Monday, December 29, 2008

Elections Through Warfare: Israel Campaigns

I'm about to engage in what an Israeli government spokesman characterized on BBC World Service earlier today as "cynical" and "dangerous" speculation. But I am by nature a cynic, particularly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and anything I might speculate in this blog is certainly no more dangerous than what is going on in the Middle East as I write. So having been fully forewarned by the Israeli government spokesman, I forge blindly ahead....

With just 6 weeks to go before national elections, the lame-duck Israeli government of discredited Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has embarked on a military operation against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Olmert, discredited not only for gross ethical and financial malfeasance, but also for his poor handling of the war against Hizbollah in the summer of 2006, is taking one last long-shot throw of the dice by using the might of the Israeli army in an effort to rearrange the deck chairs of this festering Middle East struggle. 72 hours into operation "Cast Lead" and it is entirely unclear as to how some future Israeli commission of inquiry will view this operation. But I cannot avoid thinking that there is something awfully disgusting and distasteful about launching a ferocious air-based military operation on slum-based Hamas just weeks before an apathetic Israeli electorate goes to the ballot box. It is as if warfare has become nothing more than a campaign tactic.

Olmert himself has nothing to gain or lose electorally from the upcoming February 10 snap elections -- his goose is cooked. But standing to either side of Olmert are two of the principal adversaries in the upcoming struggle over the leadership of the country -- Foreign Minister Zippi Livni (running as the head of the Kadima party list) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (running as the head of the Labor party list). Of these three politicians, Barak is taking the lead role in this current offensive, and therefore has the most at risk. His Labor party was polling to lose the upcoming election in a spectacular way -- an unprecedented repudiation of historic Labor and Barak himself. Now Barak is all but single-handedly taking responsibility for this air assault on Gaza -- if it is judged a success by the Israeli electorate, Barak could gain against Livni and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (who is waiting in the wings with an even more bellicose policy, polling as if the next government will soon be his to run). But if this military assault on Hamas boomerangs into another stalemate (as with Hizbollah in 2006), Barak will be as reviled as his predecessor, Amir Peretz, the bumbling Labor leader and inexperienced Defence Minister during Olmert's first war in 2006.

Thus we are witness to an accidental Prime Minister who nevertheless managed to twice drag his country into dubious wars in less than 30 months. One war has been thoroughly dismissed as an unmitigated disaster, a permanent stain on the state and its then-leaders. This new war looks a bit different and a bit the same, but it is only 72 hours old, and the distinctiveness of this war will yet emerge. Already, some of the differences are striking: in 2006 Olmert turned to warfare in a morning's frenetic decision-making, prompted by an incompetent Defense Minister and a trigger-happy Army head. In the waning days of 2008, Olmert has an experienced, seasoned military mastermind as Defense Minister, and a competent professional as Army Chief of Staff. Rather than arrive at a war decision in 4 hours of sudden and rushed consultations, this war began with a careful, deliberative discussion that lasted for many days, and was then punctuated by a long pause before commencing.

What looks the same? At least at the outset, we are looking at the same "air power alone" strategy, which always leads to collateral damage, and often does not achieve intended goals. My bet is that the first 60 sorties of this war, conducted on Saturday, were the most effective -- and with each subsequent day, the targets become less "rich" and rewarding. If the objectives of the air campaign are not achieved in the next 48 hours, what happens next? A ground incursion? Certainly the mobilization of 6700 reservists suggests that route. And then this Hannukah 2008 war against Gaza begins to look more and more like the summer of 2006 war against South Lebanon. Also, the objectives of this war are as vague and imprecise as those of 2006. Innocent civilian casualties are high but not unusually high -- so far. But one mistake, one failed targeting system, and this could quickly turn into the PR fiasco that was 2006.

And thus the question has to be posed: why exactly now? Look at it this way: imagine for a moment if sometime during the presidential campaign of 2008 President George Bush had launched an air campaign against Iran. Certainly some blogger somewhere would have come to a cynical conclusion or two. For the moment, this war against Hamas is registering high marks with the Israeli electorate -- why not? With a 100:1 kill ratio, Israelis like the odds. But if this turns sour? What responsible level-headed politician would dare chance such a thing just 6 weeks out from elections?

The answer is quite simple: right now Israelis are so sick of Hamas and its anxiety-inducing rockets that there seems to be no electoral risk in warring with Hamas. Cynically, there may be another "simple" reason: do it now while Dubya is still running foreign policy, and before the big unknown question-mark named Obama enters the Situation Room.

If everything works out as Israeli military planners promise -- then Ehud Barak will likely gain some traction for the February 10 elections. Livni may be the face most Americans associate with this war because of her frequent appearances on international television (and so it should be with the Foreign Minister in a time of war), but Barak's face is the one Israelis see the most on their own domestic broadcasts. This is Barak's war, and his last-gasp "Hail Mary" pass at electoral relevancy. Think of this war as Ehud Barak's version of John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. It's that desperate a move. Why Livni -- who was the sole voice raised against the Lebanon escapade in 2006 -- would go along with this folly now is hard to divine. She's got to look as least as tough as everyone else, so that is probably why she is placing her destiny in with this military adventure.

And way out in the tall grass is Netanyahu, posturing always to the right, waiting to see how this all plays out. If it succeeds, no one will praise "Cast Lead" more than Netanyahu. If it fails, watch Netanyahu mop the floor with Barak and Livni. Domestic politics, Israeli style...campaigning for votes while campaigning with soldiers, and placing in harm's way more innocent civilians on both sides. Sickening.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Didn't Obama Visit Minnesota?

I asked this question at an informal roundtable of colleagues today at lunch. Having invested $75 of my hard-earned money in the Franken campaign, I'm really pissed that it has become such a close vote, now simply a matter of hoping that this .011 percent gap can be overcome in a recount of the optical-scan equivalent of "hanging chads." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune now (as of 11:30 am Friday morning) reports that the official lead of Coleman over Franken is down to 239 votes -- in Pine County (just south of Duluth), "exhausted" election officials mistakenly listed Al with 24 votes in Partridge Township, and then they discovered they missed an important "1" - he had actually received 124 votes!

Now I still hope that a recount will eventually produce a different result -- but why did it have to be so close? As an "investor," I've got two questions:

1) Why didn't Al Franken speak at the Democratic National Convention, as did most of the other Democratic senatorial candidates? The official story has it that Al decided on his own not to speak. Andy Barr, his campaign spokesman, explained that Al had to rush back from Denver to campaign at the Minnesota State Fair. Said Barr to the Strib: "It would be cool to be part of history and the spectacle of the convention, but there's a pretty good spectacle going on here, too." I always suspected that all this was a "warm and fuzzy" cover story for an embargo against Al, who might not have played well with the national audience. The national media loves Franken, and would have highlighted his 3 minutes of air time above all the other obscure Senate candidates -- and someone in the Obama campaign or the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee didn't want the blowback. That's what I suspect.

2) But that leads me to the second & more important question: Why didn't Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama visit Minnesota (where he won the state by 10 points), not even one time, to help a Democratic candidate locked in a tight race? Sure, the Clintons showed up, and Hilary even recorded a misguided television ad whose main point in advocating for Franken was "let's get that 60-seat super majority" -- a hardly ringing issues-oriented message. But where the hell was Obama? Other than a short too-little, too-late and half-hearted phone call to WCCO Radio on election eve, Obama personally stayed out of this race. And there are only two answers:

a) the Franken campaign never asked; or
b) the Obama campaign declined, either because it wanted to distance Obama from a slightly tarnished and "controversial" candidate, or because the Obama campaign was in it only for the "top of the ticket," and couldn't care less about the Senate. And it isn't just in Minnesota: why didn't Obama campaign, not even one time, in Georgia with Democratic senate candidate Jim Martin, who had a chance to unseat the Republican incumbent?

There is something very disturbing about how the Obama campaign allocated the candidate's time in the weeks of the campaign. Would one visit to Minnesota have undermined some grand strategy? And while we're at it, the "assstance" that Senator Charles Schumer (NY) and the DSCC gave to Franken is also worth noting.

Now to give the Franken campaign their credit, they were hounded from the primaries through the Democratic nomination, and then into the general election, by alternate candidates, and I believe they were therefore locked in "tactical mode" the entire duration of the campaign. The Franken campaign did not ever have the opportunity to run a strategic campaign based "on message" -- it was constantly fending off attacks from within the Minnesota Democratic party while trying to keep its focus on Norm Coleman. Apparently, it was more than the Franken campaign could handle. And that's why an Obama visit would've made a great deal of sense.

