professionalism when this kind of stuff is just scratching the surface? How much filth is floating around out there, while we expect everyone to behave ethically and fairly.

One under-reported finding from the Volcker Commission's investigation into the "Oil for Food" scandal five years ago: the overwhelming volume of porn found on the office computers of United Nations staff. Porn on one's home computer is one thing, but it has no place on an official computer and should be grounds for immediate dismissal. Child porn is simply and absolutely unacceptable on this planet. Human trafficking and workplace discrimination are inversely and perversely connected. Human dignity begins at home.

November 1, 2010

Government Actions to Combat Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region (delivered at U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing, June 16, 2004)

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Commission. I also wish to recognize Representative Cardin as the Ranking Member, and your fellow Commissioners from the Senate and House. Although this is my first time testifying personally, NCSJ’s relationship with the Commission goes back to before the Commission’s founding. Mark Levin, NCSJ’s Executive Director, wanted to be here today, but is at this moment participating in a celebration in New York marking 40 years of activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Just as the Soviet Jewry movement – yourselves included – changed the nature of U.S. foreign policy and European diplomacy, and motivated the establishment of the OSCE, it also profoundly affected the American Jewish community. Our latest challenge has been to marshal European leaders and institutions to defeat the monster of anti-Semitism on the European continent – the first serious effort in history, 60 years after World War II.

The Commission’s leadership has been instrumental in pulling together the multi-disciplinal U.S. team. I could easily spend my allotted time describing the important role that the Commission and each of you, and your staff members have played, but fortunately NCSJ has had many opportunities to do just that. However, I will note that the Commission effectively launched the OSCE track on anti-Semitism through a similar hearing over two years ago, just before the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly met in Berlin. It was the leadership of the Commissioners that mobilized your colleagues from European parliaments to adopt the OSCE’s first stand-alone document on anti-Semitism, which was used as a model for the 2003 Maastricht Ministerial Declaration and – ultimately – for the April 2004 Berlin Declaration. At every step, and in every consultation and strategy meeting, your role has been pivotal.

Remarks at International Conference on "The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust"(delivered Dec. 16, 2009)

When I first visited East Berlin in 1971, as a small child, it never occurred to me that I would live to see the Wall collapse and with it the Soviet Union. Even more remote was the concept that I might return here three decades later to participate in an international conference where 55 governments joined in a declaration to combat anti-Semitism, or that yesterday I would participate in a wreath-laying by Jewish leaders at the monument to Soviet liberators of World War II. And here, I stand before you, those same community leaders, including many of the survivors, liberators and heroes. Thank you for this honor.

History is surprising, and yet not so strange as it might seem. Jews were instrumental in winning the World War, and also in defeating the excesses of Soviet tyranny decades later. Jews are leading the way for a religious, cultural and social renaissance in Russia and other successor states, indeed, across Europe and in the United States and Israel.

Memorial Tribute to Alan Senitt (delivered July 17, 2006)

Before I begin, I want to express my appreciation, to Shelley Rood of Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz’s office and to the Forward Together team, for arranging this evening’s sad commemoration. I also apologize that I have nothing original to say. But some thoughts bear repeating.

There is no consolation. There is no compensation. Not in this realm.

Until a week ago, I was part of a fortunate group of people Alan had contacted to get together with in Washington. Aside from the pure joy of spending time with Alan, he was a thinker and a doer. The Union of Jewish Students, Board of Deputies, Coexistence Trust, International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians – politics. And always for a purpose.

Alan was not just a “young leader” or a potential leader. He was a leader. Alan was not a participant or a bystander. He made things happen. He didn’t show up. He showed how.

Alan took on one of the greatest challenges of a leader: creating something new and impactful. More than once. Every day.

Each tragedy is severe. But in every generation, we may lose a small number of individuals whose absence is felt even more deeply as time goes forward. I can think of a handful of people during my own lifetime whose vision and commitment were unique and irreplaceable. Whatever their age.

As much as Alan deserved to realize the full potential of his gifts and his spirit, we as a community needed him with us. To those of us who continue in these causes, Alan’s sacrifice will be a growing void as we face new struggles and new opportunities that Alan would have seen through – even years from now. Years from now.

It will be our burden, our task, to fill this void with our own deeds, inspired by Alan’s example and by his memory. Alan did so much to improve and repair the world, and his work was far from complete. May our own efforts be worthy of his name and his friendship.

