A decade after 9/11 – and still proud

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Despite all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude, hope from that day and its aftermath.

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-6-11

Ten years ago this week, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes, murdered nearly three thousand people, destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and damaged the Pentagon. Our therapy-orientated culture encourages us to “move on,” rather than wallow in anger. We are supposed to seek “root causes” of violence, absolving belligerent individuals and nations of moral responsibility, especially if we perceive someone from the Third World assailing powerful white Westerners. But at the risk of being politically and psychologically incorrect, I remain angry after all these years. The ruins have stopped smoldering – I haven’t.

I AM still angry that so many good people lost their lives. I mourn with the parents who buried their children so prematurely – or had no remains to inter – and with the widowed spouses and the orphaned children.

Every victim has a name and a narrative; the daily ache of missing a lost friend or relative’s look, laugh and love is compounded by imagining the possibilities of lives not fully lived. For weeks after 9/11, The New York Times ran what became a Pulitzer-Prize winning series, “Portraits of Grief.” These mini-biographies painted a pointillist picture of what America, and the world, lost that day, one precious life at a time. And they confirmed what many of us knew but the media was too politically correct to say – although the victims came from dozens of countries and all classes, most were either white collar male professionals – like me – or blue collar rescue workers who went to work one day and never returned.

I am still angry at the anti-Americanism that formed the backdrop to these mass murders. Al-Qaida’s anti- Western ideology is a murderous manifestation of a broader phenomenon mixing resentment of American power, jealousy of American success, fear of American freedom and contempt for American novelty. In its mildest forms, this anti-Americanism unites haughty Old World Europeans who disdain the aggressive New World upstarts as crude cowboys. In its ugly Islamist form, this anti-Americanism strengthens Muslim fundamentalists’ dreams of a Caliphate theocracy dominating the world.

I am still angry at the foolish, foul Red-Green alliance between radical leftists and Islamists, that has too many in Europe and on campuses echoing the Islamist agenda even when it entails rationalizing sexism, homophobia, theocracy and autocracy. These laptop jihadists, these posturing Chomskyites, view Third Worlders as necessarily noble, oppressed, and thereby justified in attacking Americans, Israelis and others they deem powerful “whites” – despite the multiracial makeup of both America and Israel. These self-hating hypocrites only see Western faults, staying scandalously silent about Syria’s crackdown or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I am still angry at the United Nations, which has become international headquarters for this selective indignation and these double standards. Founded with democratic idealism in the 1940s, the world body has degenerated since the 1970s into the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society as autocrats deploy in New York the very democratic techniques they ban at home.

I am still angry at the bipartisan failure by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to prevent the crime. The moral onus remains on the terrorists, but President Clinton lacked the guts to hunt down Osama Bin Laden more aggressively, while President Bush failed to focus on the threat. Informed speculation that better cooperation between the CIA and the FBI could have stopped the jihadists is emotionally devastating. The fact that reporters and politicians ignored terrorism in the 2000 presidential campaign reflects the bipartisan sloppiness that made the terrorists’ work easier.

I am still angry that despite the rhetoric claiming that terrorism never succeeds, terrorism has succeeded – most dramatically in popularizing and somehow legitimizing Palestinian demands, making the late Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization the spiritual and tactical trailblazers for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida.

I am still angry that this summer, just weeks before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, leading media outlets again rationalized terrorism by calling the Gazan terrorists who slaughtered eight Israelis near Eilat – including two sisters vacationing together with their respective husbands – “militants.”

I am still angry about the convergence of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, exemplified by the candy Palestinians in Gaza threw to celebrate the 9/11 murders, and the cynical way in which Bin Laden started invoking the Palestinian cause when retroactively attempting to popularize his despicable act.

I am still angry about the increased vulnerability of Jews following 9/11 – partially due to the parallel terrorist onslaught Palestinians unleashed. Even today, throughout the Diaspora, many Jewish synagogues, schools and organizations require special protections because terrorists target us and our institutions particularly.

And I am still angry that most American Jews started acknowledging the renewed Palestinian terrorism against Israel only after 9/11 – even though that wave of terrorism began in September, 2000, a year before the devastating al Qaida attacks.

FORTUNATELY, DESPITE all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to the overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude and hope from that day and its aftermath.

I remember the way Americans united, transcending partisan, racial and religious differences, as so many millions throughout the world expressed sympathy – and outrage. I honor the estimated 5 million Americans who have served in the military since the attacks – alongside many soldiers from allies such as Canada and Great Britain. I lament the 6,200 Americans lost in combat – along with so many other fallen soldiers and civilians from other countries in this fight for freedom. And I appreciate more than ever the liberties we in the West enjoy , the civil society we have developed, and the moral values we cherish, well aware that civilization itself, let alone functional democracies, requires careful tending – and when necessary, an aggressive, effective defense against our enemies – ideologically as well as militarily.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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National Insecurity American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

By Gil Troy, Tablet Magazine, 11-16-10

Jonathan Pollard.

Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Pollard, who is now marking his 24th year in prison, has earned the dubious record of serving the longest prison term in American history for spying for an ally. Convicted of espionage in 1987, Pollard was the suburban American Jewish dream turned nightmare: a good, middle-class, high-achieving boy turned traitor. The son of a college professor, smart enough to graduate from Stanford, patriotic enough to be hired to work in naval intelligence, he made a criminal decision to betray his country to help Israel.

And yet new petitions on his behalf have recently begun to circulate, and gain momentum, both in the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset. This is, in large measure, because Pollard’s situation rests on a contradiction: He was guilty of a reprehensible crime, and yet he has been treated abominably. One of the most infamous Jewish criminals in modern times, he is also the victim of the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes. With his round face and shoulder-length hair, Pollard today still looks more like a perpetual grad student than an arch criminal, but he has suffered severely. He has served hard time, mostly in maximum-security prisons, spending years in lockdown 23 hours a day. Websites pleading his case detail his medical ailments, noting that he has “developed diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-glaucoma, and arthritis while in prison.”

From the moment he was sentenced, there were people in the Jewish community—and beyond—who believed Pollard had been unjustly punished and who fought for his release. But they were few and far between, and they often made the wrong case for him. This newest round of argument on Pollard’s behalf is different. For starters, many of his champions have been careful not to lionize him. Rather, they focus on correcting what Judge Stephen Williams, who filed a dissent in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, deemed “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Most surprisingly, on September 27, 2010, a former assistant secretary of Defense confirmed many people’s decades-long fears that, at some point, the case had turned personal—and poisonous. Without explaining what prompted him to break his silence, Lawrence Korb, who served in the Pentagon in Reagan’s first term, wrote President Barack Obama: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

Decades into this tragic and pathetic tale, American Jewry’s continuing allergy to defending Pollard says more about our communal fears and the price we are willing to pay for social and political acceptance than it does about Pollard and his crimes.

***

On November 21, 1985, FBI agents arrested Pollard, 31 at the time, just outside Israel’s embassy in Washington. Since June 1984, Pollard had been routinely removing sensitive documents from the Naval Intelligence Support Center on Friday afternoons, passing them to his Israeli handlers for Xeroxing, and blithely returning them on Monday mornings. When first interrogated by the FBI, Pollard called his wife. After he worked the word “cactus” into the conversation, their designated SOS code word, Anne Henderson-Pollard scurried about their house—with a neighbor’s help—sanitizing it. The neighbor subsequently gave the FBI a 70-pound suitcase filled with secret documents, reflecting the volume of Pollard’s activities and sloppiness.

Despite transferring thousands of documents to his Israeli handlers, Pollard failed to gain asylum at the embassy on that day in 1985. Backpedaling furiously, Israel first labeled Pollard a rogue agent, as his handlers worked out of a shadowy organization called Lekem, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Scientific Relations. The department, headed by the legendary Mossad man Rafi Eitan, was disbanded shortly after Pollard’s arrest. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995—long after such a move could have done him any good. And it wasn’t until 1998 that Israel finally acknowledged what everyone knew: Pollard had been an authorized agent spying for Israel.

An American Jew’s arrest as an Israeli spy was upsetting enough for American Jews. But Pollard’s defense made the affair excruciating. Minimizing the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring the Israelis gave him, and his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan, too, Pollard portrayed himself as a Zionist idealist. Anti-Semites bullied him as a child, he recalled. He claimed that the documents he smuggled out, so crucial to Israeli security, should have been shared freely. And, using a most obnoxious and threatening term, he said a “racial obligation” compelled him, as a Jew, to defend the Jewish state.

Suddenly, amid Ronald Reagan’s resurgence of hard-bodied patriotic machismo, in the age of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy “make my day” taunt, a balding, mustachioed, jowly-faced American Jewish nerd in glasses was betraying the red, white, and blue for the blue and white. Pollard’s crimes epitomized Zionism-run-amok, with the ideological implications of Jewish tribal solidarity pushed to its extreme.

“I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do, and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that,” Anne Pollard said defiantly on 60 Minutes shortly before being sentenced, one of many arrogant, self-destructive moves the couple made back then. While stirring up the terrifying “dual loyalty” charge—far more terrifying to Jews than to Irish-Americans and other hyphenated Americans—the Pollards defined every Jew’s ultimate loyalty as being to the Jewish state. Desperately repudiating the charge, the prominent academic Jacob Neusner would declare America to be the true “promised land.”

This American Jewish skittishness regarding Pollard was particularly surprising because by the 1980s American Jews were thriving in America’s suburban meritocracy. Some American Jewish superstars were accented immigrants like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. But most American Jewish success stories were 100 percent American. Speaking unaccented English, they were supposed to be unscarred psychologically, unapologetically American.

