In Europe, the far right doesn’t quite know what to make of Trump


Donald Trump’s xenophobic views are neither new nor particularly shocking in Europe, where fears of jihadism and the challenges of illegal immigration are blowing winds into the sails of a rising far right.

Although the Republican presidential hopeful’s statements on immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims are often quite moderate in comparison to the rhetoric of some popular European nationalists, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-establishment image have earned him a certain following in European far-right circles.

“I hope Donald Trump will be the next US President,” Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician whose party has for months been leading in the polls, wrote on Twitter in December. “Good for America, good for Europe. We need brave leaders.”

“I think Donald Trump is a very dangerous man,” Pieter Grun, a Wilders voter, said earlier this month at a rally here against Muslim immigration into the Netherlands.

Trump “gets it right on Islam but is so irrational that he could lead us into a nuclear war,” said Grun, who was holding up a sign reading “RapeFugees stay away, not welcome.” “I don’t want his little fingers on the trigger.”

Grun’s doubts about Trump are shared by some of the leaders of the European far right. Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson told Breitbart of Trump: “He’s great at making speeches, but as a politician and a world leader? No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s UKIP far-right party, distanced himself from Trump following the candidate’s controversial call in December for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

“With this comment he’s gone too far,” Farage said, adding it would be “punishing a lot of very good people because of the actions of a few.”

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, had a similar message.

“Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?” she demanded when questioned about Trump’s statement on shutting out Muslims. “I defend all the French people in France, regardless of their origin or religion.”

Her niece, lawmaker Marion Maréchal-Le Pen – a vocal supporter of National Front’s bid to have France leave the European Union — said she found Trump’s preference for American isolationism “an interesting foreign policy.” But she called his proposed ban “stupid and completely unfeasible” during a radio interview last month.

In his stump speeches, Trump talks about building a border wall with Mexico, tells of American citizens murdered by undocumented immigrants and blames an “influx of foreign workers” for holding down the wages and contributing to high unemployment among “poor and working-class Americans.”

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric resonates with more radical far-right figures, including Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founder of the National Front. Jean-Marie Le Pen said in February that if he were an American, he would vote for Trump.

Ilias Panagiotaros, a lawmaker for Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, was so charmed with Trump he uploaded to YouTube last month a video of himself discussing Trump’s virtues. He praised Trump’s response to critics after Trump retweeted a quote by Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler’s Italian ally.

When called out by reporters for passing along the quote — “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep” — Trump replied, “But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”

Trump has another fan in Maurice Roos of The Hague, another participant in the anti-Islam rally organized earlier this month in the Dutch administrative capital by the local branch of PEGIDA — a protest movement that began in Germany in 2014 “against the Islamization of the West,” words that are part of its German-language acronym.

Trump’s inexperience in government, Roos said, “only works in his favor. Our educated, eloquent politicians have brought us to the point of bankruptcy and brought in more than a million Muslims into Europe at a time of rising Islamist terrorism. It’s time for a different school of thought.”

Tatjana Schimanski, a German senior member of PEGIDA, also spoke positively about Trump.

“He’s definitely not an intellectual on the caliber we’re used to expect from leaders in Europe,” she said, “but he’s a success story. He’s kind of a one-man PEGIDA.”

Schimanski said the politician she respects the most is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was educated in Oxford and has written his master’s thesis on the Polish Solidarity movement. Orban earned headlines earlier this year for attempting to block a European Union plan to force member states to shelter refugees and, tellingly, erected a fence along Hungary‘s southern border to keep them out.

The duality on Trump in far-right circles stems from the “American way in which he delivers his messages rather than from any real shock with what he’s actually saying,” said Wim Kortenoeven, a former lawmaker for Wilders’ Party for Freedom and currently a political consultant specializing in defense issues and the Middle East.

Both Wilders – who suggested the Netherlands leave the United Nations — and Trump are “into making unfeasible and radical statements to pander to voters,” Kortenoeven said. Yet Wilders and other European rightist leaders are “more ideological than Trump, with his self-aggrandizing and flaunting of his wealth,” he said, adding: “This comes off as alien, a little gauche and blunt” on a continent where philosophers are mainstream cultural icons who are invited on prime-time television talk shows.

“Like many Europeans, I fear the spread of militant Islam more than anything,” Kortenoeven said. “But I don’t think shouting empty slogans that are as inapplicable as they are stupid will help us in any way, so I don’t support Trump.”

But Kortenoeven, who used to work for Holland’s main Jewish pro-Israel group, distrusts Trump also because of Israel, he said.

“As a real-estate man, Trump, who has zero understanding of the Middle East and foreign relations, sees Israel as a real-estate problem — to sell off the minute it suits him,” Kortenoeven said.

‘Clarity’ or inconsistency? Conservatives debate surging Gingrich


On the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich has given his fellow Republican presidential candidates a wide berth, often going out of his way to praise them. Instead of attacking his rivals, Gingrich has focused his fire on President Obama.

The strategy appears to be paying off.

The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, all but counted out last summer when his frustrated campaign team abandoned him, has come back from the political dead to pull ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls.

Whether Gingrich has been up or down in the polls, one area in which he has been assailing the president’s record is foreign policy, specifically the Middle East.

In a June 12 speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Gingrich said he would bring foreign policy “moral clarity” that the Obama administration has lacked.

“Today the greatest obstacle toward achieving a real and lasting peace is not the strength of the enemy or the unwillingness of Israel to make great sacrifices for the sake of peace,” he said. “It is the inability on the part of the Obama administration and certain other world leaders to tell the truth about terrorism, be honest about the publicly stated goals of our common enemies and devise policies appropriate to an honest accounting of reality.”

