The Murder of Yitzhak Rabin

Israel’s decisive turn to the dark side of Jewish terrorism and religious-based repression of the Palestinians can be marked by the murder of Prime Minister Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995, a moment that also inflicted a fatal wound on the peace process, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The best chance for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared to arrive in the early 1990s. A combination of deft international diplomacy and political evolution in the two sides’ leadership led in 1993 to a secretly negotiated agreement, the Oslo accord, between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that established a partially autonomous transitional mechanism known as the Palestinian Authority.

The accord was supposed to lead within five years to the establishment of a Palestinian state recognized by Israel. It didn’t. Instead, the two sides remain locked in a deadly embrace.

A central figure in the hopeful developments of the 1990s was the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin. He had several attributes that qualified him well to play this role. He was the first sabra, or native son, to become prime minister of Israel, having been born in Jerusalem when it was part of the British mandate of Palestine.

Rabin’s successful military career, including fighting in Israel’s war for independence, culminated in service as chief of the general staff, a position in which he oversaw Israel’s rout of Arab armies in the Six Day War in 1967. He remained a military officer at heart even after entering politics, always more comfortable talking with generals about security matters than in the other interactions political leaders have to endure.

Succeeding Golda Meir as leader of the Labor Party, Rabin served a first stint as prime minister in the 1970s, when by his own later admission he was insufficiently experienced to do the job well. In 1977, he left office under the cloud of a minor financial scandal dating from earlier service as ambassador in Washington.

Then in 1992, more seasoned at age 70, he led his party to victory over Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the former Stern Gang terrorist whose electoral defeat was preceded by enough acrimony with the United States that the George H. W. Bush administration withheld loan guarantees to Israel. Over the next three years, Rabin led his country through the first steps of implementing the Oslo agreement.

Rabin, whom U.S. envoy Dennis Ross described as the most secular Israeli he had ever met, shared none of the belief held by many Israelis that possession of the territory conquered in 1967 was a fulfillment of Jewish destiny. He could argue that Israel would need parts of the West Bank for security purposes but not because of any sacred status of the land itself. He said that clinging to the territories would mean Israel losing its Jewish majority and, using a term few Israelis dared to speak at the time, turn it into an apartheid state.

Rabin had little patience for the settlers, who in turn saw him as a threat. Rabin’s role as peacemaker, and possibly with him any real prospect for completing the process envisioned at Oslo, came to an abrupt end on the evening of Nov. 4, 1995, when a young right-wing Jewish fanatic murdered him after the Prime Minister addressed a massive pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Journalist Dan Ephron has written a gripping account of the assassination and the political and social currents in Israel surrounding it. A former Newsweek correspondent who reported from Israel at the time, including covering the rally that would be Rabin’s last public appearance, his story has been enriched by voluminous interviews in the subsequent years.

Killing a King is an objective and persuasive description of moods as well as facts. As the dual narratives of prime minister and assassin roll toward their convergence point at the site of the shooting, the book becomes a real page-turner.

Ephron begins with Rabin’s trip to Washington for the signing of the Oslo accord, a ceremony featuring a carefully choreographed handshake with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Ephron continues his story until six months past the assassination, when an Israeli election returned Likud to power. The story thus is not just of a single event, but also of a period of less than three years that marked the high tide of hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The assassination itself was an inflection point: the end of the most significant progress there has ever been toward resolving the conflict (including completion of a detailed implementation agreement, known as Oslo II) and the beginning of the death of the peace process.

Even during that promising era, opposition in Israel to the departure represented by the Oslo agreement was intense. To obtain approval by the Knesset of the accord, Rabin had to rely on votes of Arab-Israeli members, a nettlesome fact that opponents raised ever after as supposedly rendering the decision, and thus the accord itself, less than legitimate.

Approval of Oslo II in October 1995 was even closer: a vote of 61-59 at 3:00 a.m. after a long and bitter session of the legislature. Opposition was most determined among, but went well beyond, settlers in the occupied territories. The opposition was impassioned and malevolent, with much of the enmity directed at Rabin himself.

Out of this lethal environment emerged the eventual murderer: a short, intelligent law student of Yemeni extraction named Yigal Amir. Amir’s own extremism was rooted in the combination of an ultra-Orthodox education and day-to-day exposure to the secular side of Israeli society. The discord between these two aspects of his life appeared to radicalize rather than temper him, as explained by a clinical psychologist who examined him years later.

A sense of guilt over sensual and material longing curdled within him, providing some of the impetus for extreme acts. This syndrome was remarkably similar to that of another famous extremist son of Yemeni emigrants: Anwar al-Awlaki, who would become a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and whose story is expertly told in Scott Shane’s recent book Objective Troy.

Amir declined the exemption from military service then available to most ultra-Orthodox and did a stint in the Israeli army after completing high school. While in the army his radicalism acquired a more activist tone, in which he disdained as too passive the teachings of his Haredi upbringing that God alone determines the fate of the Jews.

Amir had bigger ideas. He favored the idea that Jews needed to take the initiative in figuring out God’s will and implementing it through their own actions. When Amir watched on television the handshake between Rabin and Arafat, he immediately concluded that the Oslo agreement was a disaster for Israel, that Rabin was committing treason by handing over to Palestinians land that God had promised to Jews and that action in response was required.

For the next two years Amir was obsessed with finding ways to undo that perceived act of treason. Some of his initial effort was aimed at assembling a militia, with his principal targets for recruitment being fellow students at Bar-Ilan University, that would disrupt the nascent peace process through attacks and sabotage in Palestinian areas.

Gradually his main focus shifted to killing Rabin. How and where to do so, but not whether to commit the crime, was a recurrent subject of conversations between Amir and his brother Hagai, who was more nerdy and technically minded than Yigal and contributed ideas about how a homemade bomb might do the trick.

The title of Ephron’s book derives from a letter that Hagai, after being arrested as an accomplice to the assassination, wrote to his parents in which he self-servingly strove to place the murder in a Jewish tradition of rebellion against apostasy.

Yigal had thought even longer and harder than his brother about a religious justification for killing Rabin. He settled finally on a Talmudic principle called rodef, which refers to someone pursuing another person with intent to kill, making it permissible for a bystander to kill the pursuer to save the innocent victim.

According to Amir’s logic, Rabin was a rodef because he was in effect killing Jewish settlers. In a further bit of twisted Talmudic interpretation, Amir also considered Rabin to be a moser , a person who turns Jews over to a hostile power and for whom the necessary penalty is death.

A more vivid inspiration for Amir came from the massacre that the American-born physician and settler Baruch Goldstein perpetrated in 1994 at a mosque in Hebron, where he murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers and injured over a hundred more. For hardcore opponents of the peace process, the killing spree demonstrated how even a lone gunman could disrupt that process.

Within weeks, Israeli public opinion swung against the idea of forcible removal of settlers; some rabbis pronounced that it was permissible for Israeli soldiers to defy orders for any such removal, and Rabin had to back down from earlier ideas about evicting settlers from Hebron. Amir also saw that Goldstein was lauded in death by the rejectionist community.

Probably the central lesson of Ephron’s book is that Amir, notwithstanding how his personal experiences helped to make him what he was, only happened to be the triggerman for something much larger than himself. The story of the assassination is not a tale of how a single extremist crossed the threshold into murder but instead of an entire movement that was so hateful and impassioned, and so sure of the justification for its hatred, that murder was a natural consequence.

As for the religious rationales, twisted though they may be, three prominent settler rabbis, including the rabbi of Hebron, who at Goldstein’s funeral had praised him as a holy martyr, issued a letter that essentially agreed with Amir’s concept of Rabin as a rodef and a moser. Amir was further emboldened.

As he later told the commission that investigated the assassination, “If I did not get the backing and I had not been representing many more people, I would not have acted.”

In the months prior to the assassination, Amir spoke freely about killing the Prime Minister, and did so to a remarkably large circle of people. Many who heard these remarks, including an informant for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who reported prolifically but did not report these comments from Amir, later said they did not think Amir would follow through.

The talk sounded like bluster that was not much different in tone and in underlying sentiment from what many others were saying even more loudly. The vitriolic talk became the stuff of large street demonstrations.

