Posts Tagged ‘books’

For those struggling with the long history and intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, Michael Totten (an independent journalist who appears in my blogroll and about whom I once blogged) appears on the show “Uncommon Knowledge” to break it down for you (in the embedded video below).  He also recently authored a book entitled The Road To Fatima Gate, his exploration of the current political state of Lebanon with the information and analysis of a journalist but written, critics have said, like a novel.    (You can read excerpts from it, as well as several reviews, on Michael’s blog.)


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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins tonight.  This year, I’ve collected a selection of oddments – thoughts, articles, and a new book – to share.

First the thoughts, in no particular order:

1) Discomfort over the Shoah haunted the Israeli psyche for decades after the end of World War II.  The inability to comprehend the scope and savagery of the Shoah made the Eichmann trial a pivotal event for young Sabras, who came to understand two things: that Jews did not willingly queue up to die; and that the monomaniacal pursuit of their end was a higher priority for some Nazis (like Eichmann) even than winning the war.

2) Isn’t it strange that at the same time that the Arab world blames European guilt for the Shoah for the creation of the State of Israel, they deny it ever happened?  (PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s “doctoral dissertation” contended that the Shoah was wildly exaggerated and that Zionists worked with the Nazis to murder Jews, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad denies the Shoah ever happened, but promises to finish the job himself.)

3) Had there been an Israel, the impact of the Shoah on the Jewish population (then and now) could have been dramatically reduced.  Had the British not reneged on every promise made to the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, there would have been an Israel much earlier.  Had the Jews actually been given the promised territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean for the establishment of the “Jewish home,” Israel might still have had to fight its defensive wars against hostile Arab countries, but the homegrown Palestinian Arab terrorism would likely have been lessened rather than allowed to fester in now-disputed territory.

Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, Portrait of a Young Woman Drawing

Now on to more substantial things.  There have been two articles in the past month in the Jerusalem Post (8 April and 22 April) about Nazi-looted paintings being returned to their rightful heirs.  Two paintings have been returned to the heirs of the Rosauer family in Vienna, one by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868) and the other by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder (1751-1830), both having been in German museum or government custody.  In addition, a landscape painting by Gustav Klimt is being returned to the grandson of its former Jewish owner by the Austrian Museum of Modern Arts.  (The heir to the Klimt painting has offered to help fund an expansion of the museum as a gesture of gratitude.)

In other news, a Toronto couple was recently featured on the Regis and Kelly Show.  Husband and wife met at Bergen-Belsen as teens when the 16-year-old girl saw the half-dead 18-year-old boy moving underneath a pile of dead corpses, extracted him, and nursed him for weeks.  They became separated when he woke up one day, saw no one around, and crawled to the nearest road where he was picked up by the British.  They met up later in Toronto, where each had gone to live, and the rest is history.  The couple, married over 60 years, are the parents of four, grandparents of 11, and great-grandparents of one.  It’s definitely not everyone who, when asked where they met their spouse, can answer, “Under a pile of corpses.”

How much is too much to spend on a wedding gown?  Some brides spend hundreds, others thousands.  (Mine was given me by a friend, but I still had to fork out the dough for alterations and a veil.)  So how does two pounds of coffee beans and a packet of cigs sound, in exchange for enough white silk to make a wedding gown and a white shirt for the chattan?  That’s what it cost Lilly Friedman’s fiancé, Ludwig, when the two of them decided to get married while living in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.  The gown was later worn by Lilly’s sister at her wedding, then by a cousin.  Friedman says she lost count of how many brides wore the gown after 17.  It now hangs in the Bergen-Belsen Museum.

Alice Herz-Sommer, 107, and the oldest survivor of the Shoah, credits music with saving her life.  Although she lost her husband, family, and friends, she and her son (one of only 130 children to survive Terezin) survived and later made their lives in Israel and London.  Here is a trailer for a film entitled, “They Played For Their Lives,” in which Herz-Sommer and others attest to the power of music to lift spirits, to restore dignity, and to preserve life.

