The Case for Democracy: A Book Review

Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, Pubic Affairs, 2006.

Books on world politics typically have a very short half-life; their relevance quickly diminishes as events overtake their analysis. That, however, is not the case for Natan Sharansky’s 2004 book, The Case for Democracy. In fact, this small book is just as relevant today as when it first appeared in print.

In addition to allowing Sharansky to outline his theory of democracy, The Case for Democracy is a memoir and a history of major world events. Drawing on his personal experience as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union as well as having served in two Israeli cabinets, Sharansky lays out in clear prose the distinction between free and fear societies and how championing democratic reforms can be used to advance the cause of human rights in repressive nations.

In addition to political theory, Sharansky provides useful criteria for judging whether a country is democratic as well as when a criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism in disguise.

What Constitutes a Free Society?

His first item of business is to clarify what constitutes a free society and why holding elections is not an adequate measure of whether a society is free. Without the four freedoms––speech, religion, assembly, and press––elections are meaningless. Nor does adding “democratic republic” to the name of one’s country make a society democratic or free.

Sharansky also challenges the political theory behind much of Western foreign policy since World War Two. In case after case, Western leaders have made deals with dictators, claiming that the stability they provided was more important than promoting the rights of those countries’ citizens. Followers of the “realistic,” or Kissinger, school of international relations typically distrust the people of countries ruled by autocrats and dictators. They claim pressuring those rulers to grant freedoms to their citizens will only destabilize those countries and could lead to worse conditions.

Sharansky takes the opposite view. He promotes the notion that all people––including those who have never experienced democracy––yearn for freedom and that the main reason the citizens of countries ruled by dictators aren’t campaigning for their rights is that they can’t. To voice dissent or call for change is a death sentence in many parts of the world. Few people of repressive nations feel free to speak out unless the leaders of the Western nations––primarily the United States––show they are paying attention and support their freedom movement. Failure to do so––such as when President Obama failed to support the protests against Iran’s autocratic regime––is a missed opportunity to help foster democratic reforms.

Realist School Corollary: Appeasement by any other Name

There’s a corollary to the realists’ thesis that the failure of people to speak out for change is because they like what they have and that to pressure those nations to grant democratic rights will only create chaos and possibly open conflict. Proponents of that school of thought argue that by dealing with dictators the West gives them room to reform their societies from the top. That is the rationale behind providing voting rights to every member of the United Nations even when they openly violate the membership vow to grant human rights to their citizens. That theory of reform failed miserably in practice. After seventy years, the autocratic members of the United Nations have shown little inclination to provide human and democratic rights to their citizens.

History as Teacher: The Soviet Union and Israel

The middle chapters of The Case for Democracy recount the experiential basis for Sharansky’s view that promoting democratic rights is the best weapon the free world has against countries that oppress their citizens and engage in hostile behavior towards other countries.

He reviews how an unheralded provision of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which the Soviet Union signed because they needed technological and financial aide from the West to shore up their crumbling economy, required signer countries to uphold the basic human rights of their own peoples. That provision enabled proponents of freedom to rally behind Soviet dissidents. Sharansky reports when that link in the chain of oppression was removed, the volume of internal opposition increased exponentially leading in fifteen years to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The main lesson here is that dictatorships do not reform themselves willingly. Sharansky argues that societies that depend on fear for their survival need external enemies in order to justify repressive measures at home. Without external enemies the logic of internal suppression collapses. Citizens see that people in other lands have rights and ask why not us. Many realists, unfortunately, refuse to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union. As an indication of how far off course that outlook can take people, Sharansky quotes a U.S. state department official as referring to Iran as a democracy. No wonder the Obama administration thought Iran could be a reliable and honest partner to a nuclear deal.

