David Mandler

Thoughts, feelings, reactions on Hungarian, American, Israeli, Jewish issues

Month: March, 2013

Incompetent Petty Autocrats: Peacock-Dancing Hungarian Style

Since 1848, March 15th has been a special day to remember in Hungary. It was on that day that the rebellion against Habsburg absolutist rule in Hungary began, ballooning into a full-scale war of independence. It was on that day that the fiery young poet, Sándor Petőfi, emerged from the shadows as a major voice. Sadly, March 15th, 2013, will enter into Hungarian history books as the day on which the utter incompetence and subsequent public relations machinations of the current FIDESZ-ruled Hungarian government in two separate fields became obvious: 1) in emergency response and 2) the selection of candidates for Hungary’s highest governmental awards.

When on March 11th the Hungarian parliament had passed a package of amendments, containing most of the laws Hungary’s Supreme Court had previously struck down, some hoped to see a massive outpouring of public anger on March 15th. Instead, Hungary was blanketed with snow and fierce winds the weather service had predicted correctly earlier in the week. Thus, instead of crowds of people demonstrating against this blatant attack against Hungarian democracy marching in the streets of Budapest, crowds of motorists found themselves stuck on a major highway towards Vienna. Having heard no useful updates about road conditions and even worse, false information in Hungarian public radio about imminent emergency assistance, thousands of people spent up to twenty hours in their cars, waiting for the emergency services to appear. Not until the dividing rails were cut could cars free themselves from the dangerous gridlock that had the potential for turning into a major disaster. With the help of a column of snow plowers from Austria (on March 15th when Hungary usually celebrates its independence from Austria) and a batch of tanks, Hungarian roads were slowly cleared.

The next day, instead of a letter of resignation, Hungary’s interior minister, another Sándor, Dr. Sándor Pintér, congratulated himself (not in a poetic form) as well as the chief of emergency services (much despised by the rank a file of Hungarian fire fighters) for a job well done.  The prime minister followed up the day after with the release of a short video clip (that many have claimed was staged) on Facebook in which he is heard (but not seen) driving a car, picking up a young couple from Transylvania and returning them to their truck amidst small talk. The authenticity of this video clip is still in dispute.

March 15th is also the date on which Hungary recognizes outstanding artists, journalists etc. for their contributions. This year, it was no different. What produced international condemnations was not Hungary’s response to the snow emergency, but rather the awarding of the prestigious Táncsics prize for journalism to the 52-year-old anchor of a program called World Panorama, Ferenc Szaniszló, Now, usually it is none of anyone’s business whom a sovereign nation’s government decides to award. But when a member of the European Union awards a person who regularly pontificates in a calm and articulate manner  not only on Hungarian events in the distant past and present but also international events such as 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (just to name a few) with a constant and never-changing ominous conclusion about dark, international conspiracies more fitting for an inmate in a lunatic asylum than a TV studio (it’s the Jews, stupid!) then the United States and Israel cannot remain silent. Sure enough, when Szaniszló’s unsavory track record was aired the day of the announcement, the minister responsible for the award, Zoltán Balog quickly reversed himself, incredibly citing his ignorance of Szaniszló’s virulent output of recent years despite the fact that the vetting committee had rejected Szaniszló’s nomination, and asked Szaniszló to voluntarily return the award. The offended journalist acquiesced on March 20th in his TV program with a torrent of withering criticism reserved for those who, in his benighted mind, would silence his demented narratives he labels as the truth (Israel (i.e. the Jews) and the U.S.).

Much less publicized and noted by the international community was the decision to award two equally unsavory individuals governmental medals of high honor, János Petrás and Kornél Bakay. The former is the bassist and composer of the virulently nationalistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic band, Kárpátia who composed the banned right-wing Hungarian Guards. The latter is an archeologist, academic, and museum director, Kornél Bakay. The now 72-year-old Bakay, who ran twice for parliament under the aegis of the now defunct nationalist party, MIEP, has a long track record of anti-Jewish activity. It was Bakay who declared that Jesus was not a Jew, called into question the existence of a Jewish State during the era of King David and Solomon, and asserted that the Jews were responsible for the slave trade in the Middle Ages. It was also the same Bakay who, in his capacity of museum director, organized a controversial  exhibition ten years ago about Miklós Horthy and the Hungarian Nazi, Ferenc Szálasi that created such a scandal that it had to be closed prematurely.