Deborah Lipstadt’s new book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, entitled The Eichmann Trial, is being published at the 50th anniversary of the trial’s beginning.  Since the most prominent book published on the subject to date is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem, comparisons are both inevitable and instructive.  Arendt is reported as having had her mind made up about the trial before arriving (e.g. that Eichmann was not a vicious anti-Semite, that the Judenrate, Jewish councils, bore much of the responsibility for sending Jews to their deaths, and that the purpose of the trial should have been to administer justice, nothing else), while Lipstadt (perhaps because of her own day in court against an anti-Semite) sees the trial as having more than a simple juridical purpose.  Its impact on Israeli society, the effect of having survivors not directly connected with Eichmann testify about what happened to and around them, cannot be underestimated, she says.  Both Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecuting attorney, set out to teach young Israelis about their people’s history through the trial.  With her decades of additional perspective, access to certain documents made available only in the last decade (including a memboir written by Eichmann in prison), and a more compassionate understanding of the uneven playing field between Nazis and Jews, Lipstadt offers a very different account of events.  Her book also focuses more on the mechanics of the trial, a step-by-step unfolding of events, where Arendt (who did not attend every session of the trial) focused much less on the process of the trial, and acted more as commentator than reporter.  For those unfamiliar with how the trial unfolded, Lipstadt’s is undoubtedly the more informative of the two books.  (I found Arendt’s background on each European country’s attitude and behavior toward the Jews to be instructive and interesting to compare, contrasting Denmark’s effort to save every Jew to the unrestrained violence in Romania, which exceeded in hysteria even the Nazi’s.)  Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial about the book and below, a video of Lipstadt talking about the trial.

I read recently that there is a movement afoot to recognize the righteousness of Jews who worked to save other Jews in the Shoah.  Until recently, Yad Vashem has declined to do this, reasoning that while the risk to non-Jewish rescuers makes for a simple criterion to recognize them, the same criterion cannot apply to Jewish rescuers, since they were all slated for extermination.  Alas, I cannot locate the article on the Jerusalem Post’s totally unhelpful website, but gleaned that that policy will soon come to an end, and a way has been found to identify and recognize Jewish rescuers officially.  Since Jews helped one another survive, resist, and escape in thousands of ways, large and small, from sharing a crust of bread, to stealing prayerbooks from the kapo’s private rooms, to assassinating Nazis and their collaborators, it will be interesting to see what criteria are formulated for this new (and much belated) form of special distinction.

On the road to becoming a traditional Jew, I read stacks of books about the Shoah.  While I learned something new from nearly every one of them, the ones which still stand out in my mind are Alfons Heck’s A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days when God Wore a Swastika and The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, autobiographical works about his boyhood in Germany when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth and became part of the machinery of Nazi Germany.  As an adult, Heck met Helen Waterman, a Jewish survivor of the Shoah, and together they traveled the lecture circuit, providing perspective from both sides of the barbed wire fence about life in the Third Reich.  The second book is Rena Kornreich Gelissen’s Rena’s Promise, a firsthand account of a Jewish teen’s survival with her sister.  Details which have stayed with me since reading it 14 years ago include her description of her peaceful, religious home, in which she would lovingly shave her mother’s head (her mother was a sheitl-wearer); her and her sister’s separation from their family at Auschwitz and assignment to “Kanada,” the clothing sorting detail, during which they found themselves one day sorting clothes belonging to their aunt, uncle, and cousins (by which they learned that they had been gassed); their selection as subjects for Mengele’s experiments on women, which they escaped by simply marching out of line to a building where they changed clothes, then got themselves reassigned to another work detail; and throughout the tale, the reinforcement of the observation made by a guide from Yad Vashem on our own tour of Poland, that people who had someone to live for had much greater odds of survival than people who went through the Shoah alone.

No single post can possibly contain all there is to say on this subject.  If anyone has come across links to helpful websites or blogs, or has any books or resources to share, please feel free.

