Friday, February 26, 2010

Paterson to Drop Out of Governor Race

Paterson to Drop Out of Governor Race

I wonder if he'll eventually have to resign.

By Friday, some newspaper editorial writers were demanding something more than an end to his campaign: they were calling for his resignation. That only added to the increasing sense that it would be nearly impossible for him to run the state and the campaign with the abuse case in the background...

And many had said publicly this week that Mr. Paterson’s chances had been damaged, perhaps irreparably, by the disclosures that the governor himself had stepped in on behalf of David W. Johnson, 37, a close confidant who rose from being a young intern to being Mr. Paterson’s driver and scheduler and, later, to a wider role in Mr. Paterson’s operation.

Last fall Mr. Johnson’s longtime companion accused him of brutally assaulting her , telling the police that he had choked her and thrown her against a dresser. She also said that Mr. Johnson had kept her from calling for help.

Twice, the woman was granted a temporary order of protection against Mr. Johnson. But she complained in court that the State Police had pressed her to drop the allegations.

Then, on Feb. 7, the day before a court hearing about a final protective order, Mr. Paterson spoke to her on the phone. She did not show up for the hearing the next day, and the judge dismissed her the case.

Domestic-violence experts and advocates said it was inappropriate for the governor, the most powerful state official — and a close friend of Mr. Johnson’s — to have any contact with the woman. At the same time, questions were emerging about the role of State Police officials, who had initially described their contact with the woman as an effort to offer her counseling and let her know of “her options.”

But on Thursday, two people who had been briefed on the matter said that the head of the governor’s security detail, Maj. Charles Day, had contacted her himself. Former and current state officials said that was a highly unusual move, given that the State Police had no jurisdiction in the case.

The administration’s handling of the case will now be investigated by the state’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, who wants the governor’s job. Some government-watchdog groups said that given Mr. Cuomo’s hopes for the future, an independent prosecutor should be appointed.

The political fallout appeared to be devastating. Even before his speech at Hofstra last week Mr. Paterson had resisted pressure from within Democratic circles to stand down in favor of Mr. Cuomo, whom many Democrats believe would have a better chance of winning in November.

Through the day on Thursday, allies had urged Mr. Paterson to call off his bid for election. They said his political standing had been damaged beyond repair. Among those who said Mr. Paterson should stand down were senior Democratic members of New York’s Congressional delegation, top Democratic lawmakers in Albany and a number of black Democratic officials, including some from Harlem, Mr. Paterson’s home base.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Good News! I just got tenure!

Updated Post

 I got some really good news last week - I was just granted tenure and promotion to associate professor at Ithaca College.

Last Thursday the Board of Trustees met and voted on the candidates for tenure, and on Thursday afternoon the dean called and let me know the good news. I just got the president's letter in the mail today.

It's been a long slog - I finished my Ph.D. in June 1995 and then went on to a series of short term appointments. My first job was actually in Ithaca, at Cornell, as a sabbatical replacement in the Near Eastern Studies department. I then went to Columbia for two years, having received a fellowship at the Heyman Center for the Humanites. That was a great experience; I really liked living in New York. The next year I went to Jerusalem for the year on a Lady Davis Fellowship, which was also great. Then, back to the U.S., and a year teaching at Vassar and then another year at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania. I liked Bucknell but Lewisburg, PA is a really small town. Then the job at Ithaca College was advertised and I was hired on a three-year contract.

I started teaching at Ithaca College in the fall of 2001 (two weeks later were the 9/11 attacks, so it was a rough start). During my third year, a tenure-track position in Jewish studies was opened up. I applied for it and got it, and I'm in the sixth year of that contract. I'm very happy that I've finally gotten tenure.

Governor Paterson in Trouble Again

Here we go again: Questions of Influence in Abuse Case of Paterson Aide

I wonder if Paterson will also ultimately have to resign. At the very least, he should end his chimerical campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York.

Maybe this is what Paterson was really afraid was going to come out a couple of weeks ago when there were all those rumors about possible affairs.

Why do Americans support Israel?

Matthew Yglesias points to an interesting new series of polls done by Gallup on Israel/Palestine and American attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He names his post, "American Public Prepared to Support Israel in Endless War With Arabs."

When I look at the charts that Yglesias provides for this post, I don't come to the same cynical conclusions he does.

Gallup reports: Support for Israel at 63%, near record high.
In the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, a striking 63% of Americans currently say their sympathies lie more with the Israelis, the highest level in nearly 20 years. Support for the Palestinians, at 15%, is about average for the same period. At the same time, Gallup finds Americans' fundamental views of Israel no more favorable than they have been for the past several years. Israel does continue to enjoy a substantial advantage over the Palestinian Authority in its general image, a fact that clearly colors the ways Americans view the conflict.

Americans are no more optimistic today than they were last year that peace can be reached between Israel and the Palestinians -- and they are, in fact, less optimistic than they were toward the end of the Bush administration. This is largely owing to a drop in optimism among independents.
And here's the charts:

Favorable Views Toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 2000-2010 Trend

Sympathy for Israelis vs. Palestinians in Mideast Situation, by Party ID, Trend From 2001 to 2010

It's clear that Republicans are consistently more favorable toward Israel than Democrats, although in 2001 there wasn't much of a gap between them. Views among Democrats have fluctuated a bit between 2001 and 2010, but with no really big differences. Independents have risen significantly since 2001. Why do these differences exist?

Outlook for Peace Between Israel and Arab Nations, 1997-2010 Trend

This poll is interesting - during the years of maximum effort by the Clinton administration, the optimism about peace was fairly high, but I can't remember anything in particular happening in 2003 or 2005 that would have led to such optimism. Am I forgetting some significant events? The Iraq War started in 2003 - not something that would have led me to optimism about peace. In the summer of 2005 Israel left Gaza - perhaps that was the factor.