***

American Jews had been here before. Three decades before Pollard made headlines, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s arrest, trial, and conviction as Soviet spies for stealing atomic secrets rendered the American Jews’ nightmare scenario in pinkish hues. But in the 1950s, American Jews were greener, more marginal. Julius Rosenberg represented the intellectual, foreign-born, New York Jew as Communist, at a time when Communism was disproportionately popular among Jews.

With the Rosenbergs—as with the Pollards—the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment. The zeal with which they were prosecuted, the way Judge Irving Kaufman presided over their trial, and Ethel Rosenberg’s unjust execution along with her husband, all suggested something deeper in both the American Jewish psyche and the larger American political culture. The American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews, while many American Jews leapt to prove their own loyalty—at the Rosenbergs’ expense.

Just as in the Rosenberg case, the judge presiding over Pollard’s sentencing was swayed to render too harsh a punishment—a decision that kicked up new waves of suspicion and anxiety.

In an effort to keep his wife out of prison, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of espionage. His wife, Anne, then 26, pleaded guilty to the milder charge of illegally possessing classified documents. In return, the prosecutor asked the judge to punish Pollard with a “substantial number of years in prison.” During the sentencing phase, one voice proved damningly influential. In a secret 46-page-pre-sentencing “damage-assessment memorandum” sent to the judge—and an additional four-page memo that was recently declassified—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger made a fierce argument. “It is difficult … to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel,” wrote Weinberger, before adding—malevolently and unnecessarily—that Pollard’s “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.”

Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sentenced Jonathan Pollard to life in prison and his wife to five years. (After Anne Henderson-Pollard served three-and-a-half years, she was paroled. Jonathan Pollard divorced her so she could rebuild her life without him.) The sentence was surprisingly harsh. By comparison, in 1987 Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, who’d been seduced by a Soviet agent, became the first Marine ever convicted of espionage. His crimes compromised agents and the American embassy in Moscow. Yet a military court—under Weinberger’s direct authority—sentenced Lonetree to 30 years in prison, and he eventually served nine years. Richard Miller, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviets in the 1980s, served 13 years. Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt, and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years. Pollard’s extreme sentence—along with the continuing refusal to free him–has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.

Given that neither Weinberger nor Robinson ever explained their actions, the Pollard case remained shrouded in this noxious mystery. Years later, Weinberger would skip over the case in his memoirs and, when asked about the omission, would dismiss the Pollard case as a “very minor matter.” But it’s clear that his accusation that Pollard committed “treason”—and harmed the nation—had a devastating impact.

In his recent letter, Lawrence Korb suggested that Weinberger, his former boss, had exaggerated the damage Pollard caused and that an anti-Semitic bias distorted the case. From the start, some speculated that Weinberger, who had Jewish grandparents but was a devout Episcopalian, sacrificed Pollard to exorcise his own ancestral demons. There was something about this pudgy, sloppy, unapologetic Jewish spy for Israel that repulsed Weinberger. Weinberger was also one of the Reagan Administration’s leading Israel skeptics. Caught in a power struggle with the pro-Israel Secretary of State George Shultz, Weinberger usually viewed the Jewish state as more albatross than asset.

More benign observers guessed that the secrets Pollard spilled did more damage to U.S. interests than Pollard or the Israelis suggested. Perhaps, some argued, Russian spies secured key codes thanks to Israeli-based KGB agents. Others assumed Pollard received instructions from a higher-level mole who remains unexposed. After Aldrich Ames’ arrest for spying in 1994, some speculated that Weinberger and others may have blamed Pollard for the damage Ames had actually caused, including the deaths of as many as 10 CIA assets. The author John Loftus and others theorized that Ames, who was a top CIA counter-intelligence official, probably pinned his own crimes on Pollard. In 1995, Moment magazine editor Hershel Shanks would quote Loftus quoting naval intelligence “sources” who admitted that “90 percent of the things we accused [Pollard] of stealing, he didn’t even have access to.”

***

After Pollard’s sentencing, New York Times columnist William Safire warned that Pollard encouraged “anti-Semites who charge that Jews everywhere are at best afflicted with dual loyalty and at worst are agents of a vast fifth column.” Issuing a personal declaration of independence from Israel, Safire proclaimed: “American supporters of Israel cannot support wrongdoing here or there. In matters of religion and culture, many of those supporters are American Jews, but in matters affecting national interest and ultimate loyalty, the stonewalling leaders of Israel will learn to think of us as Jewish Americans.”

But one keen observer of American Jewry, the political scientist Daniel Elazar, noticed that it was American Jews—and not their non-Jewish neighbors—who were actually raising the dual-loyalty specter, “apparently in the hope of preventing the issue from surfacing by raising the charge in order to deny it. Even more frequently, it was raised by Jews in the media, most of whom were highly assimilated but still apparently needed to demonstrate their ‘bona fides’ as Americans.” Elazar concluded: “The level of American Jewish insecurity is astounding.”

American Jews still viewed themselves and their community as on probation in the United States, with their ultimate acceptance conditional on good behavior. This pathology would be stated clearly, if unconsciously, years later, by one of the highest-ranking Jews in American history, who served his country nobly as director of naval intelligence from 1978 to 1982 and yanked Pollard’s security clearance—temporarily—years before the spying began. Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro sounded like a scared yid when discussing Pollard. Annoyed at fringe American Jewish groups that defended Pollard, Shapiro told the Washington Post in 1998: “We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up … and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”

All minorities want to celebrate their tribal successes as reflecting the best of their people without being tarred when one of their own acts poorly. And given the torturous history of anti-Semitism, American Jews feel this intensely. We circulate lists of Jewish Nobel prize winners, delighting in each American Jewish success, using Jewish achievements to validate our rich but complex Jewish baggage. And while we reserve the right to cringe when a Bernard Madoff becomes the modern face of the greedy Jew or a Jonathan Pollard becomes the modern face of the traitorous Jew, we also reserve the right to object when our neighbors make similar leaps from the one bad apple to the whole bunch.

Nearly two years after Pollard’s arrest, with the sentencing returning the case to the headlines, the Israeli academic Shlomo Avineri zeroed in on this American Jewish insecurity—and inconsistency. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, first condemning Pollard as a traitor and his own government as clumsy, Avineri mocked the “nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing” of American Jews. Playing the role of the abrasive Israeli—or biblical prophet—Avineri wrote: “Today, American Jewish leaders by their protestations of over-zealous loyalty to the United States at a moment when no one is really questioning it, are saying that America in the long run is no different from France and Germany. When you have to over-identify, there is no other proof needed that you think that your non-Jewish neighbors are looking askance at your Americanism. You are condemned by your own protestations of loyalty and flag-waving.” At a time when Israel’s actions made it unpopular with many American Jews, Avineri’s aggressively Zionist analysis only exacerbated tensions.

***

The controversy–and speculation–peaked during the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in October 1998. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first round as Israel’s prime minister, lobbied hard for Pollard’s release. President Bill Clinton seemed set to free him as a sweetener to Israel until the CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign. Such power politicking against a spy who had been imprisoned for over a decade reinforced both camps’ speculation. Those who fear anti-Semitism say this irrational move reflects a deep aversion in the WASP-iest bastions of the American government. Those who believe Pollard did more damage than we know insist that the usually mild-mannered Tenet had a good reason to be so rigid.

To Israeli settlers, Pollard’s case symbolizes the anti-Semitism of even benign non-Jewish polities such as the United States and the weak-kneed appeasement policies of successive Israeli governments, which have failed to free Pollard. The most popular pro-Pollard bumper sticker in Israel simply appeals for Pollard to come home “haBaytah,” but a few years ago one poster challenged: “BUSH: FREE YOUR CAPTIVE.” This poster not only targeted a good friend of Israel’s, George W. Bush, but it pictured Pollard with the young Israeli Hamas is holding, Gilad Shalit. The implicit comparisons, between the innocent Shalit and the guilty Pollard, as well as between the democratic United States and the terrorist-state Hamas, were offensive. While the right’s support has sustained Pollard emotionally, it may have made his get-out-of-jail card even harder to get. The Israeli right is unpopular with both the American Jewish community and the American political establishment, making Pollard even more unappealing.

***

However unappealing he may be, the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard—not as some sop to Israelis but as a matter of justice. Holding an individual hostage to the vagaries of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is cruel and unusual punishment. The Pollard case has become a question of justice, American-style, unrelated to American-Israeli relations. And justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust. For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights organizations have taught that we take up certain criminals’ cases not because we like the criminals or excuse their crimes but because, at a certain point, it becomes the right thing to do.

Imagine another case in which an accused man served a disproportionately long sentence after being tried in a court where direct pressure was applied by the secretary of Defense for reasons that may well have been mistaken or personally motivated. If there was another such case, one imagines that it would attract lots of attention from the ACLU and other groups concerned with the civil liberties of Americans. So why are they silent? More to the point, why are we silent?

If the Pollard case represents the worst of American anti-Semitism, then, by historic standards, anti-Semitism American style is mild indeed. Still, that American Jews, despite their long record of defending the underdog, still hestitate to champion Pollard’s release now, suggests that we—like Jonathan Pollard—remain victims of the “astounding” insecurity Elazar witnessed two decades ago.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of six books on American history and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Chelsea Clinton’s Jew “ish” wedding contrasts American Jewish vastness with Israeli Jewish density

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-5-10

This week, Chelsea Clinton was married under a chupah, during Shabbat, to a Jew, Marc Mezvinsky. That Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter married a Jew has thrilled many Jews craving acceptance as further proof that American Jews have “made it.” That this intermarriage was adorned with some ritualistic Jewish touches has appalled many Jews defending tradition as further proof that American Jews have diluted Judaism, making it Jew-ish, a more digestible Judaism-lite. I am surprised either camp is surprised.