May our enemies continue to be thwarted.

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Several months ago, I read Raphael Patai’s book, The Arab Mind, in an attempt to understand better the historical, cultural and sociological underpinnings of Arab behavior, both here in Israel and elsewhere.  I found the book very instructive, if a bit dry and academic.  (My review in the following three posts: I, II, III.)

Then a month or two ago, my mother recommended reading Leon Uris’s The Haj.  I’d read Exodus and QBVII in the past, and found Uris to be a riveting storyteller, if a bad punctuator.  (I found the number of exclamation points in Exodus off-putting.)  Having always assumed The Haj to be about the traditional Muslim journey to Mecca, I was never intrigued enough to read it, but with a personal recommendation from my mother, I decided to give it a try.

To my intense interest, I discovered that the Haj of the title is actually an honorific applied to a Palestinian Arab muktar, or tribal chieftain, and head of a fictional hilltop village in the Ayalon region of Israel (near Latrun).  The story, narrated by the chieftain’s youngest son Ishmael, tells how Haj Ibrahim became muktar of his family, about his leadership of his village and family, his friendship with a Jewish Palestinian man from a nearby kibbutz (which shared its water and electricity with the village), and the chain of events during the course of the Israeli War of Independence that lead Haj Ibrahim’s family to end up in a refugee camp near Jericho.

Not only did I find the story compelling, I found the painstakingly researched novel to be a much richer, more colorful window on Arab life and culture than even The Arab Mind (which, judging from the first 25 pages or so, it was obvious to me that Uris had read).  The many plot lines touch a variety of issues in Arab life, from gender relations, shame culture, relations with non-Arabs, intra-Arab violence and manipulation, and the face the Arabs show one another versus the one they show the world.  Uris’s novel is refreshingly complex, and while it shows both the admirable and less admirable sides of the Arab psyche, it is overall a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinians.  This does not mean it condones the propaganda, violence, and frenzied hatred of the Arabs for Jews; in fact, it shows how these very things stand in the way of Arabs and Jews being able to reach a peaceful solution, and the betterment of Arab quality of life.

Here are some highlights of the novel on a variety of topics:

On choosing leadership

“We must meet.  We must agree to talk about things like fences and pestilence.  Things that concern us both,” Gideon [Haj Ibrahim’s Jewish kibbutznik friend] said.

“How can I meet when you select a woman as your muktar?”

“We choose our leaders.  Our leaders do not choose us,” Gideon said.

On the vacuum of decent Arab leadership

“If the Germans reach Palestine, at least you won’t have to worry about the Jews anymore,” Gideon said.

“I am not for the Germans just because of how they are treating the Jews,” Haj Ibrahim said, “but I am not for the Jews.  There are no Arab leaders left in Palestine and I don’t trust the ones over the border.”

“That covers just about everyone.”

“Why is it that the only men we follow are the ones who hold a knife to our throats?” Ibrahim cried suddenly.  “We learn we must submit.  That is what the Koran tells us.  Submit!  Submit!  But the men we submit to never carry out the Prophet’s will, only their own.”

On the Arab conception of biblical history

Jericho, I have learned, is as old as any city in the world—nearly ten thousand years.  The walled city itself dates back almost nine thousand years.  Jericho was almost always an Arab city.  In those ancient days, we were called Canaanites.  The entire land of Canaan was stolen from us for the first time when Joshua conquered it over three thousand years ago.

I am grateful that Mohammed and the Koran corrected all the early misinformation the Jews gave about Jericho when they wrote their so-called Bible, a proven forgery.  King David, whom the Jews turned on because they did not believe him, wrote his famous “Psalm 23” about the Wadi of Jericho, calling it “the valley of the shadow of death.”  David became a Moslem saint and prophet.  With the gift of prophecy, he must have had visions of Aqbat Jabar and the other camps around Jericho and that’s why he called it by such a name.

On conditions for peace between Jews and Arabs

“If it had been up to you and me, Gideon, we would have made peace, wouldn’t we?”

Gideon shook his head no.  “Only if you didn’t have your hands on our water valve.”

On the life of Arab girls

Nada [Ishmael’s sister] was extremely sure of herself.  “You who weep for yourself, now weep for me.  I have never been allowed to draw a free breath in my entire life.  My mind, my voice, my desires have always been locked inside a prison cell.  I cannot walk into the gathering room of our house and speak.  I can never, in my entire life, eat a meal there.  I cannot walk any farther than the water well alone.  I will never be able to read a real book.  I am not permitted to sing or laugh when a male is near, not even my own brothers.  I cannot touch a boy, even slightly.  I am not permitted to argue.  I cannot disobey, even when I am right.  I must not be allowed to learn.  I can only do and say what other people allow me.

“I remember once in Tabah I saw a little Jewish girl waiting for the bus on the highway with her parents.  She carried a doll and she showed it to me.  It was very pretty, but it could do nothing but open and shut its eyes and cry when it was hit on the back.  I am that doll.”

On Arab-Arab relations

[An Arab archeologist and friend of Haj Ibrahim’s:] “Islam is unable to live at peace with anyone.  We Arabs are the worst.  We can’t live with the world, and even more terrible, we can’t live with each other.  In the end it will not be Arab against Jew but Arab against Arab.  One day our oil will be gone, along with our ability to blackmail.  We have contributed nothing to human betterment in centuries, unless you consider the assassin and the terrorist as human gifts.  The world will tell us to go to hell.  We, who tried to humiliate the Jews, will find ourselves humiliated as the scum of the earth.”

“We do not have leave to love one another and we have long ago lost the ability.  It was so written twelve hundred years earlier.  Hate is our overpowering legacy and we have regenerated ourselves by hatred from decade to decade, generation to generation., century to century.  The return of the Jews had unleashed that hatred, exploding wildly, aimlessly, into a massive force of self-destruction.  In ten, twenty, thirty years the world of Islam will begin to consume itself in madness.  We cannot live with ourselves . . . we never have.  We cannot live with or accommodate the outside world . . . we never have.  We are incapable of change.  The devil who makes us crazy is now devouring us.  We cannot stop ourselves.  And if we are not stopped we will march, with the rest of the world, to the Day of the Burning.  What we are now witnessing, Ishmael, now, is the beginning of Armageddon.”

Uris’s novel was published in 1984, so he had the benefit of hindsight on many of the events that would come to pass years after the events in his story come to a close.  He saw Anwar Sadat cut down after making peace with Israel.  He saw the decades of neglect by the Arab nations of the refugees, and the perpetuation of the refugee camps by a bloated UNRWA.  He witnessed the mounting hostility toward Israel in the UN.  He saw Israel go to war time and time again to defend itself from its hostile Arab neighbors.

Some will no doubt see his examination of the Arab psyche as the work of a rabid, anti-Arab Zionist.  Uris was a Zionist, but the words he puts in the mouths of his Arab characters reflect real confusion, paradox, and occasional self-criticism which a handful of Arabs (much better educated than a muktar) have articulated in writing.  The ability of tribal culture to overpower reason and necessity and keep the Arab down both in the Arab world and in the world at large is something that has been examined by much greater minds than Uris’s.  The envy Arabs have for Israeli society, with its freedom of speech, its rule of law, and the ability of the citizenry to see corrupt leaders subjected to investigation, trial, punishment, and public shame is very real.  The story, a portrait of Arabs who chose to trust their Arab brethren and were betrayed, used as a political stick to beat the Jews with, and whose children and grandchildren have grown up in a society which indoctrinates them in obsessive hatred and vengeance, is the story of the Palestinians.  It’s the portrait anyone who truly cares about them should see, and recognize that their plight is the work of their own leaders, their culture, their religion, and their ignorance.

