Mutually assured delusion: Obama defers to Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the United Congress on Tuesday sought to call into question the perennially troubled Barack Obama administration's Middle East policy.

Even many supporters of President Obama are finding it increasingly difficult to defend a White House approach to the most volatile region on earth that is perceived as muted, muddled and generally reactive.

This perception however is mistaken: there is indeed a clear, coherent Obama Doctrine for the Middle East.

The Obama Doctrine is predicated on the belief that an ascending Shia power such as Iran is a natural ally in the West's goal of developing a counterweight to ISIS and other Sunni Islamist groups.

This assumption, coupled with a disturbingly rosy assessment as to the threat Islamists pose to regional and global stability, justifies an ebbing US presence in the Mid-East.

This informal union of interests is already redrawing the Middle East map.

President Obama’s tacit acceptance of Teheran’s expanding theater of operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, Yemen and Gaza is tantamount to American-Iranian collusion in the eyes of many Sunni leaders.

Regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran, the contents and consequence of a nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran are less pertinent to Obama than the inking of a deal, any deal.

For the Obama Doctrine's very legitimacy is staked to the signing of a negotiated settlement with the Islamic Republic. Once given the international community's good housekeeping seal of approval, Iran's critics – namely Israel – will become increasingly irrelevant and ignored.

Obama's logic is a hopeless mess because it is based on the assumption that the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assure Destruction (MAD) is in any way relevant to today's radicalized, theologically driven Middle East.

The Obama Doctrine is tethered to the hope that neither Shia nor Sunni extremists would dare launch a nuclear attack since the other side would undoubtedly retaliate with equal or greater force.

Thing is, MAD only makes sense if the parties to a conflict have displayed an ability to act in a rational manner.

Unfortunately for America's misguided Chief Executive, the mullah regime in Teheran today bears no resemblance to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Similar to other Muslim theocracies in the Middle East, Iranian leaders do not formulate policies based on a set of rationally calculated national interests but rather by what best serves their savage interpretation of the religion of Islam.

The US and Soviet Union were deterred by the prospects of a nuclear holocaust. In contrast, Islamist regimes across the Middle East are emboldened by the idea of accelerating the process of establishing a worldwide caliphate: a single theocratic government that will overthrow the world's current political systems.

And have no fear: a nuclear armed, ideologically driven Tehran will be highly resolved to multiply its territorial ambitions, no doubt triggering a regional nuclear arms race.

If the Obama Doctrine is not reversed, the forecast for the Middle East can be summed up as follows:

“And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard. It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.” – Bob Dylan.

‘The Property’: Graphic in gray areas

Rutu Modan’s recently released graphic novel, “The Property,” is the latest in a long line of works using the medium to express the Jewish experience.

In 1978, Will Eisner began popularizing the long-form comics format with Lower East Side Jewish tales in “A Contract With God.” By 1986, Art Spiegelman legitimized the genre with his Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust account “Maus,” paving the way for more Jewish book-length comics, such as Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat” (2007).

And yet, unlike its predecessors, “The Property” uses its Jewish themes almost as a prop, an engine humming in the background intended to propel the complex, sometimes dysfunctional dynamics between her characters.

This isn’t the first time that Modan has done this. In 2007, she used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop — albeit distant — for a brilliant relationship yarn in her critically acclaimed debut, “Exit Wounds.” Now, after some illustrations, short stories and a children’s book (“Maya Makes a Mess”), Modan is back with her official follow-up, released May 14. In “The Property,” Poland’s Holocaust past sets in motion another set of complicated relationship dynamics. 

Modan said she cannot help but react, even indirectly, to situations affecting her country.

“I have a very strong identity as a Jew and as an Israeli,” Modan told the Journal from her Tel Aviv home.

[See a page from the graphic novel at the bottom of this article]

“Identity” has a strong hand in “The Property,” in which Polish Jews and Poles intersect in a tale rife with forbidden love and the heavy burden of the Shoah. Young Mica Segal accompanies her grandmother Regina to Poland, where the latter stands to lay claim to her late husband’s property, which, since World War II, has been converted into a hotel. Of course, ulterior motives abound, from Regina’s reason for visiting Warsaw to Tomasz, the non-Jewish concentration camp tour guide for whom Mica falls.  

After working on it for three years, Modan wrapped “The Property” last November. She researched the Warsaw Uprising, traveled to Poland and hired actors to photograph posing as her characters to help her storyboard out her graphic novel.

“It made the story better,” the 40-something artist said of the latter. “Cartoonists are like monks. It’s solitary work. With comics, it’s like a movie or play, but you don’t have to be around anyone.

