Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sheikh Jarrah: It's Happening

For a protest to turn into a serious happening, you need two things. First, an injustice so obvious, and so emblematic, that to redress it is to play a kind of historical jujitsu: the force of the grievance pushes more and more people to turn out; and the growing crowd starts to feel that, if they win (and why shouldn't they, when the weight of a silent majority is behind them?), they will have defeated inertia. Second, you need the protest to be so simple, repetitive and doable--so focused on the critical issue of the time--that more and more people join in just for the fun of being right and good, sort of the way they might be going to weekly prayer meeting. Little by little, the protest becomes an enormous political fact. (Think of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.)

Something like this is happening in Jerusalem on Friday afternoons. A few weeks ago, a group of settlers took over most of a house in Sheikh Jarrah, turning its residents out. The family had been living in this house since the 1948-9 war, and the settlers' claim to the house was based on the apparent fact that the home had been deeded to members of a Jewish Sephardi community organization before World War II. By this standard, there is hardly a Jew living in established neighborhoods of West Jerusalem who would not be turned out of their homes (including the one I am writing from).

In consequence, three weeks ago, a small number of protesters gathered in central Jerusalem on Friday afternoon (in the plaza in front of the city's largest department store, to be exact). They began to walk through the streets, with drums and signs and costumes, until they got to the Arab neighborhood in question. The immediate grievance was the expulsion of this family, and the immediate goal was restoring the family to its home.

But there is clearly a larger issue here, made more urgent by exposure of new construction, and all involved (protesters and police) have understood this. The protest is a way of asserting that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, that the annexations that have gone on since 1967 must stop, and that the only way either can come about is by international intervention; that Jerusalem is an international problem, not Israel's internal affair; that Jews who want a peace deal can at least demonstrate solidarity with our Arab neighbors in a city that, while not divided, is not united either. And there is a subtext here: for the Jews in question (at least, so far) are people who consider themselves a kind of remnant of the secular Israeli intelligentsia that had thrived here in the 1970s, but is now swamped by ultraOrthodox and ultra-nationalist forces. They are, so we hope, the seed crystal for many from outside of Jerusalem to organize around.

Three weeks ago, there were about 30 or 40 protesters, and a number were arrested for tearing down the Israeli flag that the settlers had hung from the house. Two weeks ago there were 50 protesters. Last week there were 250, and East Jerusalem Arabs were cautiously coming out to cheer. Perhaps, eventually, Arabs will join, too. Anyway, Sidra and I will be there this Friday, and most every Friday. So will David Shulman, whose report from last week follows. May I urge anyone who is reading this to join us at 1:30 PM in the plaza before Hamashbir LaTzarchan? We especially need people from Tel Aviv and people from East Jerusalem. The traffic is a breeze on Friday afternoons. Bring your drums.

video

December 25, 2009 Christmas in Sheikh Jarrah
David Shulman's Diary

This time I was sure they'd arrest me—I'd somehow eluded them, without trying to do so, the last three times I was here for the Friday demonstration—but once again it didn't happen. Maybe I'm too old? Last week they clearly went after the young people. Gabi was standing next to his son, Boaz, who was arrested (though he had done nothing to deserve the honor); Gabi asked the policemen to take him, too, but they refused and pushed him rudely away. It's almost insulting. We had 27 arrestees who spent the Shabbat as guests of the police in the appalling detention cells in the Russian Compound.

Anyway, I came prepared, with the Phaedrus in my pocket. "That's some dialogue," Amiel says to me, "but I'm not sure you'll be reading it under optimal conditions." He's worried: the police have cordoned off Sheikh Jarrah, and they're also making unpleasant noises about our march through town, even though this demonstration is completely legal, permit and all. Many policemen stand watching us as we gather on King George Street and start handing out the large placards inscribed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Bernie gets an Arabic one: "Stop the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah!" It's a considerable improvement, he says, on the sign he made for himself at his first political demonstration, as President of Hillel, in the 60's in Montreal. That one read: "Cultural Imperialism Retards the Dialectic." Hm. Times have changed. Not sure I could march to the barricades under that banner. I'm given a small red plastic horn, purchased in south Hebron, and told to blow it in time with the drums.

Today's march through town is mostly easy. Last week people threw rotten eggs, and there were some slaps and punches, too. I get soaked by a sudden deluge from a window on the second floor of one of the houses en route. It's actually almost welcome in the afternoon sun; I look up and see the man who drenched me gloating, happy that he's found a target. The atmosphere, as in earlier weeks, is carnivalesque. Of course we're here, as everyone knows, on serious business—getting more serious every week; there are, we are told, another 25 Palestinian families slated for expulsion from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. But the protest is taking off, and every week there are more demonstrators: some 250 today right at the start, with more joining us as we approach the site of eviction. The police have clearly fanned the flames, probably doubled the crowd, by their all-too-predictable attempts to quell the protest by force. I suppose no one ever really learns from experience.

We stand at the edge of the somber street in Sheikh Jarrah, almost in sight of the stolen houses; and as we chant our cries and slogans, the arrests begin, this time from deep inside the crowd. Plainclothes Shabak (Israel Security Agency—Secret Service) agents, milling among us, grab the activists who spent last weekend, or the one before, in jail. As it happens, in court this week the judge cancelled the police ruling banning these volunteers from Sheikh Jarrah for thirty days. Apparently, the police didn't get the message; or maybe they didn't want to get it. Maybe someone higher up gave them an order to disregard the court's ruling. Or maybe they're just angry at being mocked, or even—a happy thought—a little jealous. Perhaps they'd prefer to join the protest party; I'm sure it's much more fun that what they're up to.

Still, there's something terrifying about an arrest that happens like that, when a stranger, anonymous, unmarked, suddenly turns against you and starts beating you in fury as he pushes you through the crowd toward the waiting patrol cars. First Amiel is captured, then Koby, then another six; Sarah waves a copy of the judgment in the face of the Shabaknik who is trying to arrest her, but he is utterly uninterested in this document; miraculously, she escapes his clutches and disappears. Leah, our lawyer, is with us, and for once she is reassuring—the police can't hold them in jail for disobeying an order that has been rescinded. I hope she's right.

I think something new is happening in Jerusalem. I see it in the young people who bear the brunt of this demonstration, who organize it and lead it and cheerfully face the Border Police and the blue police and, much worse, the clandestine Shabak operators week after week. Once again, many of my students are here. They, I am sure, are our future, and I trust them to see it through. They are clearly feeling the bizarre happiness that so often floods you at such moments—the happiness that naturally flows from saying "no" to self-evident evil. Hence the drummers and the clowns and, specially for today, the Santa Clauses in brilliant red and even one masquerading demonstrator dressed in an Israeli Army uniform painted totally white, his face and hair also white—the soldiers and the police seem particularly troubled and angered by him and, not unexpectedly, try to arrest him, but I think he manages to get away.