Like I said, I am pissed.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

SK meets SS

What a lame blog title. Read and kvell!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Boy, Was I Ever Wrong

Got the electoral vote wrong; got the raw vote wrong; got the Jewish vote wrong (early and vague reports say 77% of Jewish voters voted for Obama -- better than Kerry); got the Minnesota senate race wrong (Franken is losing by 474 votes out of over 2.8 million votes cast - this number has bounced around all day) . There was no apparent Bradley effect. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong & wrong.

I did vote for the presidential winner, though -- haven't done that recently! Okay, so I was dragged kicking and screaming to that one correct thing by Sara, but I still got one thing right.

Maybe today is a day to lighten up a bit on cynicism about America and the world. Maybe we're not all the racist goobers I thought we were.

Update 5:15 pm: I think I know where I went wrong, at least on the Jewish vote prediction. Spending the entire spring in Israel, and watching the primary season from afar, I must have internalized Israelis' support for McCain and fear of Obama and transferred that to my analysis of the American Jewish vote. I was wrong, and it colored all my writing about Obama and the Jews both in print and on this blog.

Ironic that I was hoping for entertaining close calls and reversed calls for Election Night. I got my wish -- but in a race I had hoped would be decisive -- the Minnesota Senate race. Last night, at 7:44 pm, I received a phone call from the Franken campaign asking for "one last contribution" and asking me to help make sure my neighbors went out to vote. I explained that I lived in Connecticut, and that I was honored to have helped with my contributions, but that I was done contributing. I thought at the time what a strange phone call. Now I understand.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My vote

Dear daughter Sara,

Here is the proof - a picture of my fully filled-in ballot just before I put it into the optical scanner.

As you can see, I voted for Obama/Biden. I kept up my end of the deal -- now send me the picture of your Jewish fiance.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Prediction

I am hoping for an entertaining election night. For me, "entertaining" means a long night, full of upsets and surprises that will leave the analysts sputtering, with lots of too-close-to-calls and even a reversal or two late in the night. All accompanied by lots of Scotch. At my school, there is a prediction pool, and I have put in the following guess:

Electoral Votes
Obama/Biden - 278
McCain/Palin - 260

Vote Percentage
+2 for Obama (I didn't have to specify, but I think it will be 49.7-47)

I'll take one more prediction: the Jewish vote nationally will be 68-32 in favor of Obama

I'm not confident about these predictions, but if I am close, it will make for an entertaining night.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Another Poll Looks at Jewish Vote

The Washington Post-ABC tracking poll reports American Jews as breaking 70-29 for Obama. This result is much closer to the outcome I expect, certainly lower than the recent national Gallup & Florida Quinnipiac numbers, which reported Obama at the mid-to-upper 70's with Jews. Remember -- Kerry got 76% in 2004; Dukakis in 1988 got 64%. My buddy Silk thinks Obama will hit 70; I think Obama is going to do worse than that.

Here's a theory: if any white demographic group will manifest the "Bradley effect," it will be the Jews. Jews are liberal and subject to guilt and insecurity; certainly if there are Jews who are going to be peeled away from their traditional Democratic home, there may be a hesitancy to announce aloud to a pollster, even an exit pollster, a renunciation of long-held political views because of the list of troubling stories -- many of them manufactured -- which dog the Obama narrative and "Jewish issues."

Friday, October 31, 2008

But Is It Kosher? Part II

A few weeks ago, I referred blog readers (all two of you!) to look at my recent article "The Postville Raid" published in the current edition of Religion in the News, edited by colleague Mark Silk.

Well, yesterday there was a major break in the case: Sholom Rubashkin, former manager of operations at Agriprocessors, Inc., and son of former CEO Aaron Rubashkin, was arrested by federal authorities at his home in Postville and charged with conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain, aiding and abetting document fraud and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft. This comes one day after Agriprocessors was hit with a $10 million fine by the state of Iowa for labor law violations. Rubashkin appeared in federal court in Cedar Rapids yesterday afternoonand had to surrender his passport, file a $1 million appearance bond, and agree to wear a GPS ankle bracelet (and not leave northeastern Iowa). The case now goes to a federal grand jury. Here's a link to the story at The Des Moines Register (with perp walk picture included). Apparently, the Agriprocessors facility is collapsing: meat processing has stopped, and workers are being dismissed. Looks like this story is rapidly changing with each passing hour. So, keep up with the story by looking at Scott Rosenberg's fantastic blog Nobody covers this story better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Obama, the L.A. Times, and the PLO

OK, this campaign is getting into pure silliness and stupidity. Back in May, I wrote a piece for Religion in the News entitled "Obama and the Jews" in which I touched on what I thought was a very important L.A. Times article published in the spring, a singular article amongst all those which looked at Obama's Chicago past in determing his stance on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I wrote then:

In an April 10 story, Los Angeles Times national political reporter Peter Wallsten described Obama as having a close social relationship with Chicago-area supporters of the Palestinian cause going back to the late 1990s, while at the same time pursuing a pro-Israel policy when he ran first for a seat in Congress and then for the U.S. Senate...
Critics of Obama also pointed to his long-standing friendship with academic Rashid Khalidi as evidence of a secret anti-Israel agenda. Supporters responded that he was a classic “pro-Israel” Democrat—that his acceptance of friends and associates with whom he disagreed was merely an indication of his “new style” inclusive politics.

Now this story has been catapulted into a last-week and desperate campaign trope. Republican candidate John McCain complained today that the Times has refused to release a videotape it posseses of a 2003 party thrown in Khalidi's honor in which Obama participated, as if this is some kind of nefarious thing. Sarah Palin today absolutely mangled Khalidi's name, called "Khaladi" a spokesman of the "Palestinian (sic) Liberation Organization," and said to supporters: "It must be nice for a candidate to have major news organizations looking out for their best interests like that. Politicians would love to have a pet newspaper of their very own."

All of this is pure bullshit, plain and simple. I've never met Khalidi, but I've read 3 of his books, and assigned one of his books to my students. He is one of the leading lights of the Palestinian-American intellectual scene, an honest historian who in his most recent book, The Iron Cage, gives an impassioned and persuasive account of the failures of Palestinian leadership and policies. Of course Khalidi is critical of Israel, and American policy towards Israel and Palestine. So what? I have heard from Jewish colleagues that he has been a fair doctoral advisor, and I know he works with credible Israeli and Palestinian figures. At a time when the PLO was being engaged diplomatically by both Israel and the US (essentially the last 15 years, after both the US and Israel had come to regard the PLO as a legitimate party, and not a terrorist organization) he has apparently consulted with that organization during the Oslo and beyond years. In no conceivable way could his participation with Palestinian diplomacy these last two decades be regarded as engaging in terrorism. Let's be very clear -- the Palestine Liberation Organization has many problems, but it has been more than 15 years since it has been defined by any responsible entity as a terrorist organization.

And let's not forget that Khalidi was a participant in the now defunct Center for Palestine Research and Studies (which conducted polls of Palestinian public opinion), and which, according to the AP, received in 1998 a half-million dollar grant from the International Republican Institute (an organization supporting the advance of democracy throughout the world). Who was the chair of the IRI in 1998? Senator John McCain.

What a load of crap.

Florida Jews Update

The Quinnipiac Polling Institute issued another poll (taken Oct. 22-26) for Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Florida remains "too close to call," and the poll reportedly produces a 75-20 pro-Obama split amongst Florida's Jews (though for the life of me I don't see the data in their press release). In any event, maybe all the anti-Obama efforts amongst Jewish voters is paying off, because this whopping 75-20 lead is nevertheless a 2 point drop in Obama's performance amongst FL Jews as compared to last week. Sure, this is well within the margin of error. But I am hoping for a dramatic Election Night full of entertainment and nail-biting. I will be bitterly disappointed if this election ends in an electoral landslide and is over before midnight. Give me my infotainment! I wanna see dueling network projections! Let's see Sean Hannity twitching, Rachel Maddow sputtering! Sadly, we won't have Tim Russert's low-tech white board this time around.

Update, 2pm: It looks like the race is truly tightening. Both Rasmussen and Gallup show that Obama's October lead is beginning to dry up. Obama doesn't seem to be able to cross above 50%, and McCain keeps creeping up. The race might be an electoral blow-out for Obama even as the national balloting is close, but there is so much "wrong" in the models being used by pollsters (no one knows what the turnout will be, no one knows how many voters are outright dissembling to pollsters, no one knows how to model first-time voters) that I am prepared psychologically for any outcome.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Livni Fails

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the current leader of the political party Kadima, met with Israeli President Shimon Peres to inform him she failed to form a new Israeli government. This represents a bitter and humiliating defeat for Livni, and she has spent the day in a desperate attempt to avoid this constitutionally mandated meeting with the president, already postponed once today. The religious party Shas demanded over half a billion dollars of funding for its pet projects, and a commitment to "defend Jerusalem" in any future negotiations with the Palestinians, and she refused to accede to this blackmail. It is still possible, even with this announcement, that a last minute deal will be struck, but it seems unlikely.

