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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2002 / 26 Shevat, 5762

Martin Peretz

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Foresight -- I have been The New Republic's steward for nearly 28 years. And so I know quite a lot about its history--the moments when it was bravely honest, and the moments when it was thinly righteous.

The magazine has committed, at times, massive errors of judgment. Its editors' commitment, for example, to a mechanistic notion of industrial efficiency and a simple-minded notion of equal social outcomes led to an on-and-off-again dalliance with communism. The more recent past has produced other, if less momentous, moral errors.

But the other day I came across the August 25, 1941, issue, and a shiver of institutional pride ran down my spine. The editorial--written fully three and a half months before Pearl Harbor--was titled, "For a Declaration of War." It began on the cover and went on to argue for immediate armed combat against the Axis powers.

At a time when even those Americans sympathetic to the Allies' cause were arguing that Washington should do little more than send Britain old destroyers and woolen socks, this was an unpopular position, and an inspiring one. Reading the editorial some 60 years later, one can see clearly how grievously the United States erred in waiting to be attacked before it deployed and fought.

Democracies are loath to admit that they provoke zealous enemies. This is certainly true today, as the Fourth Estate insists that despite the palpable enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden across the Muslim world (note recently The New York Times reported that a classified poll of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 showed that 95 percent of them supported bin Laden's cause), modern Islam is overwhelmingly tolerant and peaceful. Some people live by the sword and others live by the word. Alas, many of the latter in highbrow American journalism live by the mendacious word or, at best, the platitudinous one. They provide comforting assurances of the universality of desire: Everybody wants the same things, and if everybody had them there'd be peace.

Consider, too, that the New York Times, published Serge Schmemann's stunningly patronizing review of What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, the new book by the stunningly learned Princeton professor Bernard Lewis. Schmemann objected to the fact that the book is really "a compilation of lectures and articles" from the last two decades. Thus, it does not and cannot give what the title implicitly promises: "convincing answers to the riddles of September 11."

But for a scholar like Lewis, September 11 did not raise many fresh questions. After all, Lewis understood the ideology behind the World Trade Center attack before it happened. Bin Laden and his supporters emerged organically from a living Islam that Lewis has spent his life trying to interpret. Schmemann takes exception to this "affirmation" by Lewis: "By all the standards that matter in the modern world--economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights--what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low." Which of those excellences, precisely, does Schmemann see in the Muslim world? And if such a remark is controversial, then on the basis of what more penetrating truth can the Muslim world reform itself and improve the lives of its people?

Schmemann's credential for reviewing the Lewis book is that he spent the mid-1990s as the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief. He wasn't a notably hostile observer of that country. But he saw--as did virtually all his Times colleagues before and after him--the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians as just another nasty encounter between two peoples. Lewis understands that it is embedded in a larger struggle: between those who seek to resolve conflicts politically, which means through compromise, and those who seek to resolve conflicts through violence.

A cheeky friend of mine refers to NPR as "National Palestine Radio." For NPR, this is not just another nasty encounter between two peoples. It is a tale of good and evil, the weak and the strong, the largely innocent Palestinian victims, and the aggressive and unmoving Israelis. CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) last year published a devastating report on NPRs coverage of the conflict, and I am not surprised. You see, NPR's foreign editor, the virulently anti-Israel Loren Jenkins, has been on my radar for almost 20 years.

I wrote about him 18 years ago (May 16, 1983), after he'd won a Pulitzer for some Washington Post articles he'd written on the Sabra and Shatila massacres. That the Jews were entirely to blame for Christians killing Muslims was a widely supported, if wildly illogical, axiom of the time. But Jenkins was after the specific identity of the Christian killers and, in the days following the massacres, he was quick to fix primary blame on Major Saad Haddad, who commanded an Israeli-backed force of between 1,000 to 1,500 Lebanese Christians.

Haddad's forces, the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA), he alleged, committed the atrocities in conjunction with breakaway elements of the Maronite Catholic militia, the Phalange. Jenkins reported that the SLA had come from the South to invade the camp. But an Israeli commission, quite severe with Israel itself, showed that the SLA was ensconced on the opposite bank of the Awali River during the massacres. Jenkins eventually acknowledged that Major Haddad played no role in the massacres and it wasn't breakaway Phalange who committed the murders, but its mainstream, under the command of a young warlord named Elie Hobeika.

(There were plenty of Shia in Hobeika's militia as well, but that complicated the reporter's story: Why would Muslims murder Palestinian fellow Muslims?)

These two-decades-old memories flooded back when I read a few days ago that Hobeika had been killed by a car bomb in Beirut. This was the kind of death he'd meted out routinely to his enemies. His mother and 300 other mourners wept at his church funeral. But his butchery hadn't denied him entry into Lebanon's power elite. He had spent the ensuing years as minister of this and that in several Lebanese governments, and at the end was part of the informal cabal that actually ran the country for Syria (under the careful watch of 25,000 of Bashar al-Assad's troops).

Recently, I wrote about my trip ten years ago to Saudi Arabia, and my impressions were largely of hypocrisy. But there is one particular hypocrisy that I failed to mention. The Saudi ruling family does a lot of public worrying about the Palestinians--last weekend in the Times and The Washington Post it once again berated the United States for not sufficiently bowing to their needs and demands (which it usually conflates).

So how many Palestinians has it taken in? I asked my princely hosts. Fifteen thousand, said one. Twenty-five thousand, said another sternly. (This, in a country with several million foreign workers.) Why so few? I asked. "Because," said a third, "we don't want too many Palestinians here. They are troublemakers. We accept only those who have married Saudi men and, of course, those we need--mostly teachers and doctors." It was a disturbing revelation, and an important one. And don't expect to hear it on NPR.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.


10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2002, Martin Peretz