Thursday, March 5, 2015

Netanyahu's Misuses of Purim's 'Book of Esther'


For those who cringed listening to Benjamin Netanyahu's invocation of the 'Book of Esther,' here is the corrective.  Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University--also my wife--shows us that the text (and what he ignores in it) exposes Netanyahu's mind, and his plans, in ways, alas, he cannot see. This is adapted from her article in today's Haaretz.       

Benjamin Netanyahu chose the day before the holiday of Purim on which to deliver his speech to Congress, and made the most obvious analogy: As in ancient times, the Persians intend to annihilate the Jews. Now, as then, the Jews will prevail over the villains and foil their genocidal plots. It doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of the text behind the festival, The Megillah ("Book of Esther,") to see that Netanyahu’s comprehension of scriptures is about as slanted as his apprehension of nuclear strategy and international relations. Although the holiday has become over the years an excuse for innocuous masquerade and revelry, the Megillah itself is problematic, revealing as much about our wounded psyches as our procession of enemies.

The first eight chapters, the crux of the Megillah, are an exercise in what might be called orientalist fantasy. King Ahasverus rules over an empire of 127 multilingual satrapies with Persian and faux-Persian names; he has an entourage of eunuchs and simpering officials who do his bidding, facilitating drunken revels lasting 180 days and punishing disobedient wives and instructing their husbands in the art of tyranny. The villain Haman is a grotesque counterpart to the virtuous Mordecai; the beautiful Esther is the damsel who will win the beauty contest.

Parody, masque, commedia dell‘arte: what this text reflects in its early chapters is the comic impulse, nourished, as some scholars contend, by the rather beneficent conditions in which Jews lived in the Babylonian, Persian and even the Hellenistic diaspora (depending on where and when you date the composition of the text). Clearly, although Netanyahu implies otherwise, the Book of Esther is a fantasy – not recounting any historical event. The only real “historical” reference is to Mordechai, who is presented as a fourth generation descendant of the Jews exiled from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylonia [2:1 – a verse singled out in public readings to be chanted in mournful tones].

The book’s middle is the part we – and the Israeli prime minister – know best: Mordechai, making the most of his luck, positions his niece Esther to become the queen in order to influence the hapless king to override Haman’s genocidal intent. But by the end of the book we might be too drunk to pay attention to the ways in which comedy has turned into revenge tragedy, an explosion of blood-curdling violence — not by Persians against innocent Jews, but by Jews against innocent Persians.

Esther, having thwarted Haman’s evil plot, is not satisfied with the public hangings of her arch-enemy and his 10 sons – but is granted permission to preemptively slaughter all who have received the order to kill the Jews. There is no textual hint that these Persians ever took up arms – “no one dared to stand up against them, out of the fear that they instilled” [9:2]. Yet the Jews go ahead and slaughter 500 innocent people in the satrapies that belong to the King. Then sweet Esther, the beguiling descendant of Babylonian exiles, wife of the clueless Ahasverus – whom little girls will emulate in gauzy costumes for centuries to come – asks for, and is granted, another day of slaughter: in the capital city of Shushan alone, 300 people are slaughtered, and in the surrounding satrapies 75,000 are slaughtered [9:15-16].

That is the text that all those Congressmen and women – who leapt to their feet with every platitude and oath Netanyahu uttered – should read. The prime minister of Israel, showing a pathetic lack of self-awareness, is valorizing the mind of Esther. The text he cites is the chronicle of how a people, shocked into seeking to thwart the evil decree, wind up using the excuse of preemption to justify vengeful, rampaging violence. (It is a universal story in this sense, not just a Jewish one: what genocidal act is not justified as retribution for some great or imagined grievance?) The historic persecution of the Jewish people has been real enough. But Jewish suffering has also engendered a fantasy of demon-enemies, of Jewish attacks as nothing but deterrence.

Two generations after the liberation of the concentration camps, Netanyahu brought Elie Wiesel to bear witness to his militant words. Another writer who survived the camps, the late Ilona Karmel, once warned about Jews like Netanyahu who have “scars but no wounds.” Netanyahu declares: Don’t make a deal. He may have said the alternative is a "better deal" but by alluding to the Book of Esther, what he really implies is that the alternative is war. Esther – or at least the people who live in the chimerical world conjured by her book – would no doubt approve.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech: What's Left Out

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was conceived as a political stunt, and it is hard to imagine commentators resisting the question of how the event is playing. We are likely to hear a great deal about how many Democrats show up, how often they applaud, and whether they stand when applauding. But Netanyahu will also be making a case to the American people. He will tell us that an Iranian bomb constitutes an existential threat to Israel, and that the U.S. and its allies should impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran, presumably to force the “dismantling” of its nuclear infrastructure. He will tell us that, in the negotiations that the U.S. and other leading powers are currently conducting with Iranian leadership, Congress should refuse any deal that, as he puts it, “cements” Iran’s place as a threshold nuclear power. To make this case plausible, there are certain facts that he won’t be able to admit.

