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February 04, 2011

"Reasoned Discussion" at Commonweal?

Commonweal, a liberal Catholic publication that describes its editorial strategy as motivated by a desire to “reject sectarianism and to rely on reasoned discussion” fell short of that ideal when it published “The Battle For Egypt” on its website on Feb. 3, 2011.

The article, written by former Commonweal editor William Pfaff, is so hostile in tone that readers who miss the byline would have every reason to think that it was written by another denizen of the religious press in the U.S. – James M. Wall, former editor of Christian Century.

It’s that bad.

Here’s a rundown of the piece itself: After condemning the U.S. government for failing to prepare for the current crisis in Egypt, Pfaff states that the Israeli government’s response “has been more shocking.” Pfaff writes:

It seems to have panicked, rather than been confused and impotent like Washington. Israel, since it defeated the combined Arab armies in 1948, has believed it could only survive in the Middle East through total military domination of its Arab enemies, and through control of the Palestinians. Israel has been supported in this, more or less willingly, by every U.S. administration since Eisenhower—the last to say no to Israel.

The contempt initially shown toward Israel’s Arab enemies ended in 1973 after the Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack, the rise of Hamas (whose creation Israel too-cleverly supported to counter the Palestine Liberation Organization; how could religious enthusiasts harm Israel?), and the resistance of Hezbollah to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in Hezbollah’s political predominance in Lebanon.

Lebanon could have become Israel’s passport to peace with other Arabs. When I first visited Beirut in 1955, Israel was already eyeing Palestine. At that time, the swagger of the Lebanese thought that, given unrestricted relations, they could easily outsmart and outtrade the Jews. The Zionists should have taken up that challenge.

Today the Israeli calculation is that if Mubarak goes, Egypt goes. If Tunisia goes, Morocco and Algeria go. Turkey has already gone (for which the Israelis have only themselves to blame). Syria is gone (in part because Israel wanted to cut off its access to water). Gaza has gone to Hamas, and the Palestine Authority might soon be gone too (to Hamas?). That leaves Israel amidst the ruins of its policy of military domination.

In Pfaff’s narrative, there is hardly any event in the Middle East that can’t somehow be blamed on Israel.

Lebanon failed to become “Israel’s passport to peace with other Arabs” because “the Zionists” were unwilling to take up the challenge of “unrestricted relations” with that country in the 1950s. Apparently, the PLO and Hezbollah had nothing to do with Israel’s difficulties with Lebanon. (Note: After Israel's founding in 1948, most people started referring to the inhabitants of Israel as "Israelis.")

Syria is “gone” in part because of disputes over water with Israel. The fact that the Alewite-minority regime in Syria uses Israel as a unifying scapegoat to maintain control over its people isn’t worth mentioning.

Turkey is now hostile toward Israel for reasons that Pfaff says are all Israel’s fault even if he can’t be bothered to say exactly why. Apparently, it has nothing to do with Turkey’s slow slide into Islamism under Recep Erdogan.

And Pfaff blames Israel for the rise of Hamas, which he describes as “religious enthusiasts.” (James M. Wall made a similar gambit when he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “Muslim non-governmental groups” in an article published in Christian Century in 2005.)

The changes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Pfaff writes, leave Israel “amidst the ruins of its policy of military domination.”

Exactly how does negotiating and achieving peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan fit into a policy of military domination?

Israel has a population of approximately six million people. Arab countries in the Middle East comprise a total population of approximately 300 million people. The prospect of it dominating its neighbors who outnumber it so handily is just incredible, which is why Israel negotiated treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

If Pfaff wants to celebrate the efforts of Egyptians to free themselves from a repressive regime, fine.

But that’s not what he’s doing.

Instead, Pfaff exhibits an unseemly satisfaction and glee at the challenges faced by Israelis as a result of the possible collapse of a regime that abided by the terms of the Camp David Treaty signed in 1979, which by the way, the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organized opposition group in Egypt wants to abrogate.

Commonweal can publish whatever articles it wants by whoever it wants. It can even call an article published elsewhere on the Internet an “exclusive.”

But exactly what does Commonweal expect to achieve by publishing a piece like Pfaff’s? Does it really add to the conversation?

Sadly, the publication of such a hostile article on Commonweal's website is not out of character for the magazine. Its editorial on the tragedy aboard the Mavi Marmara in June 2010 indicates that the magazine has a difficult time covering issues related to Israel in a factual and comprehensive manner.

Posted by dvz at February 4, 2011 05:15 PM


I met a Stopper outside my train station yesterday. He was shouting for 'solidarity with the Egyptian people' and that Mubarak must go. I asked him about the Coalition's stance on removing dictators as I didn't think it was consistent. He told me that Israel had an extreme right wing government that was steamrolling over the Palestinians who are suffering (all in one breath, as written). I reminded him that I'd asked about Eqypt, not Israel. He said "Mubarak is the key..." I'm afraid I didn't stay to hear anymore. If he thought the Egyptian people were hoping to return to hostilities with their neighbours and that this would be a good thing, I didn't think he was in solidarity to the Egyptian people whatsoever and probably beyond sensible argument.

Posted by: Bialik at February 5, 2011 03:37 PM

There is a certain reverence for absolute pacifism in Christianity, obviously more honored in the breach than the observance by Christian states [or Christian-majority states]. So Pfaff rants against Israeli "military domination." But all established states use military force and/or are willing to do so. Or they won't last much longer in a world dominated by seventy wolves.

So it seems that Pfaff wants Israel to be absolutely pacifistic, that is, more Christian than the Christians are or ever were. This moral indignation against military might is aroused in Pfaff, it seems, only towards Israel, not when Arab states war on each other or slaughter their own people, pace Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and Shi`ites. Hypocrisy too is supposed to be a vice in the Christian value system. Will Pfaff judge himself for his own vices?

By the way, wasn't Pfaff once a syndicated columnist, maybe based at the WAPO?

Posted by: Eliyahu at February 6, 2011 05:36 AM

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