Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points


As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

His Own Standard: Why We on the Left Must Hold Obama Accountable


Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:

“They’re my representatives. I send them there – oftentimes into harm’s way…Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.

That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn’t shrug, hold up his palms, and point the rig’s mechanics. (We know this because that’s exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that – even in the minutia of these national security issues – he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.

But when last week told a tale of two scandals – both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease – that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama’s feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.

What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn’t prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.

But last week’s IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama’s priorities. Though his appointees – or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill – engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage – just taxes. The agency’s office is just five blocks from the White House. And what’s been the White House response?

Obama is “concerned by every report he sees on this,” Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, “and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says.” In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.

Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and point to the rig’s mechanics. Suddenly, he’s Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.

The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. “In every instance,” Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, “either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else.” A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.

The first chunk of Carney’s response amounted to a surface defense of the president’s record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. “We are not involved…with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” he said, adding that “those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently.”

Again, Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he’s drowning in them. The question arises: who’s in charge during the perennial White House side-step?

Perhaps the answer is the president’s surrogates – the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was “getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge.” His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to “what the circumstances were here…and I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts.”

I’m a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51% of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can’t be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.

The political left mustn’t echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his “buck-stops-here” mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration’s involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.

We don’t yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama’s policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. “I’m always responsible,” he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.

Guns and Glaciers: Why the NRA is Wrong About Newtown


Remember what Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Sandy Hook Elementary School? It was tucked within the first few pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden. I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows as inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“You know what I say about people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.

Harrison Starr seems to be speaking frankly and directly to a fractured American public, spawned by a fractured Newtown. He is insisting that a race whose end is out of sight isn’t worth running; that an epidemic that can’t be cured overnight is nothing short of a lost cause; that gun violence is better left to hollow prayer and band-aid solutions than to sensible long-term remedies. But Harrison Starr is wrong.

Last Friday, Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association stood behind a mahogany podium and delivered the his organization’s official response to the Newtown massacre. In a sing-song timbre, LaPierre began. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Before he could deliver his next sentence, that statement sank into sea of punditry and antagonism.

On Sunday, LaPierre appeared on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. During the program, host David Gregory offered him – albeit forcefully – an opportunity to clarify his Friday remarks. No clarification was necessary. LaPierre proved unrelenting in his conviction that the principal problem is the person, not the weapon. The mentally ill, he said – or “lunatics,” as he tastefully called them – are the dominant players in the debate over guns in the United States.

Mental illness is surely a factor in the debate. Liza Long’s now-famous Blue Review piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” gave voice to a desire to shift the debate from gun control to aid for families of kids who are mentally ill. Long’s son, Michael, is violent, erratic, and – disturbingly, more problematic – undiagnosed. He needs help. And so does his mother. She describes a bleak conversation with her son’s social worker, who advised that the family’s best bet in finding treatment and therapy for her young son was “to get Michael charged with a crime.”

Few deny that the American penal establishment – entangled with the nation’s mental health establishment – is afflicted by deep-seated systemic failures. No one – neither President Obama, nor the vocal families of Newtown’s victims, nor the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (which has more than a million mental health records on file) – professes that the mental health issue should not play a significant role in our national conversation.

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, who carried out the January 2011 rampage in Tucson, suffered from mental illness. As did James Holmes, who killed 12 people in July at a movie theater in Aurora. As did Ian Stawicki, who made headlines last May when he murdered five in a Seattle coffee house. And it is presumed – though not confirmed – that Adam Lanza did, too. But as Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Sunday, “trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.” Yes, many mass shooters are mentally ill. But in want of proper treatment, they kill people – and they do it with guns. So let’s talk about guns.

During the course of their exchange, David Gregory uncovered (and his guest confirmed) that the NRA’s criteria for supporting congressional legislation was straightforward: if an idea may reduce loss of life, it’s worth trying. Gregory followed up by asking LaPierre if the NRA would support any form of reduction of high capacity magazines. LaPierre sang a tune of evasion for a few minutes before conceding that it wouldn’t. Then Gregory asked if there was any gun regulation that LaPierre would support. There wasn’t. Not even one.

