Useful idiots

In 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor, the Oxford Union famously adopted a resolution which said "That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." The measure was passed by a vote of 275 to 153.
Winston Churchill reacted by saying that "one could almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of Germany, Italy, and France when they read the message sent out by Oxford University in the name of Young England."
Shortly afterward, his son, Randolph, tried to have the resolution stricken from the books, but the motion was resoundingly defeated by the Oxford Union.

In other words, otherwise bright students at a distinguished British university are capable of foolish things.  At least in this case, it must be said, "Young England" rose to the occasion six years later, when the Second World War began, and revealed its true colors of patriotism, courage and grit.

Recently, another British student union was presented with a controversial proposal. The London School of Economics (LSE) debated whether to seek the twinning of this world-renowned institution with the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG).

After a spirited discussion, the motion was carried by a vote of 161 to 133. The university administration distanced itself from the decision.

 As an alumnus of LSE, I am ashamed of the student action. Sure, LSE has a reputation for feisty politics, but this is taking it a bit far.

Dreaming the impossible dream

As 2009 reaches an end, pause for a moment to reflect on 1989, just twenty years ago.

Historical anniversaries are important in their own right. After all, life didn't start today. It matters how we got to this point.

Moreover, historical reflection provides perspective - and, in the case of 1989, inspiration. Heaven knows, in our messy world, we need all the inspiration we can get.

The year 1989 had global significance. It doomed the Soviet empire, ushering in a revolution that liberated millions of people, transformed the face of Europe, and brought the Cold War to an end.

Soviet President Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika were introduced in 1986, and the Soviet leader announced a pullback of tens of thousands of Soviet troops from Central Europe in late 1988. Yet, as 1989 rolled around, few Western leaders could anticipate the historic events just around the corner.

'Seeing visions, dreaming dreams'

December 6, 2009
Today marks two special anniversaries for me.

Thirty-five years ago, I was expelled from the USSR. Sorry, officially, I left "at my own request," or so said Soviet authorities when asked by the American Embassy in Moscow why I was headed out before my exchange program ended.

I had arrived in Moscow in September 1974 to participate in one of the early fruits of détente - a government-to-government program to place six American teachers in Soviet schools and six Soviet teachers in American schools.

Having studied Soviet and Russian topics in college and graduate school, and having moonlighted as a teacher of English as a Second Language, I applied. To my pleasant surprise, I was accepted.

My mother, born in Moscow, wasn't exactly eager to see me visit a place from which she and her family had fled in 1929, but youthful wanderlust can be hard to restrain. Other than the Intourist-organized tours of Soviet sanitized space, there weren't many chances to see the country from the bottom up. This was one such opportunity.

Placed in a nondescript hotel in Moscow occupied primarily by refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Pinochet's seizure of power from Allende in Chile, I was off and running.

Two early experiences, however, reminded me I was in a different world.

What's in a name?

I was born with a simple, straightforward name - David Harris. Thankfully, it never generated attention, much less teasing, while growing up.

Yet it was actually quite unique in my milieu. I was surrounded by Jewish kids, and Harris was not exactly a common surname. How my peripatetic father ended up with the name is a story for another time. On the other hand, this was an era when assimilating Jewish parents were thinking about first names far from the likes of David.

But once I left my little corner of the world, I discovered that my name was anything but unique.

I arrived at university. It was the late 1960s and many campuses were in turmoil. Student protests over the Vietnam War, military education programs, and CIA recruiting were widespread.

And who emerged as one of the student leaders of this movement?

None other than David Harris. But it wasn't me.

No, it was a student at Stanford University who achieved national fame and later married the popular folk singer Joan Baez.

And suddenly, when I introduced myself, I was often confronted with the question, "Are you the real David Harris?"

Of course, in the mind of the questioner, I was anything but, thus triggering my first name-generated identity crisis.

Time to be put out to pasture?

When I turned 50, everything was fine, or so I thought, until that first mailing arrived from the American Association of Retired Persons inviting me to join.

Was it possible, despite a full-time job, kids at home, and a daily jogging routine, that I was now to be defined as part of America's elderly population? So it seemed. Those mailings just kept on coming, as if the AARP knew that sooner or later I'd overcome my resistance and sign up for their benefits. In fact, I didn't and went right back into my self-delusional, age-resistant bubble.

That strategy worked, or so I thought, until a more recent set of events happened to coincide with my 60th birthday. Suddenly, I found myself the target of several broadsides.

Now that in itself is nothing new. Not a week passes that I'm not attacked as a warmonger by someone on the Jewish left for daring to defend Israel's right to protect itself against those who would destroy it.

Similarly, not a week passes that I'm not attacked as an appeaser by someone on the Jewish right for daring to suggest that a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be based on a two-state settlement. But what was different this time is that the attacks were based on age.

Voices on the Jewish Left assailed me - and several communal colleagues - for being stuck in the past, paralyzed by "1942," unable to see beyond a self-imposed wall of doom and gloom. In other words, a historical artifact best put out to pasture.

Why this tack?

In order, I would assume, to underscore their carefully constructed view of a world divided between the voices of the past and future, between the retrogrades and progressives, between the obstacles and vehicles to peace, between the oh-so-blind and oh-so-sighted, between the hip-replacement candidates and just-plain-hip crowd.

Dear President Lula, Again

I wrote to you in the spring, deeply concerned about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's scheduled visit to Brasilia on May 6.

Thankfully, that visit did not take place.

Sadly, it is now slated to occur next month.

Mr. President, please reconsider.

You are a widely admired political leader. Brazil, under your guidance, has rapidly emerged on the world stage, to quote you, as a "first-rate citizen" of the international community.

