Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Child's Play: A Lost Zionist Passover

About a year before he died, in the fall of 2000, I attended a reading on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by the great Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai. It was the week before Passover, in a not-really-filled synagogue basement hall—intimate enough for him to lapse into a recollection of the bedikat hametz, the search for crumbs of bread and such, in his childhood home in W├╝rzburg, Germany, on the morning before the seder.

Jews are forbidden to eat leavened bread on the eight days of the holiday. Ashkenazi rabbis, presumably pleasing God by outdoing Him, interpreted this to mean no contact at all with leavened foods of any kind (including, alas, beer) or even grains, like rice and legumes, that swell up in water. So the morning before the seder, Amichai said, he and his father would prowl around the house searching for forbidden stuff, a feather in hand, blowing into corners, and sweeping up the dust balls, looking hopefully for crumbs. The piles would be slowly nudged together and added to leftover bread. Then the whole lot would be taken outside and burned in a newspaper. Amichai’s father would chant exotic Aramaic words, feather still in hand, asking to be forgiven for any crumbs still lying around, potentially despoiling the kashrut—the purity and fitness—of the home. Amichai looked at the audience wistfully. “Child’s play,” he said.

Childhood memory is often indelible, but historical memory is potentially lost with every new child. The point of not eating bread—Passover is all about making points—is the transmission of a great ethical claim to each new generation. Jews are enjoined to dramatize for their children the preciousness of freedom by ritualizing how quickly our ancestors seized theirs, escaping Pharaoh’s slave pits: so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. The point here is not to refuse bread the way Jews who observe ordinary kashrut laws refuse, say, milk with meat. (Those ordinary laws encourage awe before the divine by prohibiting something arbitrary, and, in a way, the more arbitrary the better; were it not for “the Law,” Maimonides writes, eating milk with meat “would not at all be considered a transgression.”) No, the point on Passover is the positive act of eating unleavened bread, matzot, to emphasize the good of freedom.

And yet Amichai knew better than to leave things there. Children aren’t so crazy in the end about the uncertainty that comes with getting their way. They need games, rules to conform to (the banning of all bread products for eight days) and incantations to assure forgiveness (the prayers that accompany cleaning the house), sensuous pleasure and pageantry (the intricate rituals of the seder). Children—Amichai can’t just say this, but can imply it—are cute little Fascists. They’ll take the father over the freedom anytime:

I shriek like a child, feet swinging on high: 
I want down, Daddy, I want down, 
Daddy, get me down. 
And that’s how the saints all ascend to heaven, 
like a child screaming, Daddy, I want to stay up here, 
Daddy, don’t get me down, Our Father Our King, 
leave us up here, Our Father Our King! 
(From “Open Closed Open: Poems”) 

So all the rituals of Passover—what Amichai calls child’s play—do not necessarily communicate the notion of freedom they were devised to transmit. The play can become more uncannily precious than the ideas it is meant to put across. Better to have the smells of the seder meal filling the senses than disturbing ideas about bondage and release into the desert filling the talk; better to be a good Jew than a Jew worrying about how to be good. Moses himself learned this the hard way. When he ascended Mount Sinai to search out ethical grandeur, the Children of Israel, left to themselves, built an idol to worship. Hell, they were prepared to return to Egypt for a taste of the garlic they craved. They couldn’t handle the desert’s boundlessness.

Continue reading at The New Yorker 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Where Is The Kerry Peace Plan?

On Tuesday, when Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the questioning from his former colleague John McCain was surprisingly mocking. Kerry and McCain are both Vietnam veterans (and failed Presidential candidates), and had been known to be friendly. But McCain said he was “gravely concerned about the consequences of America’s failure to lead in the world.” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had collapsed; McCain chalked up their failure, and that of diplomacy with Syria and Iran—what he called Kerry’s “trifecta”—to weakness. Kerry was “talking strongly and carrying a very small stick.”

Kerry responded, sighing, that everything looks failed when it is half done. The Israeli-Palestinian talks, he said, were thrown into crisis because of Israel’s refusal to release a last batch of Palestinian prisoners, prompting President Abbas to apply for membership in fifteen United Nations agencies and conventions, to which Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel responded by announcing seven hundred and eight new apartment units in East Jerusalem—at which point, poof, negotiations collapsed. Neither party had been constructive, yet both continued to ask for intercession. Kerry told McCain, “You declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead.” McCain had his opening: “It’s stopped. It is stopped. Recognize reality.”

