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December 6   12  

Shariah at the Kumback Café

by Roger Cohen

NYT, Dec. 10, 2010

PERRY, OKLAHOMA — They call Oklahoma the buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s the state where all 77 counties voted Republican when Barack Obama was elected and where 70.8 percent of the electorate last month approved a “Save Our State Amendment” banning Islamic, or Shariah, law.

So I decided to check the pulse of a resurgent conservative America at the Kumback Café. The Kumback, established 1926, is a cozy, memorabilia-filled joint that sits opposite the courthouse in downtown Perry, population 5,230.

Things work like this at the Kumback: The guys, average age about 80, arrive around 8 a.m. and get talking on “the whole gamut of life”; the girls, average age too indelicate to print, gather later at a horse-shoe shaped table toward the back. Ken Sherman, 86 and spry, explained: “We’ve got to come here every day to find out what’s going on. And by the time we leave we forget.”

I asked Paul Morrow, a whippersnapper at 71, how things were going. “There’s just too much Muslim influence, all this Shariah law,” he said. “We’re conservative here, old and cantankerous.”

You might not expect Shariah, a broad term encompassing Islamic religious precepts, to be a priority topic at the Kumback given that there’s not a Muslim in Perry and perhaps 30,000, or less than one percent of the population, in all Oklahoma. And you’d be wrong.

Shariah is the new hot-button wedge issue, as radicalizing as abortion or gay marriage, seized on by Republicans to mobilize conservative Americans against the supposed “stealth jihad” of Muslims in the United States and against a Democratic president portrayed as oblivious to — or complicit with — the threat. Not since 9/11 has Islamophobia been at such a pitch in the United States.

The neoconservative Center for Security Policy in Washington recently described Shariah as “the pre-eminent totalitarian threat of our time.” Many Republicans, with Newt Gingrich leading, have signed up. Their strategy is clear: Conflate Obama with creeping Shariah and achieve the political double-whammy of feeding rampant rumors that he’s a closet Muslim and fanning the fears that propel a conservative lurch.

It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty odious, but to judge by the Republican surge last month, it’s effective in an anxiety-filled America.

Galvanized by State Question 755, barring “courts from considering or using Shariah Law,” Republicans swept to the Oklahoma governorship and veto-proof majorities in the Legislature for the first time.

Question 755 was “a pre-emptive strike,” in the words of its most active proponent, Republican State Representative Rex Duncan, whose portrait hangs in the Kumback. The question arises, given the quiet on the prairies, against whom? A prominent Oklahoma pastor, Paul Blair, told me it was aimed at those “whose plan is not to coexist but bring the whole world under Islam.”

A preliminary federal injunction, granted after a prominent local Muslim, Muneer Awad, challenged the constitutionality of the amendment in the nation where “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” has blocked its certification for now. The very curious case of Shariah and Oklahoma may be headed to the Supreme Court.

Marilee Macias, the bubbly owner of the Kumback, swung by. “Duncan’s ahead of the game,” she said. “He’s a military guy, been around the world. I don’t know what these Muslims are preparing but I know that stoning women, we don’t want that here.”

Bud Johnson, 84, who worked in Washington and is gently mocked at the Kumback for his East Coast liberalism, shook his head. “It’s going to cost the state a lot of money to try to defend a stupid law,” he said. “There should be a reason for a law, not just hatred and emotions. But my view went down here like the Titanic. The fear element has got us.”

To understand U.S. politics today, try “It’s the fear element, stupid.”

I asked Frank Lawson, 83, about Obama. “I think the young man’s a Muslim,” he said. Case closed. He continued: “I got on the computer, punched in Koran, and there it is in black and white: They are out to rule the world and if you don’t convert, they kill you.” Cherry-picked inflammatory phrases, attributed to the Koran but more often lifted from interpretations of it, course through Oklahoman churches and spread via Internet chatter.

Sherman asked me what “that huge Muslim movement that took over Europe,” was called. I couldn’t help. “Begins with ‘O”’ he said. “The Ottoman Empire?” I ventured. Yep. Case closed again.