North America is defined by its vastness. Whenever I travel around America, I am struck by the expanse that defines the New World. Irving Berlin was not just whistling Dixie when he praised America’s spacious skies.

By contrast, Israel is defined by its density. First time pilgrims and veteran Israelis are equally impressed by all the history, humanity, and hysteria often packed into every square kilometer. Israel’s greatest national songwriter Naomi Shemer got it right when she channeled the great medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by writing “for ALL of your songs I am your violin” (or lute) – lechol shiriech ani kinor. Especially in Jerusalem, it seems that every stone has multiple stories, nothing is simple; everything is multilayered, multidimensional.

Parked in a land so vast and free, American Jewry has developed a culture of expansiveness. American Jewry is justly celebrated for its openness, to others and to new ideas. The creativity and accessibility make American Jewry hip, dynamic, and welcoming. Most American Jews seem to shout out “Shalom Aleichem,” or “y’all come on in,” to fresh initiatives for achieving gender equality, to liturgical updating, to new rituals, to syntheses with modern culture, to new bridges beckoning to those who show interest in Judaism, regardless of their halachic legal status.

Alas, the vastness also leads to porousness, the creativity flirts with superficiality, constantly being demeaned by trendiness. Judaism, traditionally defined as the Etz Haim, the solid, steadfast Tree of Life, risks becoming a will o’ the wisp.

Living in the land of possibility, existing in a state of mobility, blessed by so much space, Americans and American Jews often view identity as malleable, relationships as disposable, change as the only constant. With surveys showing that American Jews are among the most cosmopolitan Americans, this next generation of American Jews is particularly wired to roam intellectually, ideologically, spiritually, existentially. And in the age of prolonged adolescence, all this searching, all this pondering, all this comparing and contrasting, sifting and synthesizing, can persist for decades.

At the same time, Israel’s density roots Israeli Judaism in more traditional anchors, in tremendous depth and passion. Committed Israeli Jews are justly celebrated for their literacy, their intensity, their zeal. Israeli Jews are more likely to mutter “take it or leave it,” relating to the legend about the Shalom Aleichem hymn that if all is prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel who accompanies every Jew back from synagogue prays “may it be the same next week,” and the bad angel must mutter “amen”; but if all is chaotic at home the bad angel prays for a repeat the next week to which the good angel must mutter “amen.”

This approach treats Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, as unyielding, unchanging, stone-like in its reliability and impermeability. It risks being unwelcoming, unaccommodating, unresponsive, unable to adjust, paralyzed when facing great change. It makes Jewish education less about the American-style exploration and process but more of a knowledge-transfer. It sets Judaism in opposition to the modern world, come hell or high water, for better or worse.

These general characteristics were on display during the recent conversion controversy. The Israeli Jewish establishment appeared particularly foreboding, hidebound, medieval, insensitive both to the Russian Jews who are Israeli cititzens but are not halachically, legally, Jewish and to the sensibilities of American Jews who value klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.

At the same time, too many American Jewish leaders approached the problem emotionally, even demagogically. Many railed about “Israel” delegitimizing them, Israel invalidating all American conversions, when no law passed, no such sweeping move even was proposed, and, beyond all the politicking, a complex problem needed solving.

Judaism has survived all these years by having clearly defined boundaries, making it clear who is and is not a Jew. But Judaism has thrived all these years by being humane, by improvising solutions to new, unanticipated problems.

The original idea behind the David Rotem conversion bill of empowering municipal rabbis to manage conversions would have brought more lenient rabbis into a broken, unduly strict process. Tragically, ugly coalition politics produced a proposed bill that would have formalized and centralized conversion power in the Chief Rabbinate, despite its terrible track record of not being sufficiently welcoming to aspiring Jews.

However, the headline among North American Jews should be that their voices were heard, leaders like Natan Sharansky stood tall for Jewish unity. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu most recently vowed to kill the bill.

More broadly, day by day, week after week, we see too many pockets of American Jewry that are vapid and need deeper rooting along with too many expressions of Israeli Jewry that are too dense and need some reforming. Israelis could use some of the North American vastness – not only for breathing room but to facilitate the kind of change that perpetually renewed Judaism as it evolved from Abraham to Abraham Joshua Heschel. And American Jews, in many realms, desperately needs more density, more depth, more anchoring.

So, yes, Chelsea Clinton will find whatever American Judaism her husband exposes her to far more user friendly than most modern Israeli varieties.  But whether it has the depth to grab either of them remains unclear, just as whether their yuppie peers will ever feel welcomed by Israeli-style Judaism remains equally unclear.

Gil Troy: Center Field: Obama should resist Jerusalem Syndrome

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-26-09

US President Barack Obama should resist succumbing to the presidential version of Jerusalem Syndrome. For commoners, the malady describes the messianic delusions some experience visiting the Holy City. For presidents, the malady reflects the messianic peacemaking delusions that some, especially Democrats, experience when simply thinking about the Holy City.

