Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

November 25, 2015

Next Thanksgiving

By David K. Shipler

            Thanksgiving is the best of American holidays. It is either religious or secular, depending on your preference. It is unburdened by materialism and free from jingoistic patriotism. It celebrates neither war nor triumph. It is not a day of mourning or grievance. It does not merely turn a page on the calendar but prompts a turning inward in reflection. The only true indulgence is the elixir of good food, best observed in our closest circles of family and friends.
            Only there, for those of us who have that safe place of intimacy, does giving thanks come easily this year. If we have good health, good love, good friendships—if we have enough money to sustain us comfortably, work that we enjoy, lives that educate us constantly—gratitude flows clearly. Our act of thanksgiving is about the present, and the past that has led to our bounty.
            We cannot give thanks for the larger world. Let us hope that next Thanksgiving we can, at least in some measure. I would wish then to be grateful--
            *for the decency of my fellow Americans, who snuffed out the hateful bigotry and bluster of Donald Trump and his mob of followers, overcoming them at the polls to retain our nation’s purpose and ideals.
            *for the eventual intelligence of the presidential campaign’s sensible discussion of actual issues using actual facts.
            *for the good heart of my country, which put aside its fears to welcome the suffering and persecuted from violent lands.
            *for the conscience of white America, mobilized by Black Lives Matter to reform policing and criminal justice.
            *for the spreading realization that mitigating poverty should be an ingredient of our sacred honor.
            *for the restoration of safe dignity to the women of Raqqa, the girls of Chibok, the people of Bamako and of Beirut and Paris and Kabul and on and on.

            Please add to the list, and think this year of the next Thanksgiving.    

November 20, 2015

Textbooks for Peace in Israel and the West Bank

                As published at The New Yorker online
A small, sad record was set on Thursday, for the largest number of deaths in a single day in the two-month rash of scattered attacks by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. Five people died, two by stabbing in Tel Aviv and three by automatic gunfire near Alon Shvut, a Jewish settlement. In the shadow of the attacks in Paris, however, this everyday violence has slipped nearly out of sight. It has become so routine that it remains in our peripheral vision.

No peace talks are scheduled, and even if they were they would need to reach more deeply into ordinary beliefs than negotiators can usually manage. Those beliefs are shaped in schools, which fail to teach children to think sympathetically about the other’s past and recent history. As touchy-feely as this might seem, education has grown into an unavoidable obstacle to co-existence, for it misinforms perceptions across the lines of conflict.    Continue reading at The New Yorker.

November 17, 2015

Surveillance: A Cautionary Note

By David K. Shipler

            In the rush after the Paris attacks to step up surveillance, the usual arguments are being heard on one side about violations of civil liberties, and, on the other, about obstacles to monitoring because of what CIA director John Brennan derides as “hand-wringing” over government intrusion. But there is a less visible problem, often mentioned by former intelligence officials: Excessive, unfocused surveillance has produced floods of information beyond what the professionals can digest and analyze.
            At an illuminating panel in Washington two months ago, three former officials of the National Security Agency—Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe—made precisely that point, and if you talk to others who have been in the business, many of them will tell you the same thing. The petabytes of data that have been vacuumed up almost indiscriminately since 9/11 are stored untranslated, unread, and unsifted in digital files, well off the radar of the agents who are charged with spotting radicals before they commit the next atrocity.
            The American Civil Liberties Union, whose overriding goal is to protect constitutional rights, came up with the perfect metaphor after the Patriot Act diluted the Fourth Amendment’s protections in 2001: You don’t find a needle in a haystack by increasing the size of the haystack. Yet expanding the haystack is what was done, and is what is now being proposed.