In the absence of public protest, Minister Balog has not asked these two individuals to return their medals of honor. He is unlikely to do so unless equally forceful pressure is applied from Hungarian civic groups and, more significantly, internationally significant organizations and governments. Mr. Balog’s imitation of Prime Minster Orbán’s famous peacock dance intended to deceive others into believing that he is doing what they want when he’s simply doing what he had always wanted has so far degenerated into a public relations nightmare. After all, Mr. Balog has managed to offend just about everyone (the left for awarding Szaniszló, and the right for asking him to return his award). Yet, Balog’s debacle is Orbán’s victory. By acting quickly to issue a letter in which Balog asks Szaniszló to return the Táncsics prize, he has successfully deflected criticism from his boss Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the person who should really be in the cross hairs of criticism, the guiding force behind driving Hungary from the path of democracy into one of autocracy. With one award returned and two left in place, Mr. Orbán may feel that he has successfully deceived the international community into believing that the Hungarian government does not award extreme right wingers (meaning anti-Semites) prestigious prizes when, in fact, it does.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the nomination of Imre Juhász, a former member of an extreme right wing group of lawyers formed by the virulently anti-Semitic Krisztina Morvai (now an MP in the European Parliament), to the Constitutional Court. This development is extremely worrisome even though the Constitutional Court has been eviscerated under the new Fundamental Law (which no longer forms a stable constitution as the FIDESZ party may continue to amend it as it sees fit). For anyone in doubt, it should be even clearer that Imre Juhász is a bridge between the extreme right wing and FIDESZ since the anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, has enthusiastically supported his nomination.

While international organizations and governments should continue to raise their voices against rewarding people who foster an atmosphere of deep distrust and even hatred and institute protests with teeth against the evisceration of Hungarian democratic institutions, the results of such pressure in Hungary will indubitably reenergize neo-Nazis in Hungary who can point a finger at “outside Zionist forces” trying the “meddle” in Hungarian internal politics.

One thing is certain: as the weather warms up, one can expect to see a renewal of street protests in Hungary. How effective (and violent) these protest will be is still in question. Judging by the government’s deplorable response to the snow emergency, the supporters of democracy can only hope that the petty autocrats of Hungary will fail not only because of public protests but also because of their own demonstrated gross incompetence. Lack of performance coupled with the unstoppable spreading information in real time revealing the arrogance of government officials who claim victory even in defeat shared on social media sites that have so far escaped the far-reaching tentacles of the Hungarian government will certainly serve to foment discontent in Hungarian society.

Mr. Orbán must be grateful that Sándor Petőfi’s inspiring poem was not declaimed this year from the steps of the National Museum on March 15th. The lines “Rise, Hungarian, the country calls you/time has come: it’s now or never/should we be slaves or free men/that’s the question: make your choice now!” [my translation] would have sounded especially threatening.

And timely.


Slowly Dying in Jail: for Jonathan Pollard, Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

With President Obama’s first trip to Israel as president approaching, the fate of Jonathan Pollard has resurfaced  in Israel with tens of thousands of average Israelis signing a petition to free the former American intelligence agent convicted of spying for Israel. For the last twenty-seven years, Mr. Pollard has been incarcerated in US jails. Just two years ago, Mr. Pollard was denied a request to attend his father’s funeral. In the past few months, his health has rapidly deteriorated, leaving no choice but to allow for his transfer to a hospital. Since then, he has been returned to his jail cell. Along with thousands of Israelis and Americans, among them former CIA director, James Woolsey and former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, urge the president to pardon Mr. Pollard as a humanitarian gesture.

