Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Friday, June 5, 2009

Power of the Misquote

In my professional career I've had several occasions to eat humble pie following the publication of a controversial article. The common denominator to all these instances was a combination of two factors:

1. A sad overestimating of my true power in the overall scheme of things.

2. An unrealistic assumption on my part that whatever I had written would actually be read.

And so I've learned the hard way that organizations and the nice men and women who run them are more inclined to unload employees who had caused them some embarrassment (or, worse, potential loss of revenue), than to protect them. On occasion my offending piece caused threats of sacking my editors as well.

It is my sincere hope that by now, as I'm moving into the second half of my first century, I no longer harbor illusions of my personal indispensability.

As you can see, I accept without a hint of resentment the commercial realities I've just described. If I wanted job security I should have taken the civil service exam. I picked this racket and so I abide by its rules.

What saddens me is the second part. Nine times out of ten there's no connection between what I've been accused of and what I actually wrote.

Following Yitzhak Rabin's murder, I published in my column in the US edition of Yedioth a kind of lyrical eulogy. It spoke of Rabin the fair haired poster boy of the 1948 war. It described my conflicts with people in my shul on the Shabbat afternoon when we heard of the murder. It also concluded with a criticism of his unremarkable political career and his part in the failed Oslo agreement.

All my bosses at the paper knew was that some faraway columnist writing for them said that it was a good thing Rabin was assassinated. They were very much disinclined to have their mind be changed by actually reading my column.

On another occasion I criticized a Long Island yeshiva principal who packed a bus with his students and took them to demonstrate in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, because some geriatric ex-SS man awaiting his extradition was allowed to stay under house arrest rather than rot in jail. I wrote that the respectable rabbi was possibly mad, given that, as the republic of Estonia was not interested in trying the elderly monster, the rabbi insisted Estonia lose its Most Favorite Nation status, and promised to schlep his flock to demonstrate in front of Congress until such a ruling passed.

The day my column was published, Israel's radio news announced that I was a holocaust denier. Someone called up their correspondent in Washington DC and the latter passed on the message to the nation. That simple.

Recently I've googled myself (not recommended) to discover an article lumping my name with that of James Zogby (head of the Arab Anti Defamation League) and Noam Chomsky, all of us radical left-wing enemies of Israel. My offense? Back in 1994 I wrote that terrorism is something weak people do, while governments have armies to advance their causes.

People don't read what you write. They read quotes, underlined paragraphs, and those are the literate ones. Most people only hear what you wrote through some talk radio host, or worse, the maligned excerpt on some Internet magazine.

The result of this grim reality, where your job is at risk as soon as you piss off somebody important, after which point they get to say what it was you wrote, is the loss of spontaneity. In an intellectual environment in which you're guilty without anyone bothering to prove you're innocent, no one gets to try out really new ideas. Because to get one good idea one has to test out a lot of bad ones, and if you get nailed for those, you stop testing.

The US is incarcerating 2 million drug users? Shut up or they'll brand you pro-drugs. Gay marriage has some merit? That's all you need, to be known as pro-homo. No one has ever managed to establish a democracy in the Arab world? Shut up, you unpatriotic miscreant. Racial profiling can be useful if applied reasonably? Shut up, you racist. Shouldn't we ask older drivers to test their competence at wheel as their bodies are aging? Discriminating against the elderly, are you now. And so on.

In a world in which pissing off important special interests is verboten, you end up with a cultural paralysis. Welcome to our cowardly new world.

Finally, my advice to anyone in politics, whether an elected official or pundit, is to avoid as much as possible the statement: "You have to admire Hitler for the economic recovery of Germany between 1933 and 1936." In fact, I suspect that this very sentence is bound to appear as a quote in some publication, on some radio show, as a factoid dug up by some overworked researcher. It'll go, probably something like:

Yanover: I admire Hitler.

How to Achieve Peace Between Israel and the Palestinians in One Hour or Less

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: In 1977, the late Premier Menachem Begin annexed East Jerusalem. As a result, those Arab residents of the city who asked for it could receive Israeli citizenship (the Blue Document, as the Israeli ID card is known).

At the time, most of those Palestinian Arabs preferred to retain their Jordanian citizenship and snubbed the Israeli offer. However, in 1992-93, when it became clear that Israel was serious about handing over the West Bank and Gaza to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the lines outside the building of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior stretched around the block. Having lost their Jordanian allegiance in 1988, when King Hussein relinquished his claim on Jerusalem, choosing between Arafat’s tyranny and Israel’s democracy was no contest. I mean, they knew what Arafat had in store for his people…

Like Arafat’s successors in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza are basically gangs of loosely organized local thugs leeching off the civilian Palestinian population. Both criminal enterprises, one with open US support and one with only tacit approval, have a clear vested interest in maintaining a state of lukewarm hostility with Israel, because as soon as a longer period of calm ensues, Palestinians will return to their work place inside Israel and the thugs would lose control over their two societies.

To achieve a lasting peace, Israel must find a way of reaching above the heads of these thugs—which she, in numerous ways, has helped create—to embrace the rank and file Palestinian civilians. Those are the most industrious and the most highly educated among the Arab nations. Give them half a chance, give them breathing room, and they’ll become the middle lass without which real peace cannot be maintained.

Give them the Blue Card. Make the following announcement: Any Palestinian wishing to become an Israeli citizen is welcome to apply in the nearest office the Ministry of the Interior. Trust me, they’ll form lines long enough to rival any major concert anywhere in the world. Sure, the security services would have to vet those applications, but, believe me, the average Palestinian Joe would make a fantastic—and highly productive—Israeli citizen.

And don’t worry about the “demographic bomb.” King David and his son, King Solomon, ruled very comfortably without being the ethnic majority. The state can very well retain its legal charter of a homeland for the Jews, while remaining hospitable to its loyal non-Jewish citizens. The legislator can decide that a few key positions—Premier, Defense, and Chief of Staff—are reserved to Jews. Not a problem. Lebanon did very nicely from 1948 to 1976 with exactly this kind of ethnic-specific government system.

Unfortunately, despite popular opinion, the biggest hurdle for peace between Jews and Palestinians are not the latter. The hurdle has always been, since 1948, Israeli politicians who persist without fail to act softly when the hard approach is needed, and vice versa, and to be chincy when generosity was called for—and vice versa. Abba Eban coined the immortal quote: The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity; but substituting “Israeli governments” for “Arabs” would keep the quote just as true. All of which suggests that my idea has a snowball’s chance you know where of even being considered. But, hey, you never know…

Should Have Voted for Obama

Like everyone else I know, last November I voted for Barack Obama for President, which, in retrospect, was a huge mistake.

Instead of Obama, all of us should have voted for Obama, who, as you may recall, was the tenacious underdog that won the Iowa caucuses.

If only we had the sense to vote for that candidate, things would not have looked as grim as they do today. Here are some of the things we could have under President Barack Obama:

1. Free Wi Fi service on every street (country roads, too)

2. Cheap electric cars

3. Withdrawal of US military forces from everywhere

4. Universal healthcare

But we were too afraid of this much change, so we settled for the next-best thing – we voted for Barack Obama. And almost immediately things started going downhill. Now the country is broke, our military is engaged in two—instead of one point five—wars, we still have the Bush foreign policy intact, and, yes, still no habeas corpus.

I have a feeling Barack Obama might try his luck again come 2012, and this time I hope all of us will have the good sense to give our vote to him, and not waste it once again on Barack Obama.