November 8, 2015

Ban Before Reading

Friends and family congratulated me, book sales bounced a little and a 10-year-old title was suddenly under discussion by people who had never read it. I had been awarded literary recognition of a peculiar kind, one that brought me no euphoria. Along with six other books opposed by conservative parents in a wealthy school district near Dallas, my book “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” a nonideological portrayal of lives near the bottom, was suspended from the English curriculum at Highland Park High School, where it had been used in advanced placement classes.
Continue Reading

November 4, 2015

The Rabin Assassination and the Judgment of History

Killing a King:The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel Dan Ephron W.W. Norton & Company
2015, pp. 304, $27.95

Review in Moment Magazine by David K. Shipler

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago produced instant analysis of unusual accuracy. Typically, it takes decades for the air to clear enough for history to make a sound judgment, especially in the Middle East. But when Rabin was shot in the back in November 1995 after a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, the Israelis of various camps who either mourned or celebrated what they thought the murder meant for their country turned out to be exactly right.
   They were right that Rabin’s death would result in a loss of momentum toward the concessions necessary to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. And they were right that the assassin, a religious extremist named Yigal Amir, did not act alone, in a sense: He drew ideological sustenance from a significant segment of Israeli society where Rabin was detested and denounced as traitor, Nazi, Arab-lover and defiler of God’s plan for the Jews.
   Amir was an activist and organizer, and within circles of like-minded friends, he made little secret of his lust to kill Rabin. He staked out positions at Rabin’s apartment and elsewhere several times, and finally pulled the trigger in complete harmony with the hatred purveyed by a radical absolutism that has gained in political power ever since.
   This turning point is meticulously documented by the journalist Dan Ephron in his compelling account, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. A former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek who covered the rally and the murder trial, Ephron interviewed both Rabin’s and Amir’s families and associates, sifted through court and investigative records, and pieced together an authoritative narrative that will serve as a valuable record of history.
   It is also a page-turner. You don’t want to put it down, because even though you know the outcome, Ephron does such diligent reporting in getting inside the mind of the assassin, the thinking of Rabin, and the miscalculations of the Shin Bet units charged with providing security that practically every page carries the tense energy of fresh insight.
   Along with fellow right-wingers, Amir was deeply alarmed when the Oslo accords signed in 1993 by Rabin and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, laid the groundwork for an Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza. A Palestinian Authority governed by Arafat would get limited control over a patchwork of zones, a prospect that sent Amir and others “scouring the Talmud for laws that Rabin might be violating,” Ephron reports. Although Arafat would have no authority over Jewish settlers, who would remain under Israeli law and security protection, Amir concluded that the prime minister had become a moser, “a person who handed over Jews to a hostile power.” The idea had been discussed in the haredi press, which had raised the question of whether Rabin might be subject to the Talmudic concept of din rodef, defined as “the law of the pursuer,” which “permitted a bystander to kill the aggressor in order to save the innocent victim,” Ephron notes. This argument came to constitute Amir’s religious rationale for the assassination.
   “Amir clearly stood on the margins of the right-wing camp,” Ephron concludes. “But its mainstream leaders had goaded the extremists with their ugly rhetoric and its rabbis had furnished the religious justification for violence.”
Intelligence officials worried about an assassination attempt, but Rabin gruffly rebuffed their pleas that he wear a bulletproof vest. And Amir was not on the radar of the Shin Bet, whose monitoring concentrated on Palestinians; the agency underestimated the threat from Jews. Those Jews who did come under surveillance were mostly “national religious” settlers on the West Bank, and Amir did not fit the obvious profile. He was ultra-Orthodox, lived not in a settlement but in the coastal town of Herzliya and studied law at Bar-Ilan University.
   The Shin Bet’s entire file on Amir, Ephron found, consisted of a single page with a few sentences noting that he tried to organize a militia to attack Palestinians and that he took students for weekend visits to settlements. But, according to Ephron, his boasts about plans to kill Rabin went unreported by a Shin Bet informant, who thought him “nothing but a blowhard.”
   Amir was especially inspired by Baruch Goldstein, a settler who stormed into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, spraying gunfire across the sea of kneeling Muslim worshipers and killing 29 before survivors beat him to death. “The Goldstein massacre captivated Amir and also taunted him,” Ephron writes. “Amir regarded himself as a doer and others as talkers and compromisers… If Amir thought sacrificing himself might be a courageous way to derail the peace train, Goldstein had beat him to it.”
   Indeed, Amir’s sense of urgency to kill Rabin rose and fell as the prospects for a peace agreement advanced and faltered. The more hopeful the diplomatic progress, the more driven Amir became to end it. With a 9mm Beretta stuck in his belt and a clip containing armor-piercing bullets made by his brother Hagai, he traveled to demonstrations and showed up at Rabin events, trolling for an opportunity. Once, riding on a bus full of protesters to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, he thought his chance had come. But at the last minute, Rabin canceled his appearance to rush to the scene of a bombing elsewhere, part of a series of attacks by Palestinian radicals who were as eager as the Israeli right to torpedo the peace process. 
   Hagai spent 16-and-a-half years in prison as an accomplice and was then mined by Ephron on points of Yigal’s thinking. Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, provided the author with intimate details and even with her father’s blood-stained clothing, which Ephron carried in hand luggage to a forensic expert in the United States to answer a key question: whether a hole in the front of Rabin’s shirt had been made by a bullet. Since Amir had shot him in the back, a frontal wound would have suggested a second shooter, perhaps a conspiracy. The expert’s verdict: not a bullet hole, but probably a surgeon’s rapid work to get a tube into the dying prime minister’s chest.
   The great sorrow in this story is the fragility of the middle ground. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side could hold the posture of accommodation and compromise against the fierce winds of violence. Those forces of moderation deserve more attention than they usually receive, and in these pages, too, Ephron might have explored them more thoroughly.
   Yet his solid reporting leaves the reader space to reflect on what might have been. Could Rabin have survived politically amid the suicide bombings? Would Arafat have been more conciliatory with Rabin than he was with subsequent prime ministers? Could more astute politicians have used the country’s surge of raw grief to sustain the peace process?
   “The opponents of compromise in both camps had nowhere near the power and influence they hold now,” Ephron notes. “The process itself had yet to be contaminated by sustained waves of violence and settlement expansion. And the rapport between Rabin and Arafat—the deciders of their generation—had evolved into something workable. For all those reasons, Rabin probably stood a better chance of forging a durable reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians than any leader before or since.”

