Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yigal Amir: Colonizing, Also, Traditional Judaism

Of all the troubling details of Yigal Amir’s murder of Yitzhak Rabin, twenty years ago today, perhaps the most revealing — anyway, the one I cannot get out of my mind — is that Amir attended synagogue on the morning of the assassination, where the chanted portion of Torah, mandated by the yearly cycle, was “Lekh Lekha,” translated as “Go forth!” Amir believed the portion was fitting, even portentous — so Dan Ephron reports in Killing a King — since it recounts God commanding Abraham to go to Canaan.  “In effect,” Ephron writes, repeating views Amir shared more or less openly with his interrogators, “it is the biblical moment when God promises the real estate that is now Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Jordan) to the Jews.” Rabin was willing to abandon some of that promised land in the context of the Oslo Agreements, and, according to the precepts of Amir's rabbis, needed to be stopped by force, even killed.  When the Sabbath ended, Amir climbed on a bus, and went to perform his awful ‘duty.’

It has become common to speak of Amir as a “religious extremist.” Ephron does — understandably so. Amir told interrogators that his slipping through Rabin’s security forces, and remaining alive, was proof of divine will. Polls show that rigorous Jewish observance is the clearest predictor of hard-right views in Israel today, and included in these is the belief that Amir should be pardoned and freed. (In 2006, about 30 percent of the Israeli public, roughly the same number who wanted Jewish halakhic law to replace democratic norms, supported Amir’s release; today, over half of self-identified “national-religious” Jews refuse to believe that Amir even killed Rabin.)  Still, I can’t get “Lech Lecha” out of my mind, because it has been lodged there since I was a pupil in Montreal’s Talmud Torah school; its tales remain vivid and suggestive. I never quite knew what qualified as an observant Jew — and still don’t.  But an observant reader is easier to rate. Amir’s failures on this score leave one wondering what kind of Torah he ever paid attention to and if his Judaism is “extreme” or of a different order.

What does “Lekh Lekha” really say?  God does not tell Abram to go to Canaan (Abram does not become “Abraham” — literally, “exalted father” — until later). He tells Abram to leave his father’s house and go to “a land I shall show you”: “I will bless you and I will aggrandize your name, and you will be as a blessing.” The obvious point here, disturbing and thrilling to a child, is that Abram’s grandeur begins with a mysterious courage: to break the bonds of home, treat a father’s comforts and wisdom as idols to be broken. (The Talmud later speaks of Abram as breaking the household idols of his father, Terah, who himself had left his father’s home.) It is true that this land will prove to be Canaan. And the text then has God “giving” the land Abram surveys there to his descendants. But Abram did not know any of this when he left.  We know only that he was quickened by vison and ambition. And the plot thickens.

Abram goes to Egypt to escape famine. His wife Sarai is beautiful, so Abram, convinced of Egyptian depravity, is certain that his hosts will kill him to have her.  He tells her to pass as his sister. Sarai does indeed get the Pharaoh’s attentions. The Pharoah takes her — and is afflicted by plagues. He figures out that she must be married. But he does not kill Abram. Rather, he scolds Abram for bringing sin upon him, and releases him with generosity: Abram returns to his lands in Canaan heavy with cattle, silver and gold — also with an evolving humility. Abram’s nephew Lot is also in the land, as are Canaanites and Perezites; Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen begin to quarrel, apparently over grazing and watering. Abram, speaking the majestic line Amir seems to have willfully ignored, tells Lot: “Is not all the land before us?  Please part from me. If you go right I will go left.  If you go left I will go right.”

Later, when Lot is captured, Abram leads a party of fighters to free his kinsman. The King of Sodom offers Abram a tribute, but Abram swears he will never take “a thread or shoe-strap” that belongs to another. God then tells Abram that, in the future, his seed will serve another people as slaves and return to this land; but only once the “iniquity of the Amorites” will be complete — implying (though this seems rather obviously trumped up by later, apologetic redactors) that the new inhabitants will deserve to lose their patrimony on account of some vague wickedness, not because Abram’s descendants have a prior, superseding right; this was morally convenient for the descendants. As for the seed that will inherit him, “Lekh Lekha” continues largely with the story of Ishmael’s birth, whom Abram initiates into the covenant with circumcision, and to whom land and aggrandizement are also promised. It is only after Ishmael is born, in fact, that Abram becomes Abraham, and is assured he will become “father of a multitude of nations.” (Later still, in other chapters, Ishmael will be subordinated to Isaac in the family circle, but both sons’ lives are saved by divine grace; and they bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah.)

The Torah portion introduces us to a promised land, but this is arguably a footnote to traits and imperatives of conduct suggesting a promising life: iconoclasm, restlessness, ambition — extend the benefit of the doubt, choose peace over avoidable contention, respect others’ property. Most important, since the claim to the land by divine right might clash with divine precepts, a sober reader would conclude that no one sentence is sacred but that the privilege of interpreting sentences is sacred. That privilege has been valorized by the Talmud since the second century.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, the 19th century philosopher William James speaks of two types of religious people. The first assume a just order designed and enforced by transcendent power. He calls such people, with graceful irony (and barely concealed disgust), “healthy-minded.” The second type, with whom he clearly identified, were “sick-souled”: People “of tender conscience,” prone to “moral remorse and compunction,” who can’t stop wondering if matter matters — people feeling “inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one’s being and appointer of one’s spiritual fate.” It is the latter people, James thought, who were candidates for genuine religious faith, accepting blessing in the face of oblivion. (James quoted from Ecclesiastes, included by ancient rabbinic genius in the Jewish canon: “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many.”) The healthy-minded, in contrast, were stunted, dangerous, inclined to a disquieting, naive piety, providing them “passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.”

Rabin’s murder, in this sense, was not the act of a Jewish extremist, but, in a way, a Jewish minimalist. “National-religious Zionism,” the pathetically “healthy-minded” community that produced Amir, has been growing since the 1967 war, when the settler movement, Gush Emunim, displaced the old guard of the National Religious Party. Their flattened Judaism, inspired by the fiery Rabbi Tzi Yehuda Kook, turned Jerusalem into an idolatry, incubated in institutions indirectly (and naively) supported by the state: the yeshivot of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and the campus of Bar-Ilan University, where Amir attended law school. Little by little, in many subtle ways, the cult colonized, not just the West Bank, but the Judaism of my childhood.