With twenty-seven years behind bars, Mr. Pollard has served more than five times as long a jail sentence as any other spy convicted of similar offenses. This assertion may seem to be an exaggeration, but it is James Woolsey, the former CIA director who had advised against freeing Pollard when Woolsey was serving President Clinton, who has stated this recently now in support of releasing Jonathan Pollard. Opposition to such a move from other members of the intelligence community has reportedly put efforts to obtain a presidential pardon from Clinton and George W. Bush effectively neutralized the periodic pressure applied by Pollard supporters.

Since the case against Pollard is still classified, only those with the proper level of security clearance are privy to all the details. Amongst them, an impressive list of mostly former officials have been supporting Pollard’s release. Former Secretary of States Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have both advocated Pollard’s release. (http://matzav.com/henry-kissinger-calls-on-president-obama-to-free-jonathan-pollard)

What more can be written on this subject? So many words have been uttered, so many sighs, so many tears have been shed for so many years. As King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:2 has put it, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…a time to kill, and a time to heal…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

I believe this is the time to speak. I believe this is the time to heal. If you agree, I urge you to sign the petition below and send this article along with the petition to as many people as you can. Let us urge President Obama to be the healer of this still throbbing wound.


Up in Arms: Dinesh D’Souza and the Neoconservative Farce Ten Years Later

Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Obama film, 2016: Obama’s America, released last year became a very successful enterprise, proving that D’Souza is still a force to be reckoned with in conservative circles. The ideas represented by D’Souza, while no longer in ascendancy politically speaking, seem to inspire nostalgia in some conservative circles. So, in order to remind us of the ideas as best represented by the so-called neoconservatives our country experimented in the Bush Administration with such disastrous consequences, I think it is time for me to publish an article I wrote almost ten years if for nothing else but to see how much our world has changed in ten years even as many of our attitudes about the place the United States should occupy in the world has remained the same.

In his exceedingly populist presentation at the Smith Family Foundation debate on 10/14/03, Dinesh D’Souza managed to conflate and confuse various arguments so thoroughly that his points became insupportable, transparent, and contrived, exposing how dangerous they ultimately are to the welfare of the United States of America. D’Souza’s contorted logic and feel-good assertions, all drawing on the energy and fears generated by the horror of 9/11, could be dismissed as a utopist’s dreams of a good-willed idealist if not for the tragic fact that his cohorts are currently wielding a disproportionately large degree of influence in the Bush Administration and are causing enormous damage to the USA economically, morally, and individually. To argue, as D’Souza does, that “liberty”, which is a notoriously pliable abstract notion in the first place, could and should be forced onto nations the political and governmental organization of which differs from the US model is not only naïve (because of its blatant disregard for the right of each nation to determine its own form of government based on its cultural, religious, and traditional values), but is also impossible to execute, his historical models of Germany and Japan—incidentally, neither of which applies—notwithstanding. And yet, this is precisely what D’Souza proposes as the moral obligation of the USA. His stated aim, according to which the US should embrace all nations suffering under a system that is not based on individual freedoms, sounds good and is no doubt receives frequent applause, but it reveals itself as most pernicious when put into practice because it conceals other motives grounded in greed that have ultimately proven to be the ruin of all empires. Moreover, almost all of D’Souza’s so-called arguments for carrying on the neoconservative agenda of imperial expansion are fallacious and ultimately counterproductive.