Outlook for Peace Between Israel and Arab Nations, by Party ID, 2001-2010 Trend

It would be interesting to compare these charts with polls of Israelis and Palestinians taken during the 2000s - would the optimism level chart the same way?

Yglesias' analysis:
Both support for Israel and pessimism about the possibility of peace are correlated with Republican partisan self-identification. To conjecture a bit beyond what the data can strictly tell us, I think it’s plausible to posit that there’s a large Republican-identified Christian Zionist bloc that’s extremely comfortable with the idea of aligning itself with Israel for the purposes of an endless religious war and of course they have their counterparts in the “revisionist” strand of Zionism in Israel and among American Jews. To my way of thinking—and I think that of most Jewish liberals—this is a chilling vision and we choose to believe that the conflict both can and will be resolved at some point. But many Americans have a level of cultural and ideological affiliation with violence and coercive domination that makes it easy for them to identify with this version of future Israeli history.
He's probably right that much of the Republican/Democratic difference here is based on different religious attitudes in the large conservative Christian portion of the Republican support. But why would he think it's for the purpose of "endless religious war"? What evidence is there in these charts? I don't see it. The charts just report on the party differences, they don't tell us the reasons for them. I also think it's deeply cynical to say that the reasons "many Americans" support Israel because of American's "level of cultural and ideological affiliation with violence and coercive domination." This is not an analysis, it's an expression of his ideological beliefs. I'd like to see some survey evidence to back up his claims.

I would like to know why conservative Christians actually support Israel. Not why people like John Hagee support Israel, but the spectrum of conservative evangelicals and Catholics, broken down by type of religious movement (Pentecostal, African-American church, non-Pentecostal evangelicals, etc). Based simply on some meager anecdotal evidence, my experience with conservative Christians is that they support Israel because they view Judaism and the Jewish people as forming the roots of Christianity, and they believe that the covenant between the Jewish people and God has not been abrogated by the rise of Christianity. But again, this is not evidence. If any of my readers have an idea of where to search for this information, I'd be happy to know.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Huh? Since when is attempting to blow up a federal building NOT an act of domestic terrorism?

David Neiwert, as usual, is on the case: Huh? Since when is attempting to blow up a federal building NOT an act of domestic terrorism?

Terrorist attack in Austin, TX

Despite the title of this CNN article - Remains of 2 found after Austin plane crash - this was a domestic terror attack, in which at least one innocent person was killed, others were injured, and many more were terrorized, all in the name of hatred of the U.S. government.

A brave man and Iraq war veteran, Robin Dehaven, rushed into the burning building and saved people from the fire caused by this act of suicide terrorism.
Witnesses described a scene of panic, fire and smoke. Lyric Olivarez, who was working in a nearby building, told CNN affiliate KXAN that she felt her building shake when the plane crashed.

"It sounded like an explosion, but it felt like an earthquake," Olivarez said. "Someone came into our office and said there was a bomb in the building next door. We had no idea it was a plane at the time."

When she and others ran outside, they saw the neighboring building in flames.

"People on the second and third floors were busting out windows, screaming, 'Help me! Help me! Get me out of here!' waving handkerchiefs or whatever they could find," Olivarez told KXAN.

"Not before long, the entire parking lot was filled with smoke, and people praying and crying," she said.

"I just saw smoke and flames," said CNN iReporter Mike Ernest. "I could not believe what I was seeing. It was just smoke and flames everywhere."

Dehaven said that as he was driving before the crash, he could see the plane flying low, approaching the building.

"I saw it turn and start heading down like it was diving to come in for a landing, but there's no landing [strip]," he said. "So I knew it was going to crash."

He said his 6½ years in the Army, with two tours in Iraq, helped him Thursday.

"I've had some experience in triage and battlefield, with ... gunfire," he said. "My first thought [was] maybe I can help, because I'm more used to dealing with traumatic situations like that.

"I have a clear head and a calm head to try to help those people, and luckily I did."
Can anyone doubt that if this plane had been piloted into a federal building by a Muslim angry at the U.S. government for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, CNN and all other news media would be calling it a terrorist attack?

I remember the last terror attack on a federal building - on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh drove a truck full of explosives into the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. 168 people died. I was living in Somerville, Mass., at the time, and was on the road either to or from a temporary teaching job at Bates College in Maine. I heard the account on the radio of what happened.

I hope that this domestic terror attack is not the harbinger of more such attacks, driven by the anti-government hate rhetoric of the radical right.

Want evidence that such sentiments are out there? LGF posted an article about a Tea Party meeting in Washington State where one woman called for the hanging of U.S. Senator Patty Murphy. At this same meeting there was a sign calling for the castration of President Obama (remember, that's what often happened to the black men who were lynched by the thousands from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries - and to the everlasting shame of the United States, Congress never passed an anti-lynching law, because of the legislative power of the southern states).

The SPLC puts this attack in context:
This morning’s attack by Joseph Andrew Stack against an IRS office building in Austin, Tex., is a reminder again of how extreme hatred of government can morph into violence. Since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has documented 75 domestic terrorist plots, most of which involved individuals with extreme antigovernment views. One of the plots, if carried out, would have resulted in the deaths of some 30,000 people.

Stack’s actions come as the number of antigovernment “Patriot” and militia groups is rising fast, as revealed by the SPLC this past summer. In the 1990s, the combustible mix of rising antigovernment anger and the growth in militias was a recipe for disaster that ultimately resulted in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, who was motivated by antigovernment hatred.