The saddest, most common losses are often hardest to discern. The traditional blessing after the meal, for example, the Birkat hamazon, has a famous coda, taken from Proverbs, which Isaiah Berlin once called the “harshest lie in world.” This goes: “I was a youth, and I have become aged, and I have never seen a righteous man deserted, and his children begging for bread.” (Na’ar hayiti, gam zakanti, ve-lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav, vezaro mevakesh lahem.) Even as a child in Talmud Torah, I thought those words fatuous.  But the melody that accompanied the words — as sung by my father, aunts, uncles — was in a minor key and among the most mournful, lovely melodies I had yet heard. I could not articulate my feelings at the time, but the blessing’s claim, accompanied by that music, seemed deliciously ironic to me. They suggested, at once, a principle of justice and a lugubrious skepticism which, I dare say, made my little soul a little sick.

But when I first moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I noticed that something had gone awry with the prayer. Its haunting melody had been superseded by a new one — which had come, so I was told, from Bnei Akiva — a catchy triumphal tune in four-four time, reminiscent of the University of Michigan’s fight song. With that rhythm, and in that register, the harsh lie at the end of the blessing could only be taken as a kind of promised fate. I have often been offended by this melody, but could not spoil the warmth of somebody’s Sabbath table. I fear that the failure of traditional Jews to confront these simplifications now carries a heavy price.

President Reuven Rivlin announced that he would never pardon Amir, though the soccer fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which Rivlin once helped manage, now cheer Amir’s name from the stands. (Yigal Amir’s brother, and now released accomplice, Hagai, recently threatened Rivlin’s life.) Yet Rivlin, like many decent Israelis, may despise Amir’s crime but seems helpless to convict Amir’s “Judaism”: The veneration of the land, the “unity” of Jerusalem, the sacred isolation of Jewish law. Amir may die in prison, but as Ephron suggests, he may die savoring his real triumph, which is not simply stopping the Oslo peace process.  Jews once thought of holiness as ineffable, unapproachable. Now when Jews say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” or more likely “in rebuilt Jerusalem,” many seem to think they can book a room next to God. Holiness is thought to be so physical for Jews that mainstream fact-checkers seem confident about mapping it.

Last month, correcting a story about frictions on the Temple Mount, America’s National Public Radio issued this apology: “[The] story mischaracterized the Western Wall as the holiest site in Judaism. It is the holiest site for Jewish prayer, while the adjacent Temple Mount is considered the holiest site.” Amir, no doubt, would be pleased that this was cleared up.

This article was published today in Haaretz



Friday, October 23, 2015

The Knife-Attacks. What Provokes Them?

This past Saturday, in separate incidents, four young Palestinians—three of them teen-agers—were shot dead after knife attacks on Israelis, three on police, one on an armed settler. Since the beginning of October, ten Israelis and dozens of Palestinians have been killed in attacks or suspected attacks, or confrontations at street demonstrations. Many more on both sides have been wounded. “These random, unpredictable attacks have stumped Israeli police,” CNN reported last Thursday, just after police killed a young Palestinian man, dressed in combat fatigues, who had attempted a stabbing near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli authorities, the report continued, could not find any connection between the attackers and organized groups such as Hamas and Fatah, and so found it “difficult to devise a streamlined strategy to fight them.”

The attacks have targeted soldiers, police, and Jewish civilians, most often in and around the Old City—where the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, has been increasingly contested by rogue zealot members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet—but also near West Bank settlements, especially around Hebron, and in Israeli cities as far away as Beersheba. Last Friday, about a hundred Palestinians torched Joseph’s Tomb, in Nablus, as if answering last February’s “price tag” torching of a mosque by Jewish settlers in Al-Jaba’ah, near Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat, who wrestled a would-be attacker to the ground in February, has called for new police checkpoints to monitor the comings and goings from Arab neighborhoods, and for all Israeli Jewish citizens to arm themselves. The centrist leader Yair Lapid, otherwise stridently secular, has found inspiration in Talmudic precepts: “The rabbis teach that if someone comes up against you to kill you, you should kill him first,” he said. “That should be our working model.” He added, “Don’t hesitate. Even at the start of an attack, shooting to kill is correct. If someone is brandishing a knife, shoot him. It’s part of Israel’s deterrence.”

These horrible attacks have left Israelis questioning whether the violence is a new Palestinian uprising, incited by a weakened, opportunistic Palestinian Authority—if not directly led by underground Hamas cells—or, rather, a passing expression of rage by Palestinian youth. Social-media posts have encouraged Palestinians to participate in the “Knife Intifada,” and have even given instructions on how to stab victims. President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the violence in vague terms, and the attack on Joseph’s Tomb more pointedly. In 2011, he told me he would “never” return to armed struggle. But he has seemed to signal tolerance for these new attacks. On September 16th, Abbas said on Palestinian television, “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah.” Two weeks later, the stabbings began. One cannot help but be reminded of the grotesque suicide bombings of the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began almost exactly fifteen years ago.

Now as then, parents are keeping their children away from shopping malls, and guards are appearing at the entrances to restaurants. It is impossible, especially for those of us who have lost loved ones to terror, to see the knifings and hear talk of martyrs and not respond with instinctive revulsion. But there are proximate causes, and then there are material ones. Today’s attacks may appear “random” and “unpredictable,” but an increase in their incidence and intensity is entirely predictable. In 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that eighty-four per cent of Arab children in East Jerusalem fell below the poverty line. The unemployment rate among Arabs in the city was about forty per cent among men and eighty-five per cent among women, Haaretz reported in 2012. Three hundred and twenty thousand Arabs live in East Jerusalem—although estimates vary depending on the inclusion of neighborhoods behind the separation wall—and constitute about thirty-eight per cent of the total population. Arab residents of East Jerusalem have no Israeli citizenship, only permanent-residency cards, which means that they are eligible for medical insurance and also have to pay Israeli taxes. They do not vote in national elections, though Israeli governments have claimed the united city as the country’s capital. Then there are the open provocations: not only the public agitation by government ministers for equal Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif but also the encroachment by rightist archeological organizations on the neighborhood of Silwan, and the marches by tens of thousands of radical nationalist yeshiva students through Nablus Gate on Jerusalem Day.