Gingrich’s RJC speech came at the nadir of his campaign, when key campaign staff left him for, among other reasons, his decision to take a long Greek holiday when other candidates were busy stumping.

The speech reflected the fact that one of Gingrich’s most stubborn redoubts of support has been among Jewish conservatives, many of whom were still appreciative of the checks he put on the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s when he was House speaker. Chief among the checks was a law that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gingrich has said that his first act as president would be to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Some major Republican Jewish donors committed to other candidates only after it seemed that Gingrich was not really in the running. But Gingrich is not counted out any longer. According to polls, he leads Romney in early caucus and primary states such as Florida, Iowa and South Carolina, as well as nationally among Republicans.

Gingrich’s surge has resulted in a new focus on his past statements and actions. A veteran of decades in public life, Gingrich has a long record that his opponents are now trawling through for ammunition to use against him.

His foreign policy views have not been immune from such examinations. While Gingrich says that as president he would bring moral clarity to American foreign policy, critics say he often sends mixed signals on the Middle East.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post columnist who backs Romney, dedicated a recent blog post to picking through what she depicted as Gingrich’s flip-flopping on the Iraq War. Rubin quoted reports showing Gingrich, as a member of the Defense Policy Board, helping to plan the war in 2002, and then pronouncing Iraq a no-win proposition in December 2003, when support for the war was still high.

Rubin said this, as well as Gingrich’s equivocation in 2006 on the American military surge that eventually drew Iraq back from chaos, was his “worst betrayal” of Republicans and demonstrated his willingness to place a premium “on political expediency over national security.”

More recently, Gingrich has faced criticism over apparent inconsistencies on Libya. On March 7 he accused Obama of waffling, saying that as president he would immediately and unilaterally impose a no-fly zone. When Obama did just that later in the month, Gingrich said intervention was a mistake.

In a Facebook post, Gingrich attempted to explain: He wrote that by the time of his earlier remark, Obama had already put American prestige on the line by saying that it was time for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to go. And therefore at that point, Gingrich wrote, “anything short of a successful, public campaign for regime change would have been seen as a defeat for the United States.” But he suggested that prior to the president’s statement, there were preferable alternatives to American military intervention.

Commentators attribute Gingrich’s surge to his strong performance in debates. The former history professor and a best-selling nonfiction writer appears to command a wealth of knowledge on wide range of topics.

“The former speaker of the House is a dab [DAB?] hand at drawing listeners in, for good reason—he showers them with details, facts and history in a degree no candidate in recent memory has even approached,” Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote. “Audiences have a way of rewarding such trust.”

Other prominent Jewish conservatives, however, are skeptical of Gingrich’s intellectualism and where it has led him.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer slammed Gingrich for a 2008 television advertisement that he made alongside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for action against climate change—an ad for which Gingrich has since expressed regret.

In his column, Krauthammer wrote that Gingrich had made the ad because he was “[t]hinking of himself as a grand world-historical figure, attuned to the latest intellectual trend (preferably one with a tinge of futurism and science, like global warming), demonstrating his own incomparable depth and farsightedness.”

Krauthammer raised concerns about Gingrich’s electability and described him and Romney as “two significantly flawed front-runners.”

Liberals also take issue with some of Gingrich’s manifold political enthusiasms.

Matthew Duss, director of the Middle East program at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that Gingrich’s alliance with elements in the conservative movement that see Shariah, or Islamic religious law, as a threat to the American way of life could have profound foreign policy consequences.

“He’s presented the challenges in apocalyptic terms, which is a real problem,” Duss said.

Gingrich’s freewheeling rhetoric has raised eyebrows, too, in the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee in May 2010 called on the Republican leadership to condemn Gingrich’s claim in a 2010 book that the Obama administration poses as “great a threat to America as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.”

Gingrich at times also appears tone deaf to certain pro-Israel sensibilities. Asked during a Nov. 22 GOP debate whether he would come to Israel’s defense if it should attack Iran, he said, “If my choice was to collaborate with the Israelis on a conventional campaign or force them to use their nuclear weapons, it will be an extraordinarily dangerous world if, out of a sense of being abandoned, they went nuclear and used multiple nuclear weapons in Iran. That would be a future none of us would want to live through.”

Israel’s oft-stated policy is that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, under any circumstance. Moreover, Israel has cultivated a posture of ambiguity on whether it possesses such weapons.

Referring to Gingrich’s departure from the Israeli line of nuclear ambiguity, Aaron David Miller, a former top Middle East diplomat in Democratic and Republican administrations, suggested that Gingrich could avoid future faux pas as he accrued experienced advisers now that his campaign was reviving.

“His advisers are going to give him a briefing book, he’s going to read it, and he’s going to say to himself, ‘It’s not a good idea I said that,’ ” said Miller, who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Gingrich’s campaign rolled out the foreign policy team earlier this month, as detailed in an article by Foreign Policy magazine’s Josh Rogin. The team appears to be stacked heavily with pro-Israel hawks, including David Wurmser, a former top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and James Woolsey, a former CIA director.

Leading the team is Herman Pirchner, who leads the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington think tank on whose board of advisers Gingrich sits. The think tank’s vice president, Ilan Berman, also is on the Gingrich team, Rogin reported.

Pirchner declined to comment, saying requests for interviews should be routed through the campaign. Multiple requests to the Gingrich campaign for this story went unanswered.

Some Jewish conservatives had praise for the Gingrich campaign’s foreign policy team.

“They leave a strong paper trail,” said Jim Colbert, policy director at the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

It was a team, Colbert said, that would mitigate what he saw as the damage done by the Obama administration’s policy of making Israeli-Arab peace a centerpiece of its Middle East strategy and its practice of criticizing Israel for actions it deemed counterproductive to that effort.