“This attack comes amid the absolutely explosive growth of the right-wing militias and the larger antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement, which includes thousands of so-called tax protesters who believe the federal income tax is illegal” said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “There is a populist rage out there about what is seen as the coddling of rapacious elites, like the mortgage bankers who kept receiving multimillion dollar bonuses, even as working Americans seem to keep losing more and more.”
Let's see how many conservatives condemn this as a terrorist attack.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What was the "Palestine Conference"?

Another point to make about Stephen Sizer's attendance at the Palestine Conference is that it reveals some of the company he keeps. According to the poster he put up on his blog (see above), his fellow speakers included Azzam Tamimi and Daud Abdullah. The conference was organized by the student association of Islamic groups on British campuses (FOSIS) and cosponsored by the Palestinian Return Centre, Interpal, the British Muslim Initiative, and the Friends of Al-Aqsa.

Harry's Place has written quite extensively on Tamimi and Abdullah. See this recent article on some of Tamimi's extreme statements on Israel and Jews. The author writes, "Support for Hamas suicide bombings is a consistent theme in Tamimi’s public talks, alongside the idea that Israel must disappear – either peacefully or through force."

A report in the Jewish Chronicle (of Feb. 11) covers a recent talk he gave at a prestigious university in London:

Palestinian academic Azzam Tamimi, who has advocated suicide bombing, has told students he “longs to be a martyr” and that Israel “must come to an end”. Dr Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, spoke to students at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) on Tuesday. On Monday, he addressed Cambridge University’s Islamic Society and is also due to speak at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies’ Palestine Week at Manchester University this weekend.
At SOAS, he praised Hamas and said: “Today Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation because that’s what the Americans and Israelis and cowardly politicians of Europe want, but what is so terrorist about it?
“You shouldn’t be afraid of being labelled extreme, radical or terrorist. If fighting for your home land is terrorism, I take pride in being a terrorist. The Koran tells me if I die for my homeland, I’m a martyr and I long to be a martyr.”
He criticised calls for a two-state solution and said: “Why are the Jews superhuman and better than anyone else that God would give them a homeland? Is God a racist? A god who would prefer people because of their race is not a god I want to associate with. Claiming they are being given the land of God is a racist idea.
“If the world felt so guilty about the Holocaust, the Jews should have been compensated, not brought to my country at the expense of my people. “Israel does not belong to my homeland and must come to an end. This can happen peacefully if they acknowledge what they did — or we will continue to struggle until Israel is no more.”
He also urged students to continue hosting debates, despite calls to ban controversial speakers from campuses. He said: “I want to encourage you not to be intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby. The Zionists tell a pack of lies.
Dr Tamimi spoke alongside Ben White, author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, who urged students to boycott Israeli goods.
On Abdullah, see this article at Harry's Place: Daud Abdullah, the Royal Navy and Jihad.

Why is a Christian theologian, of all people, associating with Azzam Tamimi and Daud Abdullah?

Stephen Sizer: Palestine Conference

For those interested in Stephen Sizer, this is one of the things he's been up to recently: Palestine Conference: Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

The conference was organized by the Federation of Islamic Student Societies (in England). He refers to the "Jerusalem Declaration" (which he helped to draft, but which I haven't read), which "repudiates Christian Zionism as a deviant heresy." Not being a Christian, I'm not in a position to declare what is heretical in Christianity, but I had thought (or hoped) that this type of language of denouncing other Christians as heretics had disappeared with the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

Calvin Smith of King's Evangelical Divinity School in England writes:
This is strong language indeed. Of course, it is no secret Revd Sizer has widely publicised his intense dislike of Christian Zionism, which he has every right to do. But surely labelling millions of fellow Evangelical Christians deviant heretics goes too far....

Thus, it is quite one thing to challenge particular doctrines and teachings one may disagree with (including Christian Zionism or for that matter supercessionism), but quite another to label millions of fellow Christians who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal saviour deviant heretics, a label generally reserved for those whose teachings and beliefs in some way deny the person of Christ.

It is also language which is unnecessarily polemical and polarising in nature, rather than the biblical language of gentle reproof and reconciliation as a first port of call for resolving disputes, theological or otherwise, within the Church. Drawing on this kind of language is also ironic, given how reconciliation is a central feature of the Jerusalem Declaration. Jesus tells His disciples they will discern what is good and bad by the fruit it produces. Unfortunately, the fruit of polarised language and the very public and pejorative denunciation of fellow Christians over their response to Israel has brought not only ecclesial division, but also little hope of much-needed reconciliation between Christians over the thorny issue of how to respond to the Middle East crisis.

Repudiating Christian Zionism somehow as a monolithic movement also lacks nuance. Which version of Christian Zionism is referred to here? The British variety, which tends to be more covenantal than geographical in nature, or perhaps the US variety, which includes (but is not limited to) a more apocalyptic and political expression? Meanwhile, some Christian Zionists espouse an Eretz Yisrael Ha-Shlema (Greater Israel) much like Israel’s Likud party, but others simply believe the Jews should be allowed to return to the land of their forefathers, less concerned with the exact borders or the political structures in place. Between these positions are various theological shades of Evangelical Christianity over responses to the Jewish people and modern Israel, highlighting how current Christian responses to the issue are quite complex. Yet the language of polarisation both masks these complexities and the at times weak arguments of those who would rather seek to promulgate a black and white, dualist narrative that demands an equally polarised response: "You are either with us or against us."
I've taken out some of the deeper thickets of Christian and especially evangelical theology, which I'm not an expert in. There is an interesting exchange in the comments between Modernity Blog & Smith:
ModernityBlog said...
15 February 2010 23:07:00 GMT

I can't comment on the theology, as an atheist, but wasn't the rise of modern Christian Zionism in part a reaction to the rather dubious theology surrounding the whole notion of a "Christ killer" and the exceedingly negative views that many Christians had previously taken of Jews?