It seems to me alarming that the nation’s chief gun advocates can’t – nay, won’t – acknowledge inherent dangers in weaponry, even as a mechanism of mitigating those dangers. Hazard, they say, lurks only in its operators. A December 16 piece in The Atlantic noted that the Second Amendment, while safeguarding Americans’ rights to guns, “doesn’t say a single thing about the right to own bullets.” The same notion was central to an old Chris Rock comedy routine. “I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars,” Rock would say. “Five thousand dollars per bullet…and people would think before they killed somebody.” You remember the old adage about truth in humor.

Taxing or regulating bullets could prove effective in reducing loss of life, thus the proposal fits snugly in LaPierre’s criteria. James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. Had anyone been watching, one might assume that such a purchase would have been a red flag of sorts. High capacity magazines in assault weapons allow a gunman to shoot off thirty or more rounds without having to reload his weapon. But LaPierre and the NRA are adamant: “A gun is a tool; the problem is the criminal.”

They are fatally mistaken. If last year we had borne witness to 8,583 murders caused by rocks, I would likely be an advocate of rock control. And had those deaths been caused by umbrellas, I would be in favor of umbrella control. But nearly 70 percent of murders last year were caused by guns. Firearms act as subservient accomplices in homicide. Yes, people kill people. But they kill people with guns.

Gun violence in this country will not end in full until there emerges a new lethal instrument that usurps the gun in efficacy and vogue. With anticipation, we dread that day. Harrison Starr couldn’t have predicted the melting of the glaciers.

The solution doesn’t eliminate the problem, but renders its victims fewer. Wayne LaPierre’s soapbox is wearing thin, and while it would be naïve to think or to claim that we can wholly eliminate gun violence, it would be a deadly crime not to try.

Four Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate


Written for the Emory Wheel:

Though they shared a stage at the University of Denver on Wednesday evening, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed in different worlds. Their tones presented an eerie, almost disconcerting dichotomy: Where Romney contested, Obama conversed; where Romney insisted, Obama dismissed; Where Romney had just finished his sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Obama was on a coffee break between lectures at the University of Chicago. The candidates were entirely incongruous.

Why did Obama seem so much less prepared than Romney did?

What was it that gave Romney such a definitive debate victory? Did the Commission for Presidential Debates make a mistake in choosing Jim Lehrer? The following is my take on some of these questions that have pervaded American minds and airwaves since Wednesday night.

A Thought on the Downfalls of Passivity

For several weeks, the Romney-Ryan ticket has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. News personalities and journalists alike have pushed the ever-evasive pair to provide specifics on its tax and healthcare plans (e.g. Paul Ryan’s recent interview with Chris Wallace). If Romney felt that he could afford to shirk the electorate’s pleas for specifics thus far, he certainly must have believed that he would be pressed on such details during the first nationally-televised debate.

Romney came prepared: he marched on-stage Wednesday night with a heaping arsenal of statistics and figures. But the “specifics” Romney spewed didn’t quench the nation’s thirst for details. His supposed plans, proposals and numbers rang hollow in the ears of several venerated commentators. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted that Romney’s arguments were laden with glaring miscalculations. “The numbers simply don’t add up,” Marshall wrote. “It really is simple math. The studies Romney cited aren’t even studies. A couple are just (op-eds) by his advisors.”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins echoed Marshall’s point. According to Romney’s emphatic debate proclamations, she noted that, “taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.” Romney’s words were glazed in opportunism and in want of coherence.

To the chagrin of many on the left, President Obama employed a crippling passivity. His subtle nods, reverberating silences and almost patronizing smirks propagated a general air of concession. Pinned against Romney’s feigned charisma, Obama’s efforts were futile; his submissive energy fell flat.

The president’s passivity didn’t afford him room to hit forcefully on either of Marshall’s or Collins’ points. Can you imagine if Obama had asked Romney to add up the numbers he had presented or to cite even one of his “studies?” Mitt Romney didn’t win on the coattails of substance. He won in the absence of an opponent on the offensive.