McCain knows that, whether or not the talks actually end, there is never a political penalty for claiming that an international crisis is the result of Democrats not showing sufficient strength—a proposition that can never be falsified. Still, you have to wonder if McCain is right to ask if Kerry and his President have the will to follow through, by which I mean in the only way that can succeed: by offering an American plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and rallying the world to it, while challenging, or even shattering, Netanyahu’s fragile coalition.

Kerry has “gone as far as he can as mediator,” a senior American official said last week. Precisely. The question is whether he’ll move the parties to something like binding arbitration, stop speaking about psychological breakthrough, and start implementing American policy—more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil.

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Judis On Truman And Partition: Book Review

President Truman and advisor Clark Clifford 
“The history of Palestine and of Israel’s founding cannot be changed,” John B. Judis writes at the end of Genesis, “and it is silly to play games of what-if. But it is not silly to draw lessons from the past that are relevant to the present and the future.” Judis is a keen political observer, and the many lessons offered in his new book deserve our attention. But he divines some of them, in spite of his better judgment, by asking “what if,” insinuating the possibility of a better presidential decision and exploring why it was not taken—much as Gar Alperovitz did in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.

At its best, Genesis is this kind of imaginative mulligan. And the decision Judis would want to do over is also Harry Truman’s, namely his determination to bury the Morrison-Grady plan during the summer of 1946, which led, Judis argues, to an unworkable partition, the premature recognition of Israel—and endless war.

You probably haven’t heard of the Morrison-Grady plan, but you may have read angry denunciations of Genesis in The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post or Commentary claiming that Judis questions the legitimacy of Israel. This is wrong and, given Judis’s obvious empathy for Israelis as well as Palestinians, also reckless. What Judis explores in the Truman administration’s serial decisions about Palestine is an illuminating analogue to the record of, most recently, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process. What’s “relevant to the present and the future” is Judis’s supposition that any Israeli-Palestinian settlement will require American steadfastness, and that presidential fairness toward the Palestinians, as with Truman, may be foiled by the incessant agitations of the Israel lobby, promoting Zionist excesses.

The danger for any historian writing with these ambitions is that the more intentional the analogy, the more calculated the history. To tell a story for the sake of its moral is to tell it slanted. The latter part of Judis’s book constitutes a detailed, absorbing study of Truman’s attempts to deal with the interests of American Zionist organizations and their leaders, and the electoral politics and Cold War pressures of the late 1940s. Here and there I thought Judis rash in his criticism of American Zionist leaders or obstinate about the importance of the back-room pressures they exerted—but never mind. Had these chapters stood on their own, they would have formed a provocative, learned, even masterful book.

The first part is another matter. Judis wants to explain the prehistory of these pressures, so he describes the origins of revolutionary Zionism and the record of the British Mandate, up to the time a more vicarious American Zionism took root in the 1930s. Judis offers some fine portraits of early American Zionist leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as well as a reasonable summary of the growing war between the Zionist colonists and the Arabs of Palestine, a conflict precipitated by contradictions in British policy. But on the whole, his version of Zionist ideas, congresses and settlement policies—the disruptive force in this history—serves his argument about Truman rather too

Ironically, Judis’s presentation of Zionism suffers from some of the same imaginative limitations he attributes to the American Zionists. He assumes that leading advocates for the Jewish “national home”—from Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, to David Ben-Gurion, the preeminent founding leader of Labor Zionism and Israel’s first prime minister—were intent all along on founding an exclusivist “Jewish state,” one that justified itself by claiming a world of intractable anti-Semitism and that required, almost by definition, the suppression or expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs.

By implication, Israel’s democratic deficiencies and post-1967 occupation were prefigured by the Zionist movement’s original intent: every Zionist leader of note had a little Sheldon Adelson inside struggling to get out. This part of Judis’s story, as Marx said of the Young Hegelians, supposes that men drown because they are possessed of the idea of gravity. It is a charge he can’t prove in an indictment that would have been stronger without it.

Read on at The Nation

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Among The Believers: An Iranian Guru In Israel

In the early 1960s, Jalal Al-e Ahmad was one of Iran’s leading literary celebrities, a writer whose works deeply impressed the dissident clerics who would go on to found and lead the Islamic Republic. Born to a devout family in Tehran in 1923, a boy in the bazaar, Al-e Ahmad had drifted away from the faith and eventually earned a degree in Persian literature. He flirted with the communist Tudeh Party of Iran in the 1940s but broke with it for being too pro-Soviet; then, he helped found (and later left) a workers’ party that supported Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was elected prime minister of Iran in 1951. After the 1953 coup that toppled Mosaddeq, Al-e Ahmad succumbed to pressure from the shah’s regime and renounced politics entirely, publishing a letter “repenting” for his prior participation. He returned to his roots and seemed to find his vocation, becoming famous throughout Iran as a novelist, essayist, and underground polemicist, especially for his 1962 book Gharbzadegi, or “West-struck-ness” (published in English as Occidentosis or sometimes Westoxification).

Gharbzadegi presented the West’s technology and individualism— which he saw as little distinguished from its consumer capitalism—as a kind of disease. This sickness, Al-e Ahmad argued, was being spread in Iran by the shah and his old colonial sponsors as they industrialized the country. The disease was all the more insidious for the way it fed on common ambitions—for enrichment, knowledge, and equality—in order to undermine traditional Islamic ways of life based on humility and family cohesion. For Al-e Ahmad, authenticity lay in the village, in rug weaving, in the mosque. “We have been unable to preserve our own historiocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught,” he wrote.

Among his admirers were Iran’s revolutionary clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciple Ali Khamenei (Iran’s current supreme leader). Al-e Ahmad was skeptical of the clerics’ hierarchy and rigidity, but he thought their preeminence in Iranian society was natural and was pleased that they took Gharbzadegi seriously. He shared with them a view of Shiite Islam as carrying the moral prestige of perpetual insurgency: virtue in the face of corrupt materialism, steadfastness against imperial power. Iran could and should import machines, they agreed—piety should not block technology. But as for the freedom of inquiry that produced the technology, that was a different question: if it inevitably brought agnosticism, sexual nonconformity, and greed, then Iran would be better off refusing that part of the bargain.

As Al-e Ahmad’s literary reputation grew, so did his eminence and the censors’ attention. He made extensive visits to the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and elsewhere, which he chronicled in detail, and even spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard, meeting Henry Kissinger, among other luminaries. He died at age 45 in 1969, most likely from a heart attack, in his family village in the Iranian province of Gilan. (His brother, Shams Al-e Ahmad, speculated that he had really been assassinated by the savak, the shah’s secret police.)

One of Al-e Ahmad’s foreign trips, chronicled in an article and later a book, was to the then-young country of Israel in 1963. Samuel Thrope, a Persian scholar now at the Hebrew University, has published a new translation of Al-e Ahmad’s account of this long-forgotten journey, an excerpt of which follows, below. It makes for fascinating reading, not least because it is strikingly positive. The travelogue conjures up a long-lost era of calmness and curiosity between Iranians and Israelis, as well as the naive yet potent Third World ideology so common in developing countries at the time.

But it is important for what it says, not just for what it represents. It suggests how the Iranian and Israeli leaders who feel such intense mutual hostility today actually mirror one another in certain ways, particularly in their foundational attitudes toward religious authority, political and economic populism, and the West. That a writer such as Al-e Ahmad, guru to the ayatollahs, liked Israel now seems touching. What he liked about Israel seems cautionary.

Continue reading at Foreign Affairs

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ariel Sharon: Breaking Bad, The Lost Episode

David Landau's just published biography of Ariel Sharon, Arik, will yield still more reflections on Sharon's remarkable career. The eulogies to his courage and single-mindedness will no doubt continue, as will recognition of his evolving, patriotic cold-bloodedness. What he did he did for his family, presumably. Men provide. (The climax, alas, is yet to be written.)

One episode, lost but for the stubborn conscience of Professor Clinton Bailey, has just come to light, however, and it feels like something quintessential.

Bailey, Itzik to his friends, is a self-made man. He left Buffalo, New York for Israel in the late 1950s (after traveling to Norway, and serving in the US Navy) because he thought--like most Zionists of the time--that Jews had to remake themselves as progressive, muscular Hebrews to survive the modern world. Then, as Israel began modernizing, he went native.

He was teaching in Sde Boker in the Negev and became fascinated with the Bedouin. Since then, he's published four books about Bedouin oral culture and reflected on ways nomadic life shaped Biblical concepts of deity and law. He's also made the fate of the Bedouin in Israel his life's work and political passion.

Now, there is much more to say about how, and whether, Israel in its current political architecture can absorb its 200,000 Bedouin citizens (currently, its population doubles every 15 years). Bailey knows this subject more intimately than perhaps any other Israeli. But Bailey's story about Sharon, familiar to his circle, and now front page news, has to do with a little training exercise Sharon organized in 1972, which led to the (then) unreported deaths of many innocent Bedouin, among them children.

Sharon was planning, Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer now reports, a military maneuver: a practice canal crossing (which turned out to be of use the following year). It began in the southern Negev and proceeded deep into Sinai and its center, the crossing of an artificial lake near Abu Agheila, created by opening the Rueifa Dam. To clear the territory for the exercise, Sharon summarily expelled 3000 people.

"Bailey was making his first steps in researching the Bedouin tribes of the Negev and Sinai," Pfeffer continues; "He heard of the expulsion at the end of February 1972 when he met a sheikh of the Tarabin tribe in El-Arish. The sheikh told him of a large group of his kinsmen who had been expelled from their lands near Abu Agheila and had been forced to walk dozens of kilometers and relocate south of the Jabel Khalal mountain":

I went out there with my jeep and met them living there in groups in makeshift tents [Bailey said]. They had been forced to leave most of their property behind. They told me that IDF officers had arrived at their encampments in the night, some with jeeps, others on camels and ordered them to leave at once.

I returned to El-Arish and spoke with a few officers of the military governorship who told me the Bedouin had been removed on Sharon's orders and Arik probably wants to use their land now for Israeli settlement.

Clinton Bailey
The expulsions took place over three nights in January 1972, Bailey told a group at his home the other night, and families were forced to march from their tents in the cold of night with virtually nothing to protect them from the elements.

The Bedouin took me to two temporary burial grounds where I recorded and photographed at least 28 graves, maybe 40, some very small. Obviously, some of the children and old people could not survive.

He told Pfeffer that, at least in one case where the Bedouin refused to leave, the IDF soldiers had fired in the air and began tearing up their tents. It was not until Bailey, with remarkable poise, took the case to Lt. Gen. David Elazar, the Chief of Staff, that the Bedouin were allowed to return, at which point the whole episode was buried under military censorship.

A few days later, Bailey was invited to meet Sharon in Beer Sheva:

Sharon was very friendly and told me how much he loves the Bedouin and visiting the Azazme tribe. He said 'I didn't know what happened to those Bedouin' though I knew it was his orders. I realized later he was trying to neutralize me and he had issued an order forbidding my entrance into all IDF bases in Sinai. I had to appeal to Dado [Elazar] to have that order rescinded.

Bailey was to become a lieutenant-colonel in the Civil Administration in the Territories and an advisor on Arab affairs to the Defense Ministry. He would meet Sharon a number of times.

He was always suspicious of me but he appreciated that I was a field man and wanted to see my maps and reports... I didn't really think about that at the time. I only wanted them to be allowed to go home and I was happy that happened. I'm not proud of this as an Israeli. 

You have to remember the situation then. No-one criticized the army and Sharon; the hero of the Six Day War was a demi-god, larger than life. I was a thirty-year-old researcher. The treatment of the Bedouin then was awful; they were constantly under suspicion and Sharon was Sharon--a man who always saw whoever stood in his way, especially Arabs, as expendable... He didn't care about civilians getting hurt in the way. They could have been temporarily evacuated in a humane way, with proper transport and shelter. But that just didn't occur to him.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The MLA: Singled-Out For A Double Standard?

Prof. Marianne Hirsch
In early January, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association Convention--perhaps the largest and most influential academic gathering in the humanities--passed, 60-53, a resolution urging its members to "contest" restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Another resolution, urging solidarity with scholars supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions, against Israel, was not brought to the floor, but referred to Executive Committee for discussion. The issues were aired at a tense session entitled, with cheerful understatement, "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine."

Much had been made of the title of the session. In an age of shrinking attention spans, and in the wake of the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association, the appearance of the word "boycott" and "Israel" in the same title triggered cries of foul before any "conversation" could begin. Critics raged against the panel's composition, since all panelists had previously voiced varying degrees of support for boycotting Israeli universities or enterprises.

“The United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia, not to mention Western-leaning nations in the Middle East, such as UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (which regularly partner with Western universities), all deny entry to individuals, for any number of reasons”--so wrote the leaders of Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Eric Fingerhut and Jacob Baime. "It’s a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit," wrote Max Eden in the Weekly Standard. "Never mind that visa screening is routine in every nation, Western or otherwise, or that every Middle Eastern country except Egypt and Jordan refuse to admit anyone carrying an Israeli passport." At the session itself, one woman asked: "Why aren't we boycotting China?"

Now, MLA panels, like those at all academic conferences, are typically initiated by groups of scholars who have a compelling interest (or ax to grind). Every once and while, political subjects of interest to the academic community per se may be included. Conference organizers tend to give members a good deal of latitude here, since panelists have their say and then submit to the wisdom of the crowd. Nevertheless, the outgoing president of the MLA, Professor Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University, was inundated with complaints and attacks. She and the conference organizers were accused of taking an anti-Semitic turn. As with much in the Middle East conflict, preemptive strikes were thought merely defensive.

Last week, Professor Hirsch responded in an eloquent "Viewpoint" article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviewing the affair and pleading for simple fairness:

The MLA was not considering a boycott resolution. Nonetheless, the emails I received were written as if a boycott resolution were not only under consideration but had already passed... The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. 'Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,' one email read. 

Hirsch goes on:

Many demanded 'balance.' But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect...

If we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.

Marianne Hirsch is a close friend of Sidra's and mine. Hirsch is the daughter of holocaust survivors, and a prolific writer (at times, with her husband, the historian Leo Spitzer) about, among other things, what can be salvaged from the culture of the holocaust's ghosts. That she, of all people, has had to endure charges of anti-Jewish sentiment for presiding over a conference in which the morality (efficacy, etc.) of academic boycotts are debated--indeed, where the only resolution passed condemned restrictions on the movement of scholars--seems a little surreal.

But the real issue here is whether MLA critics are right to complain that, simply because the session took place, the MLA was singling-out Israel for actions other countries take as well. Is it right to have a session on Israel and Palestine and not, say, China? The implication is clear, and we hear it routinely. Why focus on Israel when other countries are so much worse? Isn't this a double standard?

And the answer (which we need to hear more often) is: No--this is a single standard; the question is whether Israelis really wish to be judged by it. When Chris Christie is caught using the powers of the state to muscle political opponents, you don't expect him to say, My God, why pick on me when Egypt's General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is so much worse? You expect him to know he belongs to a world-historical club. You expect him to feel the shame.

The standard is usually called "Western" (as Fingerhut, Baime and Eden suggest) but given where Athens sits in relation to Jerusalem, Israelis might think of it as Northwestern. For we are speaking about affiliation to a world of liberal-democratic states, what the Israeli orthodox-right rightly calls Hellenism. Most Israelis want to be thought a part of this world: democratic individualism, free enterprise, equality before the law, protected religious and sexual liberty, racial and ethnic tolerance. (Israeli universities are bastions of its Hebrew version.)

Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies--typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons--are worse.

No other Western state is conducting an occupation, nor is Israel's occupation of Palestine modeled on, say, the US occupation of Germany after WWII. Clearly, the reason why members of the MLA question whether Israel grants appropriate entry to the West Bank of American-Palestinians is two-fold. First, they question whether Israel is permitting the cultural and economic development of Palestine, which depends on the freedom of movement Palestinians lack. But, second, they are probing to see whether Israelis are really committed to liberal-democratic standards.

Professor Hirsch knows where she and the MLA stand. Israeli leaders, too, must choose. There is room in the world for non-democratic states. But membership has it privileges.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Chronicle Of Common Decency

People like Hillel Bardin are not remembered until the fight is over and historians go hunting for heroes. For as long as Sidra and I have known him and his wife Anita, they've worked to understand and, at critical times, introduce to us families they've gotten to know in Palestinian neighborhoods.

The key here was "getting to know." Hillel was curious, sick of conflict, wondering if personal connection could be an end in itself, if not lay the ground for something better. During the first Intifada, in 1988, he was on reserve duty and began to engage some of the Palestinian men and women he was supposed to be guarding. The rest is, well, history, chronicled in his own remarkable book, A Zionist Among Palestinians, published last May, and unjustly overlooked since then.

Born in Mandatory Palestine, Hillel was a passionate Zionist of the old, better kind: patriotic, romantic, humane, emancipated. He was a founder and former board member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and helped found the Rapprochement Dialogue Center, and the Shlom Yerushalayim Party. But he never seemed caught up in institution building. Nothing was just business, everything seemed personal.

With us, too. There was always that peculiar humility, greetings at meeting points, zippy drives following his car down strange routes. His last preoccupation was the village of Jabel Mukaber, which I wrote about here in March, 2008. It was Hillel who found out about the injustice about to be visited on the town by the security wall, a couple of miles from our own homes, after all, and whipped us into action.

I hasten to add that--whatever will someday be made of Hillel's activities in and around Jerusalem--heroism is not his style. He and Anita are still arrestingly handsome; yet they seem rather proud about being ordinary, on the line, like Dr. Rieux in Camus' The Plague, denouncing heroism and promoting common decency--in a way, the harder thing. You can get a taste of Hillel's book from this excerpt. You'll see what I mean.