Netanyahu will almost certainly begin by acknowledging, and claiming to regret, tensions with the Obama Administration, praising Democrats and stoking an old spirit of bipartisanship. Israel has gotten almost reflexive support—diplomatic cover and military assistance—from both Democrats and Republicans when its security has been at stake. Given the circumstances of Israel’s founding, no Israeli leader can appear to take this support for granted, and no American President would want to appear cavalier about it. (Yesterday, Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, was dispatched to the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to review the Administration’s record of support and promise a continuation of that support.)

But because both American political parties are so deeply concerned about the security of the state, Netanyahu has a permanent incentive—as does AIPAC, for that matter—to present Israel’s policies as necessary to fend off urgent existential threats. Netanyahu will claim that any Iranian nuclear capacity is proof of genocidal intentions toward Israel—we have heard the same argument about the Palestinian claim to “a right of return”—so why would supporters of Israel accept the reciprocal approach that may emerge from negotiations? This gambit should not work this time. Clearly, Netanyahu is representing one side of a policy debate, with supporters and detractors in both the United States and Israel, where American lives and regional interests are also at stake, and where the Obama Administration has taken a very different position.

Read on at The New Yorker


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Cohen's Montreal--And Ours



Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a hymn to souls too carnal to grow old, too secular to give praise, and too baffled to mock faith—recently turned thirty. Cohen himself, now eighty, came of age in Jewish Montreal during the twenty years after the Second World War, and those of us who followed him, a half-generation later, can’t hear the song without also thinking about that time and place, which qualifies as an era. The devotional—and deftly sacrilegious—quality of “Hallelujah” and other songs and poems by Cohen reflects a city of clashing and bonding religious communities, especially first-generation Jews and French Catholics. Montreal’s politics in the early sixties were energized by what came to be called Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which emancipated the city’s bicultural intelligentsia from Church and Anglostocracy. The pace of transformation could make the place half crazy; that’s why you wanted to be there.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Talking About The Election

A couple of weeks ago, I did a little video conference about the upcoming election--and more--for supporters of the New Israel Fund in Australia, organized (with my thanks) by Liam Getreu. You can watch the event here.  Also, if you missed notice of it, I discussed both the Netanyahu speech and the election with The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, on the magazine's weekly "Political Scene" podcast. You can stream that discussion here. Finally, for people in Princeton (and the New York area more generally), I'll be reporting on the election on Sunday, March 22. The occasion is the Amy Adina Schulman Memorial lecture, which will take place at at The Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, in Princeton, at 7:00 PM. My gratitude to the indomitable Ruth Schulman for the invitation.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Netanyahu Can’t Lure European Jews To Israel

French Jews in Hebrew class  
This past year, Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen have been scenes of lethal attacks against Jews by benighted young Islamists in uncertain international networks. The deaths have triggered revulsion in European capitals but also a particular response in Jerusalem. After Copenhagen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” and, as he did after Paris, he exhorted European Jews — actually, all Jews, including Americans — to emigrate to Israel, “the home of every Jew.” With reporters present, Netanyahu presented his Cabinet with a $50 million plan to accommodate “mass immigration.” “Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” he said.

Netanyahu is also, presumably, waiting for the messiah. But even if the summons is sincere, most Jews in the West don’t need his protection — or conceive of Israel as their “home.” Life in Europe is just not perilous or alien in the way he implies, and even if it were, Israel is no easier to move to than any other country. It is, as it was intended to be, a radically different Jewish culture, engendered by a very foreign tongue only vaguely familiar to Western Jews from their liturgy. Israel is not the 21st arrondissement, and it cannot provide some comfortably Jewish yet pluralistic idyll that worried Western Jews might be longing for right now.

On some level, Netanyahu may simply have defaulted to the neo-Zionist passion play popular with his national-orthodox political allies, in which the victimization of innocent Jews transcends history — the Passover Haggadah predicts persecution “in every generation” as a venal, ineradicable response to the Jews’ divine election — and which depicts the risen Jewish state as redemption. He might be simply posturing for next month’s less-divine election, reassuring voters that he, alone and defiantly, speaks hard truths against perpetual threats to world Jewry. He might even be implying what his party has said for years: that the problem of annexing the occupied territories, along with their Palestinian residents, would be much easier if millions of European and American Jewish settlers showed up.