“It’s a team that would move forward with peaceful relations with” other countries in the region, Colbert said, “but the U.S.-Israel relationship would not be dependent on that.”

Sarah Stern, the president of EMET, the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said that Obama’s policy of engagement with autocracies in the region had proven a failure. Both Gingrich and Romney seemed to understand this, she said, as evidenced by the people they chose for their teams.

“The understanding is that there are bad actors in the world and we can’t sit down and have detente with every one,” she said. “Some of us interpret all this openness as weakness.”

Miller said that Gingrich’s “moral clarity” posture may serve him well in the primaries but was not likely to give him much traction in the general election.

Obama has “whacked four times as many bad guys with drones” as President George W. Bush did, Miller said.

“He killed Osama bin-Laden, he’s been much more careful than Bush about the gap between rhetoric and deed, which has been important for U.S. credibility. People feel more secure,” added Miller, who separately has been sharply critical of what he sees as Obama’s overreaching on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Miller suggested that if Gingrich were elected president, he would revise Bush’s “freedom agenda,” pushing democratization but with more caution, and would re-establish the emotional bond with Israel that Miller says Obama lacks.

“He sees Israel through a different filter,” Miller said of Gingrich. “He’s more in line with Reagan, Clinton and Bush, who had an emotional bond with Israel as an ally.”

Opinion: Jews becoming commonplace in conservative ‘new media’


Many reviews already have appeared of “The Undefeated,” the soon-to-be-released documentary about Sarah Palin’s tenure in Alaska.Yet none of them—even in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post or The Washington Post—mentions that nearly all of the film’s many pro-Palin media talking heads are Jews.

The dominant meme that Jews as a group are uncomfortable with Palin or her views seems less than convincing after viewing prominent Members of the Tribe defend her politics and record in elected office. Internet news mogul Andrew Breitbart, nationally syndicated radio talk show host Mark Levin and L.A.’s radio phenom Tammy Bruce, a gay Jewish Palinista with a Tammy’s Army of followers, all deliver full-throated tributes to one of America’s most conservative political figures.

Following a recent Manhattan screening of the director’s cut of “The Undefeated,” I mentioned this to filmmaker Stephen Bannon. He replied that he had not taken note of their Jewishness in choosing to include them. That in itself is significant: Jews have become so commonplace in the conservative new media that the fact of their Jewish identity fails to garner much notice.

One reason may be that Jews tend to be “early adopters” of innovations and were present at the birth of the conservative new media.

Start with Maryland-born muckraker Matt Drudge, the granddaddy of the conservative new media. Since his website’s launch in the mid-1990s, the Drudge Report has retained its place at the top of the new media right and now averages an astounding 30 million “hits” daily, or close to a billion a month. It has a huge influence in setting the agenda for national talk radio and for the conservative commentariat in general.

But Drudge’s influence doesn’t stop there. A Washington Post editor recently conceded that 10 percent to15 percent of his newspaper’s daily online traffic is driven by links from Drudge.

Soon after, conservative voices began emerging within explicitly Jewish new media precincts themselves, notably the pioneering Jewish World Review, started in the mid-1990s by Binyamin Jolkovsky, and IsraelNationalNews.com, an organ of the settlement movement, which had also operated a pirate radio network.

Significant relative newcomers include bloggers such as Ted Belman of IsraPundit, Dan Greenfield of SultanKnish and Ruth King of Ruthfully Yours, along with sites such as Israel Matzav, YidWithLid, Yeshiva World News and the Yiddish-titled but English-language Vos Iz Neias? (What’s New?).

Since the emergence of conservative talk radio in the 1980s, Jews again are playing a prominent role. Besides Levin and Bruce, and the top-rated Michael Savage, two of the national talk hosts on the Salem Radio affiliate where I broadcast—Dennis Prager and Michael Medved—are Jewish, and both serve on the board of the GOP-oriented Jewish Policy Council, along with a third Salem host, Bill Bennett, who “happens to be a Catholic.”

The nation’s largest talk station, New York’s WABC—home base for Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin—now features highly rated Sunday programs with investigative journalist Aaron Klein, who once edited the Yeshiva University Commentator and now reports from Tel Aviv, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (politically centrist, but with an Orthodox point of view) who got his start as a Lubavitch emissary, founding the immensely popular L’Chaim Society at Oxford University.

Recent years also have witnessed the emergence of a whole class of crusading Internet journalist-activists, many of them Jews, such as Klein, who is also senior correspondent for the mega-site WorldNetDaily, anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller (AtlasShrugs.com) and repentant “Radical Son” David Horowitz (FrontPageMag.com).

Probably the most high profile of these crusaders today is Breitbart, a leading publisher of conservative websites such as BigGovernment.com (focusing on national politics), BigPeace.com (foreign policy), BigHollywood.com (the film industry) and BigJournalism.com (the Fourth Estate). It was Breitbart who pursued the Anthony Weiner affair and caused the corruption-tainted voter and housing activist group ACORN to lose billions in federal funding.

Industry insiders say Breitbart is now looking to launch a site that would be devoted to Middle East coverage named—what else?—BigJerusalem.com.

Another important development is the shift of Jewish “old media” conservatives to new media platforms. William Kristol is now better known as a Fox Television commentator than in his role as founding editor of The Weekly Standard. Charles Krauthammer also reaches a far larger audience at Fox than even as a syndicated columnist based at The Washington Post. Jennifer Rubin, formerly of Commentary, now reaches a much larger readership with her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post, and Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of Commentary, has transitioned to being full-time editor of its web log, Contentions.

In Israel, Jerusalem Post deputy editor and columnist Caroline Glick last year launched Latma TV, already a highly popular political satire site, whose send-up of the Gaza flotilla radicals—“We Con the World”—had 3 million “hits” in one week during last year’s crisis.

Certainly there is another reason why Jews, per se, have attracted so little notice in the conservative new media: the change in American conservatism itself. Ethnically diverse and intellectually formidable, today’s conservatism is reliably pro-Israel, comfortably Judeo-Christian and for the most part promotes a nuanced social conservatism.

In a movement that is credible and hospitable to American Jews, and from which the ethno-centrism of yore is largely absent, Jewish journalists will flourish.

Benyamin Korn, formerly executive editor of the Jewish Exponent and the Miami Jewish Tribune, hosts Jewish Independent Talk Radio in Philadelphia and blogs at JewsForSarah.com.)

Conservative groups launch anti-Obama campaigns


Conservative pro-Israel groups launched TV ads and robo-calls attacking President Obama’s call for negotiations based on 1967 lines.

The Emergency Committee for Israel on Wednesday posted on its website a TV ad that reportedly will appear on cable news networks in the Washington and New York markets.

The ad thanks Democrats in Congress who it said “stood with Israel” after Obama “sided with the Palestinians.”

Obama, in his May 19 Middle East policy speech called for negotiations based on the 1967 lines, but with mutually agreed land swaps, secure borders for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as Jewish.

The Republican Jewish Coalition separately is targeting Jewish voters with robo-calls that call on Obama to “retract his statements, and support secure and defensible borders for Israel,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Religious Right, Left Find Political Guide in Bible


The fast-emerging religious left contrasts sharply on many issues — from homosexual marriage to socialized medicine — with its longer-established competitor, the
religious right. Yet these two Bible-citing political movements equally have woken up to the realization that there is something intrinsically American about using the Bible as a guide to practical politics. That’s good news and a blow to secularist orthodoxy.

As I have previously noted, the current debate about immigration signals a major sea change in rhetoric from the left. Against Republicans who want to get tough on illegal immigrants, amnesty advocates like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have invoked the Christian Bible image of the good samaritan and Matthew 25 on welcoming the “stranger.”

If Clinton becomes a presidential candidate in the next national election, then 2008 will likely prove to be the year of the Bible. That would please religious left gurus (and best-selling authors) like Rabbi Michael Lerner (The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right), the Rev. Jim Wallis (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) and former President Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis).

When I reported in the book industry magazine, Publishers Weekly, on a raft of forthcoming books dealing with the intersection of faith and politics, I found that a large majority — applying spiritual insights to issues related to sex, race, poverty, the environment, you name it — were by religious writers with a definite leftward orientation. “Spiritual,” of course, is not a synonym for good, true or even credible.

Clearly the religious left reads books. Is it prepared to make a difference at the grass-roots level? Well this month, a new outfit, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, drew a thousand activists to a religious left teach-in in Washington, D.C. — not enough to fill a megachurch but still evidence that something important is percolating.

That liberals would contemplate shrugging off their customary secularism is new. But the insight that government and the good book go together may be traced back to the beginnings of the American political tradition.

Our country’s founders were disciples of the 17th century liberal philosopher John Locke, whose major book is the Two Treatises of Government. When Locke’s work is assigned in college classes, the first treatise is usually skipped over. That’s too bad, because it is devoted almost entirely to biblical interpretation, with numerous citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, including learned commentary on the Hebrew language.

Locke’s more pessimistic counterpart in English political theory, Thomas Hobbes, similarly expends about half of his great book, Leviathan, on drawing out the political lessons of the Bible, contrasting the ideal “Christian Commonwealth” with the “Kingdom of Darkness.” He defined the latter as the condition of “spiritual darkness from the misinterpretation of Scripture.”

Locke and Hobbes followed in the footsteps of earlier thinkers, as Israeli scholars Yoram Hazony and Fania Oz-Salzberger have pointed out recently. When Protestant political theory wished to find a way to cut loose from the Catholic Church and its thinking on the relationship between faith and state, English, Dutch and Swiss Christian Hebraists from the 16th century on pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the world’s first and best political text.

Philosophers like Cornelius Bertram, Petrus Cunaeus and John Selden wrote works with titles such as, respectively, The Jewish State (1574), The Hebrew Republic (1617) and Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Hebrews (1640). Christian-Hebraic political thought achieved a practical breakthrough with the English Puritan revolution, which took the Jewish commonwealth described in the Bible as its model. The Puritans later brought these ideas to our shores, declaring that they would found a “New Israel” here. America’s political roots truly lie in the Bible.

Among these thinkers, it was never the intention to simplistically copy biblical institutions like the Jewish high court (the Sanhedrin), the Jewish king, the Jerusalem Temple with its priests and so on. Rather, the idea was to discover philosophical principles in the Scriptures that could be translated into a modern secular government.

Those principles included the superiority of a transcendent moral law to any law the government might invent and the belief that men and women should be held morally responsible for their deeds.

Such ideas, still controversial today, deserve to be discussed openly in public forums, including political ones, with due attention to their source, the Bible, and its proper interpretation. For what separates the religious left from the religious right is precisely what Hobbes warned of, the question of how to read Scripture correctly. Religious conservatives and liberals can agree that it is important to get the Bible’s meaning right, while debating what that meaning actually is.

So let the debate begin.

Idea of Dumb Bush Voters Lacks Reality


 

As the furor over the election dies down, with unseemly whining from sore losers and unseemly gloating from sore winners, certain stereotypes of Bush voters continue to command currency among disgruntled liberals. One of them is that Bush supporters, and conservatives in general, are dumb, ignorant and out of touch with reality.

This notion has been bandied about with quite a bit of smugness. Some on the left, taking an ironic cue from the widely reported comments of a “senior Bush adviser” to reporter Ron Suskind, have begun calling themselves “the reality-based community.”

The idea that Bush voters are reality-challenged is based partly on surveys showing that a large percentage of Bush supporters believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or a program to develop them. Many also persist in the belief that Iraq had substantial ties to the Al Qaeda. Other Republicans who support tougher environmental and labor standards incorrectly assume that Bush favors these positions as well.

Is this a damning indictment of Bush voters and conservatives?

George Mason University law professor David Bernstein, a libertarian who was highly critical of both candidates in the past election, points out on the Volokh Conspiracy blog that in other surveys, Republicans have on average scored higher than Democrats on knowledge of political issues than Democrats — although voters across the board tend to be woefully ill-informed. Bernstein speculates that in the more recent polls, ignorant Bush supporters were likely to pick answers flattering to Bush, while ignorant Kerry voters did the opposite.

Is it possible that Republican voters are likely to fall for the administration’s spin on the issues? Of course.

But is there any evidence that Democratic voters are less likely to fall for their own side’s spin or to buy into their own side’s myths? Not really.

I’m willing to bet that if you asked people whether it’s true or false that Bush wanted to allow higher levels of arsenic in drinking water after he took office (a charge made in a MoveOn.org ad), many more Kerry supporters than Bush supporters would have said it was true. Yet this claim has been conclusively debunked as a lie by New Republic writer Greg Easterbrook, who is no conservative and no Bush supporter.

Democrats, I suspect, would also be much more likely to believe that if the Florida recount in 2000 had not been halted by the Supreme Court, Al Gore would have won the state and the election. In fact, a 2001 review of the Florida ballots by a media consortium concluded that both the recount in several Democratic counties that Gore had requested and the statewide recount of undervotes that was actually under way would have given a victory to Bush (although Gore could have won under some other recount scenarios).

And, no doubt, far more Kerry supporters than Bush supporters believed Kerry’s groundless claim in a campaign stump speech that 1 million African American votes weren’t counted in Florida.

A particularly amusing instance of the “Americans voted for Bush because they’re so dumb” trope occurred in a post-election discussion in Slate. Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, noted that “the United States ranks 14th out of 15 industrialized countries in per capita education spending.”

In fact, comparisons conducted by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have found that only four countries — Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and Norway — spend more per pupil on primary and secondary education than the United States. We also spend a higher percentage of our gross domestic product on education than most other industrialized nations.

But Kipnis’ statistic — for which she was unable to provide a source, saying that she used it in her last book but currently had no access to her notes — fits neatly into the stereotypes of American stupidity and greed.

In other news, a poll conducted on Nov. 3 showed that 13 percent of all voters believed Bush had stolen the election. That adds up to about a quarter of Kerry voters.

Another 10 percent believed that he had won it “on a technicality.” After Salon, a strongly anti-Bush online magazine, published an article debunking various election fraud theories, the author, Farhad Manjoo, was deluged with e-mails asking if he was on the Republican payroll.

“Reality-based,” indeed.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.

 

Gay Marriage: A Real Threat?


 

The intersection of religion and politics became a talk show hit after Nov. 2, when the religious right played a huge, and perhaps pivotal, role in the re-election of President Bush.

Jews are not of one mind about the new focus on faith in politics, but many in the large non-Orthodox majority remain uncomfortable with that trend and are downright scared of new threats to the church-state wall posed by the religious conservatives.

And many are troubled by the blatant manipulation of the “values agenda” by the consultants, media gurus and party strategists who increasingly dominate American politics.

That cynical use of religion was shockingly evident in the gay marriage debate that was a huge factor in the 2004 election outcome.

At least in part, the gay marriage frenzy was ignited by politicians cynically exploiting the issue, not by the perception of any genuine threat. And, in the process, the attack-dog pols gave backhanded legitimacy to raw bigotry — something that is always dangerous to Jews, even when they are not the direct targets.

The recent study for Facts and Trends, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention, surveyed Protestant ministers nationwide and shed some light on the gay marriage issue. The goal was to determine what the clergy saw as the “greatest threats to families in their communities.”

Some 43 percent of the pastors identified the biggest threat as divorce — an issue that has gotten almost no attention from the political defenders of the family, possibly because so many of them have experienced divorce firsthand.

In second place was “negative influences from the media”; “materialism” scored third.

The list goes on and on, with threats ranging from pornography to the expenses of child care. “Sexual predators or sexual abuse,” issues frequently raised by anti-gay marriage crusaders, was identified as a major threat by only 1 percent of the pastors.

And gay marriage? It wasn’t even on the chart. Apparently pastors across the country do not see this as even a minor danger in their own communities.

The researchers had an answer; the survey, they said, was conducted before the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state in February.

But evangelical political groups have been raging against gay marriage as a direct threat to the family for several years. The survey shows that despite that effort, the issue did not resonate with Christian clergy, who had a much more realistic view of the threats in their communities.

But then, along came the consultants and strategists who knew a winning issue when they saw one.

After the Massachusetts court decision, Republican politicians, aided by conservative Christian interest groups, seized on the issue as a gift from the judicial gods. They used it effectively to divert attention from a host of obvious threats to the nation, many of which lawmakers of both parties bore significant responsibility for — including the mushrooming budget deficit, the shaky economy, the war in Iraq and the homeland security mess.

Morality, they raged, was under siege by “activist judges”; the goal, many proclaimed, was nothing short of the destruction of the American family, not equal rights for gays and lesbians.

While gay marriage is an appropriate topic for serious debate, there was no basis for those exaggerated claims, as the Protestant pastors understood — but still, whipped to an election-year froth, they resonated with a huge number of Americans eager for an enemy they could identify, not incomprehensible economic forces or the elusive Osama bin Laden.

Ballot initiatives banning gay marriage were rushed onto the ballots in 11 states; all passed, some by overwhelming margins, and that outpouring is credited with helping boost the GOP presidential ticket and congressional candidates across the country.

Politicians were acting on one of the oldest axioms in American democracy: when your political situation gets dicey, you can’t go wrong drumming up fear and fury aimed at some unpopular group. Immigrants, Catholics and Jews have all served as targets in the past; now it was the gays’ turn.

The dangers to the Jewish community — which supports same-sex marriage and civil unions more than almost any other community but also includes significant dissenting voices — should be obvious.

Every time politicians resort to open scapegoating, they legitimize the use of hatred in the political arena. It’s even worse when their efforts pay big political dividends, as they did in 2004 — a lesson that won’t be lost on self-serving politicians in the next election cycle.

Right now, it’s gays and lesbians who are the target. But Jews can never be sure the stain of hatred won’t target our community, as well.

The Anti-Defamation League, among others, has always operated on the premise that bigotry, while ever-present in our world, can never be tolerated in public expression. Yet, that is what happened in the long election campaign.

Ask the pastors. Gay marriage is far from the biggest threat facing American families. The politicians who portrayed it as such are playing a dangerous game that can only undercut the basic protections that all minorities — including Jews — depend on in a pluralistic America.

 

No Local Plans to Quench ‘Passion’


Jewish leaders are talking — but also wary of talking too much — about filmmaker Mel Gibson’s controversial religious film, "The Passion of the Christ," opening Feb. 25.

"My fear would be an overreaction on the part of the Jewish community. It raises, to high prominence, Gibson and makes him a theologian," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "There is nothing that would be more harmful than raising this up to an issue that I don’t think requires this kind of overreaction."

The film’s reported portrayal of Jews as sinister and largely responsible for Jesus’ death has repulsed leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The film’s final cut has not been distributed, but leaders of several Jewish organizations have viewed near-final versions with select Christian audiences.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman and Wiesenthal Center founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier both saw the film and are making continual, public pleas for Gibson to add a pro-tolerance commentary at the end of "The Passion."

"He may realize that doing that does not compromise his view, his creativity and yet it would help to insulate some of the hate," Foxman told The Journal. "I don’t think he’s motivated by anti-Semitism. Sometimes the results of true belief are unintended consequences."

One "Passion" fan site (www.passionmovieinfo.freeservers.com) listed six things Christians can do to support the movie, including, "Pray for Mel," "Pray for this country," and "Pray that the persecutors in the media who hate this film with a ‘passion’ come to know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Neither Foxman nor Hier want "The Passion" boycotted.

"We have been too frequently the object of boycotts," Foxman said. "It’s your business if you want to see it. The average Jew who wants to see it can see it. Nobody’s being put in herem if they do," he said, referring to the traditional Jewish practice of excommunication.

"What should be done is not in our hands," Hier said, adding that anti-Semites may view the film, "like a dream come true; to have an icon in Hollywood like that put out a movie … that blames the Jews. My opinion is the overwhelming majority of Jews, the tremendous majority of Jews, will be horrified."

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles office, is trying to understand the film’s deeply religious supporters.

"This is a much larger and more complex issue than simply one of anti-Semitism, which is how some Jewish organizations have construed it," Greenebaum said. "It’s important to deal with the film as a film. Jews need to understand that this is about another person’s religion. It’s not all about us."

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is exploring possible interfaith activities to negate "The Passion’s" damage, though what the film’s fallout could be is unclear. "I don’t see pogroms in the streets," he said. "Let me be clear here — my concern is long-term, the days after the film, the weeks, and the month and years after the film."

Foxman said that Gibson, an ultra-traditionalist Catholic worshipping at an obscure Catholic sect that rejects much of the Roman Catholic Church’s modern teachings, is positioning the film to Protestant conservatives as religious truth.

"He is selling it in the churches as the gospel truth," Foxman said. "That’s what makes it so troubling; he is wrapping himself in the gospel truth. And he is hawking it as a religious experience."

The University of Judaism (UJ) has scheduled a Feb. 10 panel discussion not on the film but on parallel issues entitled, "Crucifying Jesus: Sacred Texts and Their Contemporary Interpretations, Historic Fears and Contemporary Anxieties." Panelists will include Christian scholars and UJ Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

Metropolitan Theatres Chair Bruce Corwin said he would screen "The Passion" at one of his two Santa Barbara theaters and not ban it the way he banned the Martin Scorsese film, "The Last Temptation of Christ," which in 1989 was loudly opposed by some of the same fundamentalist Christians now praising "The Passion."

"We’re going to show it because I believe the public has the right to make the decision," said Corwin, adding that after one of the opening weekend’s Santa Barbara screenings, a discussion will take place — "A couple of rabbis and a couple of reverends and have them talk about it."

"Nobody should have any comment until they see it; to just talk about it by virtue of what you have heard is really not fair to the picture," he said. "I really did learn my lesson from ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’"

Non-Orthodox Form Conversion Court


When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

George Caplan, a veteran community leader, kept his word and the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, believed to be the first of its kind anywhere, will be formally established in June.

Composed of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, the Bet Din, a court applying the rules of Jewish law, will officiate at conversions accepted by the three streams of Judaism.

With intermarriage running at about 50 percent and the Jewish population level in the United States on hold or declining, encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert and form full Jewish families is among the most important challenges facing the Jewish community, Caplan believes. Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, views the new Bet Din as a substantial move in the right direction.

To Rabbi Richard N. Levy, the unified Bet Din "is a wonderful step forward for California and klal Yisroel and broadens opportunities for those who wish to become Jews."

It was Levy, a national Reform leader and director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), who took the initiative in laying a religious foundation for the new Bet Din five years ago.

His Conservative dialogue partner and fellow initiator was Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ) and distinguished professor of philosophy.

Dorff and Levy soon expanded their circle to include two dozen other rabbis, including Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist Kehillat Israel and current president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The discussions and negotiations carried on for some four years were amicable, but there were differences.

"The Reform rabbis were afraid that the conversions would be too halachic [conforming to traditional Jewish law], and the Conservatives were afraid that the Reform would not respect their ritual standards," recalled Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).

A main sticking point was whether converts would have to undergo circumcision (real or symbolic, depending on whether the male candidate was previously circumcised) and immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath). These requirements are mandatory in the Conservative movement, but left to the individual discretion of the more autonomous Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

It was finally agreed to hew to the stricter Conservative standards for the unified Bet Din.

At this point, about two years ago, Dorff temporarily moved to New York and Levy had to focus on his new HUC-JIR position, so the project became more or less dormant.

There was also the matter of finances. All agreed that the potential ger (convert) should not pay for the conversion process, which Goldstein termed a community responsibility, akin to naturalization for U.S. citizenship.

The three dayanim (judges) sitting on the rabbinical court are also not paid for their services, but still, the Bet Din has set a budget of $30,000 for the first year of operations.

About a year ago, following his wife’s death, Caplan stepped into the picture, offered financial support, and got the process started again.

Establishment of the Bet Din will be formally announced on Shavuot (June 6), the holiday linked to the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who threw in her lot with her mother-in-law Naomi and became a Jew.

Actual operations will start July 1, according to Conservative Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo, who has been named by the governing board as av (chair) of the Bet Din. He will draw from a "bullpen" of about 20 rabbis from the three denominations for service on the court.

Reform Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley will serve as sgan (vice chair).

While Jews-by-choice are playing increasingly prominent roles in synagogues and Jewish organizations, local figures for the actual number of converts are hard to come by.

Across the United States, the most recent available statistics from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey list 185,000 converts, or 3 percent of American Jewry.

For Los Angeles and adjoining counties, the best authority is Penelope Oppenheimer, who is in charge of the mikvah at the UJ, the only one in Southern California under non-Orthodox auspices.

During the past year, she supervised the ritual immersion of some 600 converts, 450 of whom about came through the Conservative movement, and the remainder through the Reform and Reconstructionist streams.

The number of additional Reform and Reconstructionist converts, who chose not to use the mikvah, could not be ascertained. The uncertainly is likely to remain in the future, as Jews-by-choice can choose to convert, as in the past, through one of the three denominations, rather than at the unified Bet Din.

Increasingly noticeable among Oppenheimer’s clients are small children from China, Vietnam and Romania, who are brought in for conversion by the Jewish parents who have adopted them.

The topic of conversion has more or less come out of the closet only during the last three decades.

"When I was in rabbinical school more than 40 years ago, we were taught nothing about conversion," Goldstein recalled. "It was a secret, almost like abortion."

By contrast, Goldstein nowadays receives fancy printed invitation to attend a conversion service or mikvah immersion.

Although the founders of the Bet Din say they would welcome the participation of Orthodox rabbis, the chances of this happening are almost nil.

"The basic issue," said Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, "is that a potential convert must accept the mitzvot [commandments] and Torah as being divine and must accept the written and oral law as the absolute truth."

In the absence of such a complete commitment by non-Orthodox rabbis and converts, "we would not accept a conversion as valid," he said.

Furthermore, the Talmud is quite negative about conversions, observed May.

"We are told that if you get an inferior convert, he dilutes Judaism, but if you get a superior convert, he’ll show up those Jews who are not committed," May said.

The only known attempt in the United States to form a beit din including all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox, occurred in Denver some 20 years ago, but the project fell apart in a short time.

Currently, the first step for almost all potential converts in Southern California is to enroll in an intensive Introduction to Judaism course, taught by Rabbi Neal R. Weinberg at the UJ, and one coordinated by Goldstein at the UAHC.

Weinberg’s course consists of 18 sessions, each three-and-a-half hours long, and attracts some 600 students a year. Of them, about 200 are planning to convert, while the others are mainly Jews and gentiles interested in learning more about Judaism, including, he recalled, some Protestant ministers.

Many would-be converts bring along their Jewish partners, and in the process the latter "become more Jewish," Weinberg said.

One such person was Caplan, who attended the classes while his wife was preparing for her conversion.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "You explore in-depth what kind of a person you are and it brought us much closer together."

The Right’s Secret Weapon: Red Ink


Students of political irony are having a banner year. A
Republican president who campaigned against “nation building” is on the brink
of a war intended to rebuild not just a nation — Iraq — but an entire region.
And conservatives, long the archenemies of deficit spending, are suddenly
embracing budgets awash in red ink.

The latter irony threatens the social safety net vital to
millions of Americans, including many Jews, as social conservatives mount the
most ambitious attempt yet to dismantle government human services programs.

And big deficits are their secret weapon.

Jewish groups, which increasingly depend on a blend of
government and philanthropic money to provide a wide range of social and health
services, have a lot to lose if the plan succeeds, but hardly any Jewish voices
have been raised to protest the strategy.

“Nobody wants to be seen criticizing policies that the
leaders of Congress now favor,” said an official with a major Jewish group
here. “And they’re too busy fighting to protect their own programs to get
involved in the big-picture fight to preserve an activist approach to
government programs.”

The Democrats, who never let deficits get in the way of
their big social programs when they were in power, are now the ones raising the
alarms. But it remains to be seen if they can stay united enough to mount any
serious opposition to the conservatives’ schemes.

In the old days, fiscal conservatives insisted that
government borrowing just led to inflation, bloated and inefficient programs
and economic stagnation. But the social conservatives who have emerged in
leadership positions in the past few years are anything but traditional; Barry
Goldwater, the father of American conservatism, would have a hard time
recognizing them as mishpacha (family).

Many now put their rage against the federal government and
their determination to enforce serious cuts in government programs ahead of
balanced budgets on their legislative to-do lists.

“Many archconservatives see budget deficits in just this
way–as a way to restrain spending,” said University of Akron political
scientist John Green. “The deficit hawks hate this perspective, but sometimes
go along to restrain the growth of outlays.”

Today’s crisis environment offers the opportunity to do what
they’ve failed to do so many times in the past: dismantle a good part of the
government human services infrastructure.

Military and homeland security costs are rising
astronomically; the costs of the expected Iraq war have not been figured into
current budget proposals, but even the optimists say they will exceed $100
billion, and most estimates are much higher.

But government revenues are down, the result of the
continuing economic downturn and, Democrats say, the 2001 tax cuts, which the
Bush administration moved last week to accelerate and make permanent. The
result: in two years, the nation has gone from a big surplus to record
deficits.

But with a few notable exceptions, congressional Republicans
seem perfectly happy with the return of red ink. This year’s budget, passed
when the fiscal year was nearly half over, was as pork-lover’s picnic,
according to some critics; the 2004 version may combine a bipartisan spending
spree with new tax cuts.

It doesn’t take a CPA to understand that eventually, there
will be a day of reckoning, which may be exactly what some conservatives are
aiming for.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, economist
Milton Friedman said, “Deficits will be an effective — I would go so far as to
say, the only effective — restraint on the spending propensities of the
executive branch and the legislature.”

In other words, the return of big deficits, coupled to new
tax cuts that may make them worse, will make it easier for Congress to do what
they have previously regarded as politically impossible: cut programs not just
in little increments but in great, bold strokes, including entitlement programs
previously held sacrosanct.

The stakes are enormous for Jewish groups that provide a
wide range of health and social services using a blend of public and private
money. Already, many agencies face dropping state and federal funding; in many
communities, philanthropic campaigns have been sagging, adding to the financial
squeeze even as demand for services rises.

The stakes may be big, but Jewish voices have been muted.
Only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has publicly opposed big tax
cuts and expressed concerns about the impact of soaring deficits on critical
programs.

Most other groups are frightened of angering those
congressional leaders who will be making vital spending decisions about their
programs. In an environment of impending crisis, most are too busy defending
their own funding to risk involvement in the overall battle over the budget
process.

The result: Jewish groups that have a lot to lose have been
mostly silent as Congress makes budget decisions that could be a backdoor path
to the most dramatic change in American government in generations.

Prager’s Tactics Are Lacking


Dennis Prager uses half of what I said to the L.A. Times and gives the impression that I am one of those awful leftists who are “either morally confused, immoral or lack courage.” Here is the complete quote, which shows that I was describing a dilemma, not my political position: “Liberals are on the side of the underdog. The people who’ve had their cities turned into rubble look like the underdog. There’s embarrassment about being a Jew and a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community, a fear that it’s been taken over by the right wing.” It’s the last phrase that Prager couldn’t repeat without revealing his hidden reason for the attack, so he lies about the real subject of the Times article — that a group of Hollywood Jews are trying to find a way to reach the community, which can only happen in a language the community speaks. The problem for Prager is that artists speak a language he refuses to learn.

Using Wagner’s politics to forever “disassociate artists from their art” allows him to neatly hide from the moral sympathies of the mass of artists, who are not the progenitors of the death camps. Prager declares himself intellectually dead by his own hand, since he reduces art to nothing more than diversion or decoration, and artists to nothing more than mindless children.

But he has to do this, otherwise he would have to live with contradictions, a balance impossible for most conservatives who split the world into good and evil, and especially deny their own contribution to the evil one is fighting. Artists teach nothing if not connection, and connection breeds sympathy, and sympathy sometimes exceeds itself, chesed (lovingkindness) without gavurah (restriction).

But the impulse to unlimited compassion is better than the impulse toward unlimited judgment, else we would not pray every day for God’s mercy. The liberal fantasy is the dream of what might be, like the bounty of a Botticelli spring, and the conservative fantasy is kitsch, cowboy art, nostalgia for a world that never was, with punishment for those who tell the truth about that self-deception.

Prager’s politics may even be Jewish heresy. The Torah is brave enough to recognize our own role in the creation of Amalek while still calling for Amalek’s destruction, but the Torah is braver than Dennis Prager, who has yet to move to Israel with his family, so his children can ride the buses until they’re old enough to join the army, rather like the son of that terrible leftist Michael Lerner.

The right-wingers here who call for the harshest treatment of the Arabs, while keeping their children out of the Israel Defense Forces, are cousins of those rich leaders of Hamas who strap the bombs on the children of the poor, never on their own. Prager gets his courage by proxy, the courage that gives him the right to call me a coward.

While some of us are working carefully and, by necessity, quietly to bring more Jews into the community, Prager’s sermon to the choir, his mocking castigations, his arrogant assumption of moral clarity, contributes nothing — and makes things worse. He drives Jews away.

Michael Tolkin is the co-writer of “Changing Lanes,” named the best picture of the year by Catholics In Media Associates. His most recent novel, “Under Radar,” is published by Atlantic Books.