“It was now standard,” writes Ephron, “to hear protesters chant, ‘Rabin is a murderer,’ over and over, in pulsating fury; to compare Rabin to Hitler or his government to … the Jewish administrative bodies that enforced Nazi rule during World War II. The ugly invective,” says Ephron, “came not just from the political margins but from the top echelons of the Likud Party.”

An especially ugly event occurred a month before the assassination, in the form of a huge antigovernment demonstration at Zion Square in Jerusalem while the Knesset was considering the Oslo II agreement. Amid the chants of “death to Rabin” and the burning of pictures of the Prime Minister, other pictures were distributed through the crowd depicting Rabin’s head atop the body of a dog or showing him in a Nazi uniform.

The frenzy did not end when the formal program did. Demonstrators marched on the Knesset, and for the first time in Israeli history the legislature seemed in danger of being overrun. When the Prime Minister’s driver attempted to bring his limousine to the Knesset, the crowd swarmed the car, rocked it, pounded the roof, climbed on the hood and tore off the ornament.

Later a member of the extremist group Kach brandished the hood ornament during a televised interview and said, “People managed to remove the ornament from the car. And just as we got to the ornament, we can get to Rabin.”

Ephron’s account lends support to the belief in Rabin’s family that responsibility for the lethal mood of this time must be shared by the ambitious and slippery politician who had been leader of Likud since 1993: Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Ephron, “Netanyahu aligned himself with the hardliners, the settlers and the rabble-rousers, speaking at rallies across the country where crowds branded Rabin a traitor and a murderer, and consorting with rabbis who’d urged soldiers to disobey evacuation orders.” At least once, Netanyahu gently scolded an audience for its rhetoric; “more often, he ignored it. Occasionally he seemed swept up in it.”

At the frenzied demonstration in Zion Square, Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders stood on a balcony above the square for two hours “and watched as protestors came unhinged.” Ephron writes that “Netanyahu seemed unfazed by the mayhem, even as protesters threw burning torches at the line of policemen. Any effort to call the crowd to order could well have turned the extremists against him, a risk Netanyahu evidently did not wish to take.”

Although Ephron repeatedly emphasizes the larger impact of Amir’s act, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if Amir had not killed Rabin there is a good chance that someone else with similar sentiments would have done so. For all we know, and for all Shin Bet knows, there may have been other would-be assassins planning to do just that when Amir hit his target.

Some of the findings of the official investigation of the assassination were the sort of hindsight-driven conclusions, especially of the connect-the-dots variety, that are customary after such events. In this case, there was so much malicious and threatening noise directed against Rabin that the signals involving Amir’s intentions would have been especially difficult to pick up and to interpret as significant.

What was inexcusable was the porous physical security for Rabin at the site of the rally where he gave his last speech. A parking lot that was supposed to be a secure area never was properly secured. Amir had no trouble entering it through a gate and loitering there within steps of the prime minister’s car for nearly three-quarters of an hour, all without being challenged.

Ephron is wisely noncommittal about whether the Oslo-based peace process would have survived if Rabin had also survived, although he seems to lean in the direction that it would have. The question is similar to countless counterfactual queries that have been posed elsewhere about whether a particular leader was indispensable for a particular result.

Speculation about Rabin and the peace process is aided by Ephron’s informative treatment of the six months following the assassination. During that period the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, lost an initial large lead in the polls and ended up losing narrowly to Netanyahu in an election in May 1996.

Multiple reasons help to explain Peres’s failure, some involving misjudgment and some involving luck. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was reluctant to conclude a peace agreement when it was uncertain if the Israeli leader he concluded it with would be around very long. Peres was reluctant to involve Rabin’s widow Leah in the election campaign, perhaps a reflection of the long-standing rivalry between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, a recurrent sub-theme in Ephron’s book.

An Israeli military operation in Lebanon may have led some disaffected Arab-Israeli voters to sit out the election. Most of all there was the Israeli assassination in January 1996 of Hamas master bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, in an operation involving explosives hidden in a phone and detonated by remote control. This assassination almost certainly was the stimulus for a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings against Israel, ending what had been several months of calm. The bombings swung Israeli public opinion in favor of the hardliners and against the idea of territorial concessions to Palestinians.

To assess the counterfactual scenario of these same six months if Rabin were still alive, one must remember that Peres was at least as much committed to the peace process as was Rabin. As foreign minister, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize that also was awarded to Rabin and Arafat. Moreover, had Amir missed his target, Rabin would not have experienced the pro-Labor spike of public sympathy that Peres enjoyed in the first weeks after the assassination.

The outcome of the scenario would have depended most of all on the decision to kill Ayyash. One hypothesis is that for Shin Bet, which was responsible for protecting the Prime Minister and embarrassed by its failure to do so, taking out Ayyash was an opportunity to redeem itself and thus an operation that it pushed especially hard on Peres.

But Rabin might have been just as tempted as Peres to eliminate this important Hamas military figure. If Rabin had given the same green light to Shin Bet, the resulting security and political repercussions probably would have been largely the same as what actually occurred.

Regardless of who was prime minister, if a two-state solution was to be reached according to the Oslo agreement, it had to have been reached fairly quickly and certainly within the five-year interim period the accord specified. One reason was that the gradual, staged approach in the agreement, although it was intended to build mutual confidence, also was an opportunity for opponents on each side to mobilize against the accord.

The longer the process dragged on, the more likely that violent events would disrupt it. Yossi Beilin, a key Israeli negotiator who was one of the architects of the Oslo agreement, later came to have second thoughts about the gradual approach for this reason.

A larger and longer-term reason that time was not on the side of the peace process was that demographic change, creation of facts on the ground and the political consequences of each have pushed political power in Israel in the direction of holding on to the West Bank and stifling the birth of an official Palestinian state.

The impassioned opposition of the 1990s has morphed into an increasingly entrenched governing coalition. The same Netanyahu who stood on the balcony and looked without objection on the zealots in Zion Square is now the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, with little apparent prospect for being dislodged from power any time soon. He heads a government in which other major figures are even more direct and blunt than he is in rejecting any Palestinian state.

After being away from Israel for years, Ephron returned in 2010 as chief of Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau. The changes in mood and political atmosphere quickly became apparent to him. Israel was safer and more prosperous than what he had seen before, but the very fact that life in Israel was good despite the absence of peace implied that “there was little incentive to revive the process.”

Ephron notes that between Rabin’s assassination and his own return to Israel the settler population had more than doubled, greatly increasing its political power. The proportionate numbers and resulting political clout of traditionally hawkish Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews also had increased substantially. Israel has indeed been “remade” in the image of Rabin’s detractors, as suggested by the book’s subtitle.

The direction of Israeli sentiment also is reflected in attitudes toward the assassination itself. Members of the Amir family, far from being stigmatized, lead normal and successful lives. Hagai Amir, who was released after serving 16 ½ years in prison and is now a free man, told Ephron, “We have a lot of support. … People come up to us on the street and say it clearly.”

Yigal Amir is still imprisoned, but a quarter of Israelis favor commuting his sentence. He already has won significant privileges concerning conditions of his incarceration, including being permitted to marry and have conjugal visits.

Israeli views of Amir’s act have been further softened by a variety of conspiracy theories that continue to have strong public support and that shift blame for the assassination away from the radical right wing and the individual from its ranks who actually killed Rabin. Certain tidbits from the crime scene feed those theories, such as an extra hole in Rabin’s shirt that does not correspond to the direction from which Amir was shooting.

As Ephron was working on his book, Rabin’s daughter Dalia entrusted him with carrying the bloodied clothing to the United States so that an independent forensic expert in Arizona could examine it. The expert determined that the hole was not the result of a bullet; most likely it was made in the hospital while doctors were frantically trying to save Rabin’s life.

Ephron deserves great credit for carefully exploring the story of Rabin’s murder and its aftermath. He unites a reporter’s eye with keen analysis. His study offers a vivid portrait of forces and sentiments that not only destroyed one of Israel’s finest leaders but also, for years, have been destroying the prospects for Israel to be a peaceful, Jewish and democratic state.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Saudis’ Anti-Terror Window-dressing

Faced with greater public awareness of its role promoting Sunni jihadist terror, Saudi Arabia has announced a 34-nation “anti-terrorism coalition,” but it may be just window-dressing for Riyadh’s anti-Shiite agenda, not a serious move against extremism, an issue addressed by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The leaders of Saudi Arabia in particular, but also several other participants in the 34-nation anti-terrorism coalition that the Saudis put together and was announced this week, want to tell us that they are against terrorism and that they are pulling their weight in opposing it. Beyond such messaging, this new group of states, which mostly are Muslim-majority nations and all of which are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, is unlikely to amount to much.