But the statistics and political encroachments, however dramatic, do not fully capture the ambient pressure on Arab families—the humiliating limitations that steer most Jerusalem Arabs, no matter their intelligence or ambition, to the counters of delis and the steering wheels of delivery trucks. A number of highly educated Arabs find medical positions in Jerusalem’s hospitals or management positions in its hotels. They testify to the possibility of coexistence. They are also anomalous. A 2013 United Nations report found that more than half of employed Arabs work in “services, commerce, hotels, and restaurants,” and another quarter in construction and agriculture. In 2008, I told the story of Abed, who stayed in Jerusalem to marry, and hoped to start a business during the heady days of the Oslo peace process. He ended up running the meat department of our local supermarket and, after twenty years, had saved enough to build a stately home in a northern suburb. But then the separation wall, begun in 2002, put his new house beyond his reach, in so-called Palestinian territory. If Abed occupied it, he would lose his Jerusalem residency and health insurance; he had less than a week to move his family of five into a two-room apartment. (“It is a home for the birds now,” he told me, adding, “Bless God,” his eyes welling with tears.) Abed’s brother then tried to expand his home in the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor, but was denied a permit, again and again. He put on an addition anyway, as Jews often do, and Jerusalem authorities demolished the entire house. More recently, Abed considered opening a fish store on the commercial street where he has worked for a generation. (I helped him with the business plan.) But he soon determined that an Arab could not hope to get kosher certification or a loan from Israeli banks—and no Arab banks are permitted to operate in the city. I have not seen Abed’s son, who is now a teen-ager, since he was a toddler. But I can only imagine the sting he has felt watching his father go off to work each day. Multiply such a sting by many thousands.

Read on in The New Yorker

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Iran, The Deal, And The Global System

Israelis overwhelmingly believe the Iran deal endangers them, but speak less about the world powers’ arrangements for Iranian nuclear facilities and more about Iran reaping an economic windfall – over $100 billion to increase regional mischief, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American-Jewish allies.

Even now, after the Senate failed to block the deal, AIPAC still insists that sanctions should have been increased along with military intimidation; that ambient economic pressures, causing suffering in the street and bazaar, would have inevitably forced the regime to capitulate. Implicitly, the deal’s opponents have depicted Iran’s economy as something like a drug cartel under a criminal kingpin that’s currently boxed-in by the cops – and as soon as the heat is off and profits roll in, the neighborhood will be doomed. (Netanyahu even suggested, colorfully, that Iranian officials could foil inspectors who ask to examine suspected sites the same way that drug dealers, if tipped off, could “flush a lot of meth down the toilet.”)

President Barack Obama has not said much to counter this image, except to insist that the Iranian government has tens of billions in infrastructural investments to make. In rallying Democratic legislators to support him, he has insisted that the deal’s safeguards will work. In fact, though, the president’s most important motive – and the reason he considers this a signature diplomatic victory – is something he can’t really talk about publicly: namely, the transformative power of Iran’s anticipated integration into the global system. Iran is a country with its own politics, including an election in February, and reformers like President Hassan Rohani are counting on commercial advances to put the wind at their back. In time, Iran’s emergence from economic isolation will almost certainly undermine the regime’s hard-liners and theocratic radicals, not strengthen them – and not because of what is unique to Iran but what is universal in the global economy.

Obama’s Iranian interlocutors, not only Rohani but the U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and leaders of a burgeoning Iranian civil society such as political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam, have been daringly frank about the deal working to their advantage. Zarif wrote in a New York Times column last April that his government’s desire to reduce regional tensions is “not due to habit or preference,” but because “globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete.” The assets of big global players used to be 20 percent knowledge and 80 percent stuff. That ratio is now reversed. As MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) put it recently, a commercially successful country must be a hub, not a fort.

Read on at Haaretz

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Chuck Schumer's Humilation

"You know, my name comes from the word shomer: guardian, watcher,” Senator Chuck Schumer told the host of a Jewish radio program in 2010. “My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov. And I believe Hashem actually gave me that name. One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer, to be the shomer Yisrael”—the guardian of Israel—“and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.” Schumer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s efforts to rally Democratic opposition to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal have now failed. On Tuesday, the support of Senators Richard Blumenthal, Ron Wyden, and Gary Peters assured Obama that any Republican resolution of disapproval would not even come up for a vote. But the extraordinary identity Schumer was claiming—to be a “guardian of Israel,” without apparent fear of being at odds with American foreign policy or the Democratic Party—may be the greater loss. It’s hard to see how AIPAC, and Schumer, come out of the Iran fight with the authority they had going in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s story, which he is sticking to, is that Israel and AIPAC have won a moral victory. Dore Gold, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Israel’s Army Radio that Netanyahu never intended to keep the deal from being approved but rather to raise awareness about its perils. “Most of Congress is against the deal,” as is Isaac Herzog, who leads the opposition in the Knesset, Gold added. He then returned to the claims that Netanyahu made in his speech before Congress in March—that the deal was bad, that it endangered Israel—which might have been mistaken for an attempt to convince American legislators to reject it.

AIPAC’s influence was first advanced, in the nineteen-seventies, by hard-line Democratic senators like Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who felt that the State Department was controlled by Eisenhower-era Republicans who were too indebted to oil interests and not adequately sympathetic to Israel’s plight. Ever since AIPAC managed to coördinate the defeat of Republican Senator Charles Percy, in 1984 (Percy was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had argued that Jewish settlements preëmpt Palestinian rights), AIPAC has been able to present itself as a powerhouse, flush with money, focussed on Congress, and with strong claims on both Republican hawks and evangelicals and the Democratic center. Tom Dine and Steven Grossman, AIPAC leaders in the eighties and nineties, were Democratic operatives; Grossman went on to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Bill Clinton. President Obama courted AIPAC’s support in 2008, assuring attendees of its yearly conference that Jerusalem would be “undivided.”

Israel, in AIPAC’s playbook, is the best judge of its defense needs, a sister democracy, and, besides, a strategic asset in a volatile region. (It proved this for the first time in September, 1970, when Israeli jets helped protect the Jordanian monarch from a Palestinian insurgency and Syrian invasion.) Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal was supposed to signal that AIPAC remained influential among Democratic principals and fund-raisers, and that the man who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2009, and is now the favorite to lead Senate Democrats when Harry Reid retires, could still fend off challenges to Israeli policy—if, for example, the U.N. Security Council were to vote on another resolution condemning West Bank settlements. The signal, meant to be cautionary, seems rather weak.

Even if, as some claim, Schumer came out against Obama only because he knew he could not muster the votes to override a Presidential veto, he surely expected to make a better showing. Now progressive groups like MoveOn have rallied Democratic insurgents to call Schumer’s prospective Senate leadership into question. AIPAC officials know that Netanyahu is to blame for emancipating Democrats from AIPAC’s embrace. “Netanyahu’s speech in Congress made the Iranian issue a partisan one,” an AIPAC official told Israel’s Walla!News. “As soon as he insisted on going ahead with this move, which was perceived as a Republican maneuver against the President, we lost a significant part of the Democratic Party, without which it was impossible to block the agreement.” AIPAC’s efforts to exploit Herzog’s opposition to the deal were almost as counterproductive, given that the deal has the support of Israeli Army and intelligence leaders, including Amos Yadlin, the man who Herzog said would have been his defense minister, had he defeated Netanyahu. As Channel Two’s veteran analyst Amnon Abramovitch told me, “Herzog’s effort to gain some reputation for ‘security’ and lean to the center is an understandable political move. But Iran is a subject that inevitably involves Israeli-American relations, and here Herzog got messed up.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Unremarkable Jewish Terror Underground

The NPR program, "Here and Now," looked into the Jewish terror underground yesterday and asked for some thoughts. Regular readers of this space will not be surprised by the line of questions--or my answers--but the dialogue produced ten interesting minutes. You can listen to the entire segment here. There is also an interesting piece on the subject by Ruth Margalit on The New Yorker site here

Friday, July 17, 2015

'The Trouble With Israel'


The following article, "The Trouble with Israel," is just out in the August Harper's. I try to make sense of things after the election and in anticipation of the Iran deal. (There is a pay-wall; but Harper's is well worth the 50 bucks a year.)

One day this April, two weeks after the Israeli elections gave Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister, the morning after the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran was worked out — the morning, as it happened, of the Passover seder — I dropped in at my local cheese shop, which is set back from the main street of Jerusalem’s German Colony. The neighborhood, once the heart of the city’s secular community of Hebrew University faculty and government workers, is now dense with yeshiva graduates wearing the signature knitted yarmulkes of the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and the affluent “modern Orthodox” from Toronto, Paris, and Teaneck, New Jersey. The clerk behind the counter — we’ll call him Shachar — the clever, chubby grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, whose eyes told you he thought he was meant for something better, had hooked me on truffle cheese some years ago, and we often had pleasant conversations when I came in for regular fixes. We did not normally talk politics, except for the occasional sigh over news of corruption or violence. (His grandfather, he had told me, had been a cadre in the Irgun, the militant Zionist underground group.) This time, however, he was buoyant, expectant. “Are you pleased with the election?” he asked me, using the Arabic colloquialism mabsoot for “pleased,” as casually as if he were asking whether Passover came in spring. 

“Are you out of your mind?” I erupted. “I feel shame for this country.”

Shachar stared at me, more surprised than wounded. I was taking advantage of him: I was his customer, after all. I shifted my tack toward patriotism. “Shachar, how can we be pleased? We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.” This gave Shachar his opening.

“No,” he replied, “the problem is with Obama. Experts say relations with America have never been better except for him. He doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here. People on the left” — he meant me, but graciously kept away from the second person — “think they know better but never learn. My other customers from America say he is the worst president ever. Soon we’ll have missiles at Ben Gurion Airport.”

I stiffened my back and told Shachar what I thought of his government, his experts, and his other American customers. But even before I ended my disquisition, I thought: I am missing the point. One lesson the Israeli left has refused to learn is that elections are not so much a clash of arguments as an occasion for trafficking in fear. Shachar’s instincts were closer to primordial, and it was such instincts that determined the vote in Jerusalem, and much else in Israel. Netanyahu played on this fear by warning about “Arabs voting in droves” during the election’s closing hours — but Shachar’s real impulse was to find safety in affinity: the sense that things very nearby were dangerous, or could suddenly be made so; that understanding both sides of an argument weakens resolve; that believing in negotiations makes you unfit to conduct them.

Read on at Harper's Magazine


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Does Greece Need The Euro? Ask Israel.

"The Greek financial nightmare is a reminder of why countries benefit from having their own currencies,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last Tuesday, before the government of Alexis Tsipras grudgingly accepted terms for another bailout. This was “a reminder,” presumably, because there was no need to debate something so axiomatic. “In the old days,” Ignatius continued, “a flexible drachma could have been devalued to boost exports and economic growth.” Economists from Martin Feldstein to Paul Krugman have proposed this cause and effect as a solution to Greece’s crisis since it began, in 2009. Krugman made the point forcefully in his column on Friday, lashing out at European and American austerity hawks and pointing to Canada’s devalued dollar as the reason for its recovery from the 2008 meltdown. “Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment,” Krugman wrote. “The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse.”

There can be no doubt that, in the case of Greece, critics of radical austerity have the better side of the argument. All agree that the Greek economy has to grow at an accelerating rate if the country is to have a chance of meeting a good part of its debt obligations, however generously they are restructured. Krugman notes that the national debt, which was roughly one and a quarter times G.D.P. in 2009, is, after austerity, one and three quarters times that today. Almost a million people, in a country of just over ten million, worked for the government in 2009. You could insist, as advocates of austerity have, that this was unsustainable, but throwing a third of those employees out of work, cutting remaining public-sector salaries by a third, and drastically reducing pensions, as advocates of austerity did, inevitably suppressed local demand. They could not have expected private-sector entrepreneurs to invest in consumer businesses, either. Creditor banks in Germany will almost certainly have to take some losses to get the Greek government’s ledgers back into balance.

The supercilious tone of northern European bankers regarding southern European profligacy makes austerity proponents’ arguments hard to take, too. To make German unification possible, East Germany effectively received a one-time infusion of three hundred and twenty-billion Deutsche marks, in the early nineties, the equivalent of almost two hundred billion dollars at the time, which included a deal that allowed East Germans to trade their own pathetic marks for West German Deutsche marks at par. It is true, as many European Union leaders have suggested, that there is the issue of precedent with Greece: the more the European Central Bank proves willing to transfer wealth to poor southern economies, the shakier the euro will become. Then again, if the euro were the currency of the richer northern European economies alone, or, for that matter, if a united Germany’s engineering-rich, high-export economy were still on the Deutsche mark, a Volkswagen Golf produced in Wolfsburg would be too expensive to sell competitively in either the U.S. or Asia, no matter how many robots were put on the line. The connection between the value of currencies and the capacity to export cuts both ways.

None of this means, however, that the euro and the free-trade eurozone are inherently bad for weaker economies like Greece’s. On the contrary, the counter-proposal of cheapening exports through devaluation presumes an economy that makes things the rest of the world wants. That’s Canada’s, but not Greece’s: the sun can only do so much. Aside from tourism, the Greek economy mainly rests on exporting refined petroleum and processed agricultural products while importing crude petroleum and everything from cars to computers. You can’t devalue the drachma to the point that gasoline production, or olive oil and cheese production, would generate sufficient earnings for Greek workers to pay for cars and computers. (That’s why so many Greek workers borrowed euros on easy credit to buy them.)

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Did Obama 'Abandon Israel'?

Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, made news last week—as well he might, since he’s publishing a book. Yesterday marked the release of a memoir of his years representing Benjamin Netanyahu, which he summed up in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” The article included this pungent line: “While neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.” The leader in question, of course, is President Barack Obama. From the moment the President took office, Netanyahu’s envoy saw him as promoting “an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran.”

Oren doesn’t bother explaining what’s wrong with an American President pursuing an agenda of this kind. He insists, implausibly, that it “would have put him at odds with any Israeli leader.” He also doesn’t explain how a mistake can be made “deliberately,” which seems oxymoronic, something like a “planned accident.” But Oren’s formulation is no less quotable for being imprecise. It is obviously meant to achieve the same response as Mitt Romney’s statement that the President had “thrown allies like Israel under a bus.” For America’s “friends of Israel,” especially organized American Jews, putting “deliberately” and “abandoned” on the same page is enough. The juxtaposition bypasses the brain, going straight to the solar plexus.

Read on at The New Yorker

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Netanyahu Moves Against The Media

Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first, much reported beyond Israel, was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections. Netanyahu won reëlection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage.

But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. His defense of Israel Hayom’s supremacy in print is trifling compared with his growing power to control greater Israel’s airwaves. “Netanyahu is like a pianist who’s gathered all the keys for a keyboard,” Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist who founded The Seventh Eye, an Israeli press-criticism magazine, told me. “Do we expect him not to play?”

Netanyahu’s most brazen decision as minister of communications has been the firing of the ministry’s director-general, Avi Berger, who had been preparing to reform the broadband market. The formerly government-owned telecommunications company Bezeq provides about two-thirds of home Internet access and almost all home Internet connections. Berger’s planned reform would have forced Bezeq to license its wired infrastructure to new entrants, bringing down the cost of Web access, much the way forcing Israel’s cell-phone cartel to share cellular infrastructure radically lowered the cost of mobile access. Berger also wanted all new companies to gain the right to bundle “last-mile” wiring with Internet service; Israeli customers now pay Bezeq to connect their modem to the fibre network, and also pay an Internet Service Provider, mostly likely Bezeq International, for access to the Web. Connectivity costs are about double what they are in the United States. Bezeq shareholders are not complaining. Netanyahu announced that he intends to replace Berger with Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories. Broadband markets and neo-Zionist ideology may seem unrelated, but they are not. Berger’s firing was a signal that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies.

Not surprisingly, Netanyahu’s move against Berger prompted an immediate spike in Bezeq’s share price; Netanyahu clearly meant to put Bezeq’s owners in his debt, or at least emphasize the value of being in his orbit. Not coincidentally, the Bezeq-owned Internet company Walla! has been rumored for months to be planning a twenty-four-hour cable news channel, bundled into Bezeq’s satellite-television provider Yes, and streamed and promoted over Bezeq infrastructure. “Berger’s sudden dismissal was immediately beneficial for Bezeq, of which Walla! is a subsidiary,” Erel Margalit, a Labor Knesset member and the founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has launched various media companies, complained. For Bezeq, Walla!, and its prospective cable news channel, “the conflict of interest is self-evident.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Muddled, Contradictory, And Doomed?

Late Wednesday night, with less than an hour left until his mandate as Prime Minister of Israel expired, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to build a coalition government of sixty-one members of the Knesset, the absolute minimum needed for him to remain in office. Thirty come from the increasingly strident Likud Party, eight from Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, thirteen from the ultra-Orthodox parties, and, crucially, ten from Moshe Kahlon’s centrist-populist Kulanu. One negative vote or abstention from a rogue member of this majority—a settler upset about delays to settlement construction, an Orthodox leader upset by a cut to support for Yeshiva students—and the government might well fall.

Netanyahu had called the March 17th election, only two years after the last one, because he wanted a more solidly right-wing majority, made up exclusively of parties representing neo-Zionists, military hawks, and rabbinic courts. He did not want to have to bargain with centrist ministers like Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, whom he had coöpted to his previous coalition, and who finally resisted, among other things, his “Jewish nationhood” bill, which would have undermined the Supreme Court’s ability to protect minority rights.

Netanyahu did not get his wish, which never was a realistic one, given manifest changes in the Israeli political landscape, especially the rise of centrist parties, the latest of which was Kahlon’s. The real story of this election was the growing influence of young voters, especially young Mizrahi and Russian voters, who are reflexively hawkish but less burdened by old ideologies and resentments than their parents—more interested in “eichut haim,” or quality of life—and who swelled the center. Although Netanyahu was widely (and rashly) assumed to have had a decisive victory in March, the parties that would have given him the government he wanted won only fifty-seven seats, down four from 2013. As predicted by many, the centrist Kahlon, who had recently left the Likud, held the balance of power.

 Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Deal--And Haggadah's Repressed Anger

The Passover Haggadah, the short book of hymns, chronicles, and liturgical practices whose reading constitutes the traditional Seder, is thought to have been compiled as early as the second century—around the time the Talmud was compiled, just when rabbinic Judaism as we know it was emerging, a rival to Jewish followers of Jesus in coming to terms with the catastrophe of exile. The Haggadah is thus a book immanently at odds with itself: committed to the principle of emancipation—“from slavery to freedom”—and to symbolic rituals that celebrate deliverance, yet also replete with what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia”—a commitment to self-segregating ancestral commandments and barely repressed rabbinic defensiveness and rage.

At the opening of the Seder, the leader holds up a piece of matza, unleavened bread, and speaks in ancient Aramaic, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.” It is easy enough to imagine that for exiled, haunted Jews still living under Roman rule, the “land of Israel” was still a formative place, kept in the collective memory—and initiating yearly Seders helped to memorialize it. But, by the time the Haggadah was itself formative—certainly by the early Middle Ages, when anti-Jewish massacres had become common in Christian lands—the “land of Israel” seemed less a geographical fact than a place of messianic hope.

So the Haggadah also reflects the sense of grief, helplessness—and craving for retaliation—that many rabbis cultivated over the centuries. The divine, not any political figure (Moses, strangely, is hardly mentioned), liberated His chosen “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Early rabbis are quoted revelling, with a unself-conscious pathos, in plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, magnifying oppressors’ suffering like a wounded boy fantasizing about what his father should do to a bully. Rabbi Eliezer hypothesizes that the ten plagues were actually forty, because each plague was delivered with attitude: “ ‘Fury’ is one; ‘indignation’ makes two; ‘trouble’ makes three; ‘discharge of messengers of evil’ makes four.” These forty, plus the notional two hundred plagues inflicted at the Red Sea, make two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva then trumps Rabbi Eliezer, reckoning along similar lines that the plagues actually numbered two hundred and fifty. In every generation, the Haggadah exhorts us to sing, unnamed forces “rise against us to annihilate us.”

If there was always this tension in the traditional Haggadah—between valorizing what must be done to liberate all people in need and valorizing what must be done to liberate Jews as a particular people—this hardly mattered in the diaspora, where the Haggadah was composed and for which it was intended. The tension was alleviated, if not resolved, by an implicit knowledge that Jews were the outsiders—so that doing what prevented their persecution, or advanced their civic interests, also advanced social tolerance and the formation of civil society more generally. This is not the way the Haggadah reads today, however: the tension is more palpable and vexing for Israelis—and, increasingly, for American Jews. When you have the military or police power to act against others, or the political power to oppose others, you don’t have the arguable luxury of assuming Jewish interests to be coincident with those of every oppressed person. (As if to prove this point as grotesquely as possible, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—of all weeks, just before Passover—began the forced expulsion of many hundreds of the forty thousand of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who had crossed the Sinai to find asylum in Israel.)

Today, the land of Israel is not something poetic and hypothetical, nor is the survival imperative inherently free of bigotry or the hunger for revenge harmless. The last point seems particularly urgent this day of the Seder, the day after the announcement of the great power agreement with Iran; Israelis and American Jews will find it impossible to read the Haggadah tonight without thinking about the deal’s implications. It is worth observing that, already, Netanyahu is denouncing the deal as “threaten[ing] the survival of the state of Israel.” And his view is widely echoed in Israel, including by otherwise balanced observers like Ari Shavit, who argued yesterday in Haaretz that the Lausanne talks were something like Munich all over again; that economic sanctions on Iran should rather have been intensified until “Iran’s nuclear capability was entirely sterilized.”

Hyperbole of this kind is safely conformist in today’s Israel—also among Jews supporting AIPAC in America. Its champions view themselves as stiffening spines against foes who, the Haggadah didn’t need to remind us, are real. Yet it is hard to hear the talk without thinking tonight of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, cowering and in mourning, defaulting to a frame of mind in which the only response to Jew-hatred is multiplied plagues. If this is Munich, then the alternative, as President Obama justly observed, is “another Mideast war.” But would war, or even the threat of war, really force Iran’s most authoritarian leaders to back down—or would it entrench them? Would increased sanctions really weaken Iranian hardliners as much as the integration of the country’s isolated, restless entrepreneurs and professionals into the global system? Rabbi Akiva, the Haggadah doesn’t bother reminding us, also inspired, early in the second century, the catastrophic Bar Kochba wars.

At tonight’s Seder, I would suggest that the cautionary words of Thucydides, who predated the Haggadah by six hundred years, be added to Rabbi Eliezer’s and Rabbi Akiva’s imaginings of plagues. “A moderate attitude,” he lamented in his “History of The Peloponnesian War,” “was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything.” He added, dismissively, “One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful.” The Haggadah supposes that, in every generation, we should imagine that we ourselves stood at Sinai and assumed the burdens of law. We should imagine that we stood also at Amphipolis, and assumed the awkwardness of moderation.

Read in The New Yorker

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Netanyahu's Compromised Victory

This morning, the Times proclaimed a “crushing victory” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over Zionist Union challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, in yesterday’s election. But crushing victories don’t usually look like this one. In the last national election, in 2013, the five parties that make up Netanyahu’s hard-right “national camp” won sixty-one of the hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset. Yesterday, it won fifty-seven. It’s true that Netanyahu’s Likud surged to thirty seats, nine more than projected by last Friday’s final poll—the Zionist Union, by contrast, was expected to get twenty-four, and finished with exactly that—but Netanyahu’s gain was not really at Herzog and Livni’s expense.

What happened, as the Times of Israel’s editor, David Horovitz, points out, was that Netanyahu “desperately cannibalized” the most strident right-wing parties in his camp, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu repudiated the two-state principle, promised Bennett a prominent place in his government, and appealed to Bennett’s supporters to vote this time for his own Likud party. He insisted, plausibly, that the national camp as a whole could be forced out of power if the Zionist Union, not the Likud, won a plurality of seats and was granted the mandate, by President Reuven Rivlin, to try to form a majority government. He warned that "Arabs were voting in droves." Rightist voters, it turns out, obliged Netanyahu in droves. Bennett was polling at thirteen seats last Friday and finished with eight. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had ten or more in previous elections, ended with six.

Two new centrist parties, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, finished, as predicted by the polls, with ten and eleven seats, respectively. These results confirm the steady drift of younger Likud voters toward centrists like Kahlon (who served as a government minister under Netanyahu); as I wrote on Monday, Netanyahu cannot reach a majority without him. Yesterday, it seemed possible that, if Herzog and Livni had a plurality of seats, Kahlon would side with them. His senior partners, General Yoav Galant and the former Ambassador Michael Oren, are not sympathetic to Bennett’s settlers, embraced the two-state formula in their platform, and focussed mainly on economic inequality. But Netanyahu’s strong plurality almost certainly precludes Kahlon’s feeling emboldened to make a majority for the Zionist Union. That majority would have included the Arab Joint List, which would not have been an easy partnership for Kahlon, given his history with Likud.

The vote has fallen in favor of Netanyahu, but the country remains divided, even with centrist parties aiming to create a consensus around economic equality, social liberalism, and diplomatic skepticism. In greater Tel Aviv, Herzog’s center-left (without Kahlon) garnered about sixty-three per cent of the vote. In greater Jerusalem, Likud’s national camp (again, without Kahlon), got about eighty per cent. Today, at the Western Wall, Netanyahu told the press, “I deeply value the decision by Israeli civilians to choose me and my colleagues, against all the odds and against major forces,” suggesting the solidarity he wants and the enemies he needs. He does not yet have Rivlin’s mandate, but he pledged to form a government “within two to three weeks.” We shall see if Kahlon and his partners—who promised voters economic reforms and transparency, but, in a coalition with Likud, would first have to agree to sweeten pots for settlements and yeshivas—will oblige Netanyahu’s timetable. Kahlon may not have the conviction to make a majority for Herzog, but he might summon the rage to deny one to Netanyahu. Anyway, he has the power to force surprises on the coming coalition negotiations—and he just might.

Monday, March 16, 2015

2015: Victory For The Democratic Center?

Israel’s last pre-election poll shows that Isaac Herzog, the head of the Zionist Union—a center-left coalition of the Labor Party and former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah—is likely to win twenty-four seats or more, opening a four seat lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Neither is remotely close to winning the sixty-one seats needed to form a government after Tuesday’s election—leading parties build coalitions with smaller parties—but the Zionist Union’s surge has inspired excitement among liberals that is harder than usual to restrain. Although about ten per cent of voters are still undecided, Herzog seems to be trending up, with Netanyahu trending down. President Reuven Rivlin is required by law to award the mandate—the right to attempt to cobble together a government—to the leader who is most likely to succeed. Unless the ten or more parties that are expected to win seats declare a preference for prime minister in advance, and Netanyahu emerges as most likely to make a majority, Herzog’s projected plurality should be enough to compel Rivlin to award the mandate to him.

Netanyahu could still emerge triumphant; Israeli polling is not as reliable as one might hope. Even if the polls are accurate, Herzog will need support from some uncertain sources—most importantly, from Moshe Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu party, who came from Likud. Yet Herzog’s likely strong showing, and the new coalition he represents, portends some long-term shifts in the political map. Netanyahu has polarized the country, much as the former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did in the early nineteen-nineties. Netanyahu has declared Likud the anchor of the Israeli right, repudiated the feasibility of a two-state solution, brazenly defied the White House (Likud robocalls refer to “Hussein Obama”), and rallied mainstream conservative voters to identify with ultra-nationalist settlers and ultra-orthodox communities. Netanyahu assumed, when he called for this early election, back in December, that, like Shamir, he could rely on Likud’s traditional base. Manifestly, he cannot. Instead, Netanyahu and Herzog are enacting an enormously significant battle between two political camps: the parties of Greater Israel and the parties of Global Israel—and the latter has the social momentum. Even if this election does not produce an immediate change at the top, it will almost certainly be pivotal.

Since 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud first won power from the Labor Zionist parties that founded the state, Israel has had twelve national elections. Likud has won eight times, and Labor just twice. In 1984, even after former Prime Minister Begin’s failed war with Lebanon and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s forced resignation, and with inflation at four hundred per cent, Likud still pulled out a tie. In all, Labor leaders have commanded Knesset majorities for just about six years out of thirty-eight. Meanwhile, Likud seemed to have assembled a near-permanent conservative majority. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a far-right law student, in 1995, liberals felt that they were witnessing an unfolding tragedy, in which time and rage were working against them. They struggled to compete with Likud’s self-reinforcing ideology: occupation produced violence, and violence strengthened Jewish xenophobia, which resonated with Likud’s hawkish rhetoric. Likud’s neo-Zionist orthodoxies gave rise to a rapidly expanding West Bank settler population, whose towns many began taking for granted. Likud also benefitted from inescapable identity politics, which ran in families, and largely reflected resentments against the once dominant Labor Zionist parties for the centralized way that they ran the state in the fifties and sixties. If (as I’ve written elsewhere) Israel were to be divided into five roughly equal demographic voting groups—pioneering Zionists from Europe, Arabs who became Israeli citizens, Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, national-orthodox and ultra-orthodox theocrats, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union—Likud has appeared to have a lock on the last three.

This election suggests that globalist liberals are now at least in contention. One important change has been the full emergence of the Israeli political center, once considered a passing political force, but now clearly the product of younger, more cosmopolitan voters who have come into their own—connecting with peers abroad through entrepreneurial ventures, cultural and scientific networks, and travel—and who have not remained altogether loyal to the party identities of their parents. These centrists tend to consider themselves socially progressive: distancing themselves from settlers and theocrats. They are economically liberal: positive about global markets but wary of both capitalist oligarchs and socialist tinkering. And they are diplomatically skeptical: open to the peace process, but indignant about terrorism and the criticism of the Israel Defense Forces by the world press. Yair Lapid, the former minister of finance, leads Yesh Atid, the first centrist party to draw large numbers of young voters; he will almost certainly support Herzog over Netanyahu. Moshe Kahlon, the former minister of communications under Netanyahu, who is largely credited with opening the cell-phone market to new competitors, reportedly resents Netanyahu for reneging on a pledge to make him the head of the Israel Land Authority, and he refuses to rule out joining Herzog. Together, Lapid and Kahlon are likely to win at least twenty seats, nearly as many as the two major parties. They are drawing votes especially from young people in Russian and Mizrahi families—votes the Likud was counting on.

Read on at The New Yorker

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:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Netanyahu: The Elephant In The Room

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on Iran has been widely criticized, in Israel and in the United States. The unimportant criticism focusses on the way the event was concocted: House Speaker John Boehner and Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., planned it in secret for weeks, then sprang it on the State Department and White House (which gave Dermer an opening to blame the Speaker’s office “for not notifying” the Administration). President Obama has declined to meet with Netanyahu; Secretary of State John Kerry has not condescended to meet with Dermer. The speech is scheduled for March 3rd, two weeks before the Israeli election, and will coincide with the yearly mega-conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where Netanyahu, as in past years, will be received as a champion.

The more important criticism of Boehner’s invitation rests on a fiction: that Netanyahu, the leader of an embattled ally, must depend on bipartisan American support for his country to confront its regional enemies. Netanyahu, in this story, has been reckless in making common cause with Republicans, a move that has inadvertently strengthened Obama’s hand in opposing a new Iran-sanctions bill. Democratic senators who had indicated support for the bill—which its largely Republican sponsors had hoped to pass over Obama’s objections, while negotiations with Iran are still ongoing—are now rallying to the President. Obama now almost certainly has enough votes to prevent an override of his veto, should it come to that. Vice-President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Minority Leader of the House, are hinting that they and many other Democrats may not even show up for Netanyahu’s speech. The moral of this story, presumably, is that the U.S. and Israel have distinct interests when it comes to Iran, and that both Netanyahu and his Republican hosts have erred in trying to blur them. Above all, they should not have defied a sitting President, who has the constitutional authority to manage foreign policy.