I wonder, how does it fit in to the changing theological view of Jews since the 1960s?

Calvin L. Smith said...
15 February 2010 23:52:00 GMT

ModernityBlog, variations of Latent forms of Christian Zionism have existed for centuries. In the pre-modern Israel period they tended to focus theologically on the Jewish people rather than the land (including, for example, among some 17th century Puritans). However, within Church history there is a strand eschewing supercessionism (the view God has finished with the Jews), which arguably stretches back much further. Some (including me)argue the New Testament rejects supercessionism. Consider the take of the Apostle Paul (a Jew) on this in his argument set out in Romans 9, 10 and 11. But

In the aftermath of the last World War there emerged a theology towards the Jews known as post-Holocaust theology, which recognised how some European Christian attitudes throughout history likely contributed towards the Holocaust. This was largely embraced by the historic Protestant denominations, many of which have since become highly critical of Israel.

Moreover, there has emerged a quite vociferous anti-Christian Zionism in the last decade or two, strongly represented within Evangelicalism (the movement in which Christian Zionism is also strongly represented). Thus, Evangelicalism is currently divided over the issue of Israel, with both sides apparently claiming to be in the minority in order to project the need for others to embrace their message.

According to Foreign Media Reports

If the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai was done by the Mossad, they have done an unbelievably bad job at covering their tracks: using fake passports of seven Israeli citizens for some of the hit squad members and dressing in "false beards, wigs and glasses, in almost comical attempts at disguise." (See Israelis Share Suspicions in Hamas Leader’s Killing).

Amir Oren in today's Haaretz writes:
If the perpetrators were from the Mossad (AFMR, of course), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must be walking around with an acute sense of deja vu. Once again, an assassination of a senior Hamas leader in a friendly Arab country; once again, an operation designed to kill someone quietly and inconspicuously; once again, a diplomatic mess; and once again, it is all happening on Netanyahu's watch. In 1997, it was Khaled Meshal in Jordan. This time, it's Mabhouh in Dubai.
I had forgotten that the attempted assassination of Meshal occurred during Netanyahu's previous prime ministership - it was only one of the many things that he botched then.
The United Kingdom and Ireland were used once again, and this time, a French connection topped it off. It is as if Israeli governments had never apologized to London for using British documentation; as if they had not promised solemnly, when passports of Her Majesty's subjects were found in a certain phone booth, that this would never happen again....

Using the identities of real, living, innocent Israelis for operational documentation is against the law. This kind of abuse also causes innocent civilians to suffer the evil that already plagues ministers and officers: being prevented from traveling abroad for fear of being arrested by Interpol on suspicion of being the Dubai assassins.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy pushed for a Mossad Law to be legislated that would enshrine the state's obligation to defend its agents caught breaking laws abroad. The initiative never got off the ground: A state can't legitimize illegality. But neither can it allow one of its institutions to arbitrarily harm civilians not the police, not the tax authority, not the Shin Bet security service and not the Mossad.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was asked yesterday whether an investigation will be opened following the public complaints of those whose identities were stolen from them, and whose lives and liberty are therefore now threatened. Weinstein has not yet had time to study the issue. He has some superficial knowledge of Dagan's character, but no prejudice.

Netanyahu played deaf to the warnings and extended Dagan's tenure for an eighth year, a decision as hasty as it was unnecessary. But the Mossad, like the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office, cannot hinge upon one man, without whom everything would collapse.

What is needed now is a swift decision to terminate Dagan's contract and to appoint a new Mossad chief - one of the current department heads, one of their predecessors, or a talented Israel Defense Forces general. There's no disease (AFMR) without a cure: An easel in Rosh Pina is yearning for pensioner Dagan to come home.
(AMFR means: According to Foreign Media Reports. This circumlocution is used by the Israeli press to write about topics that the military censor will not allow them to report directly, like Israeli nuclear weapons).

"May The Judgement Not Be Too Heavy Upon Us"

Despite my disagreements with Andrew Sullivan on whether the Israel lobby is as nefarious as he now thinks it is, he is often an eloquent and moving writer on moral issues whom I find deeply moving, especially in his writing about torture. His meditation today on Ash Wednesday and March Thiessen, the Catholic apologist for torture who seems to entirely ignore his own church's stance against torture, is particularly impressive: "May The Judgement Not Be Too Heavy Upon Us."
The notion of the integrity of the human person, of human dignity, is integral to the Catholic faith. We are all made in the image of God, imago Dei. The central and divine figure in our faith, Jesus of Nazareth, was brutally tortured. He was also robbed of dignity, forced to wear a mocking crown of thorns, sent to carry a crippling cross through the streets of Jerusalem, mocked while in agony, his body exposed naked and twisted in the stress position known as crucifixion - which was often done without nails by Romans so that the death was slow and agonizing in the way stress positions are designed to be. Ask John McCain. That the Catholic church in the Inquisition deployed these techniques reveals the madness and evil that can infect even those institutions purportedly created to oppose all such things.
Read the whole essay.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wieseltier vs. Sullivan: A Question on the Trinity

I haven't gotten into the whole contretemps between Andrew Sullivan and Leon Wieseltier because I haven't had time to read all of Wieseltier's opus and consider what I think of his criticisms of Sullivan. I have been disturbed at what seems to me Sullivan's gradual turning against Israel over the last year or so. But part of my thinking about him comes from how it is that he turned against the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq - not all of a sudden or reflexively, but after a lot of consideration. His long discussions about Abu Ghraib and torture had a big impact on my thinking about the Bush Administration, and contributed to my turning against them. I think he is coming from a deep concern with the morality/ethics of government action in democratic societies.