This is not to say that such a grouping couldn’t contribute to counterterrorism in useful ways. The potential contributions include military contributions, which for better or for worse are what immediately get thought of when people think about counterterrorism, and which have been a focus of a trip into the Muslim world this week by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Majority Muslim countries tend to carry less of the historical and ideological baggage that Western countries carry when applying military force in other Muslim countries.

To the extent that the new grouping encourages some practical sharing of counterterrorist information that might also be useful, although the most usable such information gets shared in channels much more restricted than a 34-nation group. And certainly when it comes to aspects of counterterrorism that usually come under the heading of the battle of ideas, the West is at even more of a disadvantage compared to what Muslim majority countries could do.

But as for exactly how the potential will be converted into actual and useful action, one’s hopes should be tempered by the vagueness of the declared program of the grouping and of what the Saudi foreign minister had to say about it.

A fundamental and underlying limitation is one that also affects much discussion of counterterrorism in the West: that terrorism is not, as the term often gets used, some discrete and identifiable bunch of bad guys, but rather a tactic that can be and has been used in pursuit of greatly different goals by different people. And so among Muslim nations as well as among others, the concept of counterterrorism gets exploited and batted in different directions by governments with different agendas centered on other issues. One has only to look at the mess in Syria to see this dynamic at work.

Our hopes also ought to be tempered in noticing the absence from the announced group of the majority Shia nations of Iran and Iraq (and, not surprisingly, Syria). This is a sign that sectarian and nationalist rivalries have affected the thinking behind the new grouping at least as much as any common commitment to curbing terrorism.

For the Saudis, who are the lead players in the new group, the role of Wahhabism both as a foundation of their own regime and as an ideological precursor of the radical Sunni varieties of jihadism that contribute most of the terrorism-related headlines and concerns today continues to be a major impediment to full and effective Saudi counterterrorist efforts.

This is true whether the action is unilateral or is wrapped in a multilateral context such as the newly announced coalition. The fragile legitimacy of the Saudi regime is part of what is in play once a battle of ideas goes beyond the de-radicalization of individuals and gets to more general ideological underpinnings of political violence.

Now that the new group has been announced, Western governments should feel uninhibited about pressing it to make real contributions to counterterrorism that are consistent with Western interests. But we shouldn’t expect a whole lot to happen in response.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




The Complex Legend of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra was a complex and flawed individual known in his later years for alleged mob ties and angry outbursts but he also was an extraordinary artist who spoke out against racism and bigotry at a time when such stands were controversial and risky, as Michael Winship recalls.

By Michael Winship

As concerts and other celebrations marked the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth on Dec. 12, I have two potent memories: one personal, the other from a time at the end of World War II when he embraced the all-American principles of equality and tolerance, religious and racial, even in the face of bigotry and bullying.

I wrote for Sinatra once. Although as I’ve become fond of saying, you didn’t so much write for Sinatra as at him.

It was 30 years ago in the fall of 1985. I was working on the script for what would turn out to be music legend Benny Goodman’s last television special, a two-hour performance and tribute for PBS. We were in touch with Benny on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis as he put together who he wanted to participate.

One day, as I sat in the office of the executive producer, Jack Sameth, Benny called and asked him, “Would you like Frank Sinatra to be on the show?” As I nodded vigorously, Jack said, of course. Sinatra was appearing at Carnegie Hall. Benny would go backstage that night and ask him.

He said yes and the next day Benny told us to contact Sinatra’s office. We called and got a confirmation that he would appear but no, we were told, he would not sing. This was absolutely non-negotiable, He’d just reminisce about Benny if we’d provide a script.

We told Benny and he said, “I’ll get him to sing,” No, we replied, he says he won’t. “Don’t worry,” Benny said. “I’ll ask him during the performance. He’ll have to sing.” Bad idea, we said. We can tell; Sinatra really, really means it.

Meanwhile, I set about finding an anecdote involving Sinatra and Goodman that I could use for the script, not so easy in those days before Google. But I found one that’s become kind of famous.

After Sinatra quit his job as boy singer with Tommy Dorsey’s big band in 1942, he set out on a solo career and his first major appearance was with Benny’s band at New York’s Paramount Theater. Goodman was oblivious to the phenomenon Sinatra had become, with screaming, swooning young women everywhere.

Benny had his back to the crowd when Sinatra made his stage entrance and was so startled when pandemonium let loose that he shouted, “What the hell was that!?” Only he didn’t say “hell.”

I wrote it up, sent the draft to Sinatra’s office and had it put on cue cards. The big night arrived and Jack and I waited backstage as Benny’s band performed. Sinatra appeared, not with the entourage of bodyguards and hangers-on I had imagined but with a single hotel security guy. And he was subdued, not at all like the Rat Pack, ring-a-ding kid of legend. But friendly.

As Benny came backstage during a break, he sat and quietly noodled away on his clarinet he was always practicing. Sinatra pointed to him and identified what Goodman was playing. “Hindemith,” he said. Benny was playing the German composer’s clarinet sonata. Sinatra knew music.

We made one huge mistake that night. We didn’t tell the audience in the ballroom where we were taping that Sinatra would appear. We wanted it to be a surprise. But because they didn’t know he would be there, they also didn’t know that he wasn’t going to sing.

Sinatra finally walked onto the main stage as Benny finished his set with a quintet that was just below the proscenium edge. As anticipated, the audience went wild. Sinatra used the script I wrote, not word-for-word by any means, but hey, it was Sinatra and as the saying goes, close enough for jazz.

He finished, bowed and then Benny piped up, despite all our warnings, “Frank, would you please sing for us?” Politely, Sinatra declined.

“It would mean a lot to me if you sang,” Benny said. Sinatra explained that he was late for another engagement and besides, had nothing prepared or rehearsed.

“C’mon, Frank,” Benny insisted. “Sing ‘All of Me.’” He repeated his request. Sinatra smiled, shook his head no, waved and began to walk offstage.

When the special was broadcast the following March viewers didn’t see what happened next. As the curtain fell, the audience began to boo.

And in that moment, I thought, that’s what it’s like to be Frank Sinatra.

Despite all the fame, despite all the talent, there’s always someone wanting to boo, or take a swing. Always some drunk or other who wants you to sing “Melancholy Baby.”

Sinatra had done nothing wrong that night, just what he said he’d do and he’d done it well. For which he was booed.

Sure, he created a lot of trouble in life, had a lot of fights, hung out with the wrong types not just mobsters but also politicians or do I repeat myself? But God almighty, there was that voice, that musical artistry and craftsmanship.

If you would seek simple evidence of his unique talent, as NPR’s Susan Stamberg said when Sinatra died in 1998, just try to sing along with one of his recordings. He goes places you can’t anticipate and never would imagine.

Progressive Heart

My other memory: that there were many times when, despite all the stories about his ill temper and bad behavior, Sinatra wore a progressive, liberal heart on his sleeve. “He hated intolerance,” James Kaplan wrote in his 2010 biography, Frank. “First, of course, because it had smacked him personally in the face many times, but also because it attacked people he genuinely loved.”

What’s more, “anyone who was half a musician couldn’t even begin to be prejudiced. Sinatra had encountered far too many black geniuses to feel anything but pity and contempt for the thickheaded smugness of racist America.”

In 1945, as World War II ended and Sinatra had taken serious licks for failing to serve in the military, he worked to clean up his image by speaking at schools grappling with racial tension. Yet he was totally sincere.

The great tenor sax man Sonny Rollins remembered Sinatra visiting his high school in Italian East Harlem when fists were flying: “Sinatra came down there and sang in our auditorium after that, things got better, and the rioting stopped.”

At a Gary, Indiana, high school, white students had gone on strike against integration. “The kids were their parents’ outriders in hate,” James Kaplan wrote. “The whole city was united in toxic fury.”

Sinatra went to Gary and performed before 5,000 at the Memorial Auditorium. One version of the story says he faced down the crowd and announced, “I can lick any son of a bitch in this joint.” That won them over.

“Cut it out, kids,” Sinatra supposedly said. “Go back to school. You’ve got to go back because you don’t want to be ashamed of your student body, your city, your country.”

And then he made a movie, a short film called The House I Live In. Sinatra walks out of his recording studio and finds a bunch of kids ganging up on another. “We don’t like his religion,” one of the kids tells him.

“Now hold on,” Sinatra says. “Look, fellas, religion makes no difference. Except maybe to a Nazi, or somebody that’s stupid. Why, people all over the world worship God in many different ways. God created everybody.” And then he sings:

“The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street, The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet. The children in the playground, the faces that I see, All races and religions, that’s America to me.”

Kaplan writes, “Looking at the film (and listening to the song) three generations later, you can’t help thinking: Okay, this is corny in a lot of ways, but what’s wrong with it? How far have we really come since then?”

How far indeed. Just imagine requiring Donald Trump and a few million others to watch The House I Live In with a pop quiz after. Or maybe they should just lean back with a cold drink, listen to Sinatra sing “Summer Wind” or “One for My Baby,” and chill.

That’s America to me.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story previously appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/the-house-sinatra-lived-in/]




Israel’s Moral Erosion

Amid global anger over militants citing the Koran as a defense for terrorism, less attention gets paid to Israel citing God’s will as expressed in the Bible as the moral justification for stealing Palestinian land, an ethical crisis that is eroding Israel’s world standing, writes Alon Ben-Meir.

By Alon Ben-Meir

I have long maintained that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank defies the moral principle behind the creation of the state. Contrary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion, the occupation erodes rather than buttresses Israel’s national security and cannot be justified on either security or moral grounds.

Unless Israel embraces a new moral path, no one can prevent it from unraveling from within only to become a pariah state that has lost its soul, wantonly abandoning the cherished dreams of its founding fathers.

There are four ethical theories, Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-based and religious, that demonstrate the lack of moral foundation in the continuing occupation, which imposes upon Israelis the responsibility to bring it to a decisive end.

The first moral theory is deontological ethics, whose greatest representative is Immanuel Kant. According to this theory, consequences are irrelevant to the moral rightness or wrongness of an action; what matters is whether the action is done for the sake of duty or out of respect for the moral law.

Kant provided several formulations of the moral law, which he refers to as the categorical imperative; for our purposes, what is most important are his first two formulations. The first is the principle that morality requires us to act only on those maxims we can universalize. As he puts it, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In short, never do anything that you couldn’t will everybody else do at the same time.

The question is whether the Israeli occupation is a policy that can be universalized and pass this test of moral reasoning. The answer is clearly no; the policy of occupation is rationally inconsistent, as it requires Israel to exempt itself from moral and political norms that the rest of the international community recognizes (and which serve to protect Israel itself).

Israel is making an exception of itself which is the capital sin, according to Kant, as in effect Israel is saying: “We don’t have to live by the same rules as everyone else.” This is evident from the fact that Israel denies the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and justifies that in the name of national security, even though the achievement of absolute security would invariably render the Palestinians absolutely vulnerable.

Whereas Israel has agreed to a two-state solution, it continues to usurp Palestinian land, thereby violating international agreements which Israel is signatory to (UN Resolution 242, the Oslo Accords). In doing so, Israel is clearly defying the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which as Kant showed, requires us to honor our agreements and contracts.

That is, Israel is acting on a maxim or policy of breaking its agreements to serve its self-interest, which cannot be universalized without contradiction because then the institution of reaching international agreements cannot be sustained.

Although many countries break international contracts, that does not affect Kant’s argument as he knew full well that people lie, cheat and steal. His concern is with the principle of morality and what it requires regardless of whether these requirements are in fact met. By maintaining the occupation, Israel is flouting the moral law while expecting the Palestinians to uphold the same norms.

The second formulation is to never treat another person merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. In other words, what Kant is saying is that as free rational beings who can act in accordance with morality, each of us possesses intrinsic worth which implies that we must respect the inherent dignity of each individual.

In the case of the Palestinians who are under occupation, Israel is treating them as objects rather than persons who can rationally consent to the way they are being treated. Israel is coercing the Palestinians physically and psychologically by denying them human rights, through, for example, administrative detention, night raids, and expulsion, thereby robbing them of their dignity and denying them their autonomy.

The second moral theory is Utilitarianism, which in its modern form originated in England with the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In contrast to Kantianism, this theory places all emphasis on the consequences of our actions. It states that an action is morally right if it produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

The moral evaluation of any policy depends on whether it maximizes utility. Utilitarianism agrees with Kant on one fundamental point, which is that morality prohibits making an exception of oneself. For obvious reasons, governments give greater priority to their own people. But does the occupation maximize the security and well-being of all Israelis?

In spite of the fact that Israel takes extraordinary measures to enhance its security, the occupation is in fact undermining the security of the state, as is evident from the repeated bloody clashes. Moreover, if Israel were to extend its moral considerations beyond its own people to include the Palestinians, then the policy of occupation still fails on utilitarian grounds even more acutely.

To be sure, while Israel resorts to utilitarian arguments to justify its treatment of the Palestinians, in the process Israel reveals the classic pitfall of utilitarian thinking, which is that it ultimately does not provide sufficient protection and respect for human rights. This contempt for human rights in fact directly erodes Israel’s moral standing within the community of nations.

The third moral theory is virtue ethics, whose greatest advocate is still Aristotle. In virtue ethics, an act is moral if it is performed as a result of having a virtuous character. Virtue ethics is not primarily about codifying and applying moral principles, but developing the character from which moral actions arise. In this context, the Israeli occupation, while having a major adverse effect on the Palestinians, also has a morally corrupting influence on Israelis themselves.

Virtue ethics recognizes the importance of acquiring the habit to act ethically which involves moral upbringing; as Aristotle is to have said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

The occupation is not educating Israeli youth towards moral virtues, but hardening their hearts as they can live with regular prejudices, discrimination and dehumanization against the Palestinians. As such, the occupation fails to meet the principles of virtue ethics because it creates an environment which degrades the moral substance of the Israelis themselves. As a result, they continue to commit transgressions against the Palestinians without any sense of moral culpability.

One might argue from a certain Israeli perspective (i.e. the settlement movement) that the occupation engenders virtues such as national solidarity, social cohesiveness, loyalty, courage and perseverance. While this may appear to be true on the surface, the occupation is in fact tearing the Israelis’ social and political fabric apart and undermining the conditions under which moral virtues such as caring, compassion, and magnanimity can grow and thrive.

Moreover, the longer the occupation persists, the greater the damage is to Israel’s moral character, and Israel will become increasingly disposed to compromising its fundamental values and ideals as a democracy committed to human rights.

Finally, we need to consider the moral theory which says morality is acting in accordance with what divinity commands from us. There are two basic theories, both of which can be traced back to Plato’s Euthyphro where Socrates raises the question: “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

The first is the divine command theory, which states that what makes an action moral or right is the fact that God commands it and nothing else. The second theory, defended by Socrates, is that God commands us to do what is right because it is the right thing to do. In other words, morality precedes God’s will and is irreducible to divine command.

In the context of this ancient debate, the usurpation and annexation of Palestinian land may appear to be defensible on the basis of the divine command theory because if God requires us to perform any set of actions, then by definition it would be the moral thing to do.

Many orthodox Jews hold to the divine command theory, as they interpret the concept of “mitzvah” (good deed) first and foremost as “command,” the goodness of which cannot even be contemplated apart from the fact that this is what God has commanded us to do.

As such, those who take the Bible as the revelation of God’s commands use it to justify the concept of Greater Israel. As a result, they view the Palestinian presence as an impediment God placed before them to test their resolve. Therefore, their harsh treatment of the Palestinians becomes morally permissible because it is consistent with divine decree.

By adopting the command theory, they are ascribing to a position which has and continues to be used to justify acts which are blatantly immoral. The defender of this theory may counter that because God is good, he does not command anything which is immoral.

However, this argument is hollow because if morality is simply what God approves of, to say that God is good is merely to assert that he approves of himself and his own will. In this case, there is still no safeguard against the extremists who use the command theory to justify even the most heinous crimes.

Furthermore, if the command in question satisfies a deep seated psychological need, say, for a God-given Jewish homeland, then what humans ascribe to God eventually becomes “the will of God.”

Another problem with the divine command theory is that, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz observed, it turns God into a kind of Tyrant unworthy of our love and devotion: “For why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing just the opposite?”

Turning to the theory that God commands us to do the good because it is good, what becomes clear is that any action must derive its moral worth independently of God’s will. In that case, the Israeli policy toward the occupation will have to be morally justifiable without reference to some divine mandate.

We have already examined, however briefly, Israel’s policy in light of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics, and found that it comes up short and fails to meet the basic requirement of these theories. Therefore, it lacks independent moral justification on which God’s commands could possibly be based on.

Israel’s occupation cannot be defended on moral grounds or in terms of national security. Israel can defend itself and prevail over any of its enemies now and in the foreseeable future, but it is drowning in moral corruption that the continued occupation only deepens. It is that, the enemy from within, that poses the greatest danger Israel faces.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. alon@alonben-meir.com. Web: www.alonben-meir.com




The Religious Element of Terrorism

The history of religions especially monotheistic ones such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are rife with examples of cruelty, war and even genocide done in God’s name. So should people avoid the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” asks William Blum.

By William Blum

Is it terrorism or is it religion? Does the question matter?

From the early days of America’s “War on Terror,” and even before then, I advocated seeing terrorists as more than just mindless, evil madmen from another planet. I did not believe they were motivated by hatred or envy of American freedom or democracy, or of American wealth, secular government or culture, although George W. Bush dearly wanted us to believe that.

The terrorists were, I maintained, driven by decades of terrible things done to their homelands by U.S. foreign policy. There should be no doubt of this I wrote, for there are numerous examples of Middle East terrorists explicitly citing American policies as the prime motivation behind their actions. And it worked the same all over the world.

In the period of the 1950s to the 1980s in Latin America, in response to a long string of outrageous Washington interventions, there were countless acts of terrorism against U.S. diplomatic and military targets as well as the offices of U.S. corporations. 9/11 was a globalized version of the Columbine High School disaster. When you bully people long enough they are going to strike back.

In 2006, Osama bin Laden was inspired to tell Americans to read my book Rogue State because it contained the following and other similar thoughts of mine: “If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize very publicly and very sincerely to all the widows and the orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism.”

So does this mean that I support ISIS? Absolutely not. I think they’re one of the most disgusting collections of supposed humans in all of history. But I’m surprised at how often those who are highly critical of them, and supportive of the movement to defeat them, are very reluctant to denounce ISIS as a religious force; this, apparently, would be politically incorrect.

Shortly after the terrible Nov. 13 events in Paris I was watching the French English-language TV station France 24, which presented a round-table discussion of what happened in Paris amongst four or five French intellectual types. Not one of them expressed a negative word about Islam; it was all sociology, politics, economics, psychology, history, Western oppression, etc., etc. Hadn’t any of them ever heard any of the perpetrators or their supporters cry out “Allahu Akbar”?

I then read a detailed review of an article by Thomas Piketty, the French author of the much-acclaimed 700-page opus Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the international best-seller of last year. According to the review in Le Monde, Piketty said that inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Paris attacks, and that Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.

Terrorism that is rooted in inequality, he maintains, is best combated economically. Not a word about Muhammad in the Seventh Century, Sharia Law in the Twenty-first Century, or anything in between.

Next, by contrast, we turn to an interview with Mizanur Rahman, one of social media’s most famous promoters of the Islamic State, whom Britain and the U.S. consider to be a recruiter for ISIS. British authorities closely monitor his movements and have taken his passport. He wears a court-mandated electronic ankle bracelet.

Rahman is known for his thousands of tweets and Facebook posts, and fiery lectures on YouTube, intended to inspire vulnerable young people. He openly advocates for a global caliphate, a homeland ruled by Islamic sharia law, which he says is a superior political, legal and economic system to democracy.

The Islamic State’s black flag will one day fly over the White House he insists, adding that the militants will probably conquer Washington by military force, but he watches his words carefully to avoid being accused of advocating violence. Still, he argues, the concept of spreading Islam by force is no less honorable than Western countries invading Iraq or Afghanistan to spread democracy. [I wonder if he really believes that Western foreign policy has anything to do with spreading democracy.]

Rahman called last month’s Islamic State attacks in Paris “an inevitable consequence” of French participation in coalition airstrikes against the militants’ de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.

“I don’t think anybody should really be surprised at what happened,” he said. “In war, people bomb each other. I think it’s an opportunity for the French people to empathize with the people in Raqqa, who suffer very similar impact whenever the French airstrikes hit them the civilian casualties, the shock, the stress. The anger that they must be feeling toward the Islamic State right now is the same kind of anger that the people of Iraq and Syria feel towards France.”

He argues that it is no worse for the Islamic State to behead American journalists than for the United States to kill Muslim civilians in drone strikes.

“I’m promoting sharia because I think it’s the best,” Rahman, a former accountant and web designer, said in the London coffee shop interview. “I think it is better than what we have, and what is wrong with saying that?” (Nothing unless you enjoy music, sex and alcohol and find praying five times a day highly oppressive.)

In August, Rahman was charged in Britain with “inviting support” for the Islamic State, and he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. He is free on bail under strict conditions, including the ankle bracelet.

Rahman called the allegations against him ridiculous and anti-Muslim persecution. He said that he has done nothing more than preach the virtues of Islam and that he has never specifically recruited anyone to join the Islamic State or urged anyone to commit violence.

“Islam is more than just a book with an old story. It’s actually a code for life,” he said, adding that Islam is a blueprint for everything from personal hygiene to international relations. “It’s not just some medieval rantings.”

Rahman’s first arrest was in February 2002, when he was fined 50 pounds for defacing posters for a pop band that featured scantily clad women, something he considered indecent. (But forcing women to walk around fully covered from head to toe, with only their eyes showing, is not indecent? And what woman in the entire world would dress like that without great pressure from a male-dominated society?)

Peter Neumann, head of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London stated that Rahman is skilled at persuading Muslims that it is their religious obligation to swear allegiance to the Islamic State leader, arguing that God wants the world united under a caliphate, without ever overtly calling for them to move to Syria or Iraq. [How, we must ask, does Rahman know what God wants? There are countless individuals all over the world confined to institutions for committing violence which, they insisted, was in response to God talking to them.]

The couple in California The only explanation my poor pagan mind can offer for their unspeakable behavior is “martyrdom.” They knew that their action would, in all likelihood, result in their death and they believed what they had been taught oh so profoundly taught in the Koran and drummed into their heads elsewhere like only religion can that for martyrs there are heavenly rewards in the afterlife forever.

“With or without religion, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

William Blum is an author, historian, and renowned critic of U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, among others. [This article originally appeared at the Anti-Empire Report,  http://williamblum.org/ .]




The Incredible Shrinking President

Exclusive: Trying to soothe American fears about “terrorism,” President Obama glossed over the dangerous contradictions in his own policy, particularly the fact that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other “allies” have been helping Al Qaeda and ISIS, notes Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

President Barack Obama came off well in his nationwide address on the San Bernardino shootings. He was lively and expressive and he even achieved a moment of pathos when he urged Americans not to “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”

But otherwise he was the incredible shrinking president. The problem was not so much his use of clichés the victims are “part of our American family founded upon a belief in human dignity let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional,” etc. rote phrases that are somehow meant to be reassuring and comforting.

Rather, it was the denials, half-truths and outright misstatements that leave no doubt that the man is clinging to a failed policy and that whatever changes he makes in the wake of the San Bernardino killings will only make matters worse.

As for half-truths and misstatements, perhaps the best place to begin is with the concept of terrorism. Although Obama spoke the T-word some two dozen times during the course of his address, he holds a selective view of what it means.

While everyone agrees that setting off a bomb on a crowded bus is terrorism, what about using an F-16 to deposit a bomb in the middle of a Yemeni wedding party is that terrorism too? If shooting up health workers is terrorism, then what about using an AC-130 gunship to bomb and strafe hospital workers in Afghanistan? What is the difference?

By any objective measure, there isn’t any. This is why Obama and others utter the word “terrorism” so incessantly because it is a highly-loaded term that serves as a smokescreen to disguise the true nature of their own activities. It allows them to get away with murder, but it also leaves them punching at the air.

By arbitrarily classifying certain groups as terrorist or non-terrorist merely because of which side they happen to be on at any given moment, Obama and other abusers of the T-word wind up not only fooling the public, but themselves as well.

Is Al Qaeda Still Terrorist?

This tendency toward self-deception was evident in Obama’s references to Al Qaeda and ISIL (also known as ISIS, Islamic State and Daesh).

“Our military and counterterrorism professionals have relentlessly pursued terrorist networks overseas,” he said, “disrupting safe havens in several different countries, killing Osama bin Laden, and decimating al Qaeda’s leadership.”  But then, a few minutes later, he added:

“In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure. And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies including France, Germany and the United Kingdom have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.”

But wait what happened to Al Qaeda? Obama’s sleight of hand was designed to obscure the fact that, while bombing ISIS, the U.S. has been standing by as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two of its closest regional “allies,” have channeled money and arms to Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, via an Islamist umbrella group calling itself the Army of Conquest.

The Obama administration didn’t object when the Saudi-supplied Al Nusra Front and its principal “Army of Conquest” ally, another jihadi group called Ahrar al-Sham, used U.S.-made TOW missiles in an offensive to seize portions of Idlib province. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”

The administration didn’t even speak up when Al Nusra issued an Arabic-language video thanking the U.S.-backed and supposedly “moderate” Free Syrian Army for supplying it with advanced weaponry, according to a new Israeli-Arab news organization known as Al-Masdar.

So, while bragging about killing bin Laden (in 2011) and “decimating” Al Qaeda’s leadership, Obama forgot to mention that the U.S. is currently backing the same forces as they seek to topple the Assad government in Damascus or at least backing groups that cooperate with Al Qaeda.

Obama noted that “groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria” while also forgetting to mention growing reports that it is not only chaos that has allowed ISIS to grow, but donations from super-rich Arab gulf monarchies, which the U.S. government considers its “allies.”

“We’re working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria,” Obama added, when in fact Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu has already given the proposal the cold shoulder and Turkey’s alleged border-sealing effort is belied by evidence that giant convoys carrying ISIS oil have been routinely entering Turkey without resistance. At least until Russia essentially shamed the U.S. into joining in a bombing interdiction campaign last month.

Obama bragged that “sixty-five countries have joined an American-led coalition” against ISIS, an unconscious echo of George W. Bush’s claim that 48 nations had joined a “Coalition of the Willing”  to invade Iraq. But Obama neglected to note that the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies have all but abandoned the effort in order to concentrate on their sectarian war against Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, where some 2,600 civilians have died since air strikes began in March.

Obama also forgot to mention Russia, whose warplanes are pounding ISIS, Al Nusra and other rebel forces. While promising to “continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens,” Obama said nothing about tens of thousands of Syrian army troops who have been battling ISIS, Al Nusra, and other Salafist groups since at least 2012, despite sanctions from the U.S. and other Western powers.

Obama also failed to mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even though overthrowing his government is clearly America’s prime goal. Somehow, Obama has gotten it into his head that the best way to combat ISIS is by ridding it of its foremost enemy, a case of self-deception raised to the nth degree.

The Saudi Brand of Islam

But Obama was perhaps at his most duplicitous in his comments about religion. The killers in San Bernardino “embrac[ed] a perverted interpretation of Islam,” he said.

But, Obama added, Islamic State “does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology.”

That is quite true. But then he went on to say:

“That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

Yet, if Muslim leaders are to “continue” working to oppose such ideology, that assumes that they are doing so already. But the Saudis, the dominant power among the Arab Gulf states, is probably the most illiberal society on earth, one that bars all religions other than ultra-conservative Wahhabist Islam, arrests Christians for the “crime” of attending underground religious services, and savagely represses its own 15-percent Shi‘ite minority.

In 2006, Freedom House and the Institute for Gulf Affairs, both eminently conservative organizations, issued a joint report finding that Saudi textbooks instruct students to “hate” Christians, Jews, polytheists, and unbelievers; teach that the Crusades are still ongoing; advise students not to greet, befriend, imitate, or even be courteous to non-Wahhabists; and state that “the struggle between Muslims and Jews” will continue until judgment day and that “Muslims will triumph because they are right.”

What’s more, Obama knows this reality because the State Department completed its own comprehensive study of Saudi textbooks in 2012. Yet the administration opted to suppress the report for the same reason that it has suppressed a 28-page chapter in the joint congressional report on 9/11 dealing with the question of Saudi complicity because the alliance with Riyadh is sacrosanct and trumps other “minor” issues such as religious bigotry and the attack on the World Trade Center.

The Saudi Arabia also got a pass regarding its connection to the San Bernardino massacre. Obama promised in his speech to “put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to warzones.”

But Tashfeen Malik, the woman who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS shortly before embarking on a killing spree with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, did not travel to a warzone. She traveled and lived in Saudi Arabia.

Although Tashfeen Malik was of Pakistani origin, she spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia, where she and her father drank deeply from the well of Wahhabism. Relatives say her father emerged deeply conservatized from the experience while Tashfeen was so thoroughly Saudi in her outlook that when she returned to Pakistan to study pharmacology, she had difficulty adjusting even on a campus notorious for its fundamental Islamic influences.

“She told me, ‘My parents live in Saudi Arabia, and I am not getting along with my roommates and cannot adjust with them, so can you help me?’” one faculty member told The New York Times.  Yet no one thought to worry since both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are key U.S. “allies.”

Obama’s Bind

Barack Obama is thus a man caught in a bind. If his speech was rife with contradictions, it’s because he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He supports Sunni extremists in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria, yet is shocked, shocked, when they unleash their violence on innocent bystanders in Paris or San Bernardino.

Obama claims to be at war with Al Qaeda, yet looks the other way when close friends supply the same group with money and arms. He cautions Americans not to give in to Islamophobia, but says nothing as Wahhabists rage against Christians, Jews and Shi‘ites.

The President is all in favor of secularism, yet is seeking to topple the secular Baathist regime in Damascus. Indeed, he is waging war against one of the few secular governments left standing in the Muslim world.

He promises that “the strategy that we are using now airstrikes, Special Forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory.”

But under his watch, Al Qaeda and ISIS have expanded from Bangladesh to Morocco, with the latter now in charge of a territory the size of Great Britain in northern Syria and Iraq. How many more such victories can the world take and how much longer can the U.S. government keep covering up for the Saudis?

If Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascist National Front emerged as the biggest winner in French regional elections this weekend and Donald Trump is now 20 points ahead of his Republican competitors, it’s because voters have lost confidence in their leaders’ ability to combat ISIS and Al Qaeda.

The only way they know how to respond is by closing U.S. borders and keeping out anyone who looks the least bit like a “terrorist.” If Obama’s gun-control message is failing to make headway, it is for the same reason. If the government can’t protect them against ISIS, growing numbers of Americans figure that the only solution is to protect themselves by arming to the hilt. Thus, fear of “terrorism” contributes to the street-level arms race that Obama is unable to contain.

Obama’s core contradiction is that he wants to battle ISIS while catering to ISIS’s co-thinkers in Riyadh. He wants to rein in ISIS savagery in Syria and Iraq while aiding Saudi savagery in Syria and Yemen. He wants to protect Americans while protecting those who allow money and weapons to flow to forces trying to kill Americans.

It’s not a policy destined for success.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).




When Mass Killings Aren’t ‘News’

The 24/7 coverage of the San Bernardino mass killing, perpetrated by a Muslim husband and wife, has alarmed and frightened Americans, but there is next to no mainstream interest in disclosures about far worse mayhem carried out by the U.S. government’s lethal drone program, writes David Swanson.

By David Swanson

We now know this. A young man who had successfully killed on a large scale went to his religious leader with doubts and was told that mass killing was part of God’s plan. The young man continued killing until he had participated in killing sprees that took 1,626 lives — men, women, and children.

I repeat: his death count was not the 16 or 9 or 22 lives that make top news stories, but 1,626 dead and mutilated bodies. Do such things bother you?

What if you learned that this young man’s name was Brandon Bryant, and that he killed as a drone pilot for the U.S. Air Force, and that he was presented with a certificate for his 1,626 kills and congratulated on a job well done by the United States of America? What if you learned that his religious leader was a Christian chaplain? Do such things still bother you?