Some of the commentators you’d most expect to support Netanyahu have expressed shock at the planned speech (although they sound a little like Captain Renault discovering gambling at Rick’s Café). Fox News’s Chris Wallace complained, “For Netanyahu to come here and side with Boehner against Obama on Iran seems to me like very dicey politics.” Jeffrey Goldberg, who made the case for the imminence of Iranian nuclear capacity, is now skeptical: “His recent actions suggest he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.” Other new Netanyahu critics believe that he does. Dan Margalit, most often a Netanyahu cheerleader at the tabloid Israel Hayom, told Israel’s Channel 10 that Netanyahu’s “trip is not being taken for the sake of the interests of the state of Israel—rather for the needs of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud, for the Likud election campaign.” According to these observers, Netanyahu is injecting partisanship into what should be a bipartisan issue in both Israel and the United States, and is doing harm to Israel by showing the American Presidency disrespect.

There is a measure of truth to this story, but it obscures a more significant reality. In their wars of ideas and political networks, Netanyahu’s Likud and his American supporters are an integral part of the Republican Party’s camp, and Israel is too involved in the American political landscape and defense establishment for Netanyahu to be considered as distant as a foreign leader.

Read on at The New Yorker

Friday, January 16, 2015

Netanyahu Sells French Jews Short

At the turn of the last century, Nachman Syrkin, a young democratic socialist drawn to the “political Zionism” of Theodore Herzl, was a student in Berlin, a member of a discussion group of émigrés from the Russian Pale of Settlement. One day, the speaker was a left-wing intellectual eager to prove that an emancipated Europe would be a home to all Jews — that separatist nationalisms were a mark of obsolete despair. He held up his tattered jacket. “Look at this,” he said. “The wool was taken from sheep which were pastured in Angora; it was spun in England, woven in Lodz. The buttons came from Germany; the thread from Austria” — at which point Syrkin called out, “And the rip in the sleeve was no doubt from Kiev!”

For Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, last week’s crimes in Paris were that kind of Zionist déjà vu, instructive for emancipated citizens and for Jews — often the same people, yet distinct enough from each other to learn different lessons. The enemy has changed since Syrkin’s time but, for Mr. Netanyahu, apparently, not much else has. The Jewish response must be to self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground.

Who exactly are “we”? That question is superfluous, because anti-Semites will let us know. And their hatred, which tracks from the Roman expulsion, has migrated in this generation to “Islamic radicalism,” which must be confronted globally, and which, Mr. Netanyahu says, Israel is confronting in the form of Iran and Hamas. The French, and the whole European Union for that matter, must now, in his words, “wake up” and fight to protect “our common civilization.” “Israel stands with Europe; Europe must stand with Israel!” he told Norway’s foreign minister here last week. French Jews, in contrast, must realize that “the state of Israel is your home,” as he told them in Paris after four Jews were killed at a kosher supermarket.

What of France’s republican tradition, to which marchers in Paris gave poignant tribute? Although it has struggled since its inception against ignorance, venality, and primordial fear, it has not failed this generation. What of the once unimaginable standards for European integration? What of French Jews who justly feel themselves a part of French civil society and approach Jewish religious culture with emancipationist skepticism? Would they not be lost — upon arrival and for years — in Israel’s secular Hebrew culture and under its Orthodox religious hierarchy?

Read on at The New York Times

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kerry's Miscalculation At--And About--The U.N.

It is wrong to believe that global pressure helps Netanyahu win reelection. The opposite is the case.
On December 18th, John Kerry told a luncheon gathering of twenty-eight European Union ambassadors that Washington would not support, or even discuss, any United Nations resolution on Palestine before the Israeli elections on March 17th. The remarks were ostensibly private, though it is hard to believe twenty-eight ambassadors were expected not to talk. (Foreign Policy reported on the meeting the following day.) Kerry was referring to two resolutions. The first, drafted by the Palestinian Authority and presented by Jordan, failed to gain nine votes in the Security Council last night. There were eight votes in favor, including Russia, China, and France; two opposed, the U.S. and Australia; and five abstentions. Nigeria’s last-minute abstention was reportedly secured by a conversation between Kerry and President Goodluck Jonathan.

The defeated resolution reflected familiar P.A. positions on core issues, such as immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood, Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and a three-year deadline to end the occupation of the West Bank. Think of it as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s last-ditch effort, at seventy-nine, to prove his diplomatic standing to a skeptical West Bank street, after months of reciprocal violence between Israel and Hamas during which Abbas seemed only a bystander. Today, Abbas moved to join the International Criminal Court, where Israeli leaders could be charged with violations of the Geneva Conventions, a measure that he had threatened to take if the resolution failed. (Netanyahu had previously countered that a move to the I.C.C. could lead Israel to dismantle the Palestinian Authority.)

But Kerry was actually responding to a second, less imminent resolution, a French initiative reflecting the European Union’s determination to help Abbas without adopting his positions. This resolution would notionally offer symbolic recognition to Palestine and establish principles for a peace agreement, culled from past negotiations and the Arab League peace plan from 2003. (On December 17th, the European Parliament voted to recognize a Palestinian state, four hundred and ninety-eight to eighty-eight, with eleven abstentions.) E.U. diplomats assumed that their own resolution would supersede the P.A.’s, if only Kerry would commit to supporting it and agree to help draft it, ideally incorporating his own unpublished framework from last spring.

Kerry’s statements at the luncheon were meant to dampen this hope. He was prepared to veto both resolutions on Palestine, he made clear, though he added, tantalizingly, that he might “ultimately support some sort of Security Council resolution that didn’t prejudge the outcome of stalled political negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” His real message was in his “ultimately”; by inference, the U.S. might support a resolution sometime after the Israeli elections. Kerry had consulted with, among others, former Israeli Justice Minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who has allied with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog to run against Benjamin Netanyahu. Livni urged Kerry to oppose both resolutions, even if one could be made consistent with Kerry’s own framework, and he agreed. Any “text imposed by the international community” would reinforce Netanyahu and “further embolden the more right-wing forces along the Israeli political spectrum,” he told the ambassadors.

Read on at The New Yorker