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One of the many Yahoo groups to which I belong is the Digital Eve group.  A chat list for women professionals in Israel, it usually has job listings for positions I am unqualified for, and requests for advice I cannot give.  But today someone (probably a Yale alumna) posted a link to this very interesting article from the online Yale Alumni Magazine.  Written by Fred R. Shapiro, the magazine’s (male) quotations columnist and editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it addresses the misattribution of many quotations by women to more famous men, as well as crediting other famous quotations to the women who penned them, whose names are either naturally in the background (such as screenwriters), were once famous but are no more, or never appeared on the page in the first place.

Shapiro amends the record of attribution to several quotations, including the following: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire); “Now I know why nobody ever comes here; it’s too crowded” (Suzanne Ridgeway, not Yogi Berra); and “If you make it here, you make it anywhere” (Julie Newmar, not Fred Ebb, author of the lyrics to the song, “New York, New York”).  He also provides the names of the authoresses of quotations such as “No time like the present” (Mary de la Riviere Manley), “Twinkle, twinkle little star” (English sisters Ann and Jane Taylor), “Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone” (Ella Wheeler Wilcox), “Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast” (screenwriter Ruth Rose), and “E.T. phone home” (screenwriter Melissa Mathison).

The book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations gets a thorough historical review, which turns up what Shapiro calls a “shadowy editorial provenance.”  In other words, most of the content was lifted from a British book entitled Handbook of Familiar Quotations From English Authors (which helps explain why only 5% of the books quotations are of American origin), and the compiler of the Handbook from which John Bartlett borrowed so heavily was one Isabella Rushton Preston, a 43-year-old Londoner.

The Oxford Book of Quotations, too, originally had a female editor, Alice Mary Smyth, whose name was left off the title page of the first edition (1941).  (Though it has been widely believed that Bernard Darwin edited the first edition, his contribution has been shown to have been limited to the introduction to the volume.)

Shapiro points out that while three of his senior research editors were women, as a male editor of a book of quotations, he remains a novelty—a man.

(Hat tip: Caroline T.)

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My family had just moved to southern Georgia (a few miles north of the Florida border), when I entered junior high school.  If junior high wasn’t bad enough in itself, I was in a new state, new school, with kids who had been together since pre-first (that’s Southern for kindergarten).  Add to that the fact that I was a Yankee, had a Jewish father, and no fashion sense.  It was about as dooming a combination as anyone could muster to be—and stay—an outsider.  We didn’t play golf or tennis, didn’t join the country club or go to any of their churches, and didn’t hunt quail or duck.  Had my father not been a doctor (a breed worshiped in that part of the world), we would have been lost for sure.  As it was, I walked into seventh grade having no idea it was the most infamous viper’s nest the school had seen, maybe ever.  The kids in the class had somehow managed to be dominated, manipulated, and terrorized since pre-first by a homely, freckled, conniving girl named Ivey, who dictated who was “in” and who was “out.”  I gave her a wide berth that year, saying as little as possible to her and her inner circle, and sticking closely to the only girl in the class who would talk to me (who, incidentally, was the only girl from a state north of where I was from—Alaska).  Then, somehow something must have happened over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and when we came back after the summer, Ivey had been dethroned as Queen Bee.  What transpired at church, or the country club, or whatever gentrified haunts these people had for themselves, I never found out.  All I knew was that I was no longer considered an outsider to be shunned.  (Until my family gave up living in the South as a Lost Cause in itself and prepared to move to California.  Then I was right back where I started.  But that’s another story.)