A Thought on Benefits of Passivity

On Wednesday night, Obama didn’t mention Romney’s “47 percent” comments. He didn’t mention Bain Capital. He didn’t mention Romney’s offshore bank accounts. Romney’s advisors may have equipped him with a quick and potent retort for each issue, but the candidate was scarcely handed the opportunity to use one.

The next day, Romney appeared on a cable television program to concede that his comments on the 47 percent had been “just completely wrong.” As a result of Obama’s passivity, Romney’s rejoinder and attempt to shift the national conversation was reduced to a small subtext in the blogosphere, in place of reaching nearly 38 million attentive pairs of ears.

A Thought on Priorities

Beyond strides to shroud his tax returns in a mist of evasion, Mitt Romney’s mind is presently one-track, ingrained with a single abiding goal: become the president of the United States. Obama’s is more complex: be the president of the United States.

In a recent Rolling Stone feature piece, Michael Lewis profiles a Barack Obama whose approach to governing has been stripped of any tangible concern for public opinion. Lewis draws a rough sketch of the issues that sat atop President Obama’s psyche when he was awoken from his sleep and informed that the nuclear fallout in Japan may have placed the United States in the worldwide path of a radiation cloud.

Lewis writes: “At that very moment (if you were the president), you were deciding on whether to approve a ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. You were arguing, as ever, with Republican leaders in Congress about the budget. And you were receiving daily briefings on various revolutions in various Arab countries.”

Obama has made a practice of limiting his presidential wardrobe exclusively to navy or gray suits. The president’s rationale? His existence is plagued by a tiny margin for error; he simply can’t afford to allocate brainpower for decisions and exercises whose implications are trivial. It’s safe to assume that the debate was just another (less weighty) issue on his heavy plate.

A Thought on the Moderator

Jim Lehrer was the victim of an off-night. The Los Angeles Times synopsized most major criticisms of his performance, noting that Lehrer “didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.”

But it’s important to remember that this debate, by Lehrer terms, was a fluke. After the 2008 election season, the news anchor announced that the McCain-Obama contest would be his last. Only the tenacity of the Commission for Presidential Debates would persuade him to return for one final rodeo.

Lehrer is widely regarded as the most skilled and adept moderator of the era of televised debates. He has successfully steered debates in during election year since 1988, each performance lauded success by standards of objectivity and direction. A recent Pew Center poll ranked the show he spearheaded and long anchored, PBS NewsHour, “one of the most trusted news sources in the country.” This week’s widely-proliferated notion of Lehrer as the debate’s “loser” may bear relevance on Wednesday’s event in Denver, but should count as only a blemish on an otherwise distinguished and prolific career.

When Jews Criticize Israel – Why Cautious Rebuke is a Mechanism of Defense


Earlier this month, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles ran an article entitled “Wolpe vs. Beinart.” The piece was Rabbi David Wolpe’s passionate and compelling response to an email Peter Beinart recently sent to supporters of J-Street.

Beinart’s e-mail scolds the American Jewish community for failing to develop a link with West Bank Palestinians similar to that which it maintained with the freedom fighters of the 1960s. In the email, Beinart asserts that “the great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers—and spun visions of justice that inspired the world—will act justly now that we wield power.” Rabbi Wolpe denounces and questions the categorical nature of Beinart’s words, painting them as arrogant and presumptuous. Feigning the knowledge of the steps Israel must take toward peace, he writes, displays “a strutting lack of humility.”

The following is my response to that exchange:

There may, in fact, be no single “great Jewish question of our age.” Many observers of the Jewish state argue that the preeminent “question” is that of a nuclear Iran. Others assert that Jewish survival depends on a peoples’ capacity to renew its tradition and re-contextualize it in the modern era. Still others view remedying the Israeli government’s relationship with its ultra-orthodox population as a burning necessity. A claim like Beinart’s, which labels one challenge as “the great Jewish question,” and offers definitive answers to any of these questions, is irresponsible and does, as Rabbi Wolpe suggests, reflect a degree of arrogance.