Israel Also Failed to Learn the Lesson

Sharansky recounts how the Israeli government has failed over and over to put into practice the lesson learned from Helsinki. Israel’s biggest mistake was signing the 1993 agreement with Yasser Arafat in Oslo that not only failed to achieve peace, but also enabled Arafat to escalate his terrorist war against Israel. Sadly, prime minister after prime minister has mistakenly assumed they could trust Arafat and his successor Mahmud Abbas. Israeli prime ministers too often listened to U.S. presidents who preached the notion that dealing with the enemy you know is better than the one who might replace him. The one exception was George W. Bush’s standing up to Arafat in 2002 enunciating a statement of democratic principles that was later undermined by the realists in Washington and Tel Aviv.

History Lessons Not Known

What’s remarkable to me on a personal level is how little I knew of the history Sharansky relates despite the fact that I’ve been a moderately alert follower of world affairs since my college years. That suggests the American people are also largely uninformed about these events and about the crushing logic of Sharansky’s thesis that the ONLY way to defeat a country like the Soviet Union or its contemporary equivalents short of waging war is to require that they institute human rights reforms in order to partake in the benefits free societies offer the citizens of the world.

Thus, I believe U.S. must assert that products produced by slave or child labor cannot be part of any trade deals and must be embargoed. Further, trade deals should not be made with countries that repress religious or political dissidents. That would include China and most Muslim nations. To ignore slavery and the repression of religious and human rights strengthens dictatorships and weakens the West.

Here many readers will interject the realists’ arguments despite the fact that they not only failed to advance freedom in totalitarian countries, but also undermined the standing of the U.S. and other Western nations in the eyes of oppressed peoples. To cave to murderers like Yasser Arafat tells would-be protesters that their lives may be subjected to a trade to gain stability. The Neville Chamberlain story is not a one-time tragedy, but has been repeated over and over.

Realist theorists might also argue Moslem countries are different from the rest of the world in that there’s no indication that the average person desires freedom. Sharansky refutes that theory by listing individuals he has met and corresponded with who desire democratic change. He also could have cited cases of moderate Arabs murdered by the PLO for working with Israel, or the stories of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has spoken out on female genital mutilation and other issues despite efforts to shut her up and Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was one of Hamas’ founders and who became a Christian and a double-agent for Israel. Both have published easily accessible books.

The Case for Democracy appeared after Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil (1988), and preceded his long essay Defending Identity (2008). All three are essential reading. A fourth book, entitled Never Alone, is due out September 1, 2020. All can be read by teenagers and young adults who are growing up in a world where distorting the past is the means to controlling the present. People who care about world peace and democratic rights should take the time to read all four.

The Media’s War Against Israel: A Review

Stephen Karetzky and Peter E. Goldman, eds., The Media’s War Against Israel (Steimatzky, 1986)

It can be hard in the midst of an international political crisis to evaluate the media’s coverage. Events are happening haphazardly. Reporters are playing catch-up. Opinions may reflect partial information . . . which is why when time goes by it’s desirable to reflect on the media’s job, and to give it a score.

The authors of The Media’s War Against Israel published in 1986 had the benefit of four years after the events being discussed––i.e., Israel’s conflict with the PLO as it impacted neighboring countries. Stephen Karetzky and Peter Goldman took advantage of the time to assemble opinion pieces from several sources to complement Karetzky’s focused analysis of the New York Times and Peter Goodman’s “lessons learned” piece. Their conclusion is an indictment, as the title clearly states. The media didn’t just do a poor job; it engaged in a biased attack on Israel’s role in the events.

What events are we talking about? The primary issue was Israel’s foray in the summer of 1982 into Lebanon to root out the PLO, which had, with the help of the Soviet Union, amassed a huge arsenal of weapons with the intent of stepping up the guerilla war it had been waging against Israel. Complicating the events of that summer was the morass that was Lebanon at that time.

Created in 1943, Lebanon was weakened from the start by being divided almost equally between Christian Maronite and Muslim populations. Adding to that division was the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, but the primary disruptor of peace and tranquility was incursion in 1975 into southern Lebanon of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

That mixture erupted in a 7-year civil war, which among other consequences allowed Syria to insert its forces into Lebanon. The result was anarchy, lawlessness and thousands of casualties, a story largely unreported in the Western media. What got Israel involved?

Tired of incursions into Israel by the PLO, the Israeli government allied itself with the Phalangists––a Christian Maronite group––and invaded southern Lebanon in June 1982 with the goal of driving the PLO out of the country.