Then Why Be Jewish? (originally posted July 21, 2009)

In Natan Sharansky's first interview as Jewish Agency head, he seems to say that instilling strong Jewish identity among young Jews in the West is important for aliyah. U.S. community leaders think Jewish identity is important for demographics.
I still believe Israel is important for Jewish identity and Jewish identity is important for... Jewish identity. Why else have Jews in the first place? If we are indeed the "chosen people", we weren't chosen for numerical superiority (barely 13 million today) and it wasn't because they needed to fill empty tents in Canaan. Maybe there was a higher purpose, and living in Israel is the logical fulfillment of that purpose, but is it the purpose?
If we don't all move to Israel, is Jewish identity primarily useful to ensure we'll marry other Jews, and raise Jewish kids who will marry other Jews, etc.? That doesn't seem worth all the trouble. So, I disagree with that line of thinking.
I believe we need to stop making excuses and justifications for Jewish education and Jewish content. It is what it is, and that should be enough.

All Jews share responsibility for Rabin's death (originally published Nov. 10, 1995)

I helped kill Yitzhak Rabin.

Not only Yigal Amir or the movements that helped motivate him played a role. Not only the rabbis who called on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders, and not just those who ruled it a halachic imperative to kill Rabin.

Not only the Likud opposition, which neglected to renounce its support for extremist anti-peace activists. Not only the Israeli expatriates who physically attacked Israeli officials overseas, nor the American activists who applauded such violence. Not only the leading rabbis who carried the flag of American Jewry to Jerusalem and proclaimed that Rabin was violating God's laws -- and not the nominal leaders who failed to restrain them.

No. We all share responsibility.

Read full op-ed at JWeekly.

Back to the Future: Celebrating Refuseniks, Activists, and 'Ordinary' People (orginally posted mid-2002)

Not all the community leaders I get to meet in the successor states were once dissidents — most 'refuseniks' as soon as they had the chance. I have had the opportunity to tell some of these veterans, however, how strange it feels to fly over and teach or inform them of organizational and political issues, representing the gargantuan Organized American Jewish Community, when these are the champions I rallied and campaigned for as a child and a college student. Who am I to instruct them?

50 years after the Night of the Murdered Poets (originally published Aug. 12, 2002)

Fifty years ago, on August 12, 1952, 13 prominent Jewish intellectuals were murdered in Moscow on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Although the world learned of this travesty in March 1956, reports had filtered out during the prisoners’ extended incarceration that something was amiss. The Jewish world, and no less the world at large, did little at the time to investigate their status or protest their incarceration.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, created by the Soviets to promote U.S. support during World War II, was a group of Jews loyal to the Soviet cause and was by all accounts a success. Two of the Committee’s organizers – Isaac Fefer and Solomon Mikhoels – conducted a seven-month American tour in 1943, speaking to mass audiences including a packed rally in New York’s Polo Grounds, and gaining warm receptions from leading politicians, entertainers, and intellectuals. Later, as the aging Stalin consolidated his post-war power, he saw the Committee’s international work as a threat, and its Jewish flavor offered a prototype and pretext for stepped up persecution of Soviet Jews. Fifteen Soviet Jews were arrested in connection with the Committee from 1948 to 1949, with their interrogation and trial lasting until July 1952.

Fifty years ago, the lessons of the Holocaust were still raw and the lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement were yet to be claimed. Yet Itzik Fefer, in the chilling transcript of the secret trial [reprinted in Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, editors, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, Yale 2001] answered the presiding officer’s challenges with no expectation of reward – quite the opposite. When asked, “Were the Jews really the only ones to suffer during the Great Patriotic War?” he replied unapologetically, “Yes, you will not find another people that has suffered as much as the Jewish people. Six million Jews were destroyed out of a total of 18 million – one-third. This was a great sacrifice. We had a right to our tears, and we fought against fascism.”

U.S. Elections Countdown: 4 Weeks (originally published Oct. 13, 2008)

[Here's what I wrote to my European colleagues two years ago...]


The elections and all other aspects of U.S. life are now overshadowed by the financial crisis. The Jewish community, centered in New York City, is even more overwhelmed. During the past two weeks, Senator John McCain’s uneven and “maverick” response has done little to reassure many voters - Republicans or Democrats - that he would oversee the U.S. economy effectively as President of the United States. At a time of extreme volatility, voters and investors are seeking constancy and stability rather than boldness.

Although Senator Barack Obama was boosted in the primary campaign by his pledges to accept the constraints of federal funding, his subsequent decision to “opt out” has allowed him to dwarf McCain’s rapidly eroding campaign account using online and other innovative fundraising strategies. With only four weeks remaining until Election Day, Obama is able to take the fight to states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004, leaving McCain to make some difficult last-minute decisions rather than launch his own initiatives.