What if you learned that most of the people killed by U.S. drones are civilians? That the pilots “double-tap,” meaning that they send a missile into a wedding party or a house and then wait for people to try to help the injured and send a second missile into them? That as a result one hears the injured screaming for hours until they die, as no one comes to help? That a drone pilot sent a missile into a group of children from which three children survived who recognized their dead brothers but had no idea that various pieces of flesh were what was left of their Mom and Dad and consequently cried out for those now gone-forever individuals? Is this troubling?

What if President Obama’s claim of few or no civilian deaths was proven false by well-documented reporting? And by the fact that most victims are targeted without even knowing their names?

What if a leading candidate for president in the past week were to both declare that the way to win a war is to start killing whole families, and stage a public Christian prayer session in order to win over a certain demographic of voters? Is that bothering?

What if it became clear that police officers in the United States have been murdering people at a higher rate than drone pilots? Would you want to see police videos of their killings? Would you want to see drone videos of their killings? We have thus far gained limited access to the former and none to the latter.

What if it were discovered that gun murders in San Bernardino are almost routine. Would they all be equally tragic?

My point is not to cease caring about the tragedy that the television stations tell you to care about. I wish everyone would care 1,000 times more, and even better do something to take away the guns and the hatred and the culture of violence and the economic injustice and the alienation.

My point is that there are other tragedies that go unmentioned, including larger ones. And exploiting one tragedy to fuel hatred toward a large segment of the human population of earth is madness.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook. [This article first appeared at http://warisacrime.org/content/do-mass-killings-bother-you]




Ben Carson and the ‘War on Christmas’

An absurd but popular complaint on America’s Christian Right is that Christmas is under attack despite the nation’s extraordinary month-long birthday party for Jesus. But, ironically, one Christian Right favorite, Ben Carson, may oppose this celebration of Christmas, as Nat Parry notes.

By Nat Parry

Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon turned Republican presidential contender, may have a skeleton in his closet that could disqualify him from leading the United States of America in the eyes of millions of his supporters.

No, it’s not the fabrications of significant chunks of his life story that he’s told, nor his opposition to Muslims being president, nor even his reprehensible views on keeping Guantanamo open into perpetuity. No, it’s something much more serious than that at least, more serious as far as the average Fox News-loving Republican voter is concerned.

As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there is a strong possibility that he does not support the month-long birthday party for Jesus known as Christmas.

What’s that, you ask? How could a leading figure in the Republican Party one who was pulling ahead of frontrunner Donald Trump in support from the key demographic of Christian evangelicals possibly be an opponent of the so-called “sacred Christian holiday” of Christmas? Well, it turns out that the religious camp of Seventh-day Adventism to which he belongs not only insists on observing the Sabbath on Saturday, but also, perhaps more controversially, rejects the celebration of Christmas.

As explained on their website, “Seventh-day Adventists do not celebrate Christmas or other religious festivals throughout the calendar year as holy feasts established by God.” As strict adherents to the teachings contained in the Bible, they correctly point out that the “historical reason for adapting December 25 as the birthday of Jesus has no biblical foundation, but is due to the change of year from darkness to light, which happens in the midst of the winter in the northern hemisphere.”

In fairness, although Adventists do not celebrate Christmas, they go to great pains in explaining that they don’t oppose the Christmas holiday per se. In fact, numerous articles written by members of the Church offer rather thoughtful, nuanced and historically informed analysis on this controversial topic, emphasizing that while Adventists should not personally engage in this pagan tradition, the Christmas season is nevertheless a useful opportunity for adherents to the Church to “speak with other people about the gospel.”

But considering the lack of nuance or historical understanding on this topic among many Republican voters who are all too eager to pounce on any perceived slight to their Christmas celebration as evidence of religious persecution, it is not clear how the Adventists’ anti-Christmas narrative will go over with the GOP base.

After all, entire websites are devoted to documenting an alleged liberal-secularist conspiracy to rob conservatives of their God-given right to say “Merry Christmas” and force their religious views on everyone else for the whole month of December every year.

Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, for example, has a “War on Christmas” page with horror stories of Nativity scenes being banned from public spaces, and Fox News’ War on Christmas blog has led the charge this year against Starbucks’ red and green holiday cups, which have been deemed insufficiently Christmassy by many right-wing Christmas warriors.

So, will we be seeing denunciations of Ben Carson and his Church in the conservative blogosphere any time soon?

There is a wealth of material for the self-appointed defenders of Christmas to choose from, such as the Adventist Biblical Research Institute’s totally factual claim that “that Christians adopted and adapted a pagan feast,” designating Dec. 25 as Jesus’s birthday and ensuring that Christmas would be forever “connected with the Roman cult of the Invincible Sun.”

According to this account, this was done partially because “God, in His providence, chose not to preserve for us a record of the day of Jesus’ birth.” (The lax record-keeping of Roman officials in First Century Judea apparently had nothing to do with it.)

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Carson expounded on his religious beliefs and responded in particular to Trump’s efforts to paint him as part of an unconventional faith, i.e., not a true religious conservative deserving of evangelical support. During a rally last month in Florida, Trump noted that as a Presbyterian, his religious views are “middle of the road.” He then added, “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.”

Unfortunately, Carson’s views on celebrating Christmas did not come up in the AP interview, but he did address the issue of an end-of-the-world prophecy held by many Adventists. Ellen White, who together with husband James helped found the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1844, predicted that the government, with the help of Christians who observe the Sabbath on Sunday, will eventually persecute Seventh-day Adventists for their Saturday worship, leading somehow to the End of Times.

“I think there’s a wide variety of interpretations of that,” said Carson. “There’s a lot of persecution of Christians going on already in other parts of world. And some people assume that’s going to happen every place. I’m not sure that’s an appropriate assumption. If you look at what’s going on today with persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East, I believe that’s really more what’s being talked about.”

Regarding the Adventists’ perceived anti-Catholic prejudice, which White expressed in her Nineteenth Century writings, Carson rejected that claim. “I love Catholics. My best friend is Catholic. I have several honorary degrees from Catholic universities,” he said.

One wonders, however, what he might think of the recent comments of the world’s pre-eminent Catholic, Pope Francis. In a powerful sermon at the Casa Santa Maria, the Pope told churchgoers that, although the holiday season is nearly upon them, now is not a time for celebration.

“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes, all decked out, while the world continues to wage war,” Pope Francis said. “It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story originally appeared at Essential Opinion, https://essentialopinion.wordpress.com.]




The Real Thanksgiving Day

From the Archive: On Thanksgiving Day, the United States celebrates the tradition of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 to celebrate each other as friendly neighbors. But the reality was not so pleasant, as historian William Loren Katz recalled.

By William Loren Katz (Originally published on Nov. 12, 2009)

Thanksgiving Day remains a most treasured holiday in the United States. Work comes to a halt, families gather, eat turkey, and count their blessings. A presidential proclamation blesses the day. But we must never forget that the holiday pre-eminently serves political ends.

Remember in 2003 when President George W. Bush flew into Bagdad on Thanksgiving Day to visit and celebrate with U.S. troops. He stayed a few hours and brought in a host of media photographers to snap his picture bearing a glazed turkey. No one ate the turkey, of course. It was cardboard, a stage prop.

However, this exploitation of joyous thanksgiving began almost four centuries ago, with a mythology that dates back to the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day memorializes the Pilgrims’ survival of their first winter in New England. One hundred and forty-nine people had arrived in November 1620 aboard the Mayflower and were saved from starvation and disaster because the Wampanoug nation brought them corn and meat and taught them wilderness survival skills.

This truly was an effort worthy of gratitude. And in 1621, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving not to the Wampanougs but to his fellow Pilgrims and their omnipotent God. In Bradford’s view, the Christians had staved off hunger through their devotion, courage and resourcefulness. And to this day American politicians, ministers and most educators would have the people see it this way.

Bradford’s fable is an early example of “Eurothink” a grotesque lie encased in arrogance. To Europeans, native people and other humans who were neither Christian nor white no matter how much they helped were considered undeserving of recognition. The heroic scenario of determined and righteous European settlers overcoming hardships and travails had no room for the others.

Bradford’s tale has his Pilgrims inviting the Native Americans as guests to celebrate the Europeans’ victory over famine, an act of Pilgrim generosity as the settlers and their Wampanoug friends sat down to dine on bread, turkey and other treats. Since the colonists classified their dark-skinned, “infidel” neighbors as inferiors, they were asked to bring and serve not share the food.

As the English pursued their economic goals in the 1620s, they increasingly turned to outright aggression against their Native American neighbors and hosts. Matters came to a head one night in 1637 when Governor Bradford, without provocation, dispatched his militia against his Pequot neighbors. With the Pilgrims seeing themselves as devout Christians locked in mortal combat with infidels, the officers and soldiers made a systematic assault on a sleeping Pequot Indian village.

Bradford described the night of fire, pain and death: “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same and horrible was the stink and stench thereof. But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and they [the militiamen] gave praise thereof to God.”

The colony’s famous minister, Reverend Increase Mather, rejoiced and called on his congregation to give thanks to God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell.” Mather and Bradford are still celebrated in school texts as colonial heroes.

The 1993 edition of the authoritative Columbia Encyclopedia states of Bradford, “He maintained friendly relations with the Native Americans.” [p. 351] The authoritative Dictionary of American History states of his rule: “He was a firm, determined man and an excellent leader; kept relations with the Indians on friendly terms; tolerant toward newcomers and new religions.” [p. 77]

The views of Native Americans were not recorded, but can be imagined.

The Mayflower, renamed the Meijbloom (Dutch for Mayflower), continued to make notable voyages. In May 1657, it carried a crucial message to Amsterdam that the new Dutch colony of South Africa needed supplies as Europeans sought to gain control of another piece of the world. Along costal Africa, the renamed Mayflower also became one of the first ships to carry enslaved Africans to the West Indies.

For these and other reasons, those opposed to oppression and favoring democratic values in the Americas have little to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. It stands as an affirmation of barbaric racial beliefs and actions that soon shaped the world’s most unrelenting genocide. What is worth giving thanks to is the alliance between Native Americans and Africans that sprang forth to resist the English, Spanish and other foreign invaders.

In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, 20 Africans were unloaded in Jamestown, Virginia, and traded for food and water. They were sent out to work in the colony’s tobacco fields as unpaid laborers.

Enslaved and persecuted together, people of color fought back together, and often united in armed maroon colonies beyond the white settlements that dotted the coastline. But above all, this alliance initiated an American tradition of resistance to tyranny, a demand for self-rule and equality. Those ideas would appear centuries later written on a parchment celebrated on July 4, 1776.

Copyright 2009 by William Loren Katz and adapted from his Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His website is: www.williamlkatz.com




Delinking Terrorism and Islam

Exclusive: President Obama has faced sharp criticism from the Right for refusing to link Islam to acts of terrorism. He argues that to do so plays into the hands of violent criminals who wrap their brutality in the cloak of a great religion. But who has the better side of this argument, asks Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Sen. Ted Cruz, expressing the views of many conservatives, accuses President Obama of “bizarre, politically correct doublespeak” for referring to “violent extremists/jihadists/radicals” instead of “Islamic terrorists.” However, by avoiding the linkage between one of the world’s great religions and acts of mass murder, Obama says he seeks to isolate the terrorists from the 1.6 billion mostly peaceful Muslims who inhabit the world.

Is Obama wrong to downplay the factor of faith in the declared motives of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?

Early this year, The Atlantic magazine ran an influential article that condemned “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.” The author, Graeme Wood, declared, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. . . . The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Unlike many conservative rants, Wood’s long piece was nuanced and acknowledged the obvious: most Muslims don’t subscribe to the political agenda of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). But while insisting on the serious faith of its “most ardent followers,” Wood’s article failed to answer a key question: Does their support for terrorism flow logically from a long and deep immersion in Koranic studies, or is the Koran, with its fighting words and readily accessible jihadist doctrines, simply a convenient text to justify violent impulses that stem from other causes?

If the latter is true, Obama has a strong case for downplaying the religious context of terrorist movements that claim to honor the one true faith. Judging from some recent profiles of ISIS leaders and terrorists, Islam was less a motivating force than an ennobling cover for their basically criminal, anti-social proclivities.

For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described as the “godfather” of the organization, was “a onetime thief,  . . . a tattooed Jordanian and a reformed drinker of extreme personal violence whose own mother had proclaimed him not very smart,” according to the New York Times. He spent his youth as a “petty criminal” before joining other jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Haji Bakr, the former Iraqi colonel and organizational genius behind the ISIS until he was killed in 2014, was described as “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” by Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi. A major study of Bakr’s career by Der Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter, based on a trove of captured documents, notes pointedly that “there is no mention in Bakr’s writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God.” Although Bakr was not particularly religious, “he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.”

Reuter adds, ISIS “has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.”

As Atlantic magazine’s Wood admits, ISIS propaganda “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe.” Among them were the Paris terrorists. The suspected mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was radicalized only last year when he traveled to Syria.

Growing up, he studied at a Catholic school before dropping out and “drifting into a life of thievery and drugs,” according to the Independent. He “showed much more interest in petty crime than Islam” and never prayed in a mosque, according to his sister.

The journalist and social historian Ian Buruma likened Abaaoud to the 1970s-era terrorist “Carlos the Jackal”: “the same self-satisfaction, the same pleasure in violence, the same delight in a deadly cause. . [Abaaoud’s] brand of political Islam is an extreme form of religious fanaticism, to be sure. But it cannot be properly understood by learning more about the Quran or the Hadith, any more than the bloodlust of [Carlos] can be reduced to readings of Das Kapital. Murderous revolutionaries, whether they act in the name of a religious or a secular cause, tend to be mesmerized by a cult of death. More conventional or traditional forms of Islam are far removed from a death cult.”

Salah Abdeslam, another ISIS operative who has been described as “the most wanted man in Europe” following the death of Abaaoud, was reportedly known most for “having a long line of girlfriends, including an English woman, and a party lifestyle.”

Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman killed during the police assault in Saint-Denis, “was a party animal with a string of boyfriends who had shown no interest in religion,” according to interviews by the London Daily Mail. She was “known for her love of alcohol and cigarettes rather than devotion to Islam,” the paper reported.

“Her brother . . . said that she had had no interest in religion, never read the Koran and had only started wearing a Muslim veil a month ago.” He added, “She had been the victim of violence since she was very young – mistreated and rejected – she never received the love she needed. From the age of five she was taken into care, so she grew up with a foster family.”

Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, who was Graeme Wood’s main expert source, told another journalist that the vast majority of Muslim scholars reject ISIS’s ideology. Indeed, he explains the movement’s rise primarily in non-religious terms:

“The reason ISIS emerged clearly has to do with the chaos in Iraq, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq (which is the result of the American invasion-occupation), and the chaos in Syria (which is a regime that has also disenfranchised Sunni Muslims). We have two big Arab countries, side-by-side, both in chaos, both with large Sunni populations that are disenfranchised. With a lot of young men who have no prospects for employment and feel marginalized. And who then identify their sense of humiliation and marginalization with the larger Muslim world, which they claim is also being marginalized and being humiliated.”

In a recent speech on the “driving force behind jihadist terrorism,” the noted French scholar Olivier Roy confirmed that young men become jihadists because it offers them a chance to belong to a “small brotherhood of superheroes” in a celebrated global cause, not out of faith. “Almost none followed a real process of religious education,” he said. “Their religious knowledge is low (some brought with them ‘Islam for the Dummies’). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it is just to appease their parents: in fact they go for jihad.”

He added, “This explains why . . . ‘reforming Islam’ does not make sense: they just don’t care about ‘what Islam really means.’”

It is, of course, true that Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups operating mainly in the Middle East embrace Islam to justify their radical doctrines. But politicians and pundits who insist on branding them first and foremost as Islamic play into the hands of sociopaths by conflating them with peaceful followers of a religion who make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Their focus demonizes Islam and casts the struggle waged by terrorists as a clash of civilizations, elevating the status of fringe extremists and attracting more thrill-seekers to their ranks.

So yes, words matter. In this sometimes shrill semantic debate, score one for President Obama, who wisely refuses to turn the world’s battle against terrorists into a Twenty-first Century Crusade.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]