As before, the police head for the drummers. As Natasha says to me—she grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia—it's like in totalitarian regimes; they're always afraid of drummers, of festive resistance, of the disorder and freedom of masquerade. So, naturally, last week in Sheikh Jarrah they arrested the clowns; you can see an eloquent picture by going to www.flickr.com/photos/activestills/4194680695.

In a way the whole deep foolishness and wrong are present in that moment. It's one thing to arrest peace activists like our Ta'ayush veterans, or even to swoop down at random on non-violent demonstrators, many of them young students, many young women, and drag them off to the police vans. But to attack and arrest a clown? Probably from the beginning of human civilization, clowns play out the essence of our freedom and embody, as no one else, the very possibility of speaking truth. They're also given to a volatile playfulness and an irreducible, insouciant innocence, the true enemies of earnest repression. There is simply no witness like a clown, no one better equipped to plumb the depths of our sadness.

Now look closely at the two grim policemen firmly grasping their prey: could anyone look more ridiculous than they? Think of the immense daring, the superhuman courage one needs to arrest a clown. Only a country, or a city, intent upon a great crime would send its soldiers to do battle with clowns. And since, despite my early morning gloom, I'm in an ever-so-slightly optimistic frame of mind after today's demonstration, after the drums and the masque and the sweet shared moments of defiance, let me follow this hopeful thought as far as it takes me, a Christmas gift for those among us who celebrate this day. Deadly earnestness, for all the vast and brutal machinery that underpins it, is ultimately a disease with a rather poor prognosis. In the end, the clowns—we, that is—will win.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Koestler's Big Week

Arthur Koestler's authorized biography has just been published. To say that I look forward to reading it is a little like saying I look forward to revisiting every tragic event of the 20th century. And Koestler was a particular obsession of mine back in the 1980s, when Michael Scammell began his work and I (like my friend, Amos Elon, and God knows how many others) considered doing a book of my own. Scammell has by all accounts lived up to his reputation as a thoughtful and diligent biographer; and the three major reviews I've read so far suggest a book that treats Koestler's "odyssey," as Scammell calls it, with depth and sympathy. (I should also add that Scammell is a generous writer, who had legal right to deny others access to Koestler's archive and did not deny it to me, at least.)

Still, the three reviews that I've read, this by Louis Menand, this by Christopher Caldwell, and this by Christopher Hitchens, casually repeat persistent ideas about Koestler's later work--books written after 1954, when the last of the memoirs was published--that seem to me sadly mistaken. The three reviews are trenchant and passionate; but to get things this wrong is to misunderstand Koestler's importance--that is, the importance of the early work, too. (Whether the reviewers are simply deriving these views from Scammell's biography, I cannot yet say.)

THE FIRST MISTAKE is that by focusing on the history and philosophy of science until his death, Koestler had "quit politics" (as Menand puts it). The second is that Koestler's book on the putative descent of European Jews from converted Khazars, The Thirteenth Tribe, was either "autodidactic crankiness" or was meant to refute the Christian charge that European Jews were descended from the Judeans "who killed Christ." The third, and most important perhaps, is that his joint suicide with his young and healthy wife Cynthia should be viewed, not against the backdrop of his work--writers are not saints, after all--but as a quasi-private matter, best understood in the context of Koestler's compulsive and at times rapacious womanizing.

This is not the place to go into any of these matters in depth, but a few points urgently need to be made before the arguments of the reviews settle:

First, science and politics. Koestler started his career in journalism as a science writer (he had studied engineering in Vienna) and eventually approached communism, not as fairness to proles, but as a kind of consoling scientific project: the forlorn (and for a student of quantum physics, perverse,) hope of bringing the certainties of engineering to "history." That implication of communism, however, was that human beings should be made means to history's (i.e., the Party's) ends. And it is this very horror that Rubashov, the hero of Darkness at Noon, finally refutes to himself with what can only be called a Kantian religious perception: that the "first-person singular" is not an illusion.

Koestler may have overdone things at times, but this relentless desire to discredit "historical materialism," smug positivism, etc., was the focus of virtually all of Koestler's scientific (and, if you will, pseudo-scientific) work after 1955: from mapping Kepler's Pythagorean "creativity" in the Sleepwalkers, to exposing how biologists cruelly drove a Lamarckian to suicide in The Case of the Midwife Toad, to ridiculing the "behaviorism" of the 1960s in The Call-Girls.

This was hardly weirdness. The claims of parapsychology can "make you hair stand on end," his protagonist says in the Call-Girls; but "they sound a little less preposterous in the light of the equally wild concepts of sub atomic physics," the notion that an electron can be in two places at once, that they can race backward in time, that space has holes in it. "God is dead," he concludes, "but materialism is also dead since matter has become a meaningless word." To say this is quitting politics is like saying the members of Menand's "metaphysical club" had quit politics.

SECOND, THE ZIONISM to which the young Koestler adhered in the 1920s was Jabotinsky's "Revisionism," which had made its claim to Palestine in terms of an historical connection between the descendants of Judeans and ancient land of Israel--a so called "historical right." Koestler made it clear in The Thirteenth Tribe that the morality of Zionism derives from what Jews (and others) have in their brains, not their genes, but he was nevertheless fascinated by the idea of disproving a major tenet of Revisionism on its face, especially since so many Western Jews had mindlessly bought into "historical right" as a serious moral claim. (Hitchens gets this most nearly right, incidentally.)

Think of a lapsed Catholic who had abandoned the dogma, but who is suddenly confronted by evidence that the bones of Christ had been found. Who could resist rubbing it in? Anyway, Koestler knew the question for Jews who left the rabbinic fold was, Which culture do you want? Israel's Hebrew culture, or assimilation into the various cultures of the West? (By the way, Mr. Caldwell, Promise and Fulfilment, Koestler's chronicle of the 1948-9 war, was prophetic in almost every way; you can't quote Leslie Fiedler to dismiss it unless you also tell us what Fielder knew about Israel or, for that matter, what you think Fiedler would have thought of The Weekly Standard.)

As to the relevance of the joint suicide to Koestler's work, finally, I took up this case up at length in The New Yorker back in 1997. For people who care about Koestler's legacy as I do, this last chapter of Koestler's life, rife with pathos, cannot be dismissed as just another instance of his neurotic domination of women. It might be the key to whether his Kantian-mystical-absolute morality worked for him just when he needed it--not at his death, but in his marriage. And who if not Koestler would be pleased to leave us wondering if any writer can be trusted?

Friday, December 25, 2009

What Did You Learn In School Today?: Israel's Center Cannot Hold

Dan Ben David, a Tel Aviv University economist, and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, has led the writing of a report on Israel's failing educational system. He summarizes its findings today in Haaretz. For secular Israelis--not Israelis who oppose expressions of religious imagination, but those who see these as inherently voluntary, and civil society as a space where conscience is protected--the results are sobering. It makes you happy to be 60 and not 20.

Israel's education system has four streams: state, state-religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab. There are fewer primary school students in the state education stream now than there were a decade ago. In contrast, the state-religious primary schools have seen a 9 percent increase since 2000. The number of children in the Israeli-Arab stream grew by 35 percent, while the number of ultra-Orthodox children grew by 49 percent. All of this transpired in just one decade. About half of all primary school students in Israel already study in either the Israeli Arab or the ultra-Orthodox systems.

And what is Israel's next generation studying? Is it receiving the tools it needs to survive in a modern and competitive market?

If these children adopt their parents' work norms, then what can Israel look forward to in a number of years? Last year, 12.5 percent of men of prime working age (25 to 54) in OECD Western countries were non-employed, meaning they were either unemployed, or had dropped out of the labor force. The percentage of non-employed Israeli Arab men was almost twice that. Of the ultra-Orthodox men, more than 70 percent were non-employed. Among women, 74 percent of Arabs and 46 percent of ultra-Orthodox were non-employed, compared to only a third in the West.

Could such rates of non-employment characterize the majority in a first-world country? Could a non-first world, non-Muslim country survive in this Middle Eastern neighborhood?

And what about the current majority that is destined to become the minority? Non-employment rates of 16.5 percent among non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of prime working age may look good when compared to other groups, but they are nonetheless one-third more than is common in the West. How has this happened?

One explanation can be found in grade-school curricula as it relates to core subjects. Recent studies have found that education in core subjects affects an individual's income and the country's standard of living. A new study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which will appear in an upcoming report on the state of the country's society and economy, summarizes an entire decade of international exams, and compares Israel to a fixed list of 25 OECD countries.

Since 1999, Israel has participated in five different international exams in mathematics, science and reading. In all but one of the exams, Israel's children performed lower than their peers in every single Western country. In light of the fact that since the 1970s, Israel's living standards have been steadily falling farther and farther behind the leading Western countries, these outcomes do not suggest a change in direction is in the offing.

Educational gaps within Israel were higher than those in each of the 25 OECD countries during every year in the past decade. Since Israel's economic gaps are already among the highest in the West, and in view of the fact that the education system is the primary springboard into the labor market, how could one expect any future improvements?

Since 1999, Israel's weakest students, those in the bottom fifth percentile, have performed worse than the weakest students in every one of the 25 OECD countries, on every single exam. Israel has one of the Western world's highest poverty rates - and among its children, one can see what the future holds

It is important to point out that pupils in ultra-Orthodox schools, who do not study math or science at core curriculum levels, do not participate in the international exams. In other words, Israel's children managed to garner these problematic achievements without any assistance from the ultra-Orthodox sector.

During the decade since 1999, Israel passed a milestone when its future formally parted ways with its past. In the past decade, former Israeli pupils went on to receive more Nobel Prizes in the sciences per capita than in any other country in the world. Meanwhile, current pupils, those in the country's top fifth percentile, ranked close to the bottom compared to the Western world in every single exam (see table). How ironic it is that while receiving such a reminder of Israeli society's potential, we're also witnessing the terrible bungling of the baton's passing between generations.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Did You Learn In School Today? A Clarification

This, from Ira Kerem, about yesterday's post. I thought I should simply run it in full.

Bernie –
Thanks for writing this. There is one major and one minor detail that I would change in your article. The first is that I told you that Jewish parents might be taking their children out because of a fear of inter-dating but I said that this was speculation and that there were many other stated reasons and not just one possible reason. The reasons that the students and parents have told us include: a very small social network in each class which makes it difficult for kids who wish to cultivate many friendships or those who might have trouble finding other kids with whom they feel really comfortable; a lack of “major” specialty subjects which big schools can offer their students; no record yet that the kids do well in the all important matriculation exams since they have only had one and that in English until now, and the very wide choice of specialized high schools in the Jewish sector offering outstanding programs in music, art, science, academics, etc. which entice many parents and students. My speculation does not deserve to be the only reason given why Jewish pupils drop out of our school.

The second item is that I work for Hand in Hand, the non-profit organization that runs a network of four bilingual, multicultural, Arab-Jewish integrated schools on the basis of equality and mutual understanding and respect. I do not work for only the Jerusalem school. We have over 900 students in our four schools and we are working to open a new school next year in Haifa. We would like to offer parents a choice where their children can learn that the “other” does not have to be considered the enemy and in fact can become a “friend”, where the culture and the language of the “other” can be understood and appreciated, and even where one side does not have to force its view on the other side. The schools are created because enough parents believe in this vision and enough individuals, foundations, federations, synagogues, churches, organizations, and governments from Israel and abroad can share this vision. We welcome any support that your readers might offer.

All the best,
Ira


Also, the following came in from 'Hand in Hand' Executive Director, Sam Shube:

Just writing compliment you on your thoughtful blog entry on Hand in Hand. I've been CEO of the organization for close to two years. It's a job that never stops forcing me to rethink my assumptions about Israeli society. I also thought you might want to take a look at my own blog, of which several entries are about Hand in Hand.
http://mycorrectviewsoneverything.blogspot.com/
Specifically, "Couscous on Tuesdays" June 15 2009
"From Qufr Qara to Meah Shearim on Holocause Day" April 22 2009
"From Jaffa to Jerusalem on Israel's 60th" May 2008

Brachot/Tahiyati (blessings),

Sam Shube
Executive Director
Hand in Hand

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Did You Learn In School Today?

The thing about a social experiment, no matter how successful, is that it tells you only what might be. In a way, this only increases the pathos of what is.

A few days ago, I paid a visit to an experimental school in Jerusalem called 'Hand In Hand.' The school now has over 500 students, in a beautifully appointed building, supported partly by the Ministry of Education here, but also by donors and NGOs from abroad. It has classes for every year from kindergarten through high school; it will matriculate its first class at the end of next year. You walk around the school and see children of all ages scurrying around with one another, sharing lunches and gossip, rushing to finish homework before classes, eyeing strangers with that eager-to-please-and-what-are-you-doing-here look. In short, you see nothing remarkable. Which is just what makes it so very remarkable.

For this is Jerusalem's only integrated school, Jews and Arabs together, in a curriculum that is half Hebrew and half Arabic. Things like this school are not supposed to happen in a place where Arabs are "colonialized" and Jews "have no partner." History and social studies courses are taught in both languages and the virtues of the Zionist movement are taught alongside the Naqba, the disastrous displacement of Arab villages, especially after the cease-fire of 1949. The curriculum emphasizes empathy, not a conclusive understanding of justice. You get the sense from watching the students that this is enough.

TWO FEATURES OF of this experiment deserve particular attention. First, the curriculum really is taught half in Arabic and half in Hebrew (the fifth grade science class I visited was in Arabic), which means half by Arab teachers, half by Jews. Jerusalem is, after all, a bilingual city, and Israel is a country with a large and growing Arab population; Israel is also in the heart of a very large Arabic speaking region, so it makes sense, even for English saturated Israelis, to have a working knowledge of Arabic in any conceivable condition of peace.

At the same time, it is the pluralist ethos of the curriculum, not the relative proportion of Arabic to Hebrew, that should scale; in this sense, the curriculum is an experiment for the whole country. (Not every public school in America will teach Spanish alongside of English in anything like this proportion, but every school should be teaching the importance of multicultural empathy. In the 1950s, very few did. Today, after the civil rights movement, almost every school does.)

Second, and related to the first, the bilingual nature of the school does not portend a binational state in which the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture more generally, are slowly effaced, giving way, presumably, to some force created by the larger number of Arabs in the region as a whole. On the contrary, it is clear in the higher grades that students naturally default to Hebrew, since this is the language of higher education: the language of business and science and information technology.

This is entirely consistent with what has been happening, not in Greater Israel, but in greater Tel-Aviv, for the past 40 years. For most Arab children in the school, the Hebrew language, supported by a corresponding international English, is the language of "modernization," much as German was the language for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is the language, as my friend Sayed Kashua (whose children attend this school) has told me, in which one can speak about parents and sex without blushing, or speak about liberty and democracy without cringing. For the Jewish children in the school, the Arabic language is the language of cosmopolitan openness. It does not threaten, or beckon--at least not much. It gives Jewish kids the chance to get a head start on breaking the little idols of the household, much as our father Abraham did when he went searching for the promised land--much as Israeli youth do, when they finish their army service and go off to Nepal or Machu Picchu.

SOME JEWS, EVEN secular Jews, will look at the school and see the natural affections of the children as ominous. Without quite acknowledging this, they've implicitly bought into the old orthodox Jewish fear that the only way (what may vaguely be called) "Judaism" can survive is through indoctrination: protecting children from outside influences, exposing them to ritual after ritual, attaching to them with loving strings. Deep down, such attitudes reflect the truly pathetic idea that Jewish civilization--the texts, the poetry, the legal exegesis, the music--cannot compete over the long haul. One taste of shrimp and you're a goner.

All of which feeds into the second fear, that the school's atmosphere will engender intermarriage. When Jewish parents pull their older children from the school--and a good many have, the school's head of development, Ira Kerem, told me--it is mostly because they are afraid their children will fall in love with Arabs. (Arab parents often betray a corresponding fear, but leave their children where they are because few Arab schools in greater Jerusalem are of this high quality.)

Anyway, this fear of intermarriage is actually just the first fear, of cultural competition, in microcosm: if both parents are not Jews, so the argument goes, then how can you be sure you will have "a Jewish home"? How can you be sure that Jewish ways of talking about the divine, or celebrating life cycle events, or looking at the past, will not be subject to any kind of challenge?

IT MAKES NO sense to point out, I suppose, that mixed marriages, like mixed schools, like mixed countries, produce the most resilient cultural strains--in this case, values drawn from Jewish history or philosophical reflection that stand the test of skepticism; Jewish rituals whose beauty can appeal even to those coming to them fresh. (As the father or step-father to three couples in such marriages, I can say it is often a privilege to be the beneficiary of the negotiations).

Besides, such attitudes not only fail to come to grips with the cultural competitions of globalization, in which Israel is inevitably embedded, but are anti-Zionist in the most original meaning of the word: the meaning given depth by the cultural Zionist pioneers who welcomed the idea that Jewish life would, given a language and land, freely breathe in what was best in the world, and breathe out what was best about the Jews.

And as for the long haul, a story. Yesterday, driving back to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv, I put on Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection" (not my usual driving music, I confess, but my Gordon Lightfoot CDs were in the trunk). As I was cruising along, it suddenly occurred to me what Mahler of all people might have thought of someone listening to his monumental work, digitized and fed through crisp speakers, in a German car going 75 miles an hour between two cities in the Jewish state: about the hubris of anyone back then assuming he or she could predict what the 20th century had in store. The only thing about this that would not have surprised Mahler, I think, is that the driver's understanding of simple human rights was pretty much the same as his--the only thing that hadn't changed.

"With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!"

Mahler might have added, hand in hand.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Big Miracle

(Today is the first day of Hanukkah. For those many of you who are new to my blog this year, I thought I'd post this again, a little reflection on the season, from a city that can use another, different miracle.)

It is not a simple matter to be a Jew in America this time of year. Not in Jerusalem either, a few miles from Bethlehem. Christmas, as John Updike writes, is Christianity "at its sweetest." Many have written, some with an air of sweet resignation, about the yearning Jews feel as the days darken: to share in the melodies, the hearth, the love of the child.

It was only a matter of time—was it not?—that we would start finding ways to be absorbed into the spirit of the moment. So we exchange presents, greet the "season," tease out of the ancient Chanukah story our own celebration of light and grace—God bless, eight days, not just one! And we leave behind, in mildly embarrassed obscurity, the tale of Maccabean guerrilla war against Greek occupiers around 165 BC—a mythical victory that had been so much solace for medieval rabbis, forced into ghettos, and more recently, for outnumbered Zionists.

Read the rest of the post here...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Brothers And Others

There is a old saying about Torah, which is deceptively cautionary: "Turn and turn in it, because everything is in it." When I was very young, I immediately loved the image evoked by this saying--of doing somersaults in a pool of serious words--though the Montreal rabbis (or, as they called themselves, "clergy") who taught me the saying meant it--so I sensed with growing dismay--as a demand that I simply exalt the people that has given us so many Nobel prize winners, or at least surrender to our received strictures.

Anyway, I reentered the pool a free man in my thirties. And the more I thought about this saying, the more it seemed to me far more of a warning than a brag. If everything is in Torah, then--as I implied in yesterday's post--nothing of clear value can be received. The only important question is, who is diving in? With what questions do you turn? Just as important, if a person has a political agenda--and who doesn't?--then quoting Torah only becomes an occasion for showing one's hand. The authority of Torah becomes a prop in agitprop.

LAST WEEK, JEWS in synagogues the world over read the portion in Genesis depicting the fraught meeting between Jacob and his older twin Esau many years after Jacob had tricked Isaac (with Rebbecca's collusion) into bestowing the birthright on himself. The whole story, from their birth to this moment, is a marvel of observation. You can read the whole portion here. Being a younger brother myself, the passages that always moved me the most are these:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. 2He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

NOW, I REALIZE these are shepherds from the Iron Age speaking in a kind of code. But what is the plain meaning here? Enter Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who turned on that meaning in last week's Haaretz. Read it and try to follow it. I hasten to add that Lau is considered one of Israel's more liberal rabbinic figures. It is also important to know that Esau has been transformed by rabbinic tradition into the father of Edom, Israel's tribal enemy, and as such, Lau writes, this was only the first of many meetings. (Note: for those of you who linked to the Lau's column, and quickly gave up trying to make sense of its code, you are missing a chance to understand something important about the politics of this country.)

In any case, my wife, the Hebrew University's Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, who has appeared before in this blog, offers this rejoinder (a shorter version appeared as a letter in Wednesday's Haaretz):

Read literally, Genesis 32-3 is one of the most eloquent examples in “western” literature of reconciliation as the alternative to vengeance. Jacob cheated his older twin brother Esau twice: first out of his birthright and then out of their father’s blessing. Returning to the land of his birthplace after twenty years of working for Laban, Jacob prepared for a confrontation with the brother he had wronged, who had in the meantime established himself in the region of Edom. “And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and, look, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” Jacob arranged his children and wives so that the beloved ones were in the least vulnerable position at the rear. He then “bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near his brother.”

We all know what the wronged brother did. He ran to meet Jacob “and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

The rabbinic interpretations of this explicitly conciliatory passage range from grudging acceptance to downright misconstrual–-in order to preserve Esau, in his various historical incarnations, as the demonic other. It was with the usual trepidation, therefore, but also some hope that I approached the column this week by Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who, I have heard, adds a refreshingly progressive voice to the chorus of rabbinic rabble-rousers in Jerusalem (“Brotherly Love—and Hate,” Haaretz, Dec. 4).

Rabbi Lau takes us through seven encounters (by his count) between Jacob and Esau and their presumed descendants, the children of Israel and of Edom. He demonstrates the poisonous power of free-floating symbols: the psalmist in Babylonian exile remembers that the Edomites, who had not allowed the tribes of Israel to pass through their territory on their way to Canaan, were now in league with the Babylonians. The famous vow to “remember Jerusalem” in Ps. 137 ends with a vision of return that is a pledge to vengeance, culminating in smashing the babies of 'Bat-bavel' [i.e., Edom] against the rocks...

Rabbi Lau acknowledges the vengeful pledge but leaves out the part about the babies.

Then, rather than teasing out the obvious implications of this form of memory, he tells us that Edom was, from an early period, identified with--wait for it--Christendom. (He admits, but never mind, that Israel heaped curses on Edom in the nefarious final verses of the Hanukah song maoz tzur—and that those verses were excised from most Jewish prayerbooks out of fear of offending the Church.)

Lau's argument concludes by telling us that, today, these two “brothers,” sons of Israel and Edom (read: Jews and Christians), come with peace in their hearts but are thwarted by some “third brother from the East, who also has a monotheistic belief.” That is, instead of valorizing the common identification of the Arabs with Esau as well as Ishmael; rather than deploring the culture of vengeance that ancient grievances engender and that periodically take hold of post-traumatic Jews, Rabbi Lau concludes by telling us that the Jews and the Christians are now cozy allies offering an olive branch to each other so they can “form an alliance” against the nefarious other brother who comes from the “East.”

Are we to understand that this “other brother” who is disturbing our Judeo-Christian peace, is the one whose babies we are enjoined—with impunity—to dash against the rocks? Is it not an embarrassment to write such things when,
in Sheikh Jerrah and Silwan, neighborhoods unilaterally annexed to Jewish Jerusalem after the Six Day War--and just a stone’s throw from the synagogue in the Greek Colony where Rabbi Lau preaches on Shabbat afternoons--the putative descendants of Esau and Ishmael are being violently evicted from their homes by the descendants of Jacob—presumably, so that there will be no Arabs to disturb our exegetical acrobatics and our “peaceful world”?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sacred And Secular, Again

The justice minister, Yaacov Neeman, caused a wave of criticism (with international ripples) this week, when he told a Jewish law convention in Jerusalem--and in the presence of many approving rabbis and rabbinical judges--that the Torah embodies "a complete solution to all the things we are dealing with," and that "step by step, we will bestow religious law upon the citizens of Israel and transform religious law into the binding law of the state." Many--including the opposition leader, Tzipi Livni--immediately bridled. Was this not promising to replace the secular state with a theocracy? Were we really going to run a modern country with a legal system ( if that's the word for it) evolved in the iron age?

The next day, Neeman clarified his remarks, which were meant to be practical, he insisted. "It is difficult for me to accept the things that were attributed to me, as though I had said that the laws of this country should be replaced with Torah laws. Yesterday I emphasized the importance of the rabbinical court system to the State of Israel. The Knesset is the legislator in Israel, and the interpretation of its laws is determined by the courts." Presumably, more and more civil matters should just be assigned to rabbinic courts.

ACTUALLY, THERE IS less here than meets the eye--less change, that is, not less danger. And Neeman's clarification, that he only meant that rabbinical courts take up more of the slack in Israeli civil life, is a jump from the frying pan into the fire. The problem is not adversion to Jewish sources per se. The problem is, precisely, the extension of rabbinical courts, whose judges have inched their way into greater and greater power since the state's founding, and now threaten the state's democratic foundations from within much as (and in alliance with) settlers from without.

Since the 1970s, you see, judges openly began to advert to biblical law, Talmudic precepts, the wisdom of the sages, and so forth, to deal with novel situations; what was called "residual law"--law for which there was no established precedent and which required new ethical interpretation. If judges struggling with a hard case could draw inspiration from, say, an opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes, why could they not go back into Jewish sources to find an opinion? The result could be poignant, even "progressive," depending on the judge.

When, for example, the commission looking into Ariel Sharon's role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, led by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan, called for Sharon's resignation, they did so based on a more or less novel legal precept, "indirect responsibility." They based this in turn on biblical and Talmudic sources, and (especially on this day of the Nobel Peace Prize) their reasoning should be quoted at length, just to get a sense of how impressive Jewish sources can be in dealing with a complex diplomatic and criminal matter:

A basis for such responsibility may be found in the outlook of our ancestors, which was expressed in things that were said about the moral significance of the biblical portion concerning the "beheaded heifer" (in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 21). It is said in Deuteronomy (21:6-7) that the elders of the city who were near the slain victim who has been found (and it is not known who struck him down) "will wash their hands over the beheaded heifer in the valley and reply: our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see." Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says of this verse (Talmud, Tractate Sota 38b):

"The necessity for the heifer whose neck is to be broken only arises on account of the niggardliness of spirit, as it is said, 'Our hands have not shed this blood.' But can it enter our minds that the elders of a Court of Justice are shedders of blood! The meaning is, [the man found dead] did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go - i.e., he did not come to us for help and we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort." (Rashi explains that escort means a group that would accompany them; Sforno, a commentator from a later period, says in his commentary on Deuteronomy, "that there should not be spectators at the place, for if there were spectators there, they would protest and speak out.')


THE POINT IS, it was not the source of the precept that made it fit for a democracy. It was the judge. Kahan was born in Galicia, and had studied the law before immigrating to Israel in 1935. He knew very well the "indirect responsibility" of others during the Holocaust. He was a man devoted to "equal protection" and (let's call it) the Kantian idea that Jews had the responsibility to live by laws that might be applicable to all human beings. You had to ask, what if everybody did that? (Actually, this was Hillel's idea, too.)

Compare Kahan's marvelously humane stance to that of Rabbi Shmuel Avner, who heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, and whose works (among others) were distributed to troops before last year's Gaza operation: "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy," Avner said, "you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. 'A la guerre comme a la guerre.'"

And what is a cruel enemy? Does it include a whole nation, including women and children?

[There is] a biblical ban [Avner writes] on surrendering a single millimeter of it [the Land of Israel] to gentiles, though all sorts of impure distortions and foolishness of autonomy, enclaves and other national weaknesses. We will not abandon it to the hands of another nation, not a finger, not a nail of it...Is it possible to compare today's Palestinians to the Philistines of the past? And if so, is it possible to apply lessons today from the military tactics of Samson and David?

The Torah, Neeman said (echoing Rabbi Kook), is "complete." Let's agree that it is a great chronicle, complete the way great fiction is true. The Talmud, correspondingly, is a record of opinions and interpretations of Torah. The question is, as it always is, who is looking for what? Would Zionism itself have happened had young Jews in the Pale of Settlement, feeling the enchantments of (what they called) "modernity," not gotten fed up with the opinions and interpretations of the ill-educated, bigoted, and sheltered men who dominated the shtetl? Should we now submit our disputes to our homegrown variety?

YAACOV NEEMAN, I hasten to add, is a far cry from Shmuel Avner. Neeman is an expert on tax law, and a founding partner with the late, former president, Haim Herzog, of Israel's largest international law firm, Herzog, Fox, Neeman. As the finance minister in the late 1990s, he helped shape Israel's global profile. (I have taught a member of Yaacov Neeman's family, and based on her brilliance and decency alone, I cannot doubt his good faith.)

No, Neeman's tragic flaw is not fanaticism. It is a kind of complacency in the face of status quo agreements with the orthodox "rabbinical court system." As I've written in The Hebrew Republic, and as the indispensable Gideon Levy puts it in his column today, Israel is already not a secular state in the sense anyone in the West would recognize.
The truly terrifying idea is not greater influence for Jewish law, but greater influence for rabbinic courts, which anyway have no place as an official arm of a democratic state. Let Neeman study Torah to his heart's content; let him find inspiration where he can. Just don't tell us that going to some yeshiva in Jerusalem prepares one even for an internship at Herzog, Fox, Neeman, let alone judging the disputes of modern citizens.

“I have never feared really religious people,” Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president and Zionism’s first great statesman, wrote in his 1940s memoir; “it is the new secularized type of Rabbi, resembling somewhat a member of a clerical party in Germany, France, or Belgium, who is the menace, and who will make a heavy bid for power by parading his religious convictions. It is useless to point out to such people that they transgress a fundamental principle which has been laid down by our sages, ‘Thou shalt not make of the Torah a crown to glory in, or a spade to dig with.’”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brussels And Jerusalem: A Decision

The EU has done more or less what it needed to. Is the Obama Administration next?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Brussels And Jerusalem

The European Union, arguably the most important political achievement of our lifetime, is unarguably among the most underestimated, especially when its foreign ministers come together to debate common approaches to global problems--and doubly so when the problem at hand is the Middle East. Perhaps we all just take it for granted that Brussels cannot leverage Middle Eastern leaders the way Washington can, or that European leaders will anyway be followers, or that Germany, for obvious historic reasons, will foil any effort to exert pressure on Israel, whose diplomacy is often couched in the rhetoric of Jewish survival. But something is changing, and we ought to take notice.

Today, European foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to consider a Swedish draft document, recognizing, among other things, East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state and promising to recognize such a state in advance, based on the 1967 borders, unless changes are agreed to by both sides. The document adopts, in effect, the lines of the Clinton parameters, and seeks to advance an international consensus regarding the outline of a final deal.

Enough is enough, the document seems to be saying: a new round of negotiation would be fine, but old rounds have produced plenty to work with. The deal is not so mysterious; the problem, now that the Fayyad government has reasonably stabilized Palestine's security and economy, is to force Israelis to face down its ersatz Judeans while they still can; to get Israelis used to the idea that Jerusalem is not just an Israeli city, Palestine is not just Israel's internal problem, and that down the road is diplomatic isolation and possibly economic sanctions. When you consider that more than a third of Israel's exports (and a higher proportion of high technology exports) go to Europe, the idea that the EU has no leverage here is increasingly preposterous.

In any case, it is clear from past negotiations that Israel and Palestine cannot make peace alone. One can only hope the EU document is essentially adopted, or even that a close vote prompts the requisite attention in Jerusalem. Adopting the resolution might even be a trial balloon for the Obama administration to do what it should have done from the start, which is adopt the Clinton parameters as policy itself.

FOR WHILE THE Wall Street Journal publishes fatuous pieces about shopping in Nablus, the situation on the ground is deteriorating day by day. Anyone with a head and heart can sense a terrible violence coming.

Here, following, is another report from David Shulman, a frequent contributor to this blog, about the explosive situation in Sheikh Jarrah.

December 4, 2009: Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem

Exhibit A. Kindly examine the attached photograph (above). Let's make an inventory. Three stuffed animals, two face up, one face down. The yellow-and-red one, half animal half cushion, has an inscription: "I love you." One school bag. Two unidentified red toys. Five pieces of yellow lego. One armless, legless doll. One yellow brush with blue bristles. An Arabic newspaper. A broken pole wrapped in red cloth. A broken flower, perhaps freshly cut, probably thrown out with the vase it sat in.

I don't want to overload your inbox, so I won't add more pictures of this patch of ground in front of the al-Kurd family's house in Sheikh Jarrah. I can tell you what's there. A kitchen stove, its glass top shattered, green splinters everywhere. Broken microwave lying on its face. Pieces of bicycle and a children's tractor. Shoes, mostly children's. Many more pieces of lego. A few pots and pans. Some sheets. Boxes of odds and ends—cellphone, cords, electric wire. Plastic shovel for playing in the sand.

Exhibit B. See attached photograph. Border Policemen outside the door of the house, now inhabited by Israeli settlers. The police are there, needless to say, to protect them. Note the Israeli flags strung over the windows, just to rub it in. The people taking photographs and milling around are Israeli peace activists who came for today's protest march: ordinary people, shocked by what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah and angry enough to spend this Friday afternoon on the long walk through downtown Jerusalem, then along Road Number One which divides east from west—the future border between the Israeli and the Palestinia
n cities-- past the American Colony Hotel and the neighborhood mosque to this street where, as of Sunday, a third Palestinian family has been violently expelled from its home.

We're riding a wave of such expulsions. Last Friday we were here, Eileen and I, in this very courtyard, before the court ruling; we spoke at some length with the eloquent, moderate father of the al-Kurd family, who told us the story in gentle Arabic. He had told it many times that day:

"We were refugees from Haifa in 1948. Everyone in this neighborhood is a refugee, some from Lydda and Ramla, some from Jaffa. After the 1948 war, the Jordanian government gave us these plots of land to build on, in exchange for our UNRWA cards. The cards were worth a lot of money, but we wanted to live normal lives in our own houses, so we gave up our status as refugees. We have lived in this home since the 1950's. The Israeli settlers claim the land belongs to the Jews and they went to court, for years we were in the courts. But this is my house, it is our home, I built the annex in the front and planted the fruit trees. Now the court has ordered the annex to be sealed off and they forced us out. Settlers came with the soldiers in the night and started throwing our possessions outside, just like that, and they hit us, one of them grabbed my daughter by the throat and tried to strangle her. They are very violent. We cannot live with them. They hurt us and they insult us and they are thieves and the soldiers help them. The court has left us, for now, with the back part of the house; the front is locked and sealed. On Sunday the court will decide finally. I don't believe they will force us to leave. I don't believe they can be so unjust. Come meet my mother, she will tell you."

We peeked through the window: his mother was sleeping, the afternoon receding into night. We sat with him for a few moments in the tent he has put up in the courtyard across from what used to be his front door. His wife, a handsome, modern woman, rushed into the back of the house and emerged with a box of baklava to offer us; it was 'Id al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, when guests are especially welcome.

Then on Sunday the court ruled in favor of the settlers, and they moved in immediately with the soldiers to back them up, as is normal in East Jerusalem these days. That's how the lego and the stuffed animals landed up in the courtyard.

This is the third recent eviction in Sheikh Jarrah—after the al-Hanun and al-Ghawi families lost their homes to settlers-- and six more families have already received court orders preparing them for this same fate. We've tried our best to stop it, we've run an international campaign, we've kept volunteers in the houses and protestors outside, we've done what we could in the courts and the press, and we've failed and will no doubt fail again unless some of you who read this report find a way to bring effective pressure to bear. Let me say at once: the legal situation in Sheikh Jarrah is complicated, but it's also largely irrelevant. The settlers, through what is called the Sephardic Community Committee, have produced documents to support their claim that these plots of land belonged to Jews during the Ottoman period, over a century ago. Ergo, they must be restored to Jewish hands (like all the rest of Palestine?

And what about the hundreds of Palestinian houses in West Jerusalem now inhabited by Jews? No Israeli court is about to return them to their original owners.). All the Palestinian families who live here received the land from the Jordanian government, as Mr. al-Kurd said. They are large families; two generations have been born and grown up in these houses. The whole question has been in the courts for decades, and the rulings have sometimes favored the Palestinians, at other times the settlers. I'm not about to make any judgment relating to the legal niceties.

But make no mistake: these expulsions are first and foremost political acts. They are part of a sustained, constantly ramifying campaign to plant colonies of fanatical Jewish settlers in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods all over East Jerusalem, at the same time driving out whatever Palestinian families happen to be in the way. The courts merely provide the fig leaf (and the municipality and the government provide the soldiers). If you have any doubt, you have only to look at the settlers who have moved in; you can watch them any evening, gloating from the rooftops at their victims, some of whom now live in ramshackle tents they have put up on the street across from their homes. The police have cruelly demolished even the al-Ghawi tent at least five times. I've sat there with the family on cold winter nights, and I think I won't try to describe how it feels. The settlers also have a habit of viciously attacking the Palestinians whom they've displaced; sometimes fist-fights develop, as happened earlier this week, with the unsurprising result that the Palestinians—in this case two young men from the al-Kurd family and a third from another family—were arrested and sent to jail. Not only have they been evicted from their home; they also get to spend time in prison, for good measure. When the Channel 2 news reported on events in Sheikh Jarrah on Wednesday night this week, the mainstream announcer offered his Israeli audience a one-line moral to the story: "Palestinians in East Jerusalem don't obey the orders of the court."

Would you?

Marching through the city this afternoon was a lot like old times—say the days of the first Lebanon War in 1982, when to join a peace demonstration was like running a gauntlet of hostile, jeering crowds, who would often punch you or spit at you as you passed. Today we were sixty or seventy, maybe a bit more, hardly a vast horde. One happier thought: a good half of the group was made up of young people (early 20's), committed, lucid, fearless, full of life and energy. They are the future of the peace movement here, if it has a future. I saw four or five of my honors students, and also two children, now fully grown, of veteran activists I have known. People emerged from their shops on the Ben-Yehudah pedestrian mall to curse us, and someone on a high balcony over the street tried to blast us with water from a hose, and there were some who tried to hit us as we moved through town, beating our drums, crying out old, rather useless, weather-beaten words like "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not murder" and "You can't build a democracy on murder and theft" and then, in Arabic as we moved east, "No to the Occupation," and so on.

As we passed the hospice near Notre Dame, the male nurses in their white caps—all Palestinian—came out onto the roof to watch us, and when they read the Arabic signs we were carrying they suddenly broke into smiles and raised their thumbs to cheer us, so maybe it was worthwhile just for that. A little farther along, deep in East Jerusalem, religious Jews poked their heads out of the windows of the huge hotel they inhabit to yell "Death to Arabs!" So it goes in the Holy City. We filled the courtyard of the al-Kurd house and spilled over into the street outside it; I can't help wondering if the settlers inside the house felt at least a little uneasy listening to our cries urging them to get out, to return the theft; or if a tiny seed of doubt took root in the mind of, say, just one policeman."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Barack Obama is losing friends. Gary Wills' post at the New York Review blog might as well stand in for the others (though its patronizing tone--"I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president"--is Wills' own). Obama, so goes the argument, is fighting a war that will not defeat enemies but will only produce more. This is his Vietnam, which is the more galling since he knows very well what happened in Vietnam. He has "betrayed" the people who supported him.

Others, well, huff that he is nothing but a conciliator, hugging the "center" at every opportunity. Just look at his unwillingness to nationalize the banks, or willingness to entertain alternatives to a Medicare style public option. He must be hanging out too much with Wall Street swells. The New York Times narcissism police (which has no internal investigation unit, apparently) told us he is a "cold shower" even to his close friends; during the campaign, the same investigator charged that the child of black and white parents simply cannot stop himself from trying to please everybody. You get the idea.

For my part, I confess my admiration for Obama is only growing as I watch him navigate the extraordinary tangle of decisions he confronts. And for what it's worth, I think the (bi-)racial profiling of Obama misses the point, too. I do not see a child who is trying to please everybody. I see a man who understands that we mainly inherit what happened before we come into responsibility (and I don't just mean his administration inheriting the mistakes of the Bush presidency); that things fall apart much as Achebe, like Conrad before him, warned us they do; that if we struggle to improve things, we must simultaneously struggle to hold together whatever institutions are more or less working, or we are going to create something much, much worse.

I DON'T KNOW any more about Afghanistan than Wills does, which is impressionistic (impressions reinforced, or distorted, I confess, by many drives to the South Hebron hills, where some of my hosts still live in caves). I am willing to believe that Afghanistan is, at best, a chaotic and backward and ruined place; that people in the war zone there (as reported in this poignant report) shoot at chickens to test life preserving amulets. Let us say that, inevitably, Afghanistan will be ruled by a kleptocracy during our lifetimes; that the best we could ever hope for is to shore up an area around Kabul, which gives a certain freedom to women and a leg up to a narco-mafia over the more traditional warlords. You listen to journalist Rory Stewart, certainly, and you conclude that building a modern, democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy.

The point is, what in Obama's speech or policy would lead one to believe he thinks any differently? He did not get us into this mess. So far as I can see, his strategy is contrived to keep the place from falling apart in the event of a too-rapid withdrawal, a prospect that horrifies Stewart himself: think of Cambodia, not just Vietnam. Besides, the real danger to the region would be chaos in Pakistan, not only Afghanistan. Is the Pakistani government asking for a wholesale American withdrawal now? If there is not a wholesale withdrawal, then how to make America's troops not become sitting ducks?

Is there anything in Obama's speech that would preclude trying to reach an accommodation with local warlords, as in Iraq, so that American and NATO troops can be drawn down at the end of next year? Is there any fear of a "wider war" with another superpower? If this is Obama's Vietnam, or even his Iraq, where is the domino theory, or the hollow call for "freedom," or the Kissingerian claim that withdrawal would damage American "credibility," or the cavalier attitude toward allies, or the attempt to have butter without paying for the guns?

And while I'm getting warmed up, would we really have been better off nationalizing the banks, bonuses or no bonuses, wiping out the shareholders (including our pension funds) and rebuilding their management from scratch? Were we right to assume a recovery that was years away, so that toxic assets would remain toxic for years? Let's assume, which is certainly arguable, that a Medicare-like public option is really the best way to contain costs; lets' assume that private insurance companies and non-profit cooperatives (which for all their perverse incentives work, after all) cannot be regulated to serve the commonwealth as well as a government program. Has Obama been failing to stake his presidency on this option because he's lacked courage since childhood or because he's simply been able to count to 41 since March?

Look, this is a man who organized his Chicago community backed by the Catholic church. When he refused to denounce governments working through faith-based services, progressives denounced him as pandering to the right. He refused to denounce the Supreme Court for valorizing the Second Amendment, but tried to come up with new ways to control guns and apply their ruling. As president, he might have let GM fold--that would serve them right!--but he took the time to see the company's potential and, by next fall, he will have made us all majority stakeholders in the world's most advanced electric car and supplier ecosystem. He invested the stimulus in things that will matter in the years ahead, though he could have sent us shopping to gin up unemployment numbers: "cash for what-not." And is his call for bi-partisanship really just playing into the hands of them. He said on "Sixty Minutes" a while back that it was his responsibility to make decency to adversaries "interesting." I could have kissed him for that.

Oh, and he said what he was going to do in Afghanistan. He said it to a million people in Berlin, for God's sake. Look at the way he's engaged China and Russia on a deeply important trip he's got not credit for, except from Jim Fallows, who thankfully is paying attention.

I DO NOT have Obama's temperament, so let me say to my progressive friends that we are courting disaster. There is betrayal here, but it is not Obama's betrayal of us. I saw this kind of thing before with Jimmy Carter, where the president suffered death by a thousand cuts from the people on his left, Kennedy included; people who couldn't deliver the Congress, but could deliver endless polemics against his fear of budget busting or his more pragmatic health care proposals--and they wound up clearing the path for Ronald Reagan. Just listen to Rick Hertzberg, who like Fallows was in Carter's White House, to learn what a cold shower losing was.

We like to think that "independents," where Obama's ratings are slipping, are the really judicious types. In fact, people who remained undecided the longest during the last election were people who could not easily think for themselves; people who were waiting to see what other people were going to do; people who never want to be thought suckers. A big part of Obama's slippage is coming because the most conspicuously progressive people in the Democratic tent think nothing of "going negative" the way Hilary did, and over things Obama either cannot control or may yet prove right about.

We are fanning public anger against Obama about pain Obama did not cause; refusing to see how many in our benighted public are just looking to see if he continues to inspire loyalty and electricity among the people they had flocked to last year. We are sickened by the right but seem not to see how those waiting in the wings are counting on the Democratic Party falling apart, too.

"If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do," Wills writes. Really. You'd rather have McCain and Palin in the White House, facing you squarely. Then you'd know who your enemy is. Then the world would make sense.