Things were quiet on Perry’s main square. So quiet the “Muslim threat” was hard to imagine. It was even harder to imagine that, right here, Timothy McVeigh, the homegrown terrorist who killed 168 people in a 1995 Oklahoma attack, was held after being stopped by a state trooper outside Perry for having no license plate.

Nobody initially suspected McVeigh. Suspicion fell on men “of Middle Eastern appearance,” including Imad Enchassi, now the imam of a large Oklahoma mosque, who told me, “Things are much worse now, I’m looking over my shoulder for the first time.”



The Post-Cablegate Era

By Ron Deibert

NYT, December 9, 2010

Ron Deibert is director of the Canada Center for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

The venomous furor surrounding WikiLeaks, including charges of “terrorism” and calls for the assassination of Julian Assange, has to rank as one of the biggest temper tantrums in recent years. Granted, it must be frustrating for U.S. government officials and others to see thousands of secret cables splashed across the globe. But stamping feet and lashing out at Assange is simply misdirected anger.

WikiLeaksKaren Bleier/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images The WikiLeaks Web site on Dec. 9.

When Assange said that from now on geopolitics would be divided into pre- and post-Cablegate eras, he hit upon something important, but missed the bull's-eye by overestimating his own organization’s impact on history. We have indeed entered a new era, but not because of WikiLeaks, which is only a symptom of a much larger trend.

As we discovered in our Tracking Ghostnet and Shadows in the Clouds reports, the means to engage in cyber espionage have expanded dramatically because of the shift to networked infrastructures and social networking habits. With Ghostnet, the confidential information of dozens of ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations and private firms was pilfered by the use of a free (and open source) Trojan horse. In the Shadows in the Clouds case, a likely single attacker vacuumed minutes of the Indian National Security Council secretariat as efficiently as making photocopies during the meeting itself. Cyberspace has brought us the world of do-it-yourself signals intelligence.

Many lament the loss of individual privacy as we leave digital traces that are then harvested and collated by large organizations with ever-increasing precision. But if individuals are subject to this new ecosystem, what would make anyone think governments or organizations are immune? Blaming WikiLeaks for this state of affairs is like blaming a tremor for tectonic plate shifts.

Certainly a portion of that anger could be mitigated by the conduct of WikiLeaks itself. The cult of personality around Assange, his photoshopped image now pasted across the WikiLeaks Web site, only plays into this animosity. So do vigilante cyberattacks carried out by supporters of WikiLeaks that contribute to a climate of lawlessness and vengeance seeking. If everyone can blast Web sites and services with which they disagree into oblivion -- be it WikiLeaks or MasterCard -- a total information war will ensue to the detriment of the public sphere.

An organization like WikiLeaks should professionalize and depersonalize itself as much as possible. It should hold itself to the highest possible ethical standards. It should act with the utmost discretion in releasing into the public domain otherwise classified information that comes its way only on the basis of an obvious transgression of law or morality. This has not happened. The latest batch of China cables, for example, shows no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the State Department, but they might unintentionally reveal the identities of Chinese dissidents who shared their views with U.S. officials.

WikiLeaks is only a symptom of a much larger phenomenon to which governments, businesses and individuals will all have to get accustomed. Our lives have been turned inside out by a digital world of our own spinning. We will need new rules, norms and principles to adjust to this new environment. Meanwhile, some timeless legal and ethical principles should always apply.



Let’s Not Make a Deal

by Paul Krugman

NYT, Dec. 5, 2010

Back in 2001, former President George W. Bush pulled a fast one. He wanted to enact an irresponsible tax cut, largely for the benefit of the wealthiest Americans. But there were Senate rules in place designed to prevent that kind of irresponsibility. So Mr. Bush evaded the rules by making the tax cut temporary, with the whole thing scheduled to expire on the last day of 2010.