Israel, a fall guy unto the nations? (originally published Sept. 22, 2010)

Let’s not be fooled.

The opening weeks of the United Nations General Assembly feature numerous side meetings between Jewish organizations and dozens of visiting dignitaries. Many of the Europeans, and possibly some Arab delegates as well, will be expressing sympathy if not encouragement for Israel’s potential need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

One prominent Western leader has looked me in the face and said that if the rest of the world does not succeed in halting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, we must all accept that Israel will act on its own. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States recently said publicly that an Israeli strike would be preferable to a nuclear Iran. Wow.

As governments increasingly support international sanctions to punish Iran or prevent it from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon, they also believe that a direct military strike may ultimately be the only way to stop a resolute, and resourceful, rogue regime. And they are all praying that Israel will avoid involving them in any strike it may carry out -- entirely on its own initiative, of course.

Read full op-ed at

Beyond rallies, how you can stop Iran (originally published Sept. 2, 2009)

(with Micah D. Hapern)

Alongside many heads of state and prime ministers, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly later this month in New York. Jews will turn out across the street to raise voices in protest. Jews have a legitimate concern about Iran. So should everyone else in the world. Iran’s nuclear program and ongoing support for terrorism are a threat to most nations.

One of the most effective vehicles for countering Iran is getting non-Jews and non-Americans to take public positions.

Read full op-ed at

Khatami Or Not, Don't Count on Iran to Change (originally posted Feb. 8, 2009)

Mohammad Khatami, the reputed modernist reformer, has announced his candidacy for President of Iran. A former president himself, he will make a formidable challenger to the incumbent, firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Ironically, had the more presentable Khatami been president during the past few years, Iran would probably be considerably further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, it would have wrested greater diplomatic advantage from the toxic U.S. presence in Iraq, and he would have more wisely invested Iran’s windfall from the transitory spike in oil revenues.

Kahatami definitely knows how to talk the multicultural talk of the West. Yet, even if he does “walk the walk” as well (a big “if”), it will not be enough to alter Iran’s substantive behavior and core interests.  Iran has never been ruled by its President. The ultimate voice on national direction and Grand Strategy is the Supreme Leader, beginning with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and continuing with Ayatollah Khamenei since Khomeini’s death. Neither leader has stepped far from the radical inversion of classical Shia submission, favoring confrontation and national struggle in the aftermath of the ancient defeat of Imam Hussein.  Terrorism, opposition to Arab-Israeli reconciliation, regional gamesmanship and the quest for nuclear weapons – all have continued regardless of who sits in the president’s office, which faction dominates in parliament, what the proverbial journalistic “mood on the street” may be, or whether new terms of dialogue are proffered to Washington.

On "Ground Zero mosque," religious freedom is... simple (originally posted Aug. 6, 2010)

(with Joseph K. Grieboski)

The motto atop the Anti-Defamation League’s website reads, “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people… to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”What could compel such a venerable institution to set this aside and oppose an Islamic coexistence center and mosque located two blocks from the World Trade Center site?

According to ADL’s National Director, the anguish of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” America is a free country, where everyone and anyone is entitled to a bigoted position. But the rest of us need not follow or even pre-empt those positions.

While it is difficult to measure how much an organization like the Anti-Defamation League represents American Jews, it is fairly easy to judge whether it is true to its own prime directive.

"The potential implications of this decision for general religious practice in this country are significant and disturbing." – This 1997 statement by the Anti-Defamation League reacted to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was unconstitutional. In the same statement, the ADL leadership said, "We are particularly disappointed with this decision since RFRA merely sought to restore the 30-year-old standard requiring states to show a 'compelling interest' in order to justify a restriction on an individual's free exercise of religion." Subsequent legislation has been found constitutional, so the ADL got its wish.

It remains difficult to imagine how any human rights or religious-oriented organization could find the time to come out against a religious facility devoted to coexistence. Many of those politicians opposing the Cordoba House would usually insist that outsiders allow local government to decide matters from abortion and gun rights to the delineating of electoral districts. Religious freedom is no less of a right under the U.S. Constitution. ADL's National Director told The Jerusalem Post, “The fact that there are bigots who espouse a position that you have doesn’t mean you’re a bigot.” But it does impose a responsibility to recognize that "nuanced" messages work to bolster the bigots at the expense of their targets. The first step in promoting reconciliation is calling on the bigots and those reinforcing them to stand down. Full stop. No nuance. Loud and clear.