Beinart’s comments, however, propagate another important question, or line of them: Is it acceptable for Jews not to glorify the core tenets of Israeli society? Can one be a Zionist – learn about, teach about, or love Israel – through a non-idealistic and sobering lens? Does “criticism” carry an unconditionally detrimental connotation?

I find few moments more fulfilling than standing atop Mount Arbel as the sun peaks over the Sea of Galilee. My Jewish soul overflows with pride when Israel is the first to respond to a natural disaster in a country who condemns its very existence. I feel profound spiritual connection among the ancient, towering walls of the Old City. I am an ohev tzion – a lover of Israel.

Even so, Israel is a political entity, and, like all other political entities, its government makes mistakes – militarily, economically, religiously, and politically. Rabbi Wolpe, in his admonition of Beinart, writes that “honest dissent” is necessary, and acknowledges that “Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things.” Challenges pervade the contemporary  discussion: Israel may have the right to build settlements, but does that make the settlements unequivocally moral? Is every military maneuver in the state’s best interest? Should the Haredi population always have such an overwhelming say in decisions of governance?

It was at a pro-Israel conference last Spring that I brought up some of these questions with the Jewish father of a friend.

His response was vitriolic. “You think your views are valid?” he yelled, with more rebuke than wonder. “You’re just a naïve kid who’s read a few articles. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I was taken aback, but hardly surprised. It wasn’t the first time that a conversation of this sort had taken a turn for the worse. In many circles within the American Jewish community, much that verges on criticism of Israel is considered taboo. Those who call Netanyahu or Lieberman policies into question are often scolded with a vengeance.

There is a distinct and often forgotten line between self-loathing and self-serving.

Henry Kissinger may fall under the former category, while Israel supporters who dare to point out, with prudence, the state’s ill-considered decisions qualify as the latter. If Zionism is engrained in our collective identity, we carry a weighty responsibility to be our own watchdogs.

When we chide the Obama administration for one of its policies that we perceive as being contrary to American interest, we aren’t renouncing our American citizenship. Rather, we are exercising our democratic prerogative. Yet, for whatever reason, when the conversation moves to the Middle East, constructive criticism becomes synonymous with betrayal.

In truth, the American Jewish community’s criticism of Israel is not fully comparable to that of most other groups in most other countries. Examine Israel’s disparate function within the community of nations: The constituency of the United States or France, for most practical purposes, ends at the borders of Canada and Mexico. The constituency of a state founded on religious doctrine extends far beyond any geographical border.

But Israel is often labeled the only “true democracy” in its very unstable region. Democracy functions through constituent response; if constituents support the policies, they support the candidates. If they don’t, they do the reverse. Israeli citizens take advantage of democracy by voting. We make the best of a free and open Israel by voicing our opinions of which policies Netanyahu should keep, and which ones he should change. The American Jewish community, collectively, is a constituent of the State of Israel.

Peter Beinart’s public anxiety that ours may be “the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die” seems not to be – at least linguistically – the sort of cautious rebuke that can elicit any sort of tangible response.

Daniel Gordis, the prominent commentator on Israel, compares Jews closed to criticizing Israel to parents who never critique their children: They’re in an unproductive covenant. Loving Israel, he recently wrote, “means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws.” Like effective parenting, our criticism needs to be present, but it must also be constructive and intentional.

Followers of the American Jewish relationship with Israel often argue that criticism of the Israeli government’s decisions should, for the most part, take place behind closed doors – outside the eye of public scrutiny. I agree; the Jewish State has no shortage of bad luck with the media. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who has been called “Israel’s single most visible defender,” has written that this criticism must be proportional and contextual, asserting that “what is missing (from the equation of diplomatic criticism) is the comparable criticism of equal or greater violations by other countries and other groups.” The American Jewish community is safe in deciding to publicize its positive interactions with Israel and shroud its denunciations of the state. But the quiet steps we do take toward improving Israel (by way of expressions of dissatisfaction) must be real and palpable.