I was reminded of all this social in-and-outness and slippery madness when reading Kathryn Stockett’s recently published novel, The Help.  Narrated from the point of view of three women—a wealthy young white woman who was raised by a black maid, and two other black maids—it tells the story of early 1960s, pre-integration Jackson, Mississippi.   Stockett, who was herself raised by a black maid, has bitten off a huge mouthful, attempting to represent three distinct women’s voices (two of them black women’s), and in my opinion, pulls it off in style.  Skeeter Phelan is a young white woman who lives at home with her parents, has just finished college at Ole Miss, attends weekly Junior League meetings with her high school friends (now married and having children), and dreams of being a journalist.  Aibileen is an unmarried maid in her 50s who has raised 17 white children during her career as a maid, and does all she can to give her latest charge the love, confidence, and colorblind compassion she sees missing in the child’s mother.  Minny is a 30-something mother of five, married to a drunkard, and has a reputation for a sharp tongue and fabulous cooking.  Together, these three women conspire to publish a book detailing the personal experiences of a dozen Jackson maids—good and bad—with their employers.  The stakes are high, and range from ostracism for Skeeter to firing, bludgeoning, and possible jail time for the maids if they’re successfully framed by vengeful employers.

For me one of the book’s chief strengths is the distinctiveness of each protagonist’s voice.  Each of the women is very much part of a system that is in place, throwing black and white women together in close intimacy, yet separating them through social conventions that contradict that intimacy.  When Miss Hilly, the Junior League president, author of a local initiative to install separate bathrooms for black servants, and Jackson’s own Ivey, confronts Skeeter for possessing a printed copy of Jim Crow “laws,” she says, “You know as well as I do, people won’t buy so much as a slice of pound cake from an organization that harbors racial integrationists!”  Skeeter replies, “Hilly … Just who is all that pound cake money being raised for, anyway?”  To which Hilly responds, with a roll of the eyes, “The Poor Starving Children of Africa?”  Skeeter’s moral clarity, despite being a product of the same society as Hilly, at times feels almost unbelievable.  Stockett carefully balances Skeeter’s desire to see change in her society by a very believable delicacy and awkwardness around the maids she meets with to take down their stories.

Perhaps surprising, since Stockett herself does not claim to possess any special knowledge of what it was like to be a black woman working as a maid in the early 1960s, are the true-sounding voices of Aibileen and Minny.  Aibileen’s is mature, sensitive, loving to the children she cares for.  She tells “secret stories” to her young charge, teaching her in subtle ways about the superficiality of skin color.  “I take the brown wrapping from my Piggly Wiggly grocery bag and wrap up a little something, like a piece a candy, inside.  Then I use the white paper from my Cole’s Drug Store bag and wrap another one just like it.  She take it real serious, the unwrapping, letting me tell the story bout how it ain’t the color a the wrapping that count, it’s what we is inside.”  Minny’s crankiness, though, was what won me over most.  Too smart for her own good, she has lost many a job through letting herself say what she thinks.  The greatest luxury for the reader is being allowed inside her head to hear her unbridled inner monologue.   “The thermometer by Miss Celia’s kitchen window sinks down from seventy-nine to sixty to fifty-five in less than an hour.  At last, a cold front’s moving in, bringing cool air from Canada or Chicago or somewhere.  I’m picking the lady peas for stones, thinking about how we’re breathing the same air those Chicago people breathed two days ago.  Wondering if, for no good reason I started thinking about Sears and Roebuck or Shake ’n Bake, would it be because some Illinoian had thought about it two days ago.  It gets my mind off my troubles for about five seconds.”  To Minny’s disgruntlement, her employer, Miss Celia, keeps her a secret, trying to make her husband think she herself is the woman behind the sparkling bathrooms, the fried pork chops and butter beans done just so, and the vacuumed stuffed grizzly bear.  However, Minny’s ultimatum that Celia tell her husband, Johnny, about having a maid is set for December.  “I walk into work with one thing on my mind.  Today is the first day of December and while the rest of the United States is dusting off their manger scenes and pulling out their old stinky stockings, I’ve got another man I’m waiting on.  And it’s not Santy Claus and it’s not the Baby Jesus.  It’s Mister Johnny Foote, Jr., who will learn that Minny Jackson is his maid on Christmas Eve.”