D’Souza’s major assertion is that the fledgling US Empire is fundamentally different from all other empires that came before. Yet, when one examines the basic function of all empires that have come and ended up in that proverbial dust-bin of history, one discovers that the underlying and fundamental motivation of nations to acquire an empire, even when intellectuals and interested partisans of the conquering nations loudly articulate other reasons, has been economic self-interest that is maximized by bringing an increasing number of peoples and their natural resources under the umbrella of a single economic power. In what ways does the US, according to D’Souza, constitute an empire today? Taking the fact that the US has active military bases in a 125 countries as a given, his definition is that the US Empire is based upon values that are grounded in liberty, democracy, and self-governed individuality and, therefore, is benevolent. Quite significantly, he completely ignores the manifest economic interest in creating new fronts for the US-based corporations, many of which were generous donors of the current President in 2000. To provide a thorough critique and analysis of D’Souza’s definition of the US Empire is beyond the scope of this article, but it is not difficult to demonstrate how its cynically conceived self-congratulatory posture misleads those less familiar with actual American history and the present reality as opposed to America’s mythic image. Yet, lest I be labeled an Anti-American, I want to indicate emphatically that I most fervently admire the ideals America represents, toward the full realization of which it is still marching and the many honest entrepreneurs who use their skills to build up and sustain companies of all sizes. Of course, the ideals of Jefferson, which to some extent were imported from European revolutionaries of the 18th century, have become thoroughly entrenched in Europe as well, thereby completely undermining the notion that the US has a monopoly on “liberty” with the obvious difference that no other nation on Earth currently possesses the raw military might the US at present does. Does D’Souza completely discount the economic benefits a US Empire would accrue from its new “colonies”? For an empire without colonies is no empire at all. Is he advancing a policy of “liberation” based on purely idealistic motives and his infinite faith in militarism in the service of liberty? He clearly states that the US should compel by military force if necessary other nations to accept a political system that favors the “universal” values that the US represents. Yet, in his rush to show the greatness of American “liberty,” he presents himself as a materialistic believer of total individual autonomy. Perhaps with the exception of an absolute ruler—who himself is subject to the intrigues and internal conspiracies of his court—no individual in any society can justifiably claim to be in total control of his life (the law, disease, aging, the actions of others and finally death being the chief culprits). Nonetheless, D’Souza shamelessly promotes this, perhaps, foundational fantasy of American life. On his list of benefits that self-governed individualism would occasion, he includes the rejection of the notion that somebody else can direct people’s lives (“my husband cannot tell me what to do”) and even includes the rejection of Allah (i.e. “Allah cannot tell me what to do”) whose will as codified in Islam, according to D’Souza, should be ignored in favor of his phantasmagoric vision of complete self-willed individualism. Not even John Ashcroft or George W. Bush, both devout Evangelical Christians, would agree to this view of godless self-magnification, much less would this materialistic vision have any chance of success in Islamic countries with or without military force. His muddy doctrine of “liberty” without bounds, however, has already crept into American policy, at least as expressed by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld when he reacted to the looting in the “liberated” Iraq by saying, “Freedom is untidy.”

Is the American Empire, then, not based upon economic interests? Or is it not, rather, merely the mechanism of the proposed exploitation of the new colonies’ natural resources that differs? That no overseers, masters, or colonial administrators (except in Iraq for now) are present in the colonies should put the average American at ease. But what should we call companies and corporations such as Bechtel, Halliburton, MCI and others that will gain enormous profits in the short run—and if entrenched, for the foreseeable future? Are they not masters of the economic destinies of millions of “natives”? Who will benefit from their heavily subsidized presence in the colonies? Most assuredly, it will not be the American tax payer whose money, 80 billion dollars of which has already been spent and another 87 billion to go for now, has gone to secure those contracts, and not the soldiers, marines, and army personnel who die or are wounded, leaving widows, orphans, and grieving families behind. How does the US Empire differ from the British, Ottoman, Russian, Mongolian, or French (under Napoleon), all of which had various mechanisms of economic exploitation and were vastly different from one another while sharing the basic principle, i.e. the drive for economic supremacy over other, less powerful nations? A cursory overview of the history of British colonialism, which also based its legitimacy upon a similar ideology of superiority complex, then termed the civilizing mission, should suffice.

