FROM SINAI TO D.C., FROM UKRAINE TO THE BRONX: TRAGEDY, AND REDEMPTION, IN JEWISH HISTORY

How can you be strong when the person you love is gone? My dear father, I do not believe that I am writing to you.… How do I even start? I will try to be strong now because I think that is what you would want me to do, but I am not sure that I will succeed. We already miss you, your smile, your warm hug, your eyes, the person that you were.”—Tal Avrahami, eulogizing his father, Pascal, 49, one of eight victims who perished in yesterday’s horrific terrorist attacks near Eilat. Pascal Avrahami entered the Israeli police force in 1985 and was twice awarded medals of valor for stopping terror attacks, once in 1990 and again in 1995. The CIJR extends its deepest sympathies to a mourning nation, in particular the victims’ families and friends, and to all those directly affected, by yesterday’s tragedy. (Jerusalem Post, August 19.)

WHAT HAPPENED TO OBAMA? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Norman Podhoretz
Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2011

It’s open season on President Obama. Which is to say that the usual suspects on the right (among whom I include myself) are increasingly being joined in attacking him by erstwhile worshipers on the left. Even before the S&P downgrade, there were reports of Democrats lamenting that Hillary Clinton had lost to him in 2008. Some were comparing him not, as most of them originally had, to Lincoln and Roosevelt but to the hapless Jimmy Carter. There was even talk of finding a candidate to stage a primary run against him. But since the downgrade, more and more liberal pundits have been deserting what they clearly fear is a sinking ship.

Here, for example, from the Washington Post, is Richard Cohen: “He is the very personification of cognitive dissonance—the gap between what we (especially liberals) expected of the first serious African American presidential candidate and the man he in fact is.” More amazingly yet Mr. Cohen goes on to say of Mr. Obama, who not long ago was almost universally hailed as the greatest orator since Pericles, that he lacks even “the rhetorical qualities of the old-time black politicians.” And to compound the amazement, Mr. Cohen tells us that he cannot even “recall a soaring passage from a speech.”

Overseas it is the same refrain. Everywhere in the world, we read in Germany’s Der Spiegel, not only are the hopes ignited by Mr. Obama being dashed, but his “weakness is a problem for the entire global economy.”

In short, the spell that Mr. Obama once cast—a spell so powerful that instead of ridiculing him when he boasted that he would cause “the oceans to stop rising and the planet to heal,” all of liberaldom fell into a delirious swoon—has now been broken by its traumatic realization that he is neither the “god” Newsweek in all seriousness declared him to be nor even a messianic deliverer.

Hence the question on every lip is—as the title of a much quoted article in the New York Times by Drew Westen of Emory University puts it—“What Happened to Obama?” Attacking from the left, Mr. Westen charges that President Obama has been conciliatory when he should have been aggressively pounding away at all the evildoers on the right.

Of course, unlike Mr. Westen, we villainous conservatives do not see Mr. Obama as conciliatory or as “a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.” On the contrary, we see him as a president who knows all too well what he believes. Furthermore, what Mr. Westen regards as an opportunistic appeal to the center we interpret as a tactic calculated to obfuscate his unshakable strategic objective, which is to turn this country into a European-style social democracy while diminishing the leading role it has played in the world since the end of World War II. The Democrats have persistently denied that these are Mr. Obama’s goals, but they have only been able to do so by ignoring or dismissing what Mr. Obama himself, in a rare moment of candor, promised at the tail end of his run for the presidency: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

This statement, coming on top of his association with radicals like Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, definitively revealed to all who were not wilfully blinding themselves that Mr. Obama was a genuine product of the political culture that had its birth among a marginal group of leftists in the early 1960s and that by the end of the decade had spread metastatically to the universities, the mainstream media, the mainline churches, and the entertainment industry. Like their communist ancestors of the 1930s, the leftist radicals of the ‘60s were convinced that the United States was so rotten that only a revolution could save it.

But whereas the communists had in their delusional vision of the Soviet Union a model of the kind of society that would replace the one they were bent on destroying, the new leftists only knew what they were against: America, or Amerika as they spelled it to suggest its kinship to Nazi Germany. Thanks, however, to the unmasking of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian nightmare, they did not know what they were for. Yet once they had pulled off the incredible feat of taking over the Democratic Party behind the presidential candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, they dropped the vain hope of a revolution, and in the social-democratic system most fully developed in Sweden they found an alternative to American capitalism that had a realistic possibility of being achieved through gradual political reform.

Despite Mr. McGovern’s defeat by Richard Nixon in a landslide, the leftists remained a powerful force within the Democratic Party, but for the next three decades the electoral exigencies within which they had chosen to operate prevented them from getting their own man nominated. Thus, not one of the six Democratic presidential candidates who followed Mr. McGovern came out of the party’s left wing, and when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (the only two of the six who won) tried each in his own way to govern in its spirit, their policies were rejected by the American immune system. It was only with the advent of Barack Obama that the leftists at long last succeeded in nominating one of their own.

To be sure, no white candidate who had close associations with an outspoken hater of America like Jeremiah Wright and an unrepentant terrorist like Bill Ayers would have lasted a single day. But because Mr. Obama was black, and therefore entitled in the eyes of liberaldom to have hung out with protesters against various American injustices, even if they were a bit extreme, he was given a pass. And in any case, what did such ancient history matter when he was also articulate and elegant and (as he himself had said) “non-threatening,” all of which gave him a fighting chance to become the first black president and thereby to lay the curse of racism to rest?

And so it came about that a faithful scion of the political culture of the ‘60s left is now sitting in the White House and doing everything in his power to effect the fundamental transformation of America to which that culture was dedicated and to which he has pledged his own personal allegiance.

I disagree with those of my fellow conservatives who maintain that Mr. Obama is indifferent to “the best interests of the United States” (Thomas Sowell) and is “purposely” out to harm America (Rush Limbaugh). In my opinion, he imagines that he is helping America to repent of its many sins and to become a different and better country.

But I emphatically agree with Messrs. Limbaugh and Sowell about this president’s attitude toward America as it exists and as the Founding Fathers intended it. That is why my own answer to the question, “What Happened to Obama?” is that nothing happened to him. He is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president, and it is this rather than inexperience or incompetence or weakness or stupidity that accounts for the richly deserved failure both at home and abroad of the policies stemming from that reprehensible cast of mind.

(Mr. Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995.
His most recent book is
“Why Are Jews Liberals?” [Doubleday, 2009].)

GIVE OBAMA AN ‘F’ IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Michael Young
Daily Star [Beirut], August 4, 2011

We can learn a great deal about President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East from the contentious way that he handled the recent debt ceiling dispute with the U.S. Congress.

Earlier this year the administration warned Congress that the debt ceiling would be breached by August. Some weeks ago Obama entered into negotiations with congressional Republicans over a debt reduction package that would include raising taxes and slashing spending. Republicans rejected a tax increase and broke off talks, leaving Obama in limbo. The president then stood back and watched as Congress tried to devise a solution, reinserting himself into the process when this failed, fearing that a default would harm his re-election prospects. Ultimately, he brokered a deal that conceded quite a bit to the Republicans, angering many among his Democratic base.

Transpose those lessons to Obama’s actions today on a variety of Middle Eastern issues, and a pattern emerges. What we have is a president with undeniable intelligence, but without particularly strong convictions, whose preference for standing away from the fray often allows his political rivals to outmaneuver him, and who will raise expectations then come up short in carrying through on them. Obama is an opportunist ill adept at creating opportunities.…

Obama has been even worse at developing a broader strategy for the region. Some blame can be placed at the door of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it is up to the White House to provide strategic guidance. There has been none, only management, usually inconsistent and tardy, of proliferating crises. What are the American priorities in the Middle East? No one knows. If it is containing Iran, then Obama’s accelerated drawdown in Iraq makes little sense; if it is protecting America’s access to oil, then the president has done a terrible job of managing the relationship with Saudi Arabia; if it is fighting terrorism, then why did Obama pursue a nation-building project in Afghanistan, which he then abandoned a year later after Osama bin Laden was assassinated? And if it is realizing Arab-Israeli peace, Obama has done far less than Bush.…

There is disarray in Washington on the Middle East because the president has repeatedly shown that, deep down, he just doesn’t want the region to draw his energies away from addressing America’s domestic priorities. That may be defensible in a narrow, parochial way, but it also has been catastrophic at a moment of far-reaching transformations in the Arab world and beyond.

Bush was often accused of being insular.… In retrospect, Bush was the truer globalist, with a better grasp of the intricate relationship between American power and international commitment. There was much to criticize in Bush, but he never allowed a lack of ambition to dictate his agenda.…

The most troubling aspect of Obama’s performance has been his frigidness, exacerbated by indecision, when it comes to human freedom—the major issue of the day, and of the post-Cold War world. For a man supposed to embody the triumph of an African-American community long denied its freedom at home, Obama has been unusually reluctant to employ American power—military, ideological, and diplomatic—to assist those abroad denied their freedom. Whether it was his response to the demonstrations in Iran against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen Syria, or even Libya, where the U.S. is involved in the NATO campaign, the president has been evasive and hypocritical, incapable of transcending his innate analytical detachment to seize the high emotions of the moment and shape them to his benefit.

Morally, Obama’s behavior in the Middle East is objectionable; diplomatically, the president has been without inspiration, a leader who has prompted few genuinely profitable foreign policy openings. His three major speeches on the region—those in Ankara and Cairo, and his more recent effort at the State Department, in which he vowed that the United States would “promote reform across the region, and…support transitions to democracy”—have become embarrassing reminders of how little the president has achieved.…

Three years into Barack Obama’s term, what legacy has he left, especially in the Middle East? He’s missed every major regional turning point, disappointing even ardent partisans. Obama’s [presidency has] hardly [been] memorable. It’s just that no one wants to admit it yet.

(Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star.)

A MASS GRAVE, 70 YEARS LATER

Mordechai I. Twersky

NY Times, August 9, 2011

Khotyn, Ukraine

Here in the land of Tevye, the roosters still crow. Cows graze in open fields. But Tevye doesn’t live here anymore.

I have set out from Israel to Ukraine to trace my ancestors. My first stop is west of Kiev, in a corner of the czarist-era Pale of Settlement for Jews, where “Fiddler on the Roof” was set. Here sits an old Jewish cemetery, now a plowed-over field. It bears not a single headstone, just a house-like memorial for the late-19th-century maggid, or preacher, Mordechai of Chernobyl, my paternal ancestor five generations back.

I continue on, more than 250 miles, to the outskirts of Khotyn, a 1,000-year-old Bessarabian fortress city beside the Dniester River. I enter another open field to connect with a far darker time. I find a 30-foot-long concrete slab, etched at its head with the names, in Hebrew, of 45 men, women and children. First are my grandfather and uncle: “The holy Rabbi Mordechai Israel Twersky and his son, Aaron.”

Following a Jewish tradition, I remove my shoes. This is sacred ground—one of three mass graves in the city, containing in all an estimated 1,900 Jews who perished early in the Holocaust, 70 years ago this summer.

“The earth shifted for days,” an old, toothless man tells me in Russian. He is one of Khotyn’s 15 remaining Jews and among the minyan, or quorum for worship, who accompany me. “They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

I had never fully understood what happened here in 1941. Growing up in New York, I heard stories from my father, who survived five labor camps before making it to Ellis Island and becoming a rabbi. Not one to subject his three children to horrors, he focused on how his father had lived. On this visit, I wanted also to learn how my grandfather had died.

In the quiet streets of this city, where a Jewish community of 15,000 once thrived, I find no living witnesses. But I carry vivid testimonies written and spoken by Khotyn’s survivors, a guidebook from another era.

The history is complicated; it begins with the Soviet occupation in 1940 of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, which the Nazi-Soviet pact allowed Stalin to detach from Romania. The Romanian Army’s withdrawal, and its return a year later with the invading Germans and their mobile S.S. killing units—the notorious Einsatzgruppen—unleashed a systematic Romanian-German campaign of torture, rape and mass murder. Then the Romanians deported some 23,000 Jews from the Khotyn district, which includes the city, to an occupied zone known as Transnistria.

Over a three-week period in July and August of 1941, approximately 50,000 Jews were murdered in Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, the historian Avigdor Shachan wrote in “Burning Ice: The Ghettos of Transnistria.” According to the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, 280,000 to 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died in Transnistria during the war.

They were victims not just of Germany, but at least equally of Romania’s anti-Semitic government. Just days before the dictator Ion Antonescu’s henchmen murdered my grandfather, experts on the Holocaust say, his next in command, Mihai Antonescu, advised top officials about the coming deportation of Jews. The ministers, he said, could be “indifferent if history judges us as barbarians … This is the most opportune moment in our history. If need be, use machine guns.”

On Stefan Cel Mare Street, I gaze at my grandfather’s house. A couple sits outside at a table, drinking beer. What was once a synagogue sanctuary is now a grocery store.

“Your grandfather prayed from that balcony,” says Genya Cherkes, pointing upward and narrating a history her Jewish family bequeathed to her. “On the Sabbath and holidays,” she says, “people gathered below just to hear him pray.”

Ms. Cherkes, now 60, says her grandparents told her they had hidden my grandfather and his family in their orchard (in a non-Jewish neighborhood) after the Russians evicted the Twerskys from their home, leaving them to fear being deported or shot.

I stare at the locals. My thoughts turn to the many collaborators, Romanian and Ukrainian, who assisted the Romanian and German armies in their atrocities. “They entered the homes of Jews with axes in their hands,” Nahum Morgenstern, a survivor, said of the collaborators, in a remembrance on file at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance institution and archive in Jerusalem. “They forced the Jews to undress and took their clothing. Then they decapitated them.”

I am taken to a deserted compound about a mile away. It resembles a warehouse, with large glass windows and a high ceiling. A cow grazes outside. “In 1941 this was a girls’ school,” says one of my guides, a man named Ilya, whose mother survived the war. “Here,” he says of the Romanians and Germans, “they gathered all the city’s Jews, then picked out the Jewish leaders. Your grandfather was one of them.”

I feel that I know this compound. For years, I imagined it as I read testimonies depicting Jews’ being herded into classrooms, gasping for air, debating whether to rejoin their leaders. “I was pressed up against the second-floor window,” Mr. Shachan himself recalled when I spoke with him. He was 8 at the time.

Here, according to testimony at a war crimes tribunal held in Bucharest in 1945, Jews pleaded for their lives with a Romanian police commander who, in quieter times, had engaged Jews in fluent Yiddish. But he told the assembled Jews that day that he had a new name: “My name is Hitler.”

I open my briefcase. I show Ilya an account from the Yad Vashem archives. A Jew, sensing the end was near, asked Rabbi Twersky to make sense of it all. “It will be good,” the rabbi replied, in Yiddish. “One must always have faith.”

We trace the path taken by the doomed Jewish leaders—doctors, lawyers and teachers, but also scribes, butchers and pharmacists—along the Dniester River, where hundreds of Khotyn’s Jews were shot. My grandfather was seen breaking from the line. “He jumped into the river to purify himself,” according to testimony from a survivor, Rachela Katz, cited in “On the Roads of Exile: Memories, 1941-1945” by Solomon Shapira. “The soldiers pulled him out and beat him.”

We arrive at the spot—a foul-smelling marsh—where, in Ms. Katz’s account, the Jews were forced to dig their own grave. There is an eerie quiet. The grass is high and thick. I recite psalms and a prayer for the dead, El Moleh Rachamim (God Full of Compassion). I read from Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Roosters are crowing now, seemingly louder and louder. To these ears it is a piercing, heckling sound—Tevye’s roosters sounding out an impudent “Taps” for a community where real Tevyes once lived.

A towering poplar engulfs the grave in its soothing, protective shade. “It is a sign,” one Jew tells me in Russian. “Life can still sprout here.”

Time is short. I must travel to Murafa, where my grandmother Batsheva, Rabbi Twersky’s wife, rests. She died there of malnutrition and typhus in a ghetto set up by Romanian authorities in 1942.

Before leaving, I ask Ms. Cherkes, who tends Khotyn’s centuries-old Jewish cemetery and the graves of her forebears, how she can still live in a city where the martyrs so far exceed the remaining Jews.

“You can’t begin to understand,” she says, annoyed by the question but forcing a smile. “You will never understand.”

(Mordechai I. Twersky, a freelance writer and broadcast journalist,
is a doctoral student in Jewish history at
Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.)