In fairness, president Jimmy Carter was struck by Jerusalem Syndrome and it worked (at first). In a classic display of presidential willpower – backed by American might – Carter forced Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin into the Camp David peace treaty. The accords – signed 30 years ago today on March 26, 1979 – played to the presidential conceit that statesmanlike elbow grease could solve intractable problems, especially in the Middle East.

Although it was not clear then, the Egypt-Israel problem was relatively easy. While Egypt’s hatred toward Israel had been lethal, its objective interest in attacking Israel was minimal and territorial losses to Israel had diminished Egypt’s appetite for fighting. Trading Israel’s control over the under-populated Sinai desert for Egypt’s promise of peace did not involve masses on either side. Few Israelis considered the Sinai historically theirs. American payoffs created a competing national interest for Egypt not to attack, while compensating for the resources Israel enjoyed after capturing the Sinai to stop Egyptian aggression in 1967.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much thornier. Competing land claims, shifting borders, mutually exclusive ideologies and overlapping boundaries with some areas characterized by Israelis surrounded by Palestinians, and others with Palestinians living cheek by jowl with Israelis, make Carter’s impressive work look like child’s play. Nevertheless, the first Democratic president after Carter, Bill Clinton, wanted to outdo him. Solving the Palestinian problem became Clinton’s Holy Grail.

It is easy to forget that Clinton nearly succeeded. Thanks to an unexpected Norwegian back channel, he hosted his own White House peace ceremony on September 13, 1993 as prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat approved the Oslo Accords (their respective foreign ministers actually signed). The famous moment wherein Clinton stretched out his arms and seemingly squeezed the two rivals into shaking hands symbolized his twist to the Carteresque aspirations of president as super-duper peacemaker.

Alas, by 2000 the Middle East became one of Clinton’s greatest failures. Despite hosting Arafat more times than any other foreign leader, he failed to transform this arch-terrorist into the Palestinian Nelson Mandela. Clinton’s search for a Middle East peace became an extended exercise in futility. Rabin was dead, murdered by a fellow Jew enraged by Israel’s concessions. The Palestinians, stoked by Arafat, had turned from negotiations back to terrorism, using weapons Israel and America supplied to slaughter hundreds of Israelis.

In his memoirs, Clinton would recall how Arafat – who was so dangerous because he was such a good liar – “thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was.” “Mr. Chairman,” Clinton replied, finally seeing through Arafat after years of being charmed, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”

It is hard for presidents to realize the limits of their power. Everyone they meet bows and scrapes – at his first presidential press briefing, Obama was taken aback when all the reporters stood as he entered. In that kinglike bubble, it is easy to forget your constraints. And when a president faces overwhelming problems like the current economic crisis, the search for a quick win, an easy fix, becomes irresistible.

Clinton’s sad experience should remind Obama – and Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – that the Middle East is not easily fixed. Alas, it seems that Obama may have to learn this lesson on his own. The quick handoff of the Middle East file to former senator George Mitchell suggests an impatience and a grandiosity – two deadly traits in Mideast peacemaking. The delusional but growing Brent Scrowcroft-Zbigniew Brzezinski consensus that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is the key to solving America’s problems with the Muslim world blinds policymakers to radical Islamists’ animus toward the West.

Osama Bin Laden began his jihad against the West in the 1990s, during Oslo’s heyday. He only began mentioning Palestinians with any consistency after September 11, to make his mass murder play to Western fantasies about “why they hate us.” Now, apparently top officials are urging Obama to deal with Hamas, overlooking that group’s genocidal, anti-Semitic charter. Perhaps most destructive of all is the growing assumption – popular among many leftist Israelis and American Jews – that Israel must be bullied to the peace table. This condescending presumption suggests that Israel is too immature to chart its own destiny and Papa America must take charge.

Oslo’s collapse taught that Israeli-Palestinian peace should be nurtured from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down. All the negotiators’ bonding mattered little with Palestinian schoolchildren digesting a steady diet of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist hatred. The suicide bombers and falling Kassams prove that ceding territory and declaring conflicts solved is not enough. Even President Shimon Peres, who has never acknowledged his Oslo failures, admitted that the unilateral retreat from Gaza was a mistake.

This is not an argument for presidential passivity but a call for presidential caution. Swooping down with a peace plan will not work. Seeking a Middle East grand slam to compensate for economic strikeouts is foolhardy and not even politically wise. Carter could not parlay his Camp David success into a reelection triumph – and he left office mocked for ineptitude. Obama should approach the Middle East as he approached his election campaign – with bucketfuls of hope floating on a careful, disciplined strategy rooted in reality, cognizant of complexity and measured for success.

9/11 and the race for the White House

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

September 11 - 7 years on

September 11 – 7 years on
Photo: AP [file]

While much of the presidential campaign excitement this week stems from John McCain’s Sarah Palin-assisted post-convention surge in popularity, it is worth remembering the seventh anniversary of 9/11 which fell this Thursday.

American politics remains defined by that trauma, for better and worse. For better, because underestimating the danger Islamist terrorists pose endangers all Westerners. The only way to ensure that the nearly three thousand victims of Osama Bin Laden in 2001 did not die in vain, is to remain vigilant, working to prevent future attacks. For worse, because a politics solely defined by 9/11 neglects today’s economic, social, cultural, diplomatic and political challenges. As with all traumas, America’s candidates should remember past horrors without being imprisoned by them.

On this score, the two candidates – and their parties – pose an interesting contrast. Barack Obama and the Democrats seem to risk forgetting the lessons of 9/11. Democrats barely mentioned terrorism or 9/11 during their convention. Moreover, their disgust with George W. Bush’s policy has soured too many on the entire War against Terror while misleading them that Bush somehow triggered the troubles. Democrats must remember that al Qaida declared war on America during Bill Clinton’s enlightened reign, when America was actively seeking peace in the Middle East.

Republicans, on the other hand, cannot use the continuing threat of terrorism as an excuse to justify ignoring America’s economic, energy, and health crises. It is frustrating to watch as Republicans fail to encourage serious alternatives to oil, considering the estimated $700 billion America pumps annually into many oil-saturated, terrorist-friendly regimes. Welcome steps toward energy independence would change the geopolitical conditions that have financed terrorists.

Underlying this division is a tactical debate between Democrats who tend to favor deploying “soft power” and Republicans who favor “hard power.” This clash plays right into the ongoing debate about which candidate is a better friend to Israel. Obama Democrats tend to trust that soft power — diplomacy — will help Israel survive in the longrun. McCain Republicans tend to reverse Winston Churchill’s famous maxim, believing that for the hard-bitten Islamist radicals of al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, “war-war” not “Jaw-jaw” is the only alternative. Of course, the best response to terrorism, the best way to support Israel, is with a deft mix of soft and hard power, demonstrating a shrewd diplomatic touch backed up by a willingness and readiness to be tough when necessary.

More broadly, this anniversary should compel both candidates to remember what unites them as Americans – in opposing terror, supporting Israel, and facing other challenges as well. Political campaigns emphasize the differences between candidates, creating a series of false contrasts. Just because John McCain is passionately anti-terror, Barack Obama is not pro-terror. Just because Barack Obama is in favor of preserving civil liberties even amid the terrorist threat, John McCain is not against civil liberties.

Even amid the presidential campaign tensions, both candidates should make sure to affirm their and their country’s consensus against terror and for civil liberties. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy – before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism – before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terror and cherishing the Constitution.

Seven years ago, on a beautiful September Tuesday, Osama bin Laden’s terrorists did not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, Muslims or non-Muslims, or even Americans and non-Americans. They killed indiscriminately, brutally. Living as we all do in a post 9/11 world, those who aspire to lead Western countries responsibly must reaffirm a common commitment to combating Islamist terrorism – and ensure that the nightmare of 9/11 never recurs.

Hillary lacks that vision thing

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, August 28, 2008

Hillary Clinton reacts after...

Hillary Clinton reacts after her call for the nomination of Sen. Barack Obama by acclamation was seconded at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Photo: AP

Remembering the two great convention concessions of modern times – Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1976 after losing to Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy’s speech in 1980, after losing to Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton’s Denver speech fell flat.

What was missing was what George H.W. Bush infamously dismissed as “that vision thing.” Reagan’s address, speculating about how future Americans would judge the Americans of 1976, inspired his supporters with a powerful vision of a smaller government but a more confident nation reviving economically, facing down the Soviets and managing the nuclear threat.

Kennedy’s oration eloquently argued the opposite, dreaming of a future liberalism as confident, humane and popular as his brothers’ ideology had been.

Both speeches helped shape the discourse of the times, allowing each candidate’s ideas to transcend the campaigning failures – and in Reagan’s case it launched his successful 1980 run. Both speeches can be taught decades from now as coherent and compelling ideological road maps that millions of Americans happily followed.

Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama.

In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”

The speech once again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.”

Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.

Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.

And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.

Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992.

Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.

Just another conventional politician

JPost.com, August 25, 2008

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left,...

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, talks with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., prior to the start of the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election
Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite , AP

It is possible that liberals, conservatives and centrists who are not blinded by Obamania may all be able to agree that Joe Biden was a terrible choice as a running mate. Despite his contempt for George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be channeling Bush’s Cheney choice with this pick – trying to show that he really was not as inexperienced and unprepared as critics suggested. But Dick Cheney in 2000 had at least one thing over Joe Biden – Cheney had not just run a presidential nominating campaign that demonstrated how unpopular he was.

It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.

Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.

Beyond this stunning – and recent – political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq – just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war.

At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.

At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.