Yet if D’Souza’s beloved US Empire is only a metaphor, as it becomes clear from his use of the term empire of ideals, then how does he propose to force his idea of liberty on those nations that are still “deprived of” American-style democracy? Naturally, we would have to forget the fiasco of the 2000 presidential elections, the memory of which is still vivid in the minds of many people in most nations outside the US, and the post-9/11 legislative movement embodied in the Patriot Act to restrict the very liberties D’Souza intends to spread. But even if one were to presume that US democracy is healthy and is still better than that which exists outside of the US—which assumption is patently false and, again, is merely the self-congratulatory impulse of the ignorant chauvinist—one would be fatally wrong to assume that, using the aggressive tactics of the self-aggrandizing neocons, it will be heartily embraced by the Muslim world in which the only truly democratic state is the non-Arabic Turkey. A case study of how Turkey became democratic would be a fascinating illustration of how a Muslim nation has dealt with the challenges of Western Europe. From such a study, it would become clear that the westernization of this country was a gradual process with some early failures as a result of the West’s impatience to remake Turkey in its own image. Regarding the economically hemorrhaging Ottoman Empire, Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian expert in Turkish and Central Asian affairs of the 19th century and a friend of England, observed that in the Turkey of mid-last century, “there was no sound basis to work upon, and the introduction of modern civilization was forced on far too hastily, for the evident purpose of satisfying the craving impatience of the West” (136, Story of My Struggles). One only need to substitute Turkey with Iraq and other countries on the hit-list to see the parallels.

If the free expression of the will of the people is paramount then would the neocons accept the choice of Iraqis who would very likely empower the Mullahs in their first free elections? It is well known that the Shiite religious authorities are now reasserting their influence as the anti-religious secularist police state of Saddam is eliminated and are, indeed, in a very good position to be elected. If, however, these advocates of “liberty” were to reject those results, would it not merely expose the fact that the guiding principle of neocons is arrogance, that is their belief that they know better than anyone else how any nation should be governed and if a nation refuses to comply, they have a right to force such a regime change by military power? For an illustration, one only has to examine the arrogant and dictatorial style of Donald Rumsfeld as he expressed his opinion on the subject in an interview to the AP reprinted online on April 25, 2003. Mr. Rumsfeld, when asked whether or not the US would accept such an outcome, replied, “If you’re suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn’t going to happen.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2975333.stm). But what our recent experiences in Iraq show is that arrogance coupled with incompetence leads to looting, chaos and disaster. So, the debate about the expansion of the American Empire, at the moment, remains an intellectual exercise as a result of the (unforeseen?) complications of putting a neoconservative principle into practice. Like other neocons, D’Souza, however, still seems to cling to his thoroughly discredited assumptions that are buttressed by unbounded arrogance and a misguided grasping after the wrong mission, which only fuels and energizes the real threat: the spread of Muslim fundamentalism the growing popularity of which is, in part, a reaction to the now stated US imperial ambitions.

Lastly, I am going to engage in some populist rhetoric myself in order to reciprocate that of Dinesh D’Souza. Let me first admit that I believe in a strong US military that is capable of defeating any threat even though I disagree that the current inflated military budget is necessary. Still, because I am a real supporter of the military, I am opposed to sending soldiers without any knowledge of Arabic to act as policemen and civil servants in Iraq while living in tents exposed to the heat for a year and am moreover opposed to seeing an increasing number of them being maimed and killed unnecessarily. At the end of the event at the Smith Family Foundation debate, I proposed a challenge to Mr. D’Souza that he ignored, and so I will repeat it here: Since your entire system of neoconservative beliefs, Mr. D’Souza, is based on arbitrary and self-appointed violence executed by the military— I want to ask you to enlist in the military in order to fill in the shoes of one of the soldiers killed in Iraq for a year and thereby personally demonstrate your great courage and convictions by forcing liberty on the Iraqi people with your very own Humvee and other weaponry since your verbal arsenal as put into practice has, so far, only exploded their good-will towards the US. I think the families of those killed in this reckless and totally unnecessary war would be forever grateful to see a neoconservative of such prominence as you in active military service. And if you are too squeamish to go to Iraq, will you solemnly pledge to enlist and exchange your Washington think-tank for a real one in order to be amongst the first in the army or the marines to lead the literal march to your potentially unlimited next targets: Syria, Saudi-Arabia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, China etc. etc. etc.?

Sing! 2013 Stuyvesant High School Style

The lights finally go down. Sing! 2013 at Stuyvesant High School, the fortieth since the first one, begins. Those who have never been to a Sing! performance can scarcely imagine the spectacular showcasing of dancing, singing, and acting talent that Sing! represents. Indeed, that a high school student-conceived and executed project could contain moments of pure theatrical pleasure in New York City public schools that participate in Sing! is worthy of acknowledgment and applause.

