Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2002 / 6 Kislev, 5763

The week that was

By David Twersky | Democracy in action, even when it appears dysfunctional (just look at Israel), is better than the alternatives.

Winston Churchill's wisdom on this point still rings true, so much so that even those ideological foes with no use for it, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, seek to clothe themselves in democratic legitimacy.

Saddam's recent 100 percent victory at the polls reminded us of the decision many years ago by the French Communist Party to drop the "dictatorship of the proletariat" from its platform.

The central committee's vote was unanimous, 1,300-0.

Not one nostalgic Stalinist voted to uphold the party's traditional goal.

French communists thought that a unanimous vote would prove their democratic credentials. Saddam just made the same mistake, underscoring his distorted view of America and the West. The Iraqi strongman is adding two and two but, because he is not operating in base 10, is not coming up with four.

Saddam's view of America is important because it increases the possibility of his making faulty - and fatal - judgment calls. As the pressure mounts, he may consider the American posture a bluff and refuse to cooperate fully with the inspectors dispatched by the United Nations Security Council. Saddam may believe a divided world will stay Washington's hand.

This week, the Iraqi dictator spoke to an Egyptian newspaper about the role of public opinion in America and Great Britain.

According to The Associated Press, Saddam told the Egyptian weekly Al-Osboa that if he can "buy more time," the Bush-Blair alliance would "disintegrate because of…the pressure of public opinion on American and British streets." (He could buy time by initially cooperating with UN inspectors, or by counting on French "diplomacy.")

Saddam said antiwar demonstrations were drawing "hundreds of thousands of peace-loving people who are protesting the war and aggression on Iraq."

Saddam should learn to count; there were far fewer than hundreds of thousands in the streets. But that's missing the main point, which is that Saddam has no experience whatsoever with regard to the impact of antiwar demonstrators on a democratic regime. Except for one lesson, which he thinks he has absorbed: Vietnam.

Saddam has been quoted numerous times arguing that American public opinion will not accept large-scale losses. If America can fight a laser-beam war, sustaining virtually no losses, they can walk over Iraq. But if Iraq can inflict massive pain on U.S. troops, American public opinion will kick in and force the government's hand.

The scary part is, Saddam is not entirely wrong.

His regime is prepared to make heavy sacrifices - without risking the wrath of an aroused public opinion.

It's not that public opinion doesn't exist in dictatorial settings, only that it is too frightened to express itself.

The second volume of Ian Kershaw's brilliant work on Hitler, Adolf Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, describes how the Allied bombing of German cities severely eroded support for the Nazi regime - but even when morale dropped to under zero, it did not manifest itself as opposition to the Reich.

Eerily, Kershaw cites Wehrmacht Lieutenant-General Erich von Manstein reporting on a meeting with Hitler as the eastern front was collapsing. Manstein, who was visiting Hitler to request permission to pull his army group south to a more defensible line, was told he would have to hold out until reinforcements were available.

The situation, the Fuehrer calmly predicted, would surely improve because "there were so many disagreements on the enemy side that the [anti-German] coalition was bound to fall apart one day. To gain time was therefore a matter of paramount importance."

In the interview, Saddam said America was out for "Arab oil" and aimed to make Israel "a vast empire."

"The United States wants to destroy the centers of power in all the Arab homeland, whether these are in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad," he said.

Saddam boasted that his "faith in Allah, in the homeland, and in the Iraqi people" would prove stronger than America with its long-range missiles.

"We remain confident in the Arab people," he said, "which is not in a deep sleep as others believe."

Hovering between a deep sleep and, as the early proponents of Arab nationalism put it, a "great awakening," the Arab world is in a cocoon of its own design, the only region of the world with near to no movement toward open societies and democracy and the freedoms of religion, inquiry, thought, and expression.

Even the freedom to be the one vote against Saddam, standing alone against the rest of the nation.


Under severe strain following the primary defeats of two anti-Israel black Democrats, Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, two congressmen are defending the traditional liberal alliance between the two groups.

In a jointly written article in the Nov. 2 Washington Post, Democrats John Lewis of Georgia and Martin Frost of Texas say "African Americans and Jews have a shared past of appalling oppression. As the victims of some of the most horrific crimes in humanity's history - the centuries of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, the centuries of official persecution that culminated in the Holocaust in Europe - African Americans and Jews bear a common memory of injustice.

"Not surprisingly, today our peoples share an unshakable commitment to social justice - and a willingness to employ the authority of the federal government to achieve it."

Okay as far as it goes, but even so, a declaration of a joint attraction to liberal social programs runs afoul of division over affirmative action and a decade of congressional redistricting in which black Democrats aligned themselves with white Republicans.

