Sanctions on Russia and Anti-Semitism

Sunday, March 20th, 2022

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What Happens Next is a podcast where an expert is given just SIX minutes to present his argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

Today’s topics are Sanctions on Russia and Anti-Semitism.

Our Speakers are Rory Macfarquhar and Ruth Wisse.


Larry Bernstein:

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next is a podcast where the speaker gets to present his argument in just Six Minutes and that is followed by a question-and-answer period for deeper engagement.

This episode is What Happens Next’s two-year anniversary. I would never have conceived that my podcast would have gone on this long. I am doing it because I very much enjoy meeting new guests, engaging with different topics, and conversing with my friends afterwards about what we learned from the latest show.

Today’s discussion will be on two topics: Economic Sanctions on Russia and Anti-Semitism.

Our first speaker will be Rory MacFarquhar who is a close friend of mine. Rory worked in the Obama White House where he helped craft the sanctions on Russian oligarchs. I want to find out why this time we are going all-in with sanctions and will we give them up during the peace negotiations.

Our second speaker will be Ruth Wisse who is an Emeritus Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard. Ruth will speak about anti-Semitism, the growing intolerance of Zionism on college campuses, the flaws inherent in Holocaust education, and why Jews need to focus on achievement and abstain from being the victim.

You can find transcripts for this program and all of our previous episodes on our website, and you can listen on Podbean, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Let’s begin with our first speaker Rory Macfarquhar.


Rory Macfarquhar

Topic: All-in with Sanctions
Bio: Rory served six years in Obama’s NSC and Treasury Department


Larry, you asked me to talk about the unexpected effectiveness of the West sanctions response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In contrast, you were implying to our response of the annexation of Crimea in 2014-2015, when I was involved in designing the sanctions in the U.S. government.

First point to make about sanctions as a tool of foreign policy is that they should be prospective, aiming to change behavior in the future, rather than just a way of punishing bad behavior that’s already happening. To be credible, the country has to follow through on these threats.

Biden, long before the invasion began, made clear that the United States was not going to get into a direct shooting war with Russia over Ukraine, he had to issue loud threats about the costs that the United States would impose on Russia if it were to invade. When the invasion began, the United States and other G7 countries acted very swiftly.

The contrasts between this time and 2014-2015, back then, we tried to make distinctions among Russians, those who were Putin’s friends and allies, and those who were not. Distinctions even among the oligarchs. Our stated goal was not to hurt Russia, or the Russian people, or the Russian economy, but to target Putin’s friends and allies, the so-called cronies among the oligarchs who owed their wealth entirely to their relationship with Putin.

Similarly, we targeted the state-owned enterprises and institutions that were the pillars of the Putin regime but did not go after private companies or the Russian economy as a whole.

A second factor that acted as a constraint in 2014-2015 was that we wanted to move as closely as possible in lockstep with the EU. This wasn’t just because of the political symbolism of trans-Atlantic unity. More importantly, trade and investment flows are simply much greater between Europe and Russia than between the United States and Russia. So, coordinated sanctions had much more of an impact on Russia.

The EU had a lot of economic sensitivities for that very reason. Most obviously, anything that could affect the flow of oil and gas, and we took great pains to accommodate Europe’s red lines to remain coordinated.

This time it’s different. First of all, the magnitude of Russia’s transgression has been infinitely greater. Second, Ukraine is run by a government that commands much more international sympathy than its predecessor in 2014-2015. And finally, the EU has been in the lead rather than a constraint on the imposition of sanctions.

There are a lot of explanations including the political dynamics within Europe and the specific leaders in Brussels. Another factor is arguably the EU’s skepticism and all of the intelligence that the U.S. was sharing with them for the months leading up to the invasion, which put a lot of pressure on EU leaders when the invasion actually happened to catch up and respond with force.

I don’t think anyone anticipated the spontaneous response by the corporate sector in the West, much of it above and beyond the legal requirements of sanctions. This reflects, in part, the rising ESG and stakeholder capitalism in recent years, and the heightened responsiveness of CEOs to pressure from a wide range of internal and external interest groups.

This time, the sanctions have not sought to target bad guys in Russia. They’re targeting the Russian economy writ large. Everyone in Russia is being treated as an accomplice in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. There’s not been any effort to drive divisions within the Russian elite. No perhaps naïve belief that anyone is going to go to Putin and beg him to stop the war because they’ve lost some money.