Israel’s goal was accomplished in four months. The PLO was dispersed after suffering heavy casualties. The PLO, however, won the public relations war by exploiting the Western media’s lack of understanding of the conflicts in the region. The coup de grace was the PLO’s blaming Israel for the massacre of residents of the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee communities by the Phalangists. (The media called these locations “camps,” but they were not tent cities. They were large communities replete with permanent housing and other structures.)

Let’s look at how the media covered these events. In the first paragraph of the foreword to The Media’s War Against Israel, Rael Jean Isaac writes “In reporting the war in Lebanon, the media behaved like a lynch mob, with print and TV reporters, columnists and cartoonists vying with each other in misstatement and calumny.”

Each piece in the book backs up Isaac’s assertion. Stephen Karetzky­––one of the editors––focused his analysis on three months of reporting by the New York Times prior to the war, detailing an anti-Israel bias even before the events of the summer took place. The book also reprints pieces published elsewhere:

  • Norman Podhoretz analyzes the media’s response in general to Israel’s foray into Lebanon.
  • Frank Gervasi adds insights from his first-hand visit to the region.
  • Ze’ev Chaftets examines the problems the Beirut press corps faced trying to provide unbiased reportage.
  • Rael Isaacs singles out Time Magazine’s adversarial approach to Israel, and
  • Edward Alexander dissects NBC’s antagonistic coverage.

A few of the most flagrant examples of bias are worth repeating

  • After his election as prime minister Time Magazine informed its readers that Menachen Begin’s last name “rhymes with Fagin”––the name of the villain of Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.
  • Time Magazine totally made up a story claiming Ariel Sharon urged the Phalangists to attack Sabra and Shatila, and then refused to disavow the story when the author was proven to have lied.
  • President Reagan berated Prime Minister Begin personally when the caption to a UPI photo claimed a seven-month old child had been severely burned and lost both arms as a result of an Israeli bomb dropped on civilian housing. It turned out the child had not lost either arm nor had she suffered any burns, and her slight injuries were the result of a PLO shell.
  • NBC accepted the Red Crescent’s claim of 10,000 people slaughtered by Israel and 600,000 made homeless. The Red Crescent was hardly an objective organization, however, as it was run by Yasser Arafat’s brother. By the way, the Red Crescent’s homeless number exceeded the region’s total population.
  • Before investigating the cause, CBS accused Israel of intentionally killing two of its cameramen. After investigating it turned out the men were in a combat area and the tank that fired the missile was over a mile away.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of this entire affair, however, is the PLO’s success at neutering the foreign press corps that was stationed in Beirut. The PLO had asserted the authority to determine who would be allowed to report from Beirut and evidence suggests they were responsible for the deaths of eight journalists and explosions that put two independent Lebanese newspapers out of business. Worse, however, was the fact that some of the foreign press corps was decidedly pro-Palestinian and didn’t have to be persuaded to present the PLO as the victims of Israel’s aggression.

Several of the authors in this compendium touch on the subject of why the press corps was hostile to Israel. They point to the impact of the war in Vietnam on the Western media, after which the general narrative of international affairs presented the view that the U.S. and its allies were the oppressors and third world countries its victims. They also point out the practice of the TV networks showing selective footage that backed a biased interpretation of events.

Israel became the “fall guy” for the Western media’s new worldview. It had been viewed positively from 1948 until 1967 when it defeated Soviet backed Egypt and Syria as well as Jordan, which was fooled into joining the battle. After ’67, the media started labeling the PLO as protesters and demonstrators rather than terrorists despite the fact that they were engaged in acts of war against Israel.

The media also bought the PLO’s lie that they represented the oppressed residents the West Bank despite the fact the organization had been formed in 1964 when the West Bank was under Jordan’s control. As The Media’s War Against Israel conclusively documents, the media’s distorted coverage of the Lebanese war was just another sordid chapter in their failure to understand when they were being used and when the information they were being given was propaganda.