October 22, 2015

Cheapening the Holocaust

By David K. Shipler

            As if the Palestinians hadn’t done enough to Israelis, Prime Minister Netanyahu now blames them for the Holocaust by fabricating a tale that Hitler had not planned to exterminate the Jews of Europe until the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, suggested it in 1941. Netanyahu thus lends his office to the sordid practice of manipulating and distorting the Holocaust, a timeworn occupation in the Middle East.
            When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, posters appeared in Jerusalem depicting the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, wearing a tie covered with swastikas, doctored from the backwards swastika pattern on the tie he inexplicably wore when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1977. Begin was shown as the obsequious Jew with a yellow Star of David on his lapel, the label the Nazis had required. Pedestrians walked past the posters unfazed, accustomed as they were to such smears.
            If Begin ever saw those caricatures, he must have been stung. He himself had survived the Holocaust by fleeing Warsaw for Lithuania, where he was arrested by the Russians, spent a year in Soviet prisons, and was released to join the Polish army. In 1982, I happened to interview him in his office soon after he had been called by President Ronald Reagan, who had likened the carnage during Israeli’s bombardment of West Beirut during the war in Lebanon to “a holocaust.”
            “He hurt me very deeply,” Begin told me, “and I said to him, ‘Mr. President, I know what is a holocaust.’”