Livni's inability to construct a coalition will probably -- though not necessarily -- trigger "snap" elections in Israel in 90 or so days, probably February 2009. When I last wrote about Israel on the day Ehud Olmert announced his resignation as Prime Minister (July 30, 2008), I did not explicitly predict this outcome, but I sure hinted at it insofar that I expected that elections would be the likely outcome of Olmert's resignation. Back in July, I wasn't sure whether Livni or Shaul Mofaz would emerge as leader of Kadima, but in any event I was fairly certain neither would be able to create a coalition out of the current crop of political parties, and I predicted that after the mandatory coalition building efforts, it would be the case that Israel would go to elections. And so it has transpired...

What this means is that Olmert will continue as caretaker PM until elections and a new coalition are formed -- at least another 4 months. There is a chance Olmert might personally resign the PM job to clear the way for the new Kadima standard bearer, whoever that might be (Livni may not survive another internal Kadima campaign for its leadership). I've predicted the rapid demise of Kadima, a party that was created 3 years ago on the personal whim of Ariel Sharon, and has lost its raison d'etre. I still maintain that there is a very high probability that many Kadima party members will simply abandon this failed party to return to their former political homes. Thus, the main contenders for the upcoming election will be former PM Ehud Barak, the head of venerable Labor, and former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of venerable Likud, and maybe Livni, head of newcomer Kadima. The two former PMs were each seperately run out of office on a rail; whoever represents Kadima will be similarly tainted. In other words, this new election will be a very divided vote, with the mainstream voter looking at three eviscerated principal parties and their respective leaders. Smaller boutique parties (catering to the religious vote, the retiree vote, the ecological vote, the leftist vote, the Arab vote, the "clean government" vote) will do quite well. The outcome of this election will be a muddled and indecisive disaster, and whatever government emerges will be made up of a weak lead party and a number of contentious coalition partners. As is the case with Olmert's interim government, at least two of these 3 parties will constitute some future Israeli government. The early hypothetical polling suggests Benjamin Netanyahu has the early lead, but not by a decisive margin. President Obama or President McCain will thus confront a festering Israel-Palestinian conflict in which the political leadership of the two sides will be weak and constrained by bitter internal division, unable to respond to American prodding to advance a peace process. Not good.

So as one political campaign winds up, another begins.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Surprising Numbers from Florida

Quinnipiac University released a poll today for battleground states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The poll suggests that McCain is gaining some ground in Florida, holding steady (losing, but within the error margin) in Pennsylvania, but slipping in Ohio. With less than 2 weeks to go, and with these states still in play, it was interesting to see that among Florida Jews, Obama is leading by a wide 77-20 margin over McCain. I expect Obama to win the Jewish vote -- nationally and in Florida -- but not by this much. I'm looking more towards a 65-35 spread, which would underperform Clinton, Gore, and Kerry by a significant amount. Surprisingly, 64-35 is what Dukakis got in 1988 against Bush 41. I don't think Obama will do better than Dukakis.

Update (6:00 pm): A new Gallup poll released today of Jewish voters nationwide seems to confirm the Quinnipiac trendline, doubly confirming that my guess will be wrong. In this survey, taken by producing monthly averages of daily tracking polls, and based on a survey which interviews 500 Jewish voters each month, Obama is showing increased support amongst Jews, from 61% in July to 74% in October. Simultaneously, McCain has lost ground (the Palin effect?) -- from 34% in July to 22% in October. Astoundingly, older Jews show stronger support for Obama than younger Jews. Jews 55 and older are supporting Obama 74-19; the 35 to 54 age group are going for Obama 68-28, and young Jews (18-34) are 67-29 Obama. Such numbers completely fly in the face of the conventional narrative (reinforced by The Great Schlep brouhaha) that older Jews are the most resistant to Obama's candidacy.

If Gallup is right, Obama stands to do as well with Jews as Kerry did in 2004. If that happens, I'll eat my kippa.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is in the Water in Minnesota?

OK, first there was a former wrestler for a governor. Then more recently there was the famous gay bathroom at the Minneapolis Airport. Then there was the old lady at a McCain rally in Minnesota stating that Obama "is an Arab." Then last week there was dunderhead Michelle Bachmann, another semi-MILF right-wing nut job (proof that there are actually dumber right-wing neophyte politicians than Sarah Palin). Then we find out that the bulk of Sarah Palin's new Barbie collection of clothes were bought mainly on the plain (Neiman-Marcus in downtown Minneapolis). All this I could tolerate. But then we have this story from Rochester, MN, about just how stupid Minnesotans can be:

Rochester woman caught up in Nigerian scam
10/20/2008 11:10:38 PM
By Janice Gregorson, Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

A Rochester woman, allegedly caught up in a Nigerian scam operation, now faces criminal charges for stealing from her employer to send advance payments to the scam artists in order to get a promised $10 million.
Jalaine Noella Holtan, 53, 1313 Marion Road S.E., No. 20, is charged with one count of felony theft. A summons has been issued for her to be in Olmsted District Court on Nov. 17.
Police were called July 10 by the area manager for Casey's General Store after learning from the bank that several deposit bags had not been deposited from one of the stores.
The complaint said Holtan told the manager that she had kept the cash because she owed people money. She said she took about $10,000 to $15,000.
Holtan later told police she had been investing for several years. Holtan said she got an e-mail in early July from an attorney named Morgan Smith, who said Holtan is to receive $10 million from investments she had made in diamonds and oil in Nigeria.
Diplomats from Nigeria allegedly were in Rochester in June with the money, but they needed a "certificate" to transfer the money to her. Holtan told police the diplomats needed her to front the money to them to pay for the "certificate."
Holtan didn't have the money available, so the diplomats returned to Nigeria and put her in touch with Smith. Holtan was told that Smith would arrive in Rochester on July 9. She said she waited for him at the airport until 10 p.m., but he never arrived.
She said she received a message from Smith that night in which he said he needed $2,500 from her in order to get to Rochester with the $10 million, but she didn't have it for him.
Holtan said she had sent over $12,507 to these people since July 7. She told police she had gotten the majority of the money by "borrowing" it from her employer. She said she took it with the intention of repaying the money upon receipt of her $10 million. She admitted taking the money out of the daily bank deposit at Casey's, the complaint said. She said that on July 9 she took $4,000 in cash from the deposit and wired it to Nigeria. She also said she had taken money from the safe four times during the week of July 6.

Yes, there is actually someone somewhere (well, actually, Minnesota) who still believes in those e-mails from Nigerian diamond dealers, finance ministers, and oil executives. Don't forget - people like that get to vote, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Let Obama be Bartlet

Okay, to get this blog entry you need to be fan of the great Aaron Sorkin series The West Wing, which ran on NBC between 1999-2006. Much has been made of the close comparison between the seasons 6 and 7 character Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Barack Obama -- their biographies are similar, and their rhetoric is quite parallel. The writers of this story arc clearly admit they were looking to Obama's senate race in Illinois in 2004 for inspiration. They even had a moderate "maverick" Republican senator, Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda), who was Santos' venerable opponent for the presidency. Rumor has it that the writers of TWW were set to have Vinick win the election, but when the actor John Spencer (who played Santos' running mate, and who was the beloved Bartlet consigliere Leo McGarry) died mid-season 7, the writers felt it would be too much of a downer to lose McGarry and also have Santos lose. See this amazing video from February 2008, and this piece from the Guardian UK.

But it seems to me that President Jed Bartlet is closer in spirit to Obama. Bartlet, you might remember, was a Nobel prize winning economist who was an academic teaching at Dartmouth College before being encouraged to run for congress from New Hampshire. He then went on to be governor. And Bartlet was a thoughtful, inclusive, executive leader -- a liberal's wet dream for President. Thus it all played out in the alternate universe that once a week kept liberals therapeutically soothed during the dark years of W.'s presidency.

Now back to the real world: we have a brilliant, thoughtful, apparently dispassionate and unflappable candidate against an irrascible and moderate maverick. My greatest concern is the absence of the political and executive experience which Bartlet possessed. Other than deftly running the contentious Harvard Law Review (no small task), I just don't know what an Obama presidency might look like. I can only hope that if Obama wins, he will take to heart Leo McGarry's famous line, written on a legal pad to his soulmate Bartlet at a low point in Bartlet's presidency: "Let Bartlet be Bartlet."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm Still Voting for Him, But...

In a mini-version of Sarah Silverman's Great Schlep, I promised my daughter Sara I'll vote for Obama. I'm trying so hard to get comfortable with my intended choice. Really I am. is a piece from Haaretz:

Jesse Jackson: Obama will rid United States of 'Zionist' controlBy Haaretz service

The New York Post reported Tuesday that the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the United States will rid itself of years of "Zionist" control under an administration headed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The daily quoted the veteran civil rights leader on Tuesday as having said that although "Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades" remain strong, they will lose a much of their clout when Obama enters the White House. Speaking at the first World Policy Forum event in Evian, France, Jackson promised "fundamental changes" in U.S. foreign policy. He said the most important change would occur in the Middle East, where "decades of putting Israel's interests first" would end.

Jackson said that Obama "wants an aggressive and dynamic diplomacy." He went on to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Middle East diplomacy, telling the Post, "Bush was so afraid of a snafu and of upsetting Israel that he gave the whole thing a miss. Barack will change that," because, as long as the Palestinians haven't seen justice, the Middle East will "remain a source of danger to us all."

Here is the original article from the Post.

Oy, Sara, you better be right!

Update, 1 pm: Now let's not forget who owns the New York Post, and what it's readership is like. It's the Fox News of the print world. And here is the fully appropriate and calming response from the Obama campaign, released just a few minutes ago:

"Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is not an adviser to the Obama campaign and is therefore in no position to interpret or share Barack Obama's views on Israel and foreign policy. As he has made clear throughout his career and throughout this campaign, Barack Obama has a fundamental commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and he is advised by people like Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Rep. Robert Wexler, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Senator Joe Biden who share that commitment. As President, he will ensure that Israel can defend itself from every threat it faces, stand with Israel in its quest for a secure peace with its neighbors, and use all elements of American power to end Iran’s illicit nuclear program. No false charges can change Barack Obama’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security."

As I wrote in my original piece on Obama and the Jews 4 months ago for Religion in the News, there is information in Obama's history and record that can be interpreted either way. I'd like to believe he is going to be a great president, and good for Israel (whatever that means). But it sure is a hard belief to come to.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

But is it Kosher?

I wrote the cover story in this quarter's Religion in the News about how the media treated the Postville, Iowa kosher slaughterhouse immigration raid and the ensuing scandal. The article came out tonight on the web, with hard copies due out later this week. Here is how it begins...

"On May 12, 2008, a large contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents descended upon the northeastern Iowa town of Postville, home of the kosher meat processing facility Agriprocessors Inc., armed with 697 criminal complaints and arrest warrants involving illegal workers, identity theft, and the fraudulent use of social security numbers. Using helicopters, a makeshift processing center on a converted county fairground, and dozens of buses, the federal ICE agents, directed by the regional office in Bloomington, Minnesota, carried out two federal search warrants on the Agriprocessors site and arrested almost 400 workers..." Read more

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Palin & the Jews

Now that the presidential campaign is going negative, with personal attacks on character streaming forth from Sarah Palin and John McCain, and responses in kind coming forth from the Democrats, it's time to take stock.

First, we have Sarah Silverman's absolutely hilarious video on behalf of, an effort to convince Jewish grandchildren to bribe bubbes and zaides in Florida to vote for Obama. There is also Jackie Mason's unfunny response. There is also a viral video out on YouTube quoting a bunch of Israeli leftists (insignificant figures like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a one-hit-wonder Labor PM candidate from the 1990s who has virtually disappeared from Israeli politics after his ignoble defeat) who opine that Obama will be a fine choice for Israel. Palin and McCain have gone to great lengths in the first two debates to champion the cause of Israel -- and while Senator Joe Biden certainly trumped Palin with pro-Israel rhetoric, Obama wasn't nearly as forceful when he had the chance. Thus, the fight for the Jewish vote in Florida is in full swing.

In a Monday New York Times column, Bill Kristol asked Sarah Palin whether it might be fair game to remind people of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor. Wrote Kristol:

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.” 
So let's spend a minute looking into Palin's church-going. We could start with the video from 2005 at her church from visiting Kenyan preacher Thomas Muthee a "blessing," in which he beseeches God to protect her, as she stands at the front of the church with palms raised towards heaven, from "witchcraft." We also now have more video of Muthee (check beginning the 1:20 time mark) at the same service (so we know Palin was there), condemning "Israelite" bankers and businessmen. "It's high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations," opined the Kenyan, before he later blessed Sarah.
About 3 weeks before she was chosen as VP candidate, Palin’s church gave its pulpit over to a figure viewed with deep hostility by many Jewish organizations: David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus. At that service, Brickner described terrorist attacks on Israelis as God's "judgment of unbelief" of Jews who haven't embraced Christianity. "Judgment is very real," said Brickner, "and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It's very real. When [Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can't miss it."
Palin was in church that day.
So if we hear more of Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ, I suggest we hear bit more about Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God church.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I accepted my daughter Sara's ultimatum that I would decide by tonight whether or not to accept her offer concerning Barack Obama: "If you vote for him I swear I'll marry a jew. Magen David."

Tonight was McCain's' turn....and I FELL ASLEEP TRYING TO WATCH JOHN McCAIN'S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH!!! It was that bad. And so I have only a few things left to factor into the equation.

1. Sarah Palin was not a responsible choice for Vice President; Joe Biden was. Initially, I thought her selection rivaled that of Dan Quayle in 1988; now I think there is a chance her selection may echo Tom Eagelton's short-lived candidacy in 1972. Everything I hear from Alaska insiders is that Palin is an airhead and venal. I suspect there are more snowbilly scandals in her family we have yet to hear about, and some of these may not only be salacious but have political significance. Bad choice, John -- and it says a lot about McCain's judgment. If he still wins (as did Bush 41 with Quayle in 1988), it will not be because of anything she brings to the table.

2. I found some of the speechifying against Obama from the RNC in St. Paul plausible: I think the Republicans have correctly tapped into a vein of conceit and narcissism in Barack Obama, and if the Republicans pound on this theme the next 2 months, it will reap electoral benefits.

3. It is important to me and my "wedge issue" values that my children marry Jews;


I will vote for the national Democratic ticket in November.

So Sara, now the ball is in your court. And even if I am long dead and gone before you finally decide to go the route of legalized monogamy, I will be watching from the afterworld.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Maybe We Can

So like a pompous narcissistic blogiator, I announced in my last blog entry to absolutely no one that I decided (pre-"The Speech", pre-McCain picking his VP-ILF) to not vote this coming November.

And then I was hit by a phenomenon described by Jan Hoffman in The New York Times.

April 8, 2008

Young Obama Backers Twist Parents’ Arms

The daily phone calls. The midnight e-mail. And, when college lets out, those dinner table declamations? Oh, please.

Senator Barack Obama’s devotees just won’t give their parents a break.

As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination continues, youthful volunteers for each candidate have been campaigning with bright-eyed brio, not only door-to-door but also at home. But the young supporters of Mr. Obama, who has captured a majority of under-30 primary voters, seem to be leading in the pestering sweepstakes. They send their parents the latest Obama YouTube videos, blog exhortations and “Tell Your Mama/Vote for Obama!” bumper stickers.

Megan Simpson, a Penn State senior, had not been able to budge her father, a Republican. But the day before the deadline for registering for the coming Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, she handed him the forms and threw in a deal-sweetener as well. “I said, ‘Dad, if you change your party affiliation in time to vote for Obama,’ ” recalled Ms. Simpson, 22, an Obama campus volunteer, “ ‘I will get you the paperwork the day after the primary if you want to switch back to being a Republican.’ ”

Thus did Ralph E. Simpson Jr., 50, construction company owner, become a newly minted Democrat. “I probably will switch my affiliation back,” Mr. Simpson said, “but I haven’t decided who I will vote for in the general election. If Meg keeps working on me, who knows?”

No poll has counted Obama supporters who made their choice at the urging of their children. But combined exit polls for all the primaries so far (excluding Florida and Michigan) show that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has edged out Mr. Obama, 50 percent to 46 percent, among voters ages 45 to 64 — those who are old enough, and then some, to be the parents of Mr. Obama’s young supporters.

But even politicians are mentioning the persuasiveness of their children, either in earnest or as political cover, as a factor in their Obama endorsements.

That list of Democrats includes Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

While politicians inevitably invoke children and the future, rarely have the political preferences of children themselves carried much weight with their elders. On the contrary: when baby boomer parents were the age their children are now, the ideological and social gap between generations was more pronounced. Parents were, by definition, authoritarian. Their children were, by definition, anti-.

But the sharp distinctions between generations have eroded. Parents now are exponentially more entwined with their offspring, inclined to place their children’s emotional well-being ahead of their own. Even when students live away at college, many parents call them and send text messages every day.

The Obama campaign was well positioned to capitalize on this veritable seamlessness. From the outset, Mr. Obama eagerly sought out young voters with his Internet operation and a widespread, efficient campus network. Those efforts are paying off: in all Democratic primaries to date (excluding Florida and Michigan), about 6 in 10 voters under age 30 have supported him, according to exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky.

For some waffling primary voters, the relentless push by their children was good enough reason to capitulate...

Two Minutes after Barack Obama finished his acceptance speech in Denver, my daughter Sara -- who has yet to be romantically involved with a single Jewish boy her entire torrid dating life -- sent me the following 2-line text message: "If you vote for him I swear I'll marry a jew. Magen David." In our family, saying "Shield of David" is as close as we come to saying "I swear to God and all things sacred."

So Sara has given me until the end of the Republican convention to choose. The deal is simple: if I vote for an audacious multi-racial Muslim-turned-agnostic-turned-Christian, I get an ironclad guarantee from my eldest daughter that she will never marry an audacious multi-racial Muslim-turned-agnostic-turned-Christian.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Back to work: No, we can't

It's been over 8 months since I last set foot in a classroom, thanks to a sabbatical piled on to a summer break. I've read a few books, written part of a new one, shepherded the editing of another, and researched for a third. I've visited Israel once and Minnesota 3 times. I've had my bathroom remodeled and I actually did all the painting of its walls. Much more productive than my last time on sabbatical. Well done.

During these last 8 months, I watched from Tel Aviv (oftentimes on a primary Tuesday at 4 am, so I could see coverage in real time), and then here in CT, an exhausting presidential campaign that still isn't over; in fact, it is only now ready to really begin. I've written an article which was generated by the comings and goings of the campaign, and now 2 months later, I still stand by it.

To put it simply, I can't vote for Barack Obama. Timing it to coincide with the Democratic convention, I've almost finished reading Obama's first memoir, Dreams from My Father, and still have still not encountered a single insight which would cause me to alter my original judgment of his candidacy, which I blogged back in January, 2008:

"I cannot vote for a vague, inexperienced 1st-term senator, however energizing the symbolism of his candidacy might be. Four years ago, he was nothing more than an Illinois state senator who voted "present" more than a hundred times on legislation, a few times which required a leader to take a stand. He was a US Senator for less than a year before he launched his campaign. There is simply nothing there, other than a symbol of youthfulness and racial amity. That for me is not enough."

I also blogged in January about Hilary Clinton, Obama, and the now discredited John Edwards:

"It looks like for the third straight time in a row, the Democratic party is going to nominate a candidate for President who will lose in November to a beatable Republican. None of the current Republicans look particularly impressive, and the Republican Party is in disarray, but the lemming-like death march of the Democratic Party towards a) a despised one-term senator with a ton of baggage; b) a neophyte senator who has cloaked himself in messianic pretensions (it is easy to imagine him saying "there is a mighty wind blowing"); or c) a one-term retired senator masquerading as William Jennings Bryan, will certainly result in a Republican victory."

I am a lifelong Democrat, whose only deviation from that record was my mistaken and misguided vote for Joe Lieberman in 2006. I consider voting a civic obligation and have never missed voting in any election cycle. I am a liberal, who has contributed money for the first time in my life to Al Franken's senate campaign in Minnesota. I cannot vote for John McCain under any circumstances, and I still think he is going to win. But the more I research about Obama, the more I am repelled. Obama spent some time as an academic at the University of Chicago; the more I read his memoir, the more I am convinced I would not want such a man as a colleague. Too po-mo; too trendy leftist in the worst sense of the word; too conflicted by internal rifts. I certainly think that a dispassionate intellectual advised by similar types within the Democratic fold would not make for a successful presidency.

So I am turning to George Carlin, who passed away during these past 8 months:

"I don't vote. Because I believe if you vote, you have no right to complain. People like to twist that around. They say, 'If you don't vote, you have no right to complain', but where's the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent people, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain.

"I, on the other hand, who did not vote -- who, in fact, did not even leave the house on Election Day -- am in no way responsible for what these people have done and have every right to complain as loud as I want about the mess that you created that I had nothing to do with."

This year, I am gonna take a pass.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mike Zoss Pharmacy, Pt. II

Today a number of Jewish organizations in Minneapolis received a fax concerning upcoming extras casting call for "A Serious Man," the next Coen brothers' movie set to start shooting early September in the Twin Cities. I wrote an earlier blog about this upcoming Jewish-themed movie. In today's fax, among the named extras is a call for a character named "Mar King," -- a "grey haired man who speaks Hebrew and is the teacher at Hebrew school." Mar is the proper modern Hebrew honorific for "Mr.," from the more ancient Hebrew word "master."

What a hoot! For those of us who went to the Minneapolis Talmud Torah for the decades between the 1940s through 70s, Mar (Joseph) King is remembered as one of the beloved members of the Talmud Torah faculty. Joel & Ethan are really digging deeply into the realia of the Minneapolis Jewish communtiy of the 1960s. Great job!

Olmert: About F#%king Time

This evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he has decided not to run for leader in the Kadima party primaries in September, and to resign as PM once a new party chair has been elected. With that, the farcical Olmert government will come to an end. And with that, the very last nail in the coffin can be put through President George W. Bush's wistful "expectation" that by the end of his presidency the rough outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will be hammered out. Now we know for certain that it will be up to one of two warmed-over US foreign policy teams to re-engage the Arab-Israeli mess in 2009. Either it will be round two for the chastened neo-cons (if McCain wins) or round two for the old Clinton foreign policy hands (if Obama wins) to work with a new Israeli government to promote some kind of resolution of the ever-worsening problem. But George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Keith Dayton and Robert Gates can now once-and-for-all let it all go. For all intents and purposes, the Annapolis "process" -- a still-born diplomatic initiative if there ever was one -- is over.

But back to Olmert. I've already described him as the "accidental Prime Minister" of Israel. He was never, ever supposed to arise to such things. It was only the incapacitating stroke of Ariel Sharon in January 2006 that elevated Olmert into such a vaunted position of power. Olmert was a party hack, a man already stained by tales of corruption and kickbacks while he presided as mayor over the decade-long deterioration of Jerusaelm. He proved himself unfit to lead Israel when he cavalierly barreled into a disastrous war with Hizbollah back in July of 2006. For those who knew a bit of the back story, Ehud Olmert was a disaster waiting to happen. And disaster there was, in spades.

But it is not just Olmert. The stench of corruption pervades Israeli politics. It doesn't matter whether it is Kadima, Labor, or Likud. Everyone does it, and there are many wealthy diaspora Jews willing to foot the bill for these venal Israeli machers. This is why small, short-lived protest parties crop up so often during Israeli national election cycles. The entrenched parties seem to be rotten to the core. There is a real possibility that Kadima -- the artificial creation designed by Sharon to buttress his massive political ego -- won't be around by the time of the next election. But if it is, expect two fairly inept and insignificant political underlings to duke it out for party leadership -- the inexperienced Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the military man Shaul Mofaz. If there actually is a party to lead, one of them will then have to contend with the elder Likud and Labor parties for the bulk of the Israeli electorate. These will likely be led by two former (and failed) PMs respectively -- Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. But don't be surprised if some new boutique "clean government" party rises out of this political swamp.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stop the presses!

I've been waiting a long time for something like this. If it isn't a hoax news story, then I finally feel vindicated.

From (here is the link):

FORMER NASA astronaut and moon-walker Dr Edgar Mitchell - a veteran of the Apollo 14 mission - has stunningly claimed aliens exist. And he says extra-terrestrials have visited Earth on several occasions - but the alien contact has been repeatedly covered up by governments for six decades.
Dr Mitchell, 77, said during a radio interview that sources at the space agency who had had contact with aliens described the beings as 'little people who look strange to us.' He said supposedly real-life ET's were similar to the traditional image of a small frame, large eyes and head.
Chillingly, he claimed our technology is "not nearly as sophisticated" as theirs and "had they been hostile", he warned "we would be been gone by now".
Dr Mitchell, along with with Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard, holds the record for the longest ever moon walk, at nine hours and 17 minutes following their 1971 mission.
"I happen to have been privileged enough to be in on the fact that we've been visited on this planet and the UFO phenomena is real," Dr Mitchell said. "It's been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it's leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.
"I've been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes - we have been visited. Reading the papers recently, it's been happening quite a bit." Dr Mitchell, who has a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a Doctor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics claimed Roswell was real and similar alien visits continue to be investigated.
He told the astonished Kerrang! radio host Nick Margerrison: "This is really starting to open up. I think we're headed for real disclosure and some serious organisations are moving in that direction."
Mr Margerrison said: "I thought I'd stumbled on some sort of astronaut humour but he was absolutely serious that aliens are definitely out there and there's no debating it."
Officials from NASA, however, were quick to play the comments down. In a statement, a spokesman said: "NASA does not track UFOs. NASA is not involved in any sort of cover up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe. 'Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue.'

Update: Sounds is a link to the audio.

Dueling Senate Commercials

Three commercials from the Minnesota Senate campaign.

The first one, from the Coleman campaign, sets the theme -- a regular league night bowler.

Here's the Franken response:

And then the Coleman campaign decided to go for the dirt bomb. Here is the next bowling league commercial (it was on the Coleman website briefly, and now is gone -- has it been pulled?), and it is about as low and sleazy as you can get:

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Israel: I'm outta here!

I'm leaving for the airport in a few minutes. It was a great 10 weeks, and. I am grateful for all the old and new friends who made it such a great time I promise to continue blogging even after I am gone.
I realized tonight that while I take off from here, President Bush is arriving. And then it occurred to me: whether you're a current president, a former president (Carter), or the next president (Obama or McCain), this place -- by which I mean both Israel and Palestine -- is going to give you nothing but heartache. There is simply no upside for an American president -- current, past, or future -- to dig in and try to fix this conflict. So why do they do it? Because it seems so tantalizingly close? Because it is The Holy Land? Because if it descends into deeper instability it could lead to a nuclear exchange? Because it generates campaign support and votes at home? Probably all of this and some things more. So the most unpoular President in the history of modern America is going to spend a few days with the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of Israel. This is a get together I'll be happy to miss.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Olmert Scandal: Gag Order Lifted (Mostly)

Well, the bombastic 60th Independence Day festivities are over (with 2 onlookers seriously wounded when a public demonstration of Israeli military prowess resulted in an awful accident), and finally the Israeli courts have lifted most of the ridiculous gag order (which the gutless Israeli newspapers slavishly followed) concerning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Before I get to the details, let me just say: shame on all the publishers and editors of Israel's supposedly "independent" media. This story has nothing to do with national security in the conventional sense (though more on that later). Why not a single paper (other than Yediot Aharonot -- and then only for one edition) chose to openly challenge the idiotic ruling of the courts, Pentagon Papers-style, is very disturbing. The big media venues completely dropped the ball here, and it does not bode well for the future of Israeli democracy.

Speaking of the dim future of Israeli democracy, the story that has finally been published on all the news media web sites confirms the identity of Morris Talansky (a contributor to, amongst others, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Paul Welstone???) as at least one American businessman who handed over hundreds of thousands of dollar in envelopes to Olmert's lawyer and office administrator over the course of a number of years while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade in the Sharon government. One accusation has Minister Olmert in exchange writing a letter to hotel owners encouraging them to use Talansky's mini-bar restocking service.

Late tonight Olmert went out on national TV with a partial defense, denying the now circulating accusations ("I never took a penny into my pocket"), but simultaneously offering to resign as PM if charges are actually filed. Press reports suggest the investigation will take weeks if not months, so it seems that any immediate fear that President George W. Bush might not be able to greet his friend Udi next week in Jerusalem is off the table (though Bush is cancelling a 3-way that had been planned with Olmert & Mahmoud Abbas). But with Abbas suffering heart problems, Olmert suffering political problems, and Bush suffering from lame-duckness, forget the chances of seeing the Annapolis "non-process" bear any fruit.

But that isn't the whole story. Here is what some are whispering, and a tale which I have on fairly decent authority from a senior local journalist. I don't have any way to fact check -- this may simply be the theory of a journalist; or it may be the truth. It certainly sounds plausible. Let's call it the "vast right-wing conspiracy" theory.

Understand first, that since the 1990s, Israeli politics has become more "Americanized" -- more media-driven, more consultant-based, and much more expensive (blame longtime US-resident Benjy Netanyahu for this transformation). And American and European Jewish "philanthropists" have been priming the pump of this new kind of Israeli politics in ways and at levels that are unprecedented. One way this has been done is by setting up foundations (like the New Jerusalem Fund) and think tanks (like the Shalem Institute), and funneling millions to support ideologies and specific political figures acceptable to donors. Good lawyers make these foreign foundation donations totally legal. American millionaires (on both sides of the political spectrum) are turning Israeli politics into their egotistical playground, and bringing unprecedented corruption to the political landscape. That is what I meant above by stating that this is in a certain way a story about "national security": it is apparent now that Israeli politicians at the highest level can be bought, and certainly compromised, by foreign millions. In this case, this latest bribery investigation is supposedly the result of a decision made by wealthy American Jewish businessmen working with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (himself tarnished by bribery allegations) to bring down the Olmert government sooner rather than later, by revealing these obviously damaging facts about Olmert at this time.

Here's the context: Olmert is exchanging messages with Syria through Turkey, and both sides suggest that they are within striking distance of a deal. More importantly, under the watchful supervision of Condoleeza Rice, Olmert and Abbas were actually making some progress on the Annapolis track. These American Jewish philanthropers, longtime supporters of Netanyahu (but also once friendly with then-Likud rising star Olmert) decided to take Olmert down. And so one of them began to sing, essentially becoming a state witness for the case against Olmert. Now, it has been suggested, Talansky's lawyer back in Long Island has warned Talansky that if what he is currently telling Israeli investigators is true, Talansky will have a hard time explaining hundreds of thousands of unreported dollars to the IRS. So Talansky, I am told, has clammed up. He's also been quoted as saying he fears Olmert may try to do him harm (but this from a guy who apparently used thugs himself back in the US to collect pledges).

I seriously doubt this story will be fully unpacked before I leave Israel (sigh) next week. But if I got any of the story right, you read it in this blog first. If not, then I was a victim of bad Israeli journalism. (And I repeat, there must be a reason that Steven Colbert retains "Israeli Newspapers" on his On Notice list.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Cost of War

Today was Memorial Day in Israel, Yom ha-Zikaron, which abuts Independence Day, which begins in a few minutes. I've participated before in Independence Day here, but today was the first time I visited a military cemetery on Memorial Day.

We came after the big crowds who participate in the formal morning ceremony, culminating in a 1-minute siren at 11 am. We came at 5 pm, and the Kiryat Shaul cemetery was still full of families, still dotted with mourners at hundreds of graves. The amount of flowers on display was truly overwhelming.

At one place I found the grave of a major general, in fact, a former Chief of Staff, the highest rank one can achieve. He was born in Jerusalem, served his country nobly for many decades, and died at the age of 65, not from war. Next to him was the grave of a private, born in the United States, the son of Nancy and Abraham, who died at the age of 18 in 1995 (probably somewhere in the West Bank or in Gaza? -- the marker did not say). At the foot of the grave, in rare English, carved into stone: "We love you, Oren -- Mom and Dad."

In an earlier blog this week I cursed out an anonymous Israeli soldier who cavalierly pointed his assault rifle at me at a checkpoint in the West Bank. I cursed the wrong thing. I really meant to curse this damn conflict. I meant to curse the fact that the naive and joyful act of visiting a microbrewery -- in the US nothing more than a leisure-time diversion -- is here an act of political adventure. I meant to curse the miserable & pathetic "leaders" who have not done enough to bring this misery to an end. I curse the fact that this conflict has produced very little other than row after row of beautifully manicured graves -- not just in Kiryat Shaul, but also in Jenin.

Gag on this!

This is psoitively hilarious. For 5 days, the Israeli media has been awash with a story concerning a new and serious scandal involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. At the request of the police, the Israeli district court issued a comprehensive gag order on anything having to do with the story, but even so last Friday Yediot Ahronot let it be known that the case involves illegal bribes (or at least money transfers) from an American businessman. The police & judges of Israel are pretending to live in a quaint time before the existence of that damn internets and the blogosphere. Yesterday, The New York Post broke the name of the American businessman, Mr. Morris Talansky of Woodmere (Woodburgh), NY, who is being questioned for passing large sums of money to Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s. (I should mention I had dinner with Olmert back in those days -- a "slim customer" if I ever saw one.) Anyhow, the word broke in Israel via the Internet yesterday afternoon, and here it is 24 hours later, and not a single one of the gutless major papers and news outlets (and their constantly updated web sites) has a word concerning Talansky, who has been here is Israel visiting his children (address has already been posted on the net) since Passover. On one Israeli radio station this morning, announcers told listeners to go The New York Post web site, without saying what will be found there, and Haaretz ran a clouded picture of the web page. Bloggers have been uncovering parts of the story: Talansky's ties to Olmert are proven through the New Jerusalem Fund web site, which lists the home address of Talansky in Woodsburgh, NY, as the business address for the Fund. All of this we know from the Internet and blogs, (even The New York Times has been able to advance the story) and yet the dinosaurs of the Israeli legal system still demand that the gag order be kept in place, and the gutless publishers of once brave independent Israeli newspapers are playing along. Ridiculous.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Olmert Over?

Back in January of 2006, when Ariel Sharon had his stroke and Barack Obama was visiting the Holy Land, I also happened to be here in Tel Aviv for an academic conference. Within days of the emergence of Ehud Olmert as the fill-in for Sharon, in my first blog entry on Olmert, I informed readers of this blog that "there is a hint of corruption" surrounding him and his family. Later, during the election campaign, I went into further details concerning allegations of Olmert's corruption. After Olmert was elected in his own right (though by a much smaller magin than the polls had predicted) he promised to turn Israel into a country -- let me quote the Hebrew -- she-keyf li-chyot bah -- "where it would be a joy to live in." Then on the morning of July 12, Olmert decided in something under 3 hours to launch a war into southern Lebanon against Hizbollah, with disastrous results for Israel and Lebanon (but not for Hizbollah). Two commission reports later, 3 criminal investigations later, and this "seasoned politician" has survived everything that has been thrown at him. He even survived watching his poll numbers tank to single digit approval (even George W. Bush is not that unpopular). He has since orchestrated a slow and steady comeback to nearly a 20% positive approval rating (still below Dubya's benchmark historic low). Predicted to be down for the count more than once these past two years (today marks the 2 year anniversay of Olmert's elected government), Olmert has proven to be the winner of Hisardut -- "Survivor."

And now it is the week of Israel's 60th anniversary, a week in which Olmert will play host to his buddy George Bush here on home court, and oversee an extravagant and opulent soiree (though sadly and without explanation, Barbara Streisand cancelled out from her scheduled visit, and her promised rendition of Avinu Malkeinu). A week of celebration and national clucking and long-winded speeches. This month of May was supposed to be a good month for Olmert. A time to kick back with a good cigar and enjoy the fireworks.

But then Friday the Israeli police suddenly descended upon Olmert's official residence with very little warning to interrogate him, for the fourth time in 2 years, about a new financial/political scandal. There are rumors flying as to what this new scandal might be -- the media is being gagged by the courts from publishing any details -- but it seems to be a financial bribe from a few years back, and this fourth rumor of financial irregularity may very well be the scandal to break the political culture's lethargy, and bring this pathetic caricature of a "seasoned politician" to his proper and early conclusion. The morning papers are all headlining the rumored corruption charge as "very serious," in fact the most serious and substantive of all the charges that have swirled around his head these past few years. There is open discussion of the possibility that these new charges or so corrosive that Olmert maight have to step down. Wishful thinking? Israeli media frenzy? (Let's not forget that "Israeli Newspapers" still appear on Steven Colbert's "On Notice" board.)

And May was supposed to have been a fun month...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Middle Eastern MicroBrew

For years, Hannah has been talking about Taybeh Beer. Thursday night I found a great bar in Tel Aviv that served it, and I had one. I liked it. So with time running out on my time here, and having put it off and put it off, I finally relented today and went off with her and Sophie to the Christian West Bank village of Taybeh, just north of Ramallah, to visit this amazing micro-brewery . It was the first time in 9 years I've ventured deep into Palestine, and I must say that my Israeli hosts seriously advised against it. For them, this is hostile enemy territory -- the last 9 years have been devoted to separating Israel from Palestine not only physically but also psychologically. In their minds, what I did today was insane, immature, and irresponsible -- but most importantly, dangerous. Indeed, today at an Israel checkpoint in the southern West Bank a 30 year-old Palestinian man brandishing a knife reportedly lunged at an Israeli soldier, and was shot to death. Something like that could conceivably have happened just as easily at one of the 5 checkpoints I had to traverse today (though no one left their car or truck). But I am convinced that I cannot possibly talk or teach about the Arab-Israeli conflict with any credibility or self-respect without crossing over to the other side. And the truth is, the way that Israel has cantonized the West Bank, I barely crossed to the other side. On the main highways of the West Bank, the Israeli yellow license plate rules the roads, many of which are laid out to allow Israelis to traverse the West Bank without traveling through or near Palestinian towns. For the first time in my 2 months here, I finally saw the formerly familiar green license plates of Palestine. At one entry checkpoint, we were separated by license plates....those of us with Israeli plates were sent right through on a separate lane. Those with green were sent aside to await inspection, if only identity papers.

We ended picking the long route to Taybeh, going out towards the West Bank on the 5 freeway. East of Rosh ha-Ayin, we hit our first road barrier, but were waved right through. On either side of the road were high fences topped with barbed-wire; the notorious security barrier at this point was nothing more than that, with constant patrols. Just a bit before Ariel, 5 quit being a highway and became a decent 2-lane inter-urban road, the 505. At Ariel, a West Bank Israeli settlement (?) of over 18,000 people that is easily 20 km beyond the former green line, we fueled up. At the Tapuach checkpoint we were divided by license plates, and then went south on the 60. Whenever we passed by an Israeli settlement, Israel flags were affixed to lightpoles as if we were in Jerusalem. Finally at Ofra, we turned onto what our map said was the northern entrance to Taybeh via the 449 road; we barely got a km when we came to a closed gate, and an Israeli soldier (wearing dental braces -- if he were 19 I'd be surprised) told us that we could not got to Taybeh this way. So we continued down 60 until we found the southern route into Taybeh. The Israeli road map told us not to traverse the entry road to Taybeh without Israeli Army escort -- and I have to admit that this gave me the creeps. Turns out that Israeli citizens are not permitted by Israeli law into what is called Area A, and while residents of Taybeh insist they are in Area C, the IDF treats it as A. At the intersection leading to the road to Taybeh, there was an IDF camp, but no soldiers could be seen. There were big signs in white letters on red background at the entrance to the road leading to Taybeh warning Israeli citizens to not go any further. We drove on.

It was easy finding the Taybeh Brewing Co. and we were greeted by brewmaster Nadim Khoury with an unusual kind of Middle Eastern hospitality -- instead of a cup of Turkish coffee, we were offered a taste of delicious Taybeh Amber. Nadim lived for years in the 70's and 80's in Brookline, MA, and as a college student in business administration he did what most college students do -- he home brewed. Eventually it became an obsession, and he went to study the process, and when the Oslo peace process promised a bright future, he was one of many ex-patriot sons and daughters of Palestine who decided to return and make a living and thereby produce a unique Palestinian product: alcoholic beer. The company's tagline? "Drink Palestinian: Taste the Revolution." Cute.

Others have told the story better than I. Articles have been written around the world about Nadim and his dream (see this NYT article from 1996). All I can say is that he was totally gracious and friendly towards us, and thoroughly professional in his approach to brewing. Having been to Scotland last year to visit whiskey distilleries, I was excited to see my first beer brewery, insofar as the first step in making malt whiskey is exactly the same as the malt beer process. Nadim Khoury follows the German 1516 purity law for beer, and his beer -- which these days (since the 2nd intifada) is hard to find in many Israeli establishments -- has no preservatives and like most micro-brews, is best drunk soon after bottling. He is excited about introducing a non-alcoholic beer to the local market, particularly now that famous Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has ruled that it is permitted to drink non-alcoholic beer. There is even a Facebook group devoted to the beer.

Taybeh is one of the only all-Christian villages in the West Bank. In fact, it might be the only one. Church spires, not minarets, dot its skyline. Israeli Jewish settlements are off in the distance on three of its sides. It seems to be an island of Christianity in a sea of crashing Muslim and Jewish waves. And yes, there is an Octoberfest celebration sponsored by Taybeh Brewing Co. every year since 2005 (though last year it was held in September so as not to conflict with Ramadan). Sadly, I won't be around this October.