Stockett plants a few fascinating mysteries in the plot that slowly unfold, such as what happened to Constantine, the beloved black maid who raised Skeeter, why Minny’s boss lady lies in bed all day every day and refuses to get up, and what the Terrible Awful Thing was that Minny did to her former employer.  All is eventually revealed, and the ending is neither sunshiny perfect, nor as bleak as it might have been.  Although the publication of the maids’ accounts does come at a price, it was still satisfying for me to see Miss Hilly, who heretofore always thought herself invincible, also share in the outcome of the book’s publication.

Living in the South for a short time, I observed some of the strange, paradoxical relationships that existed there (at least around 1980), where whites entrusted the running of their homes and the care of their children to people they often considered helpless, naturally inferior, and destined for nothing but a life of servitude.  My private day school always proclaimed it was not a white school, but I could only imagine, seeing the harassment a white, Catholic girl with short, “Brillo-pad” hair got from our classmates, what would be in store for the first black student who tried to enroll.  I can still remember the look of shock on the faces of the kids in my 7th grade American history class (most of whom called black people “niggers”) when our teacher got up and told us a horrifying story of being taken by her white-robed daddy to a KKK meeting and announced, at the beginning of the chapter on the Civil War, that slavery was wrong.  Having taken abuse while working in the service industry for several summers, including being accused of stealing (something that overshadows every maid’s work), I had no trouble identifying with the maids in the novel.  Add to that the fact that with no one to protect them at the civic level—no black politicians or policemen—and the constant threat of “summary justice” by whites, in official or unofficial capacities, they weren’t much better off than the Jews in Nazi Germany.

But like anything else involving human beings, things are complicated.  Those who think that it is the natural order of things can read how unnatural, tense, demoralizing it is, with maids raped, beaten, threatened with termination for speaking to people of whom their employers disapprove, or cheated out of earned wages with no recourse.  And for those who think that the system of whites employing blacks to feed them, clean up after them, and raise their children is filled with unremitting evil, there are stories of deep love, of employers giving their maids paid leave to take care of family members maimed by white hooligans, of maids wearing colicky white babies for a year as they went about their duties (and getting chronic back trouble into the bargain), of an elderly maid who recalls “hiding in a steamer trunk with a little white girl while Yankee soldiers stomped through the house.  Twenty years ago, she held that same white girl, by then an old woman, in her arms while she died.  Each proclaimed their love as best friends.  Swore that death could not change this.  That color meant nothing.  The white woman’s grandson still pays Faye Belle’s rent.  When she’s feeling strong, Faye Belle sometimes goes over and cleans up his kitchen.”

Whether this employer-maid institution is what binds these Southern blacks and whites together, or what keeps them separate, is explored without necessarily being resolved.  The fact that most people are aware of the social barriers cannot be denied, but whether they are really there or not is another matter Stockett has Minny and Aibileen debate.

Complaining about Miss Celia, Minny complains, “She just don’t see em.  The lines.  Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.”

Aibileen responds, “I used to believe in em.  I don’t anymore.  They in our heads.  People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there.  But they ain’t.  … Some folks just made those up, long time ago.  And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.”

Minny asks, “So you saying they ain’t no line between the help and the boss either?”

Aibileen says, “They’s just positions, like on a checkerboard.  Who work for who don’t mean nothing.”

Minny says, “So I ain’t crossing no line if I tell Miss Celia the truth, that she ain’t good enough for Hilly?  … But wait, if I tell her Miss Hilly’s out a her league…then ain’t I saying they is a line?”

Aibileen answers, “All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

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Michael Totten has posted an interview with Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist, who recently published a book entitled A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism. The book documents the impact on Israeli society of terrorism by telling the stories of thousands of Israelis murdered by Arab terrorists. Meotti’s choice of title does not seek to compare the quantitative loss of life to terrorism in Israel with that of the catastrophic loss to European Jewry in the Shoah, but rather to draw a legitimate comparison between the two events in which Jews have been killed for no other reason than the fact that they were Jewish. (Here is