These are not small differences. Still, on many domestic issues, Lewis and Frost are correct that black and Jewish lawmakers frequently agree.

"So far in this Congress," they write, "Jewish House members have supported positions taken by the NAACP 83 percent of the time. In contrast, white non-Jewish members voted with the NAACP only 51 percent of the time.

"In the last Congress, Jews in the House were with the NAACP on 89 percent of the votes, while non-Jewish white members were only 51 percent of the time."

Jewish and African-American Democrats overwhelmingly support hate-crimes legislation and attempts to prevent ethnic or racial profiling.

Hilliard and McKinney were not targeted by pro-Israel activists because of their stands on affirmative action; it is the issue of the Israel-Palestinian dispute that most divides the two caucuses.

In order to make their case, Lewis and Frost must acknowledge this split but at the same time play it down.

Thus, they own up to the fact that "some African Americans and Jews have approached recent debates on the Middle East from different perspectives." Fair enough, but then they just throw it away, blaming the "differences" on "a long and distinguished tradition of nonviolence in the African-American community. Jews should recognize that when some black elected officials advocate a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East, it does not necessarily make them anti-Israel. And a secure peace is what all of us ultimately want most of all."

We all want a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute. That is not what divides us at all. What divides us is how to get there from here, not whether to get there. Waxing nostalgic about the 1964 murders in Mississippi of civil rights activists Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Cheney while ducking the real divide over Israel renders the Lewis-Frost Post article a mere, if you'll pardon the expression, whitewash.


As memorials to Jewish heroism and martyrdom, there are few more impressive historical sites than Masada and Babi Yar.

Both were in the news this week.

Nominated by Israel's Tourism and Education ministries, Masada celebrated its listing as a World Heritage site. The Jerusalem Post reported that the ancient mountaintop fortress and palace in the midst of the barren Judean desert was "placed on the list at the World Heritage Committee convention in Helsinki."

Being on the list "brings international recognition of a site's importance and ensures protection, preservation, and conservation."

Tourism Minister Yitzhak Levy said, "Masada is symbolic of the Jewish people's struggle for independence."

It is also a universal story, said Masada site manager Eitan Campbell. "The story of Masada, the desperate fight for freedom, is a message to all humanity."

Now I love Masada as much as the next fellow, although when I look at the long walk up I feel kind of out of shape.

And I love the historic articulation of themes, including the fight for freedom. Plus, coming from a country where Indian arrowheads are old and television shows from three decades ago are beyond retro, I appreciate the ancient echoes on the mountain fortress. Writing of an ancient city, Bob Dylan once said, "The streets of Rome/ are filled with rubble/ancient footsteps are everywhere./ Why you almost feel/ that you're seeing double/ on a cold, dark night on the Spanish stair."

Well, when they were building the Spanish stair, Masada was already an ancient memory.

On Masada, you're seeing quadruple.

But taking it seriously as a historic metaphor means getting beyond the simple slogans like "the Jewish people's struggle for independence."

Masada has also been used as a metaphor for the Zionist project generally, most notably in Yitzhak Lamdan's famous Hebrew poem in which he repeats the line, "Masada shall not fall a second time" (Shanit Masada lo tipol).

But Masada capped a Jewish uprising that had no chance of success - at least according to military historian (and former Israel defense Forces intelligence chief) Yehoshafat Harkabi (the man who originally analyzed the PLO charter).

If you follow Harkabi, Masada becomes a metaphor for an overly nationalistic and unrealistic policy that refuses compromise.

As you see, in Israel, nothing ancient remains so.

Then comes Babi Yar, the mass killing field (actually a ravine) outside Kiev in Ukraine, where some 33,000 Jews were among the 200,000 gunned down by the Germans.

Babi Yar broke through to international consciousness after the Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote a poem protesting the lack of a memorial stone by the ravine. With publication approved by Nikita Kruschev, the poem transformed Babi Yar into a metaphor for all of the USSR's unacknowledged crimes of the Stalinist period. This was a relatively safe area: It dealt with a Nazi crime of commission, and a Stalinist one of omission. (The Soviets refused to acknowledge the specific Jewish suffering associated with the Holocaust.)

The news about Babi Yar concerns a fight over a proposed community center at the site financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Kiev has a Jewish community estimated at 80,000.

According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, "The Heritage center was originally designed to include a museum, research institute, and community center with a theater."

Critics don't want the main community center built on or near the mass grave.

In Jewish life, nothing comes easy.

JWR contributor David Twersky is managing editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. Comment by clicking here.

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8/05/98: The strange case of 'Brother Daniel'

© 2002, David Twersky