We left Taybeh with a case of beer and other mementos, and when we got to the end of the 2 km entry road, where the 2 red signs stood, the IDF soldiers had come out of their camp to run a spot checkpoint. This time there was a very slowly moving queue of cars and trucks. When we inched up towards the barricades, a young Israeli soldier signalled I think for me to stop over 30 meters short of the forward water tanker whose driver was being inspected. Apparently, I failed to react fast enough for his 19 year-old tastes, and so he unshouldered his automatic weapon and aimed it straight at me. Is running a checkpoint outside a Christian village so dangerous that you have to level a gun at a rental car carrying 3 Jews and a case of beer? In my entire time on the occupied West Bank -- where I was warned by Israelis that a Palestinian kid might throw a rock at my car; a Palestinian sniper might shoot at my car; a Palestinian terrorist might slit my throat -- the only time I faced anything remotely threatening, if only with gestures, was by an Israeli soldier. What an irony: some bored punk stuck in a shit job (sitting on this intersection leading to an all-Christian village), possibly rattled because an incident had occurred somewhere else on the West Bank earlier in the day, didn't hesitate for a second and pointed an automatic assault rifle at me. Fuck him.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yom ha-Shoah in Tel Aviv

Tonight is the beginning of Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. So how are Tel Avivis marking the occasion? Well, tonight there is a soccer game between Chelsea and Liverpool for the Championshp League finals. Israel's national soccer hero, Yosi Benayoun, plays for Liverpool, and Israelis have been devoted Liverpool supporters since he came on board in 2005. But now Chelsea is coached by Avram Grant, Israel's greatest living coach. Israelis are beside themselves trying to figure out who they want to win. Of course, the Israeli TV stations are pumping out nothing but sad Holocaust-related shows tonight. So what to do? Tune in to a German cable channel, and watch the game either at the pub or more respectfully, at home. GOOOOOOAL!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sderot: Rocket Town

Below are a few pictures from a quick Saturday visit I took with Hannah to Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has been hammered for years by small-warhead missile fire from Gaza. The missiles, called Qassem, after the legendary Muslim Brotherhood guerilla fighter Izz ad-Din al-Qassem, pack around 10 lb. charges. Sderot is becoming a standard stop for VIPs and foreign tourists. John McCain passed through a few weeks ago. Former US President Jimmy Carter visited Sderot today, another stop on his 9-day tour of the region. He was snubbed here by the Israeli PM and FM (she was in Qatar of all places), but did meet with President Peres.

Sderot is a mere 50 minute drive down Route 4 from Tel Aviv. As we passed by Ashqelon, we could spot in the sky the floating dirigible set over the northern Gaza strip and used by the IDF to give the earliest possible warning of a rocket launch, and help identify launching sites (it is the tiny dot in the middle of the sky). The town of Sderot is now dotted with newly installed on-street reinforced shelters. With a large religious contingent in the town of 20,000, there wasn't much happening on a Saturday afternoon. Even though the day before the IDF had made a ground incursion into Gaza, killing 8, there was no missile attack on Saturday or through today.

Driving on a residential street, we thought we had come across a home ruined by rocket fire. It wasn't, but a local resident steered us to the real deal. We also saw not a few "For Sale" signs in front of intact homes. Reports state that as many as 20% of the population have left the town.

Yom ha-Yayyin: Sideways in Judea

It started when I suggested in my naivete that we might go to the Golan Heights to tour the wineries up there. After all, in my American ignorance, the Golan Heights was supposedly the premiere wine growing country for the better class of wines. What little do I know! My buddy politely scoffed at the notion of a trip to the Golan, and counter-offered a trip to the Judean Hills, the rugged land west of Jerusalem that was always part of even pre-1967 Israel. He mentioned some labels I had never heard of. But I figured: when in Rome...

Thanks to our relation & friend Rafi, a comfortable schedule of 3 vineyards was set for April 14. And so this morning off we went, visiting the Ella Valley Vineyard located in the farming community Netiv Ha'lamed He; Clos de Gat, on the edge of Kibbutz Har'el; and finally Domaine du Castel in Ramat Raziel. Producing annually anywhere between 50,000-200,000 bottles, I am not sure you can call them boutique vineyards, but they are small. And they are worth the visit. The most prominent is probably Castel, which had a recent write-up in The Wall Street Journal, and whose 2004 Grand Vin received a 92 from Robert Parker (I bought 2 bottles of the 2005). Each of the vineyards presented for leisurely tastings complex reds and surprisingly good whites. All 3 cellars use French oak barrels, and show the definite influence of French production techniques. One of the wineries, Clos de Gat, doesn't even bother with kashrut. We timed this trip perfectly, and it promises to be one hell of a luxuriant seder this year!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Dreams of My (Fore)fathers

In the literary review section of today's Haaretz is a full-page ad for a book I haven't yet seen in the stores, so this is the first formal announcement.
Update, April 12: My colleague Mark Silk, who seems to be quite taken with the Obomster, sent me a link to a Hebrew language Israeli blog apparently set up to support Barack Obama. I'd certainly call that outspending Hillary! Based on the comments, I'd say it isn't money well spent.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Plea Bargain? I Don't Need No Stinking Plea Bargain!

He fought and fought and fought. He stalled and stalled and stalled. Having been confronted with unassailable testimony from his several victims, former Israeli President Moshe Katzav agreed to resign the presidency and accept a plea bargain last year (I mentioned this as it was initially developing in a blog entry almost 2 years ago) for lesser charges than the rape he was accused of committing. In one of the more laughable and pathetic media performances ever given up by a political figure, Katzav took the defiant tack in an infamous press conference in January, 2007, even as he accepted the plea.

After over a week's delay, Katzav finally was to appear in court today to admit to guilt on lesser charges according to the plea agreement. Guess what? He showed up in court and announced he was rejecting the plea bargain which he and his lawyers agreed to back in late June, 2007. Defiant to the end, he'd rather fight the specific charges that he serially raped exposed his gentials to female workers in his office while he was Minister of Tourism, and treated one of his secretaries as a "sex slave" in exchange for promotions. Now all these charges will have to be re-examined by state prosecutors, and the public will be treated to a miserable judicial farce that should have ended long ago.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Israel: Dysfunctional Tax Code Revolutionized

It has been part of the US tax code for over 50 years: the child care tax deduction. But in Israel, it has never existed, and has crippled Israeli productivity by forcing 2-income families to pay onerous sums, oftentimes in the underground economy, to child care providers, with no compensation for the expense. But yesterday, in Tel Aviv district court, a judge ruled in favor of a suit filed by working mom Vered Pery against Israel's Tax Authority (the equivalent of the American IRS). With this single judicial ruling, a social revolution has taken place overnight. For in one fell swoop, the Tel Aviv court has declared that deducting child care expenses for working parents is now the law. While in the past the Israeli government had provided some subsidies and credits for working mothers, there has been no recognition of the problem as a professional employment expense. With yesterday's ruling, Israel's workforce dynamics have been radically altered.

This ruling also highlights some points made in this week's The Economist, the British newsweekly which devoted a special 14-page survey this week to Israel, which I recommend as essential reading for anyone who is interested in understanding current economic and social trends in the Jewish state. In its leader, The Economist describes Israel as "the dysfunctional Jewish state," and it is hard to argue with that snap characterization. There are lots of things that are working well in Israel in 2008, but there are lots of things on the verge of going wrong. So it has always been. Is the cup half empty or the cup half full? A decade ago, I made fun of the contradictions in Israeli culture with my sabra friends by jokingly referring to Israel as "Bangladesh" -- by which I meant to point out the ridiculous irony of the ultra-modern gleaming skyscrapers looming over the horse-drawn carts, all on the same street. A decade later, as I walk down a suburban street and steal WiFi from a half dozen homes, and the gleaming skyscrapers are no longer accompanied by mule drawn carts, I have to admit that the Bangladesh joke is no longer valid. But, as The Economist points out, in the last decade there has been no real move from poverty to the middle class, the education system is failing to produce a new generation of bright and productive citizens, and public R&D and investment in higher education has been virtually non-existent. Most telling for me was The Economist's description of Israel's current technological expansion as essentially a one-time boomlet tied exclusively to digital signal processing and broadband applications. In the near future, the global internet infrastructure will be essentially finished and built. While it was going up, Israel was a leading force, but this was because these communications technologies were something that the Israeli military desperately needed, and therefore invested in heavily. (Some of Israel's most succesful public hi-tech companies were spin-offs from the military-technological labs.) After this i-infrastructure is built, Israel will prove to have little to offer in the way of the next wave of high technology startups.

In other words, Israel's 2nd hi-tech bubble will soon burst. So says The Economist. Read it for yourself.