You are the director, actor, scriptwriter. Letting strangers [give life] to the characters [was rewarding].”  

Visiting Poland, Modan found dealing with the country’s past complicated: “I felt that the Poles have a different story about what happened in World War II than the Jews. Even in Germany, people my age know Nazis were evil, Jews were victims. It’s easier to communicate, they have the same story. We can make a relationship based on starting a new page. 

“In Poland, it was really difficult for me to accept their story: The Jews live happily in Poland; then, suddenly, the Nazis came [and] killed Jews. The Poles helped the Jews, they tried to hide them. There was no anti-Semitism, everyone loved the Jews. The pogroms were in Russia, not Poland. It was even better for Jews than in other countries. I wanted to ask everyone, ‘OK, what really happened?’”

With Tomasz, an aspiring cartoonist, Modan keeps his intentions during his tryst with Mica ambiguous, even suspect: Is he sincere or a con artist?  

“We are suspicious of the Poles,” she said. “At the same time, he is me! It’s also a joke about me being a cartoonist.”

Like Regina, Modan’s grandparents came to Palestine before the war.

“I didn’t want to make Regina a direct Holocaust survivor or a victim,” Modan said. “When you say Holocaust survivor, you can’t say bad things about this person. I didn’t want to make anyone too bad or too good. Jews and Israelis are experts in being victims. Their reaction to the whole world, if someone criticizes Israel, is that they are anti-Semitic. If someone is a victim, they cannot be an oppressor, but the truth is, you can be a victim and an oppressor at the same time. Polish people also feel as if they were victims of World War II.”

In most of her work, including her 2008 collection “Jamilti and Other Stories,” Modan acknowledges her heritage. However, she said, “I’m interested in the drama in between people. I’m just a confabulist, and I have a very safe life. I sit in my room in Tel Aviv, and I have my kids.”

Comics-industry critics have attributed her aesthetic to the influence of “Tintin” creator Hergé, who cast the largest shadow on European comics. But Modan rejects the suggestion that she is a disciple of ligne claire (a clean, graphic style employing bold outlines).

“It’s really overstated,” she said, crediting Americans her mother collected when Modan’s parents lived in the United States in the 1960s: Charles Addams, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein.

Long active in Israel’s comics-creating scene, she became an editor of the Hebrew version of MAD magazine in the mid-1990s. Soon after, she helped found Actus Tragicus, a group of Israeli comics artists in the spirit of Spiegelman’s RAW anthologies and German and French cartooning groups. For the past decade, Modan has taught cartooning and children’s book illustration at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. 

Promoting “Exit Wounds,” Modan made her first extensive North American tour in 2008, capped by Comic-Con International in San Diego, where she inspired a spotlight panel and long lines at publisher Drawn & Quarterly’s booth. Predictably, her nationality made her a magnet for political discussions.

“Because I write not just for Israel but for a foreign audience, I don’t feel it’s easy for me to play this part,” she said. “I want peace, and my political views are from the left. Because I’m critical, it’d be phony for me to just be the good Israeli.”

Modan fancies herself an observer, not an ambassador.

“In politics, you have to choose an opinion,” she said. “When I go to vote, I have to decide who is bad and who is a good guy, but when I write I can support the Poles and the Jews. I’m much more interested in the gray areas. They’re more closer to reality.”

A page from Rutu Modan’s graphic novel “The Property.”

Jerusalem: The city that drives people mad

A middle-aged Russian tourist dressed in white and claiming to be Jesus checked in last week at the Petra Hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City.

He did not stay long, the hostel’s clerk said. Just a few days and he was gone.

The man likely was suffering from a psychiatric condition known as Jerusalem syndrome in which tourists, and in some cases even locals, become so overwhelmed by the experience of Jerusalem that they believe themselves to be biblical characters or messengers of God.

“There is a very special spiritual feeling some people have arriving here,” said Dr. Gregory Katz, a psychiatrist who heads the emergency room at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center, where 30 to 40 patients a year are treated for Jerusalem syndrome.

“Jerusalem is where the Bible stories they have learned took place,” Katz said. Seeing it and experiencing the place firsthand, he said, “changes everything for them and makes some people believe they are in fact walking the Bible.”

Most of those diagnosed with the syndrome have a history of mental illness. But in a small number of cases, the person’s experience being in Jerusalem and at its holy sites appears to triggers psychosis for the first time, Katz said. In such cases the condition is temporary and easily treated by medication.

At a time when Jerusalem is again at the center of major political debate and has put U.S.-Israel relations under strain, these cases are a reminder that the city not only drives politicians a bit mad, but some visitors, too.

