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Palestinians Will Invent A State Next

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) — In November 1947, shortly after the United Nations voted for partition of the Holy Land into separate Arab and Jewish states, Chaim Weizmann was cited by the New York Times as saying that “the most important work now was to build Palestine.” What? To build Palestine? Yes, in 1947 the word “Palestinian” –if it meant anything at all — referred to Jews living in Palestine. The Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post) was the Jewish English-language newspaper. The Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic) was a Jewish orchestra, filled to overflowing with Holocaust survivors. The United Palestine Appeal, an American charity, raised money to resettle homeless Jews from Europe in Palestine — one of the things Arabs objected to the most.

Arabs living in the territory of Palestine were called “Arabs” — or, very occasionally, “Palestinian Arabs.” This was in keeping with the philosophy promoted by Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, among others, and known as pan-Arabism. It held that all places where Arabs ruled were part of one big Arab nation. Nasser, who more or less ran the joint before the rise of the oil powers, wasn’t interested in adding new sovereign nations to the map.

This history is probably what Newt Gingrich had in mind when he commented last week that the Palestinians are “an invented people.”

For two decades before they lost the Six-Day War in 1967, Arabs controlled the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip and half of Jerusalem. They could have established a Palestinian state anytime they wanted. They never tried. The famous UN Resolution 242, which ended the Six-Day War, makes no reference to Palestinians, but just refers to “refugees.”

1967 War

In short, Newt’s right, up to a point. Until the 1970s, Palestinian nationalism was almost unheard-of. It had to be “invented” after 1967. But it was invented, and now it can’t be uninvented. Today, acknowledging the Palestinians’ right, at least in theory, to a state of their own is the price of admission to any serious discussion of the Middle East. Even Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, feels obliged to give it lip service.

It doesn’t really matter that Palestinian nationalism is a recent confection. People who want a state should have a state. That seems to be the rule. In an era when the former Soviet Union continues to break apart like a cookie, with each crumb claiming sovereignty over a piece of territory, and the claimed territories often overlapping, it’s hard to argue for a higher standard. In the 1980s and 1990s I worked at the New Republic, a fervently pro-Zionist publication. Many’s the night I worked late editing articles I wasn’t sure I agreed with, offering yet one more reason why a Palestinian state was unthinkable. These days the position of Jews in the U.S. and in Israel seems to be something like a resigned shrug. The Palestinians want a state? Two chunks of unconnected territory, one of them controlled by religious maniacs prone to violence, the other ruled by the political heirs of Yasser Arafat? OK, let them have a state, if we can settle other issues like borders and refugees. See how they like it.

Newt also isn’t completely off the wall in describing the situation as a struggle “between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists that are firing missiles every day.” If he had thought a bit before opening his trap, Gingrich might have wanted to distinguish between the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Hamas and Fatah

Hamas is the one firing missiles. But even regarding the Palestinian Authority, it’s incredible that all it has taken for the Palestine Liberation Organization (which conducted the slaughter at the Munich Olympics, among other atrocities) to become an acceptable future Palestinian government is to have found a leader who wears a suit and tie and knows how to shave. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is considered the grown-up, the trustworthy negotiating partner, the one you complain to when Hamas misbehaves.

You can get in great trouble if you say that Israel also has its terrorist past. And to be sure there are big differences. But there are also similarities. If you’ve perused the New York Times coverage of the Middle East in the weeks before and after the 1947 UN vote (hey, a guy’s got to have a hobby), you’ll see references to the Irgun and the Stern Gang, two Jewish guerrilla groups, as “Jewish terrorists.” The label was considered obvious and beyond controversy.

Gingrich said that Palestine had to be invented, and this is true. It is also true of Israel, which didn’t even have a name as it declared its independence in May 1948. President Harry Truman’s typewritten message recognizing the new nation has “Jewish state” crossed out and “State of Israel” scrawled in what looks like pencil.

Modern Jewish nationalism only goes back to 1896 when Theodore Herzl published his book, “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), which put the question back in the public debate for the first time in centuries. From 1896 to 1948 is 52 years. That’s how long it took for the Jewish state to go from an idea to a reality. Even if Palestinian nationalism started as late as 1967, 52 years later would be 2019. Eight years from now. I doubt it will take that long.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Copyright 2011 Bloomberg

Catholic Bishops Issue Hollow Plea For Sympathy

Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) — The Catholic Church feels oppressed. As reported in the New York Times, this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was a big pity party.

Religious liberty is under siege. The group’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, declared, “We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion” — which he attributes, ambiguously and ominously, to “well-financed, well-oiled sectors.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave a speech to college students declaring that the “America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past. It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”

When the Catholic Church declares that everything’s going to hell, you have to take it seriously. Nevertheless, complaints about oppression of Christians in U.S. society always amaze me. Practically everyone in the country is a Christian. (Jews are about 2 percent, Muslims less than 1 percent.) Yes, of course, Bishop Chaput is referring to believing, or at least observing, Christians. But even there, the U.S. is among the most observant countries in the world. Almost half of all Americans tell pollsters that they go to church at least once a week.

If anyone is trying to oppress Christians, he or she is doing a pretty lousy job of it. Christians — believing Christians — are everywhere you look. And even if you limit the discussion to oppression of Roman Catholics, I defy Bishop Chaput to find much of that in our country in 2011.

There was a time, of course, when Catholics were quite openly discriminated against, and the church was the focus of all sorts of conspiracy theories (not unlike the Mormon church today, but on a far grander scale.) In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a big issue. Many people thought his religion would prevent him from getting elected, and many were just as happy with that situation.

Today, six of the nine members of the Supreme Court are Catholic. What better assurance could there be that your rights are going to be protected than a two-thirds majority in the institution empowered to provide the definitive interpretation of the Constitution, including the clauses protecting religious freedom? And what better evidence could there be of how little anti-Catholic bias remains in American culture than the utter lack of fuss over this fact? No one cares. And no one cares that the other three justices are Jewish, which means that there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court.

In 2011, I don’t even know which, if any, of the presidential candidates is Catholic. (Well, I guess I know that Romney isn’t. And Santorum is. But only because they themselves have chosen to make a point of it.)

But did you know that four of this year’s Republican candidates were personally recruited by God to run for president? It’s true: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Our immediately previous president, George W. Bush, got the word directly from the top as well. God also told Mitt Romney to run, then told him not to bother, then told him to run after all. Actually, that’s not true about Romney, but the four others each have detailed stories about where they were and what they were doing when God gave them the nod.

What kind of game is God playing here? He’s told four people to run for president, but (barring a miracle, I guess) at least three of them are going to end up disappointed. Imagine the situation: God himself has told you to run for president. Did he tell you that you’d win? Possibly not, but he strongly implied it. Why else would he want you to run? What an endorsement. What a boon to your fundraising. And what a downer when he fails to deliver.

As you may have surmised from the previous paragraph, I’m a nonbeliever. That puts me in the only religious group in America whose members are effectively barred from any hope of becoming president, due to widespread public prejudice against them. There will be a Mormon president, a Jewish president, an openly gay president before there will be a president who says publicly that he doesn’t believe in God. But I don’t think that’s what worries the bishops.

So what are the bishops so alarmed about? They have at least one legitimate complaint: Too many people believe that religion and politics must remain completely separate, and that any political position that derives from a religious belief is therefore illegitimate. Ironically, it was Kennedy’s famous speech to the Protestant ministers in 1960 (which Romney aped in 2007) that popularized this notion of two separate spheres as the standard response to people suspicious of the church’s role in politics.

But it’s not that simple. The spheres aren’t separate and needn’t be. The church, like any citizen or institution, has every right to take a position on political issues, and to use its influence as vigorously as it can. And no political position is invalid simply because it derives from religious belief. But there’s a catch: The church cannot then complain of prejudice against Catholicism or — even more absurd — prejudice against Christianity when other people just as vigorously disagree with the church position.

One of the social developments that the bishops are most upset about is gay marriage. This is not like abortion, or even birth control, which touch on long-standing Catholic doctrines; on gay marriage the church could have gone either way. It seems to me that they have chosen the losing side in a battle where they could have been heroes, just as they have been heroes on issues such as quality education and foreign aid. But then, it’s their religion, not mine.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Copyright 2011 Bloomberg

Reagan, Not The Left, Started Washington's Partisan Fires

The grown-ups (i.e., voters) will tell you, of course, that they don’t care who started it: They want it to stop. But there can be no truce in the nastiness of recent years between Democrats and Republicans until Joe Nocera apologizes for his New York Times column last week blaming it all on the Democrats.

Joe, an old (and, I hope, not former) friend, says it all started in 1987, when Democrats in the Senate rejected President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court. Joe is right that the campaign against Bork was based on his ideology, not his qualifications (he was a professor at Yale and a federal appeals court judge), and that it got nasty. And he’s right that this was something new in Supreme Court nomination battles, though Bork was far from the first presidential nominee to be rejected. But it was Reagan, not the Senate, who changed the unwritten rules by nominating such an ideologue in the first place. Reagan chose Bork based on his ideology, not his alleged brilliance. The Senate was entitled to judge him by the same standard.

To this day, many conservatives cling to the view that Bork (still alive at 84) was a uniquely brilliant scholar with a theory of constitutional interpretation that is beyond dispute. This is a fantasy. At the time of his nomination, Bork had not written a single book about the Constitution. His entire oeuvre consisted of a few contradictory law review articles, pamphlets and lectures, along with a good book about antitrust. Since then, he has written a couple of books and a few booklets with titles like “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline,” “Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges” and “A Country I Do Not Recognize: The Legal Assault on American Values.”

Unfair, or Not

Nocera believes that the liberal characterization of Bork during his nomination battle as “a right-wing loony” was transparently unfair, but his literary output suggests otherwise.

Bork’s theory of “originalism” — that judges should interpret rules of law, including the Constitution, based on the intentions of those who wrote them — is close to a truism. No judge admits to just sticking values and beliefs willy-nilly into the Constitution. Among the ambiguities that require interpretation is precisely the question of how you interpret the ambiguities. Equal protection of the laws? Cruel and unusual punishment? There is no machine that can input these majestic but vague phrases and spit out certain and indisputable meaning. And Bork’s theory of judicial restraint had some convenient exceptions. Affirmative action? Unconstitutional. Independent prosecutors to investigate executive branch crimes? Unconstitutional — at least when the president is a Republican.

Maybe Bork is right about some things. The point is that his theory of when you say yes and when you say no is complicated and subject to debate, just like everybody else’s. He hasn’t got it all figured out. There certainly is no evidence to support Nocera’s cheery speculation that Bork would have been a restraining influence on right-wing lunacy at the Supreme Court because he is so terribly principled.

Bork’s own favorite talking point has always been that because of his rejection, presidents would henceforth nominate people with little or no “paper trail” of difficult opinions that can be turned against them. He might have been describing the most recent court appointment, Elena Kagan, widely acknowledged as brilliant but a scholar of the dry topic of administrative law. Even with little to work with, Republicans did their best to paint Kagan as a left-wing loony. Or he might have been describing Clarence Thomas — another justice with no paper trail.

If future presidents are going to continue the new tradition of nominating justices whose ideologies they think they know and like, the Senate will have to start a new tradition of insisting that judicial nominees reveal their beliefs about the Constitution in detail. They still could lie, or change their minds, but embarrassment can be at least a mild deterrent.

An Earlier Source

Joe comes close to conceding that Republicans do the nasty thing better than Democrats. He simply insists that Democrats started it, with Bork in 1987. I think you have to go back almost a decade further: to NCPAC or “Nick-Pack” — short for the National Conservative Political Action Committee.

Founded in 1975, NCPAC flowered in 1980, targeting six incumbent Democratic senators and defeating four of them, including former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Exploiting a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that “independent expenditures” on behalf of a political candidate are protected by the First Amendment — quite an “activist” constitutional interpretation, by the way, though Bork endorses it — NCPAC was a pioneer in the techniques of raising money through vicious and often dishonest direct-mail packages, and used the proceeds to fund nasty attack ads on the radio.

Of course, 1980 was also the year Reagan was elected president, which may have had some impact on the Senate campaigns as well. But you could make a case that of the two developments, NCPAC and Reagan, it is NCPAC that had the bigger influence on future developments in American politics.

NCPAC’s founder, Terry Dolan, was a once-familiar type: a closeted gay man, politically conservative, wrestling with his inner demons on the public stage. He did a lot of damage before dying of AIDS in 1986, at 36.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)