I do wish that he was a bit more careful in his language about Israel, and I'm starting to think that he would benefit from actually going to Israel/Palestine and talking to people on the ground. He needs a deeper basis for his judgments than he has now.

But one of the things that he objected to in Wieseltier's essay were the remarks that Wieseltier made about the Christian belief in the Trinity. Wieseltier's essay isn't particularly easy to get into - he starts off from what seems to be left-field, discussing a quote from W.H. Auden on the difficulty of explaining the Trinity to the readers of TNR (in 1944!). He then goes into a discussion of how difficult many Christian writers found it to give a rational explanation of the Trinity. He quotes Aquinas as saying, “It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason.” He refers then to the Church Fathers on the Trinity, and his own conclusion:
"For this reason, he [Aquinas] asserted, “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others, it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.” Indeed, the despair of explanation goes all the way back to the Fathers of the Church, who afflicted themselves with the most extraordinary mental contortions–hypostasis, ousia, and the rest–to make the idea of the Trinity seem plausible. They were right, finally, to call it a mystery.
Wieseltier's judgment is that: "To regard a concept as a mystery may be a spiritual triumph, but it is an intellectual defeat." But is the debate about the Trinity really an intellectual one? I think that Aquinas' assertion that natural reason will not lead one to an understanding of the Trinity makes sense - it is a foundation of Christian faith, not a philosophical proposition.

And then Wieseltier writes about the Trinity, and this is what Sullivan most objected to:
The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity (Auden would not have had an easier time with the Incarnation!), represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity. It is completely inconsistent with everything that my mind instructs me to believe about God’s essence. (I leave aside what my mind instructs me to believe about God’s existence. We are in the realm of theology here, not the realm of philosophy.)

Of course, my stiff-necked opinion about this central tenet of the Christian faith is not only rational, it is also Jewish. The electrifying history of Jewish-Christian disputations in the Middle Ages amply documents the scrupulously argued Jewish refusal to entertain anything but a perfect unity in the conception of God. In the words of an early modern Jewish writer, whose polemical work survives in an unattributed Hebrew manuscript at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I do not understand this and you will not be able to explain it to me.” That is not a report of a prejudice. It is a report of a view with rationally defensible grounds. The respect one must have for believers one need not have for beliefs.

Wieseltier's argument here boils down to saying that Jews do not agree with the Christian belief in the Trinity because it is not rationally defensible. Again, are Christians required to make a rational explanation for the Trinity that would satisfy nonbelievers? I don't think so - all religions have beliefs and practices that really cannot stand up to rational scrutiny (Dawkins and Hitchens have exploited the irrational in religion quite to their benefit in their books). Jews have beliefs that cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, for example the belief that the universal God who created the entire universe decided to make a covenant with one particular group of people on Earth, the Jews.

I also think there are other problems with Wieseltier's argument. Is he saying that all polytheism is "crude"? Would Hinduism then be a "crude" religion? If he's going to make this assertion, I think he needs to learn more about what polytheistic religions really are about. He doesn't have to agree with them to come to a better understanding of them. His remarks seem to be very close to the "satire of idols" as found in many of the prophets of the Bible - who were in fact mocking the polytheistic beliefs of their neighbors, without seeming to understand them very well.

And finally, on this point, I think that certain types of Judaism are open to exactly the same criticism. Kabbalah teaches that the unknowable Godhead (Ein Sof) revealed Itself through the emanation of ten Sefirot (divine potencies), which are co-existent with Ein Sof (in other words, they are not the instruments of Ein Sof, but partake in its essence). When I first studied early Christianity and tried to understand the Trinity, I had a great deal of trouble getting my mind around it - I remember telling the teaching fellow for the course that I just couldn't understand it because I was Jewish. When I began to study Kabbalah and read the Zohar (the key text of medieval Kabbalah), somehow the Christian idea of the Trinity began to make more sense to me. I wonder what Wieseltier would say about Kabbalah.

To turn to Sullivan's reply to Wieseltier's comments on the Trinity:
Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?

I acknowledge that the belief in the Trinity is a central tenet of Christianity - but for that reason are non-Christians supposed to respect it? From the Jewish point of view the Christian beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, the incarnation, and the Trinity are wrong. I don't believe in them, although I try to understand what Christians believe about them. (And I don't feel any impulse to call them a step backwards in religious thinking - although I think that many Jews would agree with Wieseltier on this point).

I wonder if Sullivan here is suffering somewhat from the assumption that of course everyone should respect what Christians believe because we live in a Christian culture. I don't think he would say this consciously, given all of his attacks upon what he calls "Christianism." But he does seem to give Christianity a privileged status as a religion that he doesn't give to other religions. (Again, not consciously).

In this realm, as David Schraub writes, Sullivan is writing "from an (along this axis) empowered class." In other words, Sullivan is demanding respect for Christianity as a religion from Jews who have been oppressed by Christians for about nineteen hundred years on religious grounds. Historically speaking, Vatican II and other Christian attempts to reconcile with Jews are very recent.

Wieseltier then writes in reply to Sullivan's reply:
Sullivan concludes with a ringing question: “Can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” He thinks he knows the answer to this question. So I want to be clear. There is no need to imagine me coming across people who think that some of the most foundational convictions of Judaism--God, creation, the splitting of the Red Sea and all the other miracles, the cosmos of reward and punishment--the whole supernatural apparatus of my religion--is nonsense. I have met such people and some of them are my friends. If their objections are thoughtful, then there is nothing “derogatory and condescending and cheap” about them.
I would have to agree with Wieseltier here. Members of my own family don't understand my religious beliefs - I don't have to go very far to meet with amazement that I could believe in such silly things.