Stuyvesant High School, long considered to be the crown jewel of the New York City public school system, has been in the news in the past few years for various unfortunate reasons. Since last summer, when I speak to people about working at Stuyvesant High School, the first thing they usually respond with is something like this: “oh, the cheaters’ school?”

Each time I hear this, I wince. Cheaters’ school? Is that what Stuyvesant High School’s reputation is now reduced to? Aren’t people aware of the many successes of the debate and speech team? The robotics team? The various athletics teams? The incredibly large number of semi-finalists at the prestigious Intel Science Competition and the only finalist New York City sent to Washington, all hailing from Stuyvesant High School? Surely, nobody would argue that a school of cheaters can do so well in so many fields? Then, I wonder whether or not I’m being too defensive. After all, Stuyvesant High School is a place of high achievers with a great deal of pressure to do well academically. This pressure, perhaps, is one of the factors that students would claim as the primary reason for taking shortcuts–that is, cheating. Cheating is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it must be fought vigorously! Yet, the premier math and science high school of New York City has something to be proud of in addition to the list of achievement mentioned above: its performing arts program.

If you don’t believe it, go ahead and buy tickets to Sing! 2013 and see it for yourself.

You will see a progression from the quirky cartoonish innocence of the SophFrosh performance to the semi-sexually charged under-the-sea adventure of the Juniors, ending in the infernal regions of high school life as best represented by Hades as seen by the Seniors. It is fascinating to see the change in perspectives that students seem to undergo within a few short years. What is even more gratifying is the knowledge that so many kids with different talents related to the performing arts attend a high school the reputation of which is built on math and science.

The SophFrosh, the youngest of the contenders, have mastered some of the dancing and performing skills necessary to make an outstanding performance (with ample room for further development, of course). As celebrity detectives from various eras meet to solve a mystery, the audience is trying to figure out the mystery of microphones that do not work and why it takes so long to transition from one scene to the next. But all of the discomfort and unease is forgotten when the carefully choreographed tap dancers and singers appear on stage and mesmerize the audience. In one word, one may say that the SophFrosh presentation is very cute.

The Juniors feature a tiger mother of a sea queen with a self-absorbed and sarcastic mermaid princess (with a very good singing voice) in search of freedom. Obviously, this theme is one to which many teenagers, especially at Stuyvesant, can relate with ease. The show includes suggestive dances by exotically dressed girls as well as a martial arts inspired dance of Siamese Fighting fish composed almost exclusively of Asian boys. Even the most callous theater goer has no choice but to admire the energetic and well-coordinated dances the high schoolers put on (even as a shoe inexplicable comes loose and is thrown aside, leaving one of the dancing boys with only one shoe on for half the dance with a visibly amused face). Nothing seems more natural than the inter-racial romance between the African-American pirate captain and the Caucasian mermaid princess–even as the final outcome of such a union is not known. (Where would they live, one wonders?)

The Seniors conclude the evening with the unveiling of an elaborate and rather impressive set. Despite the school nurse’s valiant efforts, the panacea for all illness, namely, the ice pack, is not sufficient to save the ruler of the underworld. The search for his successor, then, is under way, with a new sin, the eighth deadly sin (who is not, by the way, seen as plagiarism), entering the ring. I could not help but notice that by senior year, the quirky innocence and experimentally sexual gestures of the previous years are replaced by a much darker and cynical sensibility.

Which performance is the best? I am not the one to decide that here.  One thing is clear: the dancers, the singers, and actors–not to mention the superbly full-sounding band (in the case of the Seniors)–have all practiced a lot  to pull remarkably good shows together in just four weeks.

Since two more performances remain (this Friday, 3/1, and Saturday, 3/2), I will not give a fuller description of the plot.

All I will say is this: congratulations Stuyvesant students. You have once again demonstrated that not only can you do math and science but  you can also play music, produce a show, dance and sing, Stuy High Style.

Update 3/2/13
Here are some links to the performances:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u0141g07Zg (especially from 6:44)