But instead, take Netanyahu at his word — that he sincerely cares about the safety and happiness of diaspora Jews. Even so, it is futile to try to induce them to move here, for several reasons.

Read on at The Washington Post

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bob Simon's Big Break

I knew Bob Simon, the longtime CBS correspondent, who died last week at seventy-three, in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties. He was reporting from Israel for CBS News and I was covering Israeli politics periodically for the New York Review of Books. It was the period of unravelling after the Camp David Accords, and we’d go out for dinner and exchange ideas, particularly about Menachem Begin’s by then familiar intransigence. It was a measure of Simon’s warmth and curiosity (and my diffidence, I suppose) that the initiative to meet came from him. Anyway, when I travelled to Tel Aviv for the 1981 elections, we sat at a beach restaurant for hours and he told me the story of his big first break at CBS. It may be of interest to people who admired him, and it seems to me a marker of what television journalism was then and almost never is today.

Simon told me that he graduated from Brandeis in 1962, won a Fulbright, and knocked around until he landed a job at CBS. This was in or near 1969, and the New Left had become inescapable enough for the major news organizations to take notice. Its bible was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, one of the first explorations of the culture of consumerism—totalitarian in its way, Marcuse wrote—that the major corporations had created, generating false needs that we compulsively satisfied. The book was first published in 1964 and slowly gained momentum as a Beacon Press paperback; by the late sixties it was something of a best-seller. So CBS wanted an interview with its author—no small ambition, considering that One-Dimensional Man’s key concepts were expressed in such terms as “repressive desublimation.” Also, Marcuse—a German-Jewish refugee, long associated with the Frankfurt School of Marxist criticism, but fascinated by Freud’s concept of Eros—was now seventy-one and in semi-retirement at the University of California, San Diego. Abashed by his fame, perhaps, he was refusing to meet with reporters.

The thing is, Marcuse had taught at Brandeis before moving out to California, and Simon had been his student. When Simon found out that CBS wanted to interview Marcuse, he jumped on the chance deliver him. He informed his editors of his connection, contacted his former professor, and (if I remember this correctly) flew out to meet with Marcuse, who soon wound up on air. This, then, was Bob Simon’s first scoop: bringing the author of a Marxian analysis of corporate consumerism to broadcast television. He was off to Vietnam soon thereafter.

It is hard to recall Simon’s story without something of sinking feeling—and not just for the loss of him. Imagine any of the major networks launching the career of a twenty-eight-year-old Fulbright scholar as payback for securing an interview with a former teacher. And imagine that the “get” is a radical, pedantic, Freud-inflected Marxist with a German accent. Comedy Central, perhaps.

Here is the New Yorker version


Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Speech Herzog Needs To Give

Isaac Herzog promises a revolutionary change, a mahapakh, as the Likud’s victory in 1977 was called. But revolutions are made by leaders who kick through rotting doors. Where is Herzog’s kick? Herzog also speaks, justifiably, of economic inequality, the dangers of global isolation and Likud’s political extremism. But a mobilizing vision is not a list of grievances. What Herzog, co-leader of the Zionist Union party with Tzipi Livni, has not done is connect the dots: put together a story anyone can understand and repeat over dinner – a story he, given his experiences, can credibly tell.

Imagine if Herzog finally stopped allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to set the terms of debate and delivered the speech he and senior members of his team have only been implying – the speech his campaign desperately needs. It might sound something like this:

You all know that there is an economic crisis in this country. But nobody else will tell you the truth about it. We have monopolies and tycoons, yes, but we can’t escape this crisis just by cutting up the pie more fairly. We have to grow the pie much faster.

And to grow it, we have to be a trusted part of the Western commercial world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic stalling on the occupation is isolating us. We are facing increasing hostility, company by company, university by university. The money we’ve wasted on settlements is just a small part of the wealth we’re giving up on because of what the world thinks of settlements. Isolation – which Netanyahu is bringing us – is a disaster.

I know, I know, we left Gaza and look what happened. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) may be a reasonable man, but people like him get overthrown in our region, and we can’t risk missiles around our airport. I’ll come back to these problems, but first I want to be clear about the economy – your most immediate problem. I want to show you why looking at our business climate while ignoring our diplomatic climate misses the point. It leaves the job half-done.

Read on at Haaretz: