James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, is about to wrap up his tenure on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He is not leaving quietly.

Zogby, who was appointed to two terms on the commission by former President Barack Obama, sent a stunning letter to the commission, expressing his dissent from the latest report as well as his dissatisfaction with the way the commission goes about its business. New congressional legislation, he writes, “does not propose a new strategy. Instead, it doubles down on the failed approaches of the past. Micro-managing how the Administration organizes its foreign policy apparatus; establishing a false hierarchy of human rights; adding new staff, creating new mandates, and requiring more reporting – will not make change. These measures will only serve to add confusion to an already dysfunctional system.”

A major flaw that Zogby highlighted in his letter of departure was the commission’s refusal to address issues of religious freedom in the Israel. At a press conference presenting these issues on Wednesday, Zogby repeatedly stated that the USCIRF’s double standard when it comes to Israel both undermines its credibility when it criticizes other countries and sends the message that those who face religious discrimination from Israel—citizens as well as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation—do not merit having their rights defended. Read more at LobeLog


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has a difficult job. Turning Donald Trump’s messages into comprehensible, even respectable, public statements is a tough go. But even taking that into account, his performance has been terrible, and on Tuesday, he hit a new low.

Spicer kicked his day off by stating that “Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” Yes, you read that right. Hitler never employed chemical agents to kill helpless civilians.

But gaffes happen. One reporter gave Spicer a chance, asking him to clarify the remark. Spicer thanked her for the opportunity…and proceeded to make the matter even worse. Here’s how he explained himself: Read more at LobeLog


On March 30, the Israeli government announced that it had approved the first new settlement in 20 years. The new settlement is part of the government’s compensation package to the settlers of the recently evacuated outpost named Amona. The Israeli courts had ordered the demolition of this illegally built settlement for the first-time way back in 2006. This February, Amona was finally removed.

But despite the controversy over the new settlement, it’s not actually the first new one in 20 years. True, it’s the first settlement in that time that the government publicly planned and did not claim to be part of an existing settlement. But in that period, outposts that were ostensibly illegal under Israeli law, have become legal when they declared themselves part of an existing settlement somewhere in the same general area. More recently, outposts have been legalized retroactively under a new law. So, this is the “first new settlement” only in the most technical, and largely meaningless, sense.

More important are the steps that both the Israeli and US governments are taking in the wake of the Israeli announcement. These are the real indicators of the policy taking shape in the discussions between the Trump and Netanyahu governments. Read more at LobeLog


Every year, anyone who works on United States policy toward Israel, Palestine, or the broader Middle East watches the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley

(AIPAC) very closely. At that conference, we expect not only to find out a great deal about where the US and Israeli governments stand at the moment, but also what is likely to occupy the attention of Congress for the coming year regarding Middle East policy.

At last year’s conference, then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and warm reception caused one of the deepest divides in the Jewish community in recent memory. AIPAC’s day-after public apology to President Barack Obama for the ovations that Trump’s sharply critical words drew was a landmark event, and was an incident that the powerful lobbying group was hoping to bury this year.

AIPAC wanted their 2017 conference to be one that brought its supporters–who span a considerable political spectrum apart from Middle East policy–back together, and one that also set a clear agenda for the group’s activities for the first year of the Trump Administration. It was not entirely successful in either goal. Read more at LobeLog


On March 16, Israeli planes struck several targets in Syria. Israel said that it had targeted shipments of “advanced weapons” meant for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

These strikes occur from time to time, and there is usually little but fist-waving and statements from Syria in response. This time was different. Assad’s forces launched several missiles at the Israeli jets, none of which found their mark. More importantly, the next day, the new Israeli Ambassador to Russia was summoned by the Russian government for clarification of the incident. Read more at LobeLog


On Friday, United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres asked a UN agency to remove a report from its web site that accused Israel of the crime of apartheid. The report has since been removed from the site, although the executive summary is still there. Rima Khalaf, the head of the agency (the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)) resigned in protest.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

The report is certainly explosive. Written by Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk, two scholars who are strong supporters of a single, democratic state in all of Mandatory Palestine (and are generally also seen as anti-Zionist, a label I don’t know if either embraces, but which I doubt would particularly bother either of them), it basically makes the case that not only the occupation, but Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state is incompatible with international law and creates an apartheid regime. No doubt, the Secretary-General, knowing the already hostile environment the UN faces on Capitol Hill and in the White House, did not relish the idea of giving such an enormous boost to that hostility which is already threatening to cut off a major source of UN funding.

I am not going to offer an analysis of the report here. One reason is that while I have read through it, I need to examine it more thoroughly. But I can say a few things about the report.

  • I clearly do not agree with many of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, and have issues with some of the methodology as well.
  • That being said, the report makes more than a few points that I find either valid or, at the very least, troubling enough that a serious discussion about them is not only warranted, but crucial.
  • Disagreeing with the report’s conclusions, methodology, or evidence is not a valid reason to simply mute the report.
  • The question of whether any state can be both democratic and also a state of only one ethnic/religious/racial group of people is one that bears on a great many conflicts in the world today, as well as on the very definition of democracy. On that basis alone, it needs to be discussed. In the specific case of Israel, it has obvious and practical ramifications. For those who believe Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state, it must be acknowledged that those two things must necessarily exist in tension. As such, we cannot avoid either an open discussion to figure out how a Jewish democracy works or an open and civilized debate with those who believe it is not possible for state to be both Jewish and democratic.

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Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour has been in the spotlight quite a bit in recent Linda_Sarsour_on_19_May_2016.jpegweeks. Her role in organizing the anti-Trump Women’s March, which drew larger crowds than Donald Trump’s inauguration and mightily rankled the incoming president, put her name on the map in a way it had not been before. One of the first ways she used her prominence was to start a Muslim campaign to raise funds to repair a Jewish cemetery in Missouri that had been vandalized. She and her allies had a goal of $20,000 and ended up raising over $160,000.

But some in the Jewish community want to hear nothing more from Sarsour. You see, she is a supporter of the tactic of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) and believes that the best solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is a single democratic state in all of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Many consider this stance to be conclusive proof that she is not just a supporter of the Palestinian cause but an extreme anti-Zionist and even an anti-Semite. Read more at LobeLog

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