A feature of the media’s coverage during this period that deserves attention is the use of Holocaust imagery and terminology to criticize Israel’s role in these events. Both “genocide” and “holocaust” accompanied inflated casualty reports along with quotes from willing European critics such as Mitterrand, Papandreou and Kreisky. China and the Soviet Union both resorted to comparing Israel’s actions to Nazi Germany with regard to Shatila and Sabra, helping to cover up the fact that the USSR had been the primary source of weaponizing the PLO.

The use of Holocaust imagery against Israel is a particularly vile practice. It’s a low blow, akin using the word savage when describing the actions of a Native American or excusing a woman’s behavior due to her menstrual cycle.

Exposure of the media’s biased coverage of Zionism and Israel has been thoroughly documented in other studies. (See my review of Jerold Auerbach’s Print to Fit.) The excuse that coverage of the Holocaust was weak due to the media’s inability to confirm accusations or that a hesitancy to support the formation of a Jewish state by the New York Times was understandable as it threatened the assimilationist aims of some members of the American Jewish community fails to stand up when the record of The Times and other media falls short of their claims of objectivity and impartiality decade after decade. Sadly, biased reporting when contrary views are confined to small opinion journals sways public opinion.

One might ask why should we care about the media’s failures from more than thirty years ago. As one media critic points out in the book, the American people of the 1980s placed a lot of trust in the media. After the deluge of anti-Israeli stories and commentary by The Times, Time, Newsweek, the Networks, polls showed a marked decline in support for Israel. That might explain why some people in the 21st century are prone accept such lies as Israel is an apartheid state and intentionally kills civilians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake Up People: Stop Fear Being Called a Racist

A self-defined Black caller to a national talk show today made a point I’ve been trying to make for a long time––namely, that the term racist has become bastardized to the point where it is meaningless. Still many people fear being called a racist, and as long as people act stupid to avoid that label, there are those who will bring it out and slap it on.

Race to start is an artificial category. It came into use centuries ago by those who wanted to oppress others on the basis of artificial distinctions, such as religion (used by Christians to define non-Christians as heathens), use of language (non-English speakers were considered inferior) and oh, yes, skin pigmentation. Over time, the effectiveness of that practice came to be diminished as overwhelming evidence showed that not all Jews are money-grubbers, not all Irish are drunkards, and not all people of African origins are incapable of higher learning.

That there are still a tiny number of idiots who buy into the notion that there are groups of people all of whom share certain negative physical traits is unfortunate, but their number is infesimal and they are powerless as a group.

Now, let’s examine why some people still throw the term racist around at their political enemies. First, they do it because the media will report it without questioning it the way they would question they would if someone accused a political opponent of being a satan worshiper. Second, it elevates the accusers in their own eyes, justifying their willingness to by-pass traditional rules for discourse on the floor of the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi), and to their willingness to make accusations without feeling obligated to provide evidence or answer questions explaining the basis of their charges (Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar).

The mainstream media plays a sad role in this spectacle. For instance, when President Trump criticized four female Congresswomen for their anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric, he was accused of being a racist even though he didn’t refer to the women’s race or even mention them by name.

On a side note, it’s interesting how it’s possible today to self-define yourself as a person of color. Rashida Tlaib comes from an Arab background. Arabs don’t normally define themselves as people of color, and what about Ocasio-Cortez? Her parents are from Puerto Rico, but does that make her a person of color? Is everyone with a Hispanic surname a person of color? Yet both claimed they were victims of Trump’s racism. Again, the media seems to fear being called a racist since they never challenge anything these women say––not matter how absurd.

The only way to put a stop to the irresponsible use of the term racist is to stop being afraid of being called one. That doesn’t mean you have to have been pure of thought throughout your entire life. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever have used the “N” word or had a momentary negative thought about a whole group of people on the basis of their religion, national origins or eating habits. You’re not a racist if you don’t believe that there are groups of people who share negative physical characteristics that justify their being treated as second-class citizens. Pure and simple.

Once people stop being afraid of the term, those who love to use it will find their power diminished and they’ll move on to something else. Meat-eater perhaps?!

 

The Dreyfus Case is still relevant after 125 years

Dreyfus, A Family Affair, 1789-1945 by Michael Burns, Harper Collins, 1991.

More than two thousand books and articles have been written about the infamous court martial of French Jew Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. While most histories focus on the case itself, Michael Burns provides a broader view, chronicling the emergence of the Dreyfus family as wealthy cotton manufacturers in Alsace, examining the case in great detail, and then following up on the roles the Dreyfus family and his supporters played in both world wars.

The Dreyfus family story has as much relevance today as it did at the turn of the century––not just in France where anti-Semitism has never gone away and has resurfaced recently in deadly fashion, not just in Europe––ditto its presence, but in the United States as well.

For those who forgot the short mention of the Dreyfus affair in their European History class, it is important to recall that at a young age Alfred Dreyfus became dedicated to France and to the French military, and he never waivered in that dedication. Despite his loyalty, Dreyfus was convicted of spying for France’s bitter enemy Germany, which had humiliated France in 1870 and taken part of Alsace as its reward.

The Dreyfus case coincided with the growing antagonism to Jews in France, as a result of their increasing integration into mainstream French society in general and in the ranks of the French military in particular. The plot, hatched by clerical and nationalist elements in the military and supported by vocal anti-Semites, led to Dreyfus spending five years on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. Dreyfus endured incredible deprivation, which Burns details, and barely survived. Yet, as a result of a campaign led by his brother Mathieu and the strength he gained from the support of his wife Lucie, Dreyfus survived to face a second court martial. Although he was convicted a second time, as the facts of his innocence had begun to emerge, he was eventually pardoned and his military rank was restored.

Jews world-wide know of the Dreyfus case because a Hungarian journalist who covered the initial trail cited it as an influence in his decision to join the nascent Zionist movement. Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) was apparently influenced not just by the case itself but also by the massive public outcry he witnessed against Dreyfus and against French Jews. Chants of “Death to Jews,” he wrote, were heard throughout the country.

The irony of the Dreyfus case was that the Dreyfusards––those who believed in Dreyfus innocence, downplayed the anti-Semitic motivation of his framers. The Dreyfus family had taken advantage of France’s emancipation of the Jews to become wealthy and to take advantage of the open doors to French society. Along the way, their Judaism was reduced to the equivalent of a regional family affiliation. At family funerals even Kaddish, the prayer cited for the dead, had to be recited in French.

The consequences of the Dreyfus’ family’s unwavering devotion to France was that several young men of the next generation including Mathieu’s son Emile, went to their deaths fighting for France in the first world war, and Alfred, who never fully recovered his health, insisted in returning to his post and put his life in danger defending Paris.

Despite the contributions of the Dreyfus family to that war, they were again victimized by French anti-Semite allies of the Nazis who helped send tens of thousands of French Jews, including those with medals for valor in the First World War, to Auschwitz.

Burns does not offer conclusions based on his thorough research, nor should he. That’s not the historian’s job. Conclusions based on the Dreyfus case are nevertheless the domain of reviewers.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the lesson of the Dreyfus case is that the promise of the French Revolution for Jews––emancipation and unrestricted opportunity––was never fulfilled. Yes, there were periods where Jews prospered and made inroads, but always at the expense of their commitment to Judaism, and always in the face of an undercurrent of resentment and hostility from those who needed a scapegoat for failures personal and national. Again and again, the undercurrent of resentment came to the surface whenever conditions justified the need for someone to blame.

Earlier I suggested the Dreyfus case offers lessons for Jews in the United States as well as in Europe. Recent history backs me up. When college students are bombarded by professors with accusations against Israel, when they are afraid to wear a Jewish star or kippah, and when members of Congress blame the Jewish Lobby (with a capital L) for buying their colleagues’ votes, events like the murders in Pittsburgh become all too likely.

Herzl’s vision came none too soon. Unfortunately, however, millions of Jews who might have benefitted were brutally murdered in the Holocaust or died as soldiers fighting the Nazi menace. What’s different today is that the state of Israel exists and at the moment one can be a practicing Jew and an American. Who knows whether both will last.