Regarding the Middle East, Biden is equally conventional – and unimaginative. In a reflection of just how standard it remains to embrace Israel from both sides of the aisle, Biden has declared his love for the Jewish State as enthusiastically as anyone. The fact that he has declared “I am a Zionist,” suggests that Zionism may be a less politically controversial term in the United States than in Israel itself.

But Biden has demonstrated no particular insight on the issue, beyond supporting “the peace process,” in whatever form the Palestinians appear ready to accept. And the fact that he has been among the Senators least alarmed about Iran, most open to negotiating with the Mullahs, and voted against declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group is worrisome – and a reflection of the potential direction of an Obama-Biden administration.

To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.

In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses.

Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.

The generational game

Adapted from Happy Birthday Obama — the Baby Buster, HNN, 8-8-08

By Gil Troy

Jerusalem Post, August 10, 2008

Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday on Monday of last week with minimal fanfare. The anniversary of his birth on August 4, 1961 highlights his campaign’s often-underappreciated generational dimensions.

Obama was not just born later than most national leaders, he imbibed a different sensibility. Demographers may clump Obama – and his wife Michelle who was born in 1964 – together with “Baby Boomers,” but those of us born at the tail end of that population explosion know we are more like the slipped discs of the Baby Boomers, split from the mainstream like the jellylike substance that ruptures from the spinal column and frequently causes great pain, as Obama imposed on the Clintons. Many of us slipped discers seek to revive some of the faith, hope, morality and national unity many Boomers scorned.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.

As a slipped discer, or baby buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world.

Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.

Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.

Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain.

Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.

Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.

In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately.

Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.

Unfortunately, many “slipped discers” lack the visceral love for Israel and understanding of the Zionist project that their elders had. John McCain’s generation of pre-Baby Boomers witnessed the devastation of the Holocaust followed by the redemption of re-establishing a Jewish State.

The Baby Boomers tasted the euphoria of the Six Day War, with liberals inspired by many of Israel’s communitarian ideals and conservatives appreciating Israel’s strategic importance during the Cold War. Obama’s generation was marked by the Yasir Arafat con, wherein the grandfather of modern terrorism was somehow able to be hailed as the protector of the oppressed and a man of peace.

Obama and his peers have seen an Israel of the “Zionism is racism” libel, of ugly apartheid accusations, of corrupt and ineffectual leaders. We see the fallout among Jews this age – it is not surprising to see it among non-Jewish politicians as well.

Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides in American politics, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies.

Demographers called Boomers the pig-in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.

 

The X factor in the American election

JPost, July 13, 2008

Throughout much of George W. Bush’s reign, the newspapers and blogosphere have been filled with dire warnings about the state of America. Much of it was so hysterical, it was easy to dismiss it as “Bushophobia,” a reflection of the irrational, intense hatred this president provokes, especially among elites.

In fact, for much of the Bush years, America’s economy did well. Quarter after quarter, experts would warn about sobering outcomes, and yet the numbers kept on illustrating a much rosier picture. As long as the economy was strong, Bush’s popularity ratings could plummet, New Orleans could sink, Iraq could become a quagmire, but the overall tone in the United States remained surprisingly upbeat.

All that has changed. The talk in the United States has turned, people frequently admit their economic distress, focusing on limited finances now or worries about limitations to come. The most visible symbol of this new economic reality is that gasoline is now consistently over $4 a gallon.

People are cutting back, redirecting resources they once piddled away on luxuries toward keeping up with their necessities. As a mark of this shift, Starbucks, one of the great symbols of early 21st century indulgence with its $4 cups of coffee, just closed 600 stores. It seems that the Bush daydream has become the Bush nightmare.

This energy and economic trauma on top of all the other traumas should make it a simple election for the Democrats. No matter who wins the White House, everyone is expecting a Democratic sweep of Congress. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are bracing for a bloodbath, Democrats are already squabbling over the spoils. With Barack Obama leading in the polls, with John McCain retooling his campaign team, this election should be a slam dunk win for the Democrats.

But the dynamics of the presidential campaign are not that easy. Remember President Michael kis? He was crowned the presumptive successor to Ronald Reagan in 1988 as he enjoyed a double digit lead in the polls over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. But Bush was able to come back and defeat him.

The office of the president is so personal, the campaign is so long and grueling, that anything could happen. It really is too early to say Kaddish for McCain or pick out the new colors for Obama’s Oval Office re-design. And on top of all these personality and political factors in the mix, the economy is going to weigh ever more heavily – if current indicators continue to play out as they have been.

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, who once enjoyed approval ratings close to 90 percent. Clinton’s slogan was “It’s The Economy, Stupid.”

This year, barring a major terrorist attack or international blow up – it seems clear that the election will hinge yet again on that stupid economy.

If McCain cannot figure out how to respond to Americans’ distress on this issue, he is finished. But if Americans lose confidence in Obama’s ability to be a steady steward of the economy, he, too, is doomed.