Why would you wish to confer your considerable prestige on Ahmadinejad, who craves it but surely does not deserve it?

And why would Brazil, today a towering bastion of democratic values, seek closer ties with Iran, your polar opposite?

Mr. President, you spoke passionately at the UN a few weeks ago about the kind of world you seek to build.

You called for the preservation and expansion of human rights. Under the current regime, however, Iran has trampled on human rights - flagrantly, brutally, repeatedly.

You expressed support for disarmament and non-proliferation. Under the current regime, however, Iran is rapidly arming and is violating binding UN Security Council resolutions and International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines on nuclear proliferation.

You appealed for a confrontation with terrorism "without stigmatizing ethnic groups and religions." Under the current regime, however, Iran actively promotes and funds terrorism and has targeted specific ethnic groups and religions, including the Jewish community in your own backyard, South America.

And you articulated a vision of a two-state solution, a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. Under the current regime, however, Iran seeks a world without Israel, pure and simple.

In other words, Mr. President, not only does Iran not share your core views, it actively opposes them.

American Jews at the Center of Things

If your only sources of information on American Jews were surveys sponsored by right-wing or left-wing groups, you'd easily believe that the vast majority of America's six million Jews fully share their respective views on the Middle East.

Reasons for hope? New Year's thoughts

Amidst the daily dose of depressing news, let's step back in this holiday season and reflect on how far we've come. 

Looking at the larger historical picture gives perspective, offers hope and provides inspiration. And these days, with all of the gloom and doom, it should be obvious that we need mega-doses of all three.
To think back over the postwar years is to realize how much has been achieved.
First, imagine what it must have been like to be a surviving Jew in the days and weeks after the war's end. It would have been easy enough, I suppose, to call it quits, to conclude that the price of maintaining a Jewish identity was just too high, as the Holocaust - and the world's largely indifferent reaction - seemed to demonstrate.
Yet Jews regained their footing, faith and fortitude, and a remarkable chapter in Jewish life ensued. Most striking of all was the breathless journey in just three short years from the lowest point in Jewish history to its highest, the establishment of modern Israel.
Second, not only was Israel created, but it survived. And not only did it survive, but it thrived - against all the odds and predictions.

Business as usual with Iran?

The decisive month has arrived. Or has it?

G-8 leaders, meeting in July, declared September the time for reviewing Iran's nuclear status and making tough decisions.

Key G-20, G-8, and P-5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) meetings are being held in the coming weeks.

By the way, the sixth anniversary of the failed EU-initiated talks with Iran also falls this month. That dialogue began when Iran was in a much weaker position. Having just witnessed the military might of the United States on display in neighboring Iraq, it had to wonder if it was to be the next target.

By employing masterfully well-timed winks, feints and nods, the Iranians kept the Europeans engaged, while expanding the number of their centrifuges and moving ever closer to mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. Meanwhile, the US position in Iraq rapidly changed from towering strength to fear of a drawn-out conflict.

In addition, this month also marks one year since the UN Security Council adopted its last resolution, a toothless measure urging Teheran to comply with previous resolutions on its nuclear program. Recognizing that Moscow and Beijing weren't willing to up the ante at the time, other member states couldn't enact a new set of sanctions.

All along, the Europeans, joined by the Russians, insisted that the EU and UN tracks weren't going to yield results unless Washington changed course, shifting from a policy of belligerence to engagement with Teheran. Shortly after January 20, that's precisely what the US did, even going so far as to reaffirm that stance within days of the discredited Iranian election in June.

Nearly eight months of that new posture haven't done the trick, either. No, things have just gone from bad to worse.

Dear Foreign Minister Bildt

Dear Minister Bildt,

As you know well, a leading newspaper in your country, Sweden, earlier this month published an article alleging that Israeli soldiers killed Palestinians to harvest their organs.

This wasn't just any newspaper. Aftonbladet is the largest-circulation newspaper in Scandinavia. An estimated 15 percent of your fellow Swedes read the paper, which is owned by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

And this wasn't just another article in the paper. It was given pride of place in the Culture section. Indeed, two pages were devoted to it under the radioactive headline, "They plunder the organs of our sons."

Mr. Minister, despite many requests, you have chosen not to comment on the article's unfounded, indeed ludicrous, allegations.

In explanation, you wrote, "Freedom of expression and press freedom are very strong in our constitution by tradition. And that strong protection has served our democracy and our country well. If I were engaged in editing all strange debate contributions in different media, I probably wouldn't have time to do much else."

And you went further still. When your ambassador in Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, laudably condemned the article, rather than stand with her, your ministry distanced itself from her position, stating that it was "designed for an Israeli audience."

Mr. Minister, this is not an issue of freedom of expression or freedom of the press.

About this blog

In the Trenches American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris assesses challenges to Jewish security worldwide.

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Recent Comments

Sally - U.S.A.: Outstanding article. Mr. Harris has concretized the very problem that exists in Britain & as #1 Norwegian's comment exemplifies in Europe. In addition, I want to compliment Mr. Harris on his brave actions to fight bloggers who attempt to spread a substantial amount of lies about Israel and the Jewish people. I read about it on JTA & I recommend it. Perhaps #1 Norwegian should read it.
jonah: Re #1 Mr. Norwegian | Yeah ! And the 0xf0rd Uni0n 1933 Res0luti0n was also in reacti0n to the Czechslovakian "bloodthirsty Benes' Prague regime" 0ppreSSi0n of the Sudete German minority ?
Chris USA: I wonder what benefit LSE derives from their IUG affiliation? Perhaps there you will find the answer you seek?