The plan, of course, was to come back later and make the thing permanent, never mind the impact on the deficit. But that never happened. And so here we are, with 2010 almost over and nothing resolved.

Democrats have tried to push a compromise: let tax cuts for the wealthy expire, but extend tax cuts for the middle class. Republicans, however, are having none of it. They have been filibustering Democratic attempts to separate tax cuts that mainly benefit a tiny group of wealthy Americans from those that mainly help the middle class. It’s all or nothing, they say: all the Bush tax cuts must be extended. What should Democrats do?

The answer is that they should just say no. If G.O.P. intransigence means that taxes rise at the end of this month, so be it.

Think about the logic of the situation. Right now, the Republicans see themselves as successful blackmailers, holding a clear upper hand. President Obama, they believe, wouldn’t dare preside over a broad tax increase while the economy is depressed. And they therefore believe that he will give in to their demands.

But while raising taxes when unemployment is high is a bad thing, there are worse things. And a cold, hard look at the consequences of giving in to the G.O.P. now suggests that saying no, and letting the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule, is the lesser of two evils.

Bear in mind that Republicans want to make those tax cuts permanent. They might agree to a two- or three-year extension — but only because they believe that this would set up the conditions for a permanent extension later. And they may well be right: if tax-cut blackmail works now, why shouldn’t it work again later?

America, however, cannot afford to make those cuts permanent. We’re talking about almost $4 trillion in lost revenue just over the next decade; over the next 75 years, the revenue loss would be more than three times the entire projected Social Security shortfall. So giving in to Republican demands would mean risking a major fiscal crisis — a crisis that could be resolved only by making savage cuts in federal spending.

And we’re not talking about government programs nobody cares about: the only way to cut spending enough to pay for the Bush tax cuts in the long run would be to dismantle large parts of Social Security and Medicare.

So the potential cost of giving in to Republican demands is high. What about the costs of letting the tax cuts expire? To be sure, letting taxes rise in a depressed economy would do damage — but not as much as many people seem to think.

A few months ago, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the impact of various tax options. A two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, it estimated, would lower the unemployment rate next year by between 0.1 and 0.3 percentage points compared with what it would be if the tax cuts were allowed to expire; the effect would be about twice as large in 2012. Those are significant numbers, but not huge — certainly not enough to justify the apocalyptic rhetoric one often hears about what will happen if the tax cuts are allowed to end on schedule.

Oh, and what about confidence? I’ve been skeptical about claims that budget deficits hurt the economy even in the short run, because they undermine confidence in the government’s long-run solvency. Advanced countries, I’ve argued, have a lot of fiscal leeway. But anything that makes permanent extension of obviously irresponsible tax cuts more likely also sends a strong signal to investors: it says, “Hey, we aren’t really an advanced country; we’re a banana republic!” And that can’t be good for the economy.

Last but not least: if Democrats give in to the blackmailers now, they’ll just face more demands in the future. As long as Republicans believe that Mr. Obama will do anything to avoid short-term pain, they’ll have every incentive to keep taking hostages. If the president will endanger America’s fiscal future to avoid a tax increase, what will he give to avoid a government shutdown?

So Mr. Obama should draw a line in the sand, right here, right now. If Republicans hold out, and taxes go up, he should tell the nation the truth, and denounce the blackmail attempt for what it is.

Yes, letting taxes go up would be politically risky. But giving in would be risky, too — especially for a president whom voters are starting to write off as a man too timid to take a stand. Now is the time for him to prove them wrong.


Web Site for Teenagers With Literary Leanings

by Julie Bosman

NYT, December 5, 2010

When Jacob Lewis helped create the beta version of the Web site Figment with Dana Goodyear, a staff writer at The New Yorker, Mr. Lewis envisioned it as a sort of literary Facebook for the teenage set.

“I really went into it and thought, ‘We’ll be the social network for young-adult fiction,’ ” said Mr. Lewis, a former managing editor of The New Yorker. “But it became clear early on that people didn’t want a new Facebook.”

The young people on the site weren’t much interested in “friending” one another. What they did want, he said, “was to read and write and discover new content, but around the content itself.”

Figment.com will be unveiled on Monday as an experiment in online literature, a free platform for young people to read and write fiction, both on their computers and on their cellphones. Users are invited to write novels, short stories and poems, collaborate with other writers and give and receive feedback on the work posted on the site.

The idea for Figment emerged from a very 21st-century invention, the cellphone novel, which arrived in the United States around 2008. That December, Ms. Goodyear wrote a 6,000-word article for The New Yorker about young Japanese women who had been busy composing fiction on their mobile phones. In the article she declared it “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age.”

Figment is an attempt to import that idea to the United States and expand on it. Mr. Lewis, who was out of a job after Portfolio, the Condé Nast magazine, was shuttered last year, teamed up with Ms. Goodyear, and the two worked with schools, libraries and literary organizations across the country to recruit several hundred teenagers who were willing to participate in a prototype, which went online in a test version in June.

“We wanted people to be able to write whatever they wanted in whatever form they wanted,” Mr. Lewis said. “We give them a piece of paper and say, ‘Go.’ ” He added that so far contributions had included fantasy, science fiction, biographical work and long serial novels. “There’s a very earnest and exacting quality to what they’re doing.”

Teenagers and their reading habits have been the subject of much fascination in the publishing industry lately. They were a huge driving force behind best-selling books like the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer and the crop of paranormal-romance books that followed. Publishers are eager to learn more about their reading habits and introduce books to them.

Mr. Lewis said he hoped Figment would eventually attract more than a million users and serve as an opportunity for publishers to roam the Web site looking for fresh young talent, or promote their own authors by running book excerpts. “For publishers this is an amazing opportunity to not only reach your consumers but to find out really valuable information about how they are reading,” he said.

Several publishers have already signed on. Running Press Kids, a member of the Perseus Books Group, will provide an excerpt from “Purple Daze,” a historical novel for teenagers written by Sherry Shahan. (Figment charges a small fee to publishers for the privilege.)

David Steinberger, the chief executive of Perseus, said he saw Figment as an opportunity to get the company’s content in front of teenagers.

“The teen culture is a constantly moving target,” Mr. Steinberger said. “We’re looking for partners who are deeply embedded in the way teens interact.”


Aspirin Helps in Reducing Cancer Deaths, a Study Finds

by Roni Caryn Rabin

NYT, December 6, 2010

Many Americans take aspirin to lower their risk of heart disease, but a new study suggests a remarkable added benefit, reporting that patients who took aspirin regularly for a period of several years were 21 percent less likely decades later to die of solid tumor cancers, including cancers of the stomach, esophagus and lung.

As part of the new study, published online Monday in the journal Lancet, researchers examined the cancer death rates of 25,570 patients who had participated in eight different randomized controlled trials of aspirin that ended up to 20 years earlier.

Participants who had been assigned to the aspirin arms of the studies were 20 percent less likely after 20 years to have died of solid tumor cancers than those who had been in the comparison group taking dummy pills during the clinical trials, and their risk of gastrointestinal cancer death was 35 percent lower. The risk of lung cancer death was 30 percent lower, the risk of colorectal cancer death was 40 percent lower and the risk of esophageal cancer death was 60 percent lower, the study reported.

The specific dose of aspirin taken did not seem to matter — most trials gave out low doses of 75 to 100 milligrams — but the participants in the longest lasting trials had the most drastic reductions in cancer death years later.

“This is important as a proof of principle that a single simple compound like aspirin can reduce the risk of cancer substantially,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Peter M. Rothwell, professor of neurology at the University of Oxford. “There’s been a lot of work over the years showing that certain compounds can increase the risk of cancer, but it’s not been shown before that we can reduce the risk with something as simple as aspirin.”

But even as some experts hailed the new study as a breakthrough, others urged caution, warning people not to start a regimen of aspirin without first consulting a doctor about the potential risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding and bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic strokes).

“Many people may wonder if they should start taking daily aspirin, but it would be premature to recommend people starting taking aspirin specifically to prevent cancer,” said Eric J. Jacobs, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society.

While Dr. Jacobs said the study design was valid, relatively few women were included in the trials, making it difficult to generalize the results to women.

“It’s hard to assess effects on mortality from just one study,” he said.

The findings do not come entirely as a surprise, Dr. Rothwell said, because aspirin has been found to slow or prevent the growth of tumor cell lines in the laboratory. Observational studies have reported that people who took aspirin were at lower risk for colorectal cancer recurrences, while other studies have pointed to similar reductions in cancers of the lung, stomach and esophagus.

“There have been hints of this before, but the quality of this study is the gold standard because it is based on randomized clinical trials,” said Dr. Alan A. Arslan, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine, who did an observational study several years ago reporting that women who had taken aspirin regularly had a lower risk of ovarian cancer. “Randomized controlled trials carry more weight.”

The strong results “add to the accumulating evidence that aspirin may be protective against various cancers,” Dr. Arslan said.

There are several ways in which aspirin may work to slow the development of cancers, experts say. Inflammation may play a role in cancer, and aspirin blocks the synthesis of prostaglandins, which are mediators of inflammation, and may affect early tumor promotion.

Aspirin may also induce the death of early cancer cells before they become aggressive, Dr. Arslan suggested.


Europe’s Piecemeal Failure

by Alistair Darling

NYT, Dec. 6, 2010

(London) — When I look at events in Europe today, with Ireland getting bailed out and talk of crises brewing elsewhere on the continent, I am reminded of the weeks leading up to the banking crisis in 2008. As the credit crunch began and banks found it increasingly difficult to get access to funding, policy makers faced a choice: deal with the problem in a piecemeal way, or address the root causes immediately.

For too long many policy makers opted to fudge their approach; they dealt with the problem bank by bank and refused to recognize the system’s fundamental flaws.

As a result, we saw Lehman Brothers go bankrupt, Bear Stearns bought up in a fire sale and a major British bank come within hours of collapse.

During that summer I realized that unless we put a firewall in place to prevent the crisis from spreading, we would face a catastrophe in the banking sector and the wider economy. That’s why I took the controversial step of injecting billions of pounds into the banking system to stabilize it. By tackling the fundamental problem, the lack of capital in banks, we stopped a meltdown. It was drastic action, but I have no doubt that it worked.

The same approach is now urgently needed for European economies. It is not enough for the euro zone nations to bail out each economy as it falls into a crisis — they must address the root causes of the continent’s problems.

This hasn’t been the approach so far. In May, Europe eventually faced up to the fact that it had to help Greece, which was finding it increasingly difficult to borrow to cover its debts. But the rescue was far too long in coming, and the United States Treasury deserves a great deal of credit for forcing the issue to a head.

Thanks to the bailout, the immediate crisis was resolved; we bought some time. But that time was not used to put in place a more fundamental approach that would deal with overly indebted European economies.

And so, a little over a week ago, we saw a new crisis: Ireland had to accept that its banks’ debts were so large that it needed help. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout package, and again the immediate crisis was averted.

But did the Irish bailout draw a line under the euro zone crisis? Far from it. Bond yields rose for Portugal, Spain and even Italy, a strong indication that problems remain.

More than anything, the problems in the euro zone have exposed the monetary union’s basic fault line. The euro zone shares a common currency, but the political and economic union that underpins it has a limited ability to resolve disagreements among member states and to take decisive steps to resolve difficulties.

The result is a political crisis alongside the economic one: commentators speak as if the only options are complete political union or the breakup of the euro zone. But the first will not happen, while the second would create many more painful and destabilizing problems. Instead, just as with the banking crisis, Europe must construct a firewall to stop the crisis from spreading.

This will involve two sets of steps. First, action is needed now to provide stability. To that end, the European Central Bank needs to make a firm commitment to buying government bonds from at-risk countries. That’s what it did during the Greek crisis, where its resolve played a key role in returning investor confidence to the bond market. Since then, however, it has sent out increasingly mixed signals about whether it would do so in the future (although last week it did step up its bond purchases, to some effect).

The European Central Bank should be clear that it will continue to intervene to stabilize markets, and it needs to consider going further. During my time as chancellor of the Exchequer I authorized the Bank of England to engage in quantitative easing by increasing the money supply, a step that has been taken twice by the Federal Reserve as well.

Despite the success of our actions, however, the European Central Bank has refused to consider doing the same. It should think again. Quite simply, Europe cannot afford to bump along the economic bottom for the next few years with sluggish growth.

The euro zone states also need to deal with banks carrying unsustainable debt. Last summer Europe carried out so-called stress tests on its banks to see which ones were at risk of collapse. But these tests were insufficient (as I noted at the time). The tests did not pay enough attention to the banks’ interrelationships, not just in Europe but globally. Banks in trouble need to be restructured and broken up, if necessary.

Finally, alongside such preventive measures, Europe needs to step up its contingency planning in case banks wind up failing. The Irish banks are not unique, after all. This means being clear about what sits on a bank’s balance sheet, and what is to be done if a bank becomes insolvent. The lack of such transparency in the case of the Lehman Brothers collapse led to the seizing up of the global finance sector — no one knew who owed what to whom.

The second set of steps is more long term and involves Europe’s accepting two fundamental principles. The first is that austerity alone will not work. It is not enough simply to demand that countries at risk of default immediately shrink their deficits and cut government spending. That approach is self-defeating: inflicting deflationary, painful austerity policies runs the risk of stifling the growth the countries need to pay down their debt and recover.

Today too many European advocates of austerity at all costs stand virtually unchallenged. Their solution is similar to that of dealing with troubled banks one by one: it is a fudge, addressing just one part of a much larger problem.

What is needed instead is a balanced approach in which deficits are brought down quickly, but not in such a way as to destroy the economic or social fabric of those countries. The pace of deficit reduction needs to match the capacity of the private sector to pick up the slack.

The second principle is that countries with heavy debt burdens need more than just a bailout. Markets need to see that these countries have some hope of being able to manage their debt burdens in the future, especially after seeing their governments nationalize the balance sheets of collapsing banks.

Consumers in these countries, seeing their economies in crisis, will not want to spend money or borrow more. Companies will be wary of making investments. So growth, and the means of meeting countries’ debt burdens, must come from exports.

That means in the medium term, larger euro zone countries will need to increase their own spending to balance the contraction in demand they are imposing on their crisis-stricken neighbors. Unfortunately, today the opposite is occurring: major European economies are undertaking their own austerity measures, shrinking demand for imports at home. This approach offers the peripheral countries no way out, and unwieldy transfer payments of one form or another, like bailouts or other aid packages, risk becoming unavoidable.

I have spoken with too many European politicians who, when I ask them where growth will come from in the future, say they can’t be sure. But without a clear path forward, we will see minimal growth for Europe’s stronger economies; for those in danger already it could be disastrous.

We cannot go on like this. The crisis in the euro zone is the single largest threat to the fragile global recovery we are now seeing. And this is not just a problem for Europe. It matters to us in Britain, as well as to the United States and Asia.

At last year’s Group of 20 meetings in London, the participating countries agreed to stabilize the international banking system and to stimulate the world economy. Further progress was made in Pittsburgh six months later. There was real political will to do what was necessary.

That momentum has now been lost, and it will not be regained without greater involvement from the major economies. Decisive action, confronting the underlying causes of this crisis, is now imperative.

Alistair Darling, a member of the British Parliament, was the chancellor of the Exchequer from 2007 to 2010.


The 'Real Jew' Debate

By Roger Cohen

IHT, Dec. 9, 2010

LONDON — Ira Stup was raised in Philadelphia attending Jewish day school and camps. He found his home in the Jewish community and was “intoxicated with Jewish democracy” as framed in the ideals of Israel’s foundation. Now he has returned deeply troubled from a one-year fellowship based in Tel Aviv.

The worst single incident occurred on Ben Yehuda Street in central Jerusalem. Stup, 24, a Columbia graduate, was returning from a rally with a couple of friends carrying a banner that said, “Zionists are not settlers.” A group of religious Jews wearing yarmulkes approached, spat on them and started punching.

“About 20 people saw the whole thing and just watched. They were screaming, ‘You are not real Jews.’ Most of them were American. It was one of the most disappointing moments of my life — you can disagree as much as you want with a banner but to allow violence and not react is outrageous. For me it was a turning point. Nobody previously had said I was not a real Jew.”

The view that American Jews supportive of Israel but critical of its policies are not “real Jews” is, however, widespread. Israel-right-or-wrong continues to be the core approach of major U.S. Jewish organizations, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

To oppose the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank (“Zionists are not settlers”), or question growing anti-Arab bigotry as personified by Israel’s rightist foreign minister and illustrated by the “loyalty oath” debate, or ask whether the “de-legitimization” of Israel might not have something to do with its own actions is to incur these organizations’ steady ire.

Debate remains stifled, despite Peter Beinart’s important piece this year in the New York Review of Books describing growing alienation among young American Jews asked to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” Oh, sure, you can find all sorts of opinions about Israel all over the place; America remains an open society. But Aipac has systematically shunned a debate with J Street, the upstart Jewish organization that supports Israel, opposes the settlements and attempts to reclaim the progressive ideals of Zionism by saying that the systematic oppression of the Palestinians undermines Israel.

“These organizations’ view remains essentially that any time you engage in an activity critical of Israel you are trying to destroy the state of Israel,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, told me. “Here are all these Jewish kids being raised on great liberal values at Hebrew schools — walks for the homeless, Darfur, AIDS — but God forbid we talk about what’s happening in Israel! It’s a dynamic that cuts off discourse.”

The issues are worth debating at the highest level. Middle East talks have just broken down again, precisely over settlements. President Barack Obama had virtually no domestic constituency for his attempt to denounce the continued growth of settlements as unacceptable and as undermining a two-state peace at its core: land.

Obama was left dangling, more so after the midterms, and had to retreat. This is not merely a failure of the parties. It is a failure of U.S. politics and the way those politics are straitjacketed by an Israel-right-or-wrong mantra that leads inexorably, over time, to one state with more Arabs in it than Jews. What then will remain of the Zionist dream?

Stup’s research took him often to the West Bank. He would come back to Tel Aviv and talk about Palestinian humiliation he’d seen and found that Israelis seemed unaware or unconcerned. He read in one newspaper that 53 percent of Israeli Jews would encourage Israeli Arabs to leave — “and I saw and felt that anecdotally.”

A painful question hardened: “Seeing what the occupation looked like, and given the ideals of Jewish democracy I was raised on, I wondered: Could Israel be failing and could we American Jews be defending that failure?”

It’s time to think again and, above all, think openly. Last month, Ben-Ami was scheduled to speak at a Reform Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth Avodah, in Newton, near Boston. At the last minute the event got canceled because of what the rabbi described as strong opposition from a “small, influential group” within the congregation.

Jewish groups, or Hillel societies, on U.S. campuses sometimes discover they will lose their biggest donors if they allow a J Street youth group to form within them.

Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans, was heckled by protesters holding banners suggesting the occupation and loyalty oaths de-legitimize Israel. Their banners were ripped (with teeth) and the young Jews dragged out. Where an important conversation could be held, confrontation prevails.

Stup, moved to act, has joined J Street. This decision caused tremendous pressure on his family back in Philadelphia. One very close family friend came over to his mother’s house recently and accused him of “poisoning the minds of young Jews.” The friendship has been strained to breaking point.

“Why,” Stup asked me, “is it poisoning minds to encourage them to think critically about the actions of the Israeli government?”