Sullivan's latest post on this argument, The Trinity, is mostly a quote from a reader, whom he seems to agree with.

The reader writes:
It's downright evil to excuse saying terrible things about other people's faiths, especially when the things you are saying misconstrue what those people themselves believe about their own religion. It would be one thing if Leon Wieseltier laid out the doctrine of the Trinity fairly and charitably and then argued against it. But that is simply something he has not done....

And it's okay to derogate this as crude because his objections are somehow "thoughtful," and acting as if he would respect similar ridicule from another provided that ridicule was "thoughtful?" Would he acknowledge any such assault on Judaism as "thoughtful?" If he says yes, here's a hint: even he knows he's lying.
It's evil for Wieseltier to argue that the Christian belief in the Trinity is polytheistic? Is Wieseltier really under any obligation to lay out the doctrine of the Trinity fairly? It would certainly make the argument more civil, but I don't see that he's required to be polite (nor is Sullivan, for that matter).

The writer here is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a Christian, and says that,
I've spent my entire life as a Christian trying to find and quarantine aspects of the Christian tradition that have held up Christianity as a progressive religion that renders "backward" peoples only to have Leon Wieseltier come along and decide it's high time Judaism's conception of monotheism started taking up the slack
I'm not sure what I think about this argument. On the one hand, I am happy that he is trying to disown this part of the Christian tradition, which was certainly part of the project of colonialism of many European countries from the 15th century onwards. On the other hand, Judaism, unlike Christianity, has not been a proselytizing religion since the first couple of centuries CE, due to Jewish powerlessness in the face of Christianity and Islam, so Jews were not part of the European colonial project in this sense. I think that all of us should cultivate a humble attitude towards making assertions that our particular religion is true above all others.

I thought that I was going to write a short post on whether we are required to show respect for other people's religious beliefs - I find that I have written a long post. I don't think I've answered my question, but I hope I've given my readers some food for thought.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Ethan Bronner and the Public Editor of the New York Times

The Public Editor of the New York Times is calling for Ethan Bronner, the New York Times chief correspondent in Israel, to be reassigned for the period when his son is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Fortunately, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, disagrees.

The concern of Hoyt (the Public Editor) seems to be not that Bronner would actually be biased in his research and writing, but that some readers would perceive him as being prejudiced. As Keller makes clear in his reply to Hoyt, the New York Times is endlessly scrutinized for its Israel/Palestine coverage, and people on both (or many) sides of the issue are quick to criticize them for it. I've had Jewish friends accuse the Times of being anti-Israel, and I've had other friends claim that the Times is reflexively pro-Israel (one such conversation included the awkward claim that the Times was pro-Israel because the owners of the newspaper are Jewish - my interlocutor, whom I had thought was a friend, was unaware of the newspaper's shameful role during WWII in downplaying the gravity of the Holocaust). For an example of the claim that the Times' reporting is reflexively pro-Israel, see the first comment to Keller's response, which comes from Alison Weir, who is convinced that Israel can never do anything right.

Keller asks very cogent questions about who it is that should be trusted to report the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Readers, like reporters, bring their own lives to the newspaper. Sometimes, when these readers are unshakeably convinced of something, they bring blinding prejudice and a tendency to see what they want to see. As you well know, nowhere is that so true as in Israel and the neighboring Palestinian lands. If we send a Jewish correspondent to Jerusalem, the zealots on one side will accuse him of being a Zionist and on the other side of being a self-loathing Jew, and then they will parse every word he writes to find the phrase that confirms what they already believe while overlooking all evidence to the contrary. So to prevent any appearance of bias, would you say we should not send Jewish reporters to Israel? If so, what about assigning Jewish reporters to countries hostile to Israel? What about reporters married to Jews? Married to Israelis? Married to Arabs? Married to evangelical Christians? (They also have some strong views on the Holy Land.) What about reporters who have close friends in Israel? Ethical judgments that start from prejudice lead pretty quickly to absurdity, and pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.
He also gives examples of other Times reporters who have a personal involvement of some kind in the area they are reporting about - for example, he brings up the case of Nazila Fathi, the Times correspondent in Tehran. Should she not be permitted to report on Iran because the Iranian regime hounded her out of the country?
Nazila Fathi, our brave Tehran correspondent, was hounded out of her native country and into exile by the current regime. Does that “conflict of interest” disqualify her from writing about Iran? Or does that, on the contrary, make her more qualified, knowing as she does how that regime operates? Would you prefer to have a correspondent in Tehran who had NOT been persecuted by the Iranian government?
It seems to me that Hoyt is calling for an impossible standard which would lead to an absurdity - reporters who do not care at all about the place or topic they are reporting on. One of the things I had noticed over the years about the Times' reporting on Israel is that every few years they would send a new person to be the chief correspondent. They did not have as their chief correspondent someone who actually lived in the country for a long time - nor did it seem they even had Israeli or Palestinian correspondents (perhaps some stringers). I think it is a good thing that the Times is now employing reporters who know Israel thoroughly because they are Israelis or have lived in the country long term. (For example, Isabel Kershner, whom I first read in the Jerusalem Post probably about twenty years ago, is now reporting for the Times pretty regularly). Perhaps if they are worried about the appearance of bias, they should be careful to employ a Palestinian reporter to write regularly for the Times on an ongoing basis (the reporter they used in Gaza last year during the Gaza War seemed excellent to me).

Tablet Magazine has just weighed in on this issue, on the side of Hoyt - "Hoyt and I agree that Bronner has been fair-minded. But Hoyt and I also agree with Alex Jones, a Pulitzer-winning Harvard press expert. He told Hoyt: 'The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest. I would reassign him.' Such a move, frankly, is unfair to Bronner, 'but the newspaper has to come first,' he added."

I repeat that this is an impossible standard for the newspaper. Does this mean now that the excellent Gaza reporter the Times had last year for the Gaza War shouldn't work for them because of her inevitable personal stake in the course of the war? In Iraq the Times also employs many Iraqi staffers, some of whose names actually even show up as bylines. Should they be fired because they also have a stake in the ongoing fighting there? I imagine that some are Shi'ites, some are Sunnis, some are Kurds, some are Christians - all groups that are struggling over what is going to happen in Iraq. I think it is actually a plus for the Times to have reporters who are from a particular place - as long as they can adhere to journalistic standards. I have not seen any reporting from the local reporters in Iraq or Gaza or Israel that has led me to believe that they are violating journalistic standards.

And why is Tablet Magazine piling on in this argument? It's a Jewish publication - do they believe that an Israeli Jewish reporter would be incapable of reporting on Israel/Palestine fairly? What about Isabel Kershner, who is an Israeli and who writes for the Times? She immigrated to Israel from Britain and is an Israeli citizen. She used to report for the Jerusalem Report (and I think also for the Jerusalem Post). NPR employee Linda Gradstein, who is an American Jewish immigrant to Israel, has reported for them for at least 15 years. I don't think she's served in the IDF, but her husband may have. Does that mean she's incapable of reporting fairly on Israel/Palestine?\

Jeffrey Goldberg has written two good posts on this issue - Pandering to Zealots, in which he says:
.....reporters are capable of actually separating out their personal interests from their coverage. I've worked with Palestinian reporters in Gaza and the West Bank, many of whom have had family ties to Fatah and, in one case, even to Hamas, but without fail they've functioned as professional news-gatherers interested only in getting the story before the competition. I don't think the Times should stop using Palestinian reporters in the West Bank and Gaza, because if it did so, its coverage would suffer. And its coverage of Israel would suffer immeasurably if the Times bent to the pressure of anti-Israel propagandists and removed Ethan Bronner from his post. I'm just glad Bill Keller is the editor of the Times, and not Clark Hoyt. 
Amen to that point. His second posting is in response to a reader's inquiry about "Why not have Jewish reporters cover Gaza? Why not have Palestinians cover Israel?" He answers:
A good question. Two answers: First, Jewish reporters do cover Gaza. And Palestinians do, in fact, cover Israel. Anyone who has been in the Knesset press room knows that Palestinians, working for Arab outlets, as well as European and American publications, are busy covering the main issues of the day. Answer number two: There could always be more of this cross-cultural coverage. I, for one, would love to read a Taghreed al-Khodary [who has reported for the New York Times] profile of Bibi, or Gabi Ashkenazi, or whomever, not only because she's a great reporter, but because she would draw out different responses from these men, based on her background and knowledge, than I could. I trust her to be fair and accurate, so why not?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Why not to support Amnesty International

Why stop supporting Amnesty? (according to Flesh is Grass)
They have suspended the head of their international secretariat’s gender union Gita Sahgal, ostensibly because of this interview with The Times [of London]. Sahgal objects to Amnesty’s involvement with the apologist for terror, Moazzam Begg, in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign [in Britain].
For the full posting at Flesh is Grass:  Defend Gita Sahgal from her employers - Amnesty International.

See the excellent comments by Terry Glavin: No Support For Amnesty International Until It Reinstates Gita Sahgal, Cuts Jihadist Ties.

There's also a Facebook group calling for Sahgal's reinstatement.

Harry's Place has a longer article by Lucy Lips - Amnesty in Cageprisoners Row: Dynamite! about the Times article on Sahgal.

They have also published Sahgal's letter of today, responding to Amnesty's suspension of her. It is worth repeating here:

Statement by Gita Sahgal
7 February 2010

This morning the Sunday Times published an article about Amnesty International’s association with groups that support the Taliban and promote Islamic Right ideas. In that article, I was quoted as raising concerns about Amnesty’s very high profile associations with Guantanamo-detainee Moazzam Begg. I felt that Amnesty International was risking its reputation by associating itself with Begg, who heads an organization, Cageprisoners, that actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals.

Within a few hours of the article being published, Amnesty had suspended me from my job.

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitized the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners.

The tragedy here is that the necessary defence of the torture standard has been inexcusably allied to the political legitimization of individuals and organisations belonging to the Islamic Right.

I have always opposed the illegal detention and torture of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay and during the so-called War on Terror. I have been horrified and appalled by the treatment of people like Moazzam Begg and I have personally told him so. I have vocally opposed attempts by governments to justify ‘torture lite’.

The issue is not about Moazzam Begg’s freedom of opinion, nor about his right to propound his views: he already exercises these rights fully as he should. The issue is a fundamental one about the importance of the human rights movement maintaining an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights. I have raised this issue because of my firm belief in human rights for all.

I sent two memos to my management asking a series of questions about what considerations were given to the nature of the relationship with Moazzam Begg and his organisation, Cageprisoners. I have received no answer to my questions. There has been a history of warnings within Amnesty that it is inadvisable to partner with Begg. Amnesty has created the impression that Begg is not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights. Many of my highly respected colleagues, each well-regarded in their area of expertise has said so. Each has been set aside.

As a result of my speaking to the Sunday Times, Amnesty International has announced that it has launched an internal inquiry. This is the moment to press for public answers, and to demonstrate that there is already a public demand including from Amnesty International members, to restore the integrity of the organisation and remind it of its fundamental principles.