There is, as Rabbi Wolpe contends, “room for honest dissent.” When the Israeli government is wrong, we have a holy imperative to criticize it. Our criticism must be deliberate, constructive, specific, and concise, not categorical, nor arrogant, nor presumptuous; it must provide a foundation from which to build stronger policy, not tools with which to dismantle a nation. Our Jewish responsibility is to defend our only homeland. To criticize is to clarify, and clarification is – without doubt – a mechanism of defense.

Fluorescent Traffic Signals – Why the GOP Needs to Read More Shakespeare


We seem to be a country continually prone to missing the signs.

We’ve heard the story of the drowning man who refused the aid of three rescue boats, confident that God would save him; the novice batter who had just been pitched two change-ups, and didn’t realize that the fastball must be next; the chain smoker who was warned by doctor after doctor that tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer.

We read in the literary canon of tragic figures like Macbeth, whose fall comes with a series of hints and premonitions. We remember domestic events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – assassinations, breaches of national security – which many still believe could have been prevented, had officials seen the signs – or, more significantly, been looking for them.

We do, perhaps – in both our most ostensible and most intimate pursuits – suffer from an epidemic of ignorance toward much that points us in the right direction; we have a frequent proclivity to forgo society’s beaming and fluorescent traffic signals.

The epidemic could not come at a less opportune time for its latest victim. It evokes the words of John McKnight, in an introduction to his The Careless Society: “It is the ability of citizens to care that creates strong communities and able democracies.” The latest victim seems blatantly not to care about, nor to take heed of warnings issued by the events of the recent past. That victim is the Republican Party.

On George W. Bush’s final day in office, his approval rating had tanked to 22%, the lowest final rating in Gallup’s more than seventy-year history. In the months – even years – leading up to the presidential election of 2008, Bush was easily the least-popular president since our nation’s founding.

The American legacy that he left, it was widely believed on both sides of the political spectrum, was one that would necessitate desperate and thorough repair. John McCain – once a maverick – had recently become a Bush-policy convert and had cultivated a record of supporting some of the president’s most controversial decisions. For him, the race should have been over as soon as it began. For the democrats – who could easily have been the party of consistency and virtue – a win should have been comfortable and clean.

As we remember, the race for the Democratic nomination was the furthest thing from clean; more accurately, it was a long, excessive, and grimy process of mud-slinging and insult-dodging. Only in June, just a few short months before the nominating convention, did Hillary Clinton swallow her pride and, with a memorable and tepid, “this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” step aside for Barack Obama.

But in between the beginning of primary season and the eloquent Clinton exit crept many, many opportunities for what should have been the most electable Democratic ticket in American history to self-destruct. The party teetered and tottered – allowing each candidate to expose weaknesses and further wither any chances of a left-wing White House. Some argue that the scrutiny of the primary campaign simply brought on the vetting process a few months early. However, when Clinton told reporters that she couldn’t drop out because “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” and when Obama was steadily attacked for his relationship with his pastor, the candidates were only adding more ammunition to the ever-quickening automatic weapon of the GOP.

We have begun to hear echoes of 2008’s teeter and totter in this year’s Republican primary. While President Obama’s approval ratings don’t nearly equate to those of his predecessor, he is not considered to be widely popular, and has certainly ticked off many who would have sworn their allegiance to the Candidate Obama three years ago. By many accounts (though most are anecdotal and few are based in statistical evidence) Obama could be just as beatable as a Bush-type figure. Without doubt, a soon-rising and largely-backed Republican nominee could quell much of the poll inflation that Obama has received from his incumbency.

By letting the Wealthy Greaser duke it out with the Pillsbury Doughboy of American Values, the GOP has proven its marked lack of regard for American electoral trends. The longer Mitt Romney shares an antagonistic stage with Newt Gingrich, the more difficult it will become for the ultimate nominee to defeat the president. Of course, this isn’t the advice I would give the candidates themselves.

What would I tell them? Keep fighting; it’s good for you.

The Force of Apathy – A Piece for the National Journal Sh’ma


As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:

Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”

The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.

Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.

That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.

I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.

Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is CNN.com; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.

That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.

Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.

It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.