Even Homer Simpson was diagnosed with a case of Jerusalem syndrome in a recent episode of “The Simpsons” TV show set in Israel. In the episode, Homer awakens from a dehydrated stupor believing he has been chosen to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in the form of a new religion called Chrisjumas.

The late Israeli psychiatrist Yair Bar-el, the first to label and define Jerusalem syndrome as a mental health condition, had asserted that it could be triggered in people especially agitated by the contrast between the romanticized biblical image of Jerusalem and the modern-day city.

“Those who succumb are unable to deal with the concrete reality of Jerusalem today,” Bar-el, who died recently, wrote in a 2000 British Journal of Psychiatry article. “A gap appears between their subconscious idealistic image of Jerusalem and the city as it appears in reality. One might view their psychotic state and, in particular, the need to preach their universal message as an attempt to bridge the gap between these two representations of Jerusalem.”

Although the condition appears to affect predominately Christian, and specifically Protestant, tourists from the United States and Scandinavia, Jewish ones, including Israelis who have traveled to the city from elsewhere in the country, also have been treated.

Those who fall ill with its delusions and visions tend to identify with characters relevant to their own religious background. A Jewish patient, for example, is more likely to be among the King Davids, while Christians might imagine themselves Mary Magdalene or John the Baptist.

Pesach Lichtenberg, director of the men’s psychiatry division at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem and head of the psychiatry department at the city’s Hebrew University, said that defined more broadly, the syndrome includes Jews who have fantasies of bringing redemption.

“You have a robust internal tourism of people drawn to Jerusalem. Sometimes it can be an extremely gradual process where people come from other areas of country and move to Jerusalem,” Lichtenberg said. “They stay on and sometimes that process gathers steam and they want to be more and more part of some sense of anticipated action. These are Jews who want to hasten the Third Temple.”

He added, “They are hooking into the same sense of holy vibrations or intonations within a special happening here, something they feel is at the center of the universe.”

Identifying oneself either as a reincarnated King David—who, according to Jewish tradition, was anointed as the original messiah—or one of his descendants is the most popular choice for Jews with the syndrome, Lichtenberg said.

Those affected by the syndrome are known for wandering the streets preaching prophecies or chanting biblical psalms or verses. Others are seen cloaked in white robes, sometimes cut from hotel linens, and feel a need to purify themselves for messianic missions by washing and bathing obsessively.

Most are not considered to be dangerous to others. However, Israeli newspapers reported earlier this month that an Irish tourist, suspected of suffering from Jerusalem syndrome, was caught wielding a knife at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is built on the sight where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. An Israeli policeman shot him in order to apprehend him.

In 1969, an Australian tourist claiming to be on a mission from God tried to burn down the Al-Aksa Mosque, setting off Arab riots.

“I think it comes from people being overly immersed in religion,” said Omran Dakkak, 65, owner of the Old City Bazaar, a souvenir shop selling olive wood crosses and small menorahs near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Dakkak inherited the store from his father and used to work there as a boy. For as long as he can remember, he said, he has seen people draped in rosary beads and robes claiming to be various messiahs.

Hadar Gittelman, 22, an Israeli who is a messianic Jew and works at a Christian guest house in the Old City, says she has seen her share of such people pass through, including a recent American tourist who called himself the “Angel Jesus.”

“People come here and feel some sort of extra holy spirit. They breathe it in as if it’s in the air,” she said. “They feel like they posses the truth.”

New film foams with the soap story of Dr. Bronner

Emanuel Bronner, creator of the company Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, was not your typical boardroom suit.

Third-generation soap-maker, escaped mental patient and son of Orthodox Jews and Holocaust victims, Bronner, who died in 1997, is the subject of a new documentary, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox,” and in the film, the only suit Bronner wears is a swimsuit. That’s because his pool is one of the many pulpits from which Bronner preaches his messages of “All-One-God-Faith” and “The Moral ABCs,” both of which he pasted on every soap bottle he produced.

In the film, Bronner’s black sunglasses and passionate, Germanized speech make him a cross between mad scientist and preacher on a mission. He employs feverish, often religious rhetoric, invoking such names as Moses, Hillel, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz as prophets of one God. “All one! All one! All one!” Bronner insists throughout the movie.

“Dad’s intensity could drive you away,” Bronner’s son, Ralph, said in an interview, “because he also couldn’t control stopping.” Even when the camera turns to someone else, Bronner continues to rant in the background.

The film, which opens July 13 in Los Angeles, mythologizes Bronner but does not canonize him. His tragic flaw is his intense devotion to his mission, which caused him to neglect his children. Even though Bronner’s speech is intelligible, his ideas are so strange that subtitles had to be used. Clearly, it was hard for him to articulate his thoughts in a way that was understandable to other people.