October 13, 2015

The Cold War Quagmire

By David K. Shipler

                You’d think with all the hand-wringing in Washington over Russia’s foray into the quagmire of Syria that some Middle Eastern plum was about to fall into Russia’s lap—at American expense. And so it would be if the Cold War rivalry were still operating, when every gain by one superpower was considered an equivalent loss by the other. But that’s not the case now, and it’s time for both Russia and the United States to abandon the zero-sum game in favor of a more carefully calibrated set of calculations.
                The two countries’ interests are not identical, their strategies differ, and their motives diverge. They are headed for a proxy war, each arming different factions. But their fundamental national security concerns overlap significantly, and both would surely find solace in a stable Syria—even a secular dictatorship—where ISIS, the Islamic State movement, had been crushed. American ideals notwithstanding, a Jeffersonian democracy in Damascus is not in the cards. So there is room for inventive Russian-American cooperation.
                Vladimir Putin doesn’t do democracy—not at home, not abroad. He doesn’t accept the American faith that a pluralistic political system will naturally arise from the ashes of a destroyed dictatorship. It is painful to recognize that he has a point, at least as witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. The next country on that list would be Syria, should President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown. One form of autocracy would surely be exchanged for another.
Putin comes out of a deep Russian culture that abhors a power vacuum and fears anarchy—especially when they occur in his own back yard.

September 24, 2015

The Hunger for Heroes

By David K. Shipler

            Washington’s adoring reception of Pope Francis has been cleansing. Scrubbed of the toxic rhetoric that passes for debate in this town, his simple truths have been elevating. His calls for human decency have been inspiring. His embrace of dialogue as he faced Congress this morning was not merely a pleading but a moral teaching. And despite the tiresome babble of CNN commentators trying to squeeze his various messages into familiar political boxes, Francis summoned the best in America with a challenge to lift our gaze beyond those boundaries and see again, with exhilarating clarity, the reasons for our great ideals.
            You do not have to be Catholic, or even religious, as I am not. You do not have to agree with every view that Francis holds, as I do not, to see him as a hero, a secular hero badly needed in the tumultuous vacuum of righteousness that afflicts our time.
The modern era has precious few: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev (if you’re not a Russian who detests him), Malala Yousafzai (have you forgotten her already?).
We need heroes. We need figures to admire. We need our lives driven by something larger than ourselves. We need to play a part in a higher purpose. Occasionally, someone of goodness, or a mission of virtue, comes along to satisfy this yearning. As often, probably more often, it is someone of malice—or a corrupted idea. Religion can be either. As Francis said today, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”

September 16, 2015

The Iran Deal: Israel Wins Twice

By David K. Shipler

The Senate’s failure to block the agreement with Iran may look like a defeat for Israel, whose government lobbied so intensely against it, but in reality Israel is likely to benefit in two ways if the deal is implemented. First, Iran will be impeded in pursuing nuclear weapons. Second, Israel will get more security aid from the United States.
The first point has been ferociously debated, of course. The second, however, is indisputable. The Obama administration was reportedly eager to start talks with Israel about enhanced assistance as the Iran deal was completed. Democratic supporters of the agreement, pressed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel organization, are ready to improve their political standing by by compensating Israel with new weaponry.
An example is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who declared when he endorsed the Iran deal, “The U.S. should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating.” That’s the bunker-busting bomb, which might be able to reach buried, fortified nuclear facilities. It would presumably enable Israel to start a war that the United States would have to finish.

July 18, 2015

The Common Ground Between the United States and Russia

By David K. Shipler

            Washington may regard Vladimir Putin as the world’s Number One Nuisance, but he came through in the Iran agreement, just as he did in 2013 by negotiating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria (minus chlorine, unfortunately, which has industrial uses but has been weaponized). Before its thinly disguised invasion of Ukraine, Russia also shared intelligence on terrorism and other security matters. Unpublicized contacts among Russian and American military and civilian intelligence officials were reportedly frequent and productive; perhaps they still are.
So, a new overlay of common ground should be drawn onto the map of conflict between Washington and Moscow. President Obama, answering a well-placed question by Thomas Friedman Tuesday after the deal restricting Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, said this:
            “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
            Quite an endorsement. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Preventing Iran from going nuclear is as much in the Russian interest as it is in ours. Look at a map. Iran is in Russia’s back yard. If there is any constant in Russian history (and there are several), it’s the importance of the back yard. Ukraine is also in Russia’s back yard. You mess with the back yard, you mess with house and home. And while Putin can certainly be faulted for his aggression against Ukraine, for exaggerating Western designs on Russia’s security, and for fostering jingoism among the Russian public, his country and the United States share important overlapping interests.
            Let’s make a short list: