Table Talk For the Holidays

By Leonard Fein

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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A few questions for dinner-table conversation during the holiday season:

1. The cultural gap between France and the United States has never been more blatant than now, as the French move toward banishing the wearing in public schools of kippot, Muslim headscarves and large crosses. That proposal, vehemently endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, reportedly has the backing of 69% of the French people. Yet try the same proposal here in the United States, and there is every reason to believe that an even larger majority would be outraged by it. (I say that and immediately wonder: If the proposal here were limited to Muslim dress, might the results be different?) Most of us would think it intolerable — in addition, obviously, to being unconstitutional — for the government to intrude so rudely into people’s freedom of religious expression.

Questions: If indeed, as Chirac and others maintain, the explicit secularity of the French constitution requires the proposed policy, why limit it to public schools? How does one distinguish between a public school and the Champs Elysees? Doesn’t the logic of the argument apply across the board?

Still, this is France, not Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is hard simply to dismiss with contempt the French choice to violate what we know here as a First Amendment right, the free exercise of religion. The French have a long history of insisting on Frenchness, and in the case at hand there’s plainly less a fear of religious expression than of Islamism. Kippot and crosses were apparently more or less thrown in to avoid the appearance of coming down on the 8% of French citizens who are Muslims. Chirac’s statement endorsing the restrictive legislation, in the name of social fraternity and equality, included a promise to come down hard, very hard, on expressions of bigotry — especially, he said, against Muslims and Jews. Never mind that one presumably unintended consequence of the new ban will be to drive many minority students to private parochial schools, where, in the case of Muslim students, they will likely learn quite unfraternal lessons.

Are there absolute values at stake here, or are we required to respect different cultural choices? (Leo Strauss once wrote, “If all values are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste.) But if we are required to respect cultural choices different from our own, aren’t the French required to accept the religious expressions their own citizens choose?

2. It has now been widely reported that Israel, back in 1992, had a very well-developed plan to assassinate Saddam. But for a tragic accident, it might well have executed the plan — and the Iraqi president. On November 5, 1992, however, during a simulation of the assassination, the unit that was supposed to carry out the attack mistakenly fired off a live rather than a dummy shell, killing five Israeli soldiers. (Ehud Barak, then chief of staff of the Israeli military, later Israel’s prime minister, was present at the exercise. His post-tragedy behavior remained a source of controversy for years thereafter: Barak immediately mounted a helicopter and departed the area. Some say he fled to avoid any association with the tragedy.)

Questions: Suppose the training exercise had gone well, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had approved the operation, and it had been successfully carried out. Although in retrospect, it would have spared the international community the problem of figuring out how to depose (or dispose of) the tyrant, and spared the United States the burden of invasion/liberation and occupation/nation building (as well as many billions of dollars), such retrospective benefits would not have been immediately understood or appreciated.

The assassination of foreign leaders is by and large regarded as a no-no, for fear of kicking off a rash of such events. Would Israel not have been blamed for violating the general understanding, blamed mercilessly as an outlaw state? (And would Israel’s defenders here not have responded by alleging antisemitism as the real source of the anger?) Remember Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, which now looks prescient but back then was universally denounced? Assassinating Saddam would have evoked a reaction 10, 50, 100 times greater. And suppose the operation had failed, the Israelis taken captive in Iraq? So, is it a good thing or a bad that the operation was aborted?

3. We celebrate the capture of Saddam — with whom, until he invaded Kuwait in 1990, we had very cozy relations. But Saddam was no less a tyrant then than later. Was it that he was “our tyrant” then, by virtue of his war against Iran — and also by virtue of Iraq’s oil reserves? More generally, how far does out commitment to the spread of democracy and the suppression of tyranny go?

Our track record is, to put it mildly, not all that impressive. (Think Idi Amin in Uganda, think Central America, think Rwanda; think, for that matter, Saudi Arabia.) How much of the reluctance of Iraqis to celebrate America’s arrival derives from their memories of the pre-1990 period, our abandonment of the Kurds and the Shiites after the first Gulf War, and our responsibility for the very onerous sanctions they suffered from 1990 onward — as also from their awareness that when we stretch out our hands, they notice the dirt under our fingernails?

4. Did you watch HBO’s presentation of “Angels in America”? You still can; it will be rebroadcast often. It is about many things, but most of all, it is about choosing life. Among televisions very finest hour — six hours, more precisely. A nice way to start the new year.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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