I have been a human rights campaigner for over three decades, defending the rights of women and ethnic minorities, defending religious freedom and the rights of victims of torture, and campaigning against illegal detention and state repression. I have raised the issue of the association of Amnesty International with groups such as Begg’s consistently within the organisation. I have now been suspended for trying to do my job and staying faithful to Amnesty’s mission to protect and defend human rights universally and impartially.

And more on the recent history of Amnesty which seems to have led to their willingness to work with Islamists who support the Taliban, an article by Nick Cohen on Standpoint.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Hate Crimes - FBI report for 2008

The annual FBI report on hate crimes for 2008 has been posted to the FBI website, and once again it is interesting to see what the most common hate crimes were (among those reported to law enforcement agencies, which certainly doesn't include all hate crimes committed in the U.S. in 2008).

The FBI reports:

Of the 7,780 single-bias incidents reported in 2008:
  • 51.3 percent were racially motivated.
  • 19.5 percent were motivated by religious bias.
  • 16.7 percent stemmed from sexual-orientation bias.
  • 11.5 percent resulted from ethnicity/national origin bias.
  • 1.0 percent were motivated by disability bias.
Of hate crimes motivated by race (total 4,704), 3,413 were motivated by anti-Black prejudice (72.5% of the total). This means that 37% of all hate crimes reported were motivated by anti-Black prejudice. The percentage of the American population which is African-American is about 12%.

Hate crimes motivated by bias against people of a particular religious group break down as follows:
There were 1,606 hate crime offenses motivated by religious bias in 2008. A breakdown of these offenses shows:
  • 65.7 percent were anti-Jewish.
  • 13.2 percent were anti-other religion.
  • 7.7 percent were anti-Islamic.
  • 4.7 percent were anti-Catholic.
  • 4.2 percent were anti-multiple religions, group.
  • 3.7 percent were anti-Protestant.
  • 0.9 percent were anti-Atheism/Agnosticism/etc.
Therefore, 12.8% of all hate crimes were motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice and 1.5% of all hate crimes were motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice. I wonder what the "other religion" category includes. Jews are about 2% of the American population, while Muslims are less than that (when I looked this up a couple of years ago, the best figure I could come up with was about 2 million Muslims in the U.S. - claims that there are up to 6 million Muslims in the U.S. do not seem supportable by the evidence).

If we break down the statistics by type of crime, it's also interesting. Fortunately, in 2008, there were no reported murders on the basis of religion, and one rape.

For the remaining crimes against persons, these are the statistics:

Aggravated assault - total crimes 47
• anti-Jewish: 25 (53%)
• anti-Catholic: 1 (2.1%)
• anti-Protestant: 3 (6.3%)
• anti-Islamic: 5 (10.6%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 1 (2.1%)
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Simple assault - total crimes 114
• anti-Jewish:58 (50.8%)
• anti-Catholic: 3 (2.6%)
• anti-Protestant: 3 (2.6%)
• anti-Islamic: 30 (26%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 1
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Intimidation - total crimes 311
• anti-Jewish: 201 (64.6%)
• anti-Catholic: 3
• anti-Protestant: 1
• anti-Islamic: 46 (14.7%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 0
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Statistics for crimes against property:

Lumping together robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft - total crimes 83
• anti-Jewish: 23 (27%)
• anti-Catholic: 12 (14%)
• anti-Protestant: 8 (9.6%)
• anti-Islamic: 5 (6%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 5 (6%)
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Arson - total crimes 13
• anti-Jewish: 4 (30.7%)
• anti-Catholic: 0
• anti-Protestant: 2 (15%)
• anti-Islamic: 5 (38%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 0
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Destruction/damage/vandalism - total crimes 1029
• anti-Jewish: 742 (72%)
• anti-Catholic: 0
• anti-Protestant: 2 (15%)
• anti-Islamic: 5 (38%)
• anti-atheist or agnostic: 0
(the rest were against either "other religion" or "multiple religions")

Even though, according to polls, there is more prejudice against Muslims in American society (for example, the percentage of Americans who would not vote for a Muslim for President is far higher than the percentage who would not vote for a Jew), there are more actual crimes committed against Jews based on anti-Jewish prejudice.

The total number of victims of hate crimes in 2008 were reported as 9,683 (single-bias incidents). They included (among others):
3,596 Blacks (37%)
1,145 Jews (11.8%)
1,672 gay men, lesbians, or bisexuals (17.2%)
792 Hispanics (8%)

This means, just as I said in 2007, "From these statistics, we can see that the hatreds rampant in the United States are really the old tried and true ones - anti-black racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments."

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Weirdest political campaign ad ever

I had thought you couldn't get any stranger than the political advertisements in the last Israeli elections for the combined Holocaust Survivor/Marijuana Legalization Party list. But that was until I watched Carly Fiorina's Demon Sheep ad against Tom Campbell. I particularly like the way that the demonic sheep appears at the end, knowable only through its red demon eyes, and then scuttles off, revealed to be a man covered in a sheep costume pretending to be a wolf. I though that Carly Fiorina was rich - couldn't she afford an ad with slightly higher production values (although this would have led to the ad unfortunately being less weird).

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

CAMERA on Stephen Sizer and Joseph Weissman

CAMERA, an organization that I often do not agree with, has published a good report about Seismic Shock (Joseph Weissman) and Stephen Sizer: Stephen Sizer Complains to Police About Blogger. One correction I would make to this report is that Weissman's first blog was not hosted by his university's computer system - it was hosted on Blogspot, which is owned by Google. (To access at least the first page, go to the Google cache of the blog). (This is the blog that he deleted at the request of the police).