Instead, the goal is to weaken Russia, to reduce the revenue available to wage war, to force Putin to expend time and resources on domestic repression and economic support rather than on foreign adventurism.

So far, the sanctions have not stopped Putin’s armies, but there’s no question that Russia is feeling these costs, and that they will be a factor in how long this war continues.

Rory Macfarquhar Transcript:

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Ruth Wisse

Topic: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism on College Campuses, at the NYT and in Congress
Bio: Professor Emeritus in Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard
Reading: Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation is here


Today, I’ll talk about Anti-Semitism. Do I want to? Not particularly. After a lifetime, I’m tired of having to pay it close attention, and maybe you are, too. But that’s only because Anti-Semitism shows no signs of tiring. Harassing Jews is fun. As you can see by its name, this is the only modern ideology that’s entirely negative, inviting some form of aggression against others. It’s the politics of the pointing finger, holding Jews responsible for the assault against them, whereas other political movements like socialism or democracy promise some improvement, and then have to deliver.

Anti-Semitism harnesses the energy of attack, and the removal of Jews yields rewards of property or influence or positions that they are forced to abandon. Anti-Semitism also offers something even better than an excuse for aggression: an explanation for whatever is going wrong. Wilhelm Marr coined the term in the 1870s to define Jews as the threat to Germany. He didn’t trust modern liberal democracy, which he called a Jewish scheme to concur Germany from within, saying, “Are you unemployed? It’s because the Jews have your jobs. Are you poor? Well, the Rothschilds are stealing your money.” And so on.

Decline of traditional authority, overcrowded cities, rising crime, it’s the Jews, stupid. And the explanations that Marr provided for Germany, others adapted for their countries and their needs. Jews are a small people with a hugely inflated image, who want only to be accepted by those among whom they live. Since they have no incentive for counter aggression, they are the perfect foil. The no fail target.

Anti-Semitism is not hate. Calling Anti-Semitism hate is like calling COVID a summer cold. Anti-Semitism is the organization of politics against the Jews, and it is virally adaptive. Think of how many different factions it has served and continues to inspire. The first politicians in Vienna were elected on a platform of Anti-Semitism in the 1890s, and Adolf Hitler rode that movement to victory in Germany in 1933. Nationalists called Jews the dangerous aliens. Nazis said they polluted the race.

But Anti-Semitism was no less useful to the political left. Its founder, Karl Marx, said that the God of the Jews is money. Marxists blame the Jews for capitalism. Socialists identify Jews as exploiters of the proletariat. When Bolsheviks took over Russia and established the communist international on the idea that the world proletariat would join together in a unified world, they identified Zionism as the chief spoiler. How dare the reactionary Jews return to the land of Israel when we insist that everyone transcend their national states?

So, Anti-Semitism of the right blamed Jews for living among the nations. Anti-Zionism of the left blamed Jews for returning to their homeland. They called the Jews of Israel imperialists, colonizers, exploiters. And if this sounds familiar, it’s only because of how many others have adopted the same strategy. What possible use could Anti-Zionism have been to Arab leaders of 21 countries with more land than the United States of America?

Well, are you kidding? Think of the functions of anti-Jewish politics, the politics of the pointing finger. It unites otherwise contentious parties in a coalition of grievance and blame. It deflects attention from domestic crises, redirects frustration to a common enemy. Blame the Jews for displacing the Palestinian Arabs, and no one will blame you for displacing and persecuting the Jews and your other minorities.

Keeping attention on Israel kept attention from their own inequities and iniquities. Not all, but many Arab and Muslim leaders took the national self-liberation of the Jewish people, one of the most amazing recoveries in history, and trashed that example of human accomplishment for their own mean political ends. Blame Israel and build a coalition of human rights abusers at the United Nations. Import Zionism is racism into America and harness it to African American grievances.

Thankfully, some Arab and Muslim leaders are now reversing themselves, modernizing their societies and accepting their Jewish fellow Semites. But not before anti-Jewish politics has spread to this continent. Jews ask themselves how Anti-Semitism could have revived in North America, when we had thought we had seen the end of it. They don’t understand, because they call it hate. They treat the most effective, operational ideology of modern times as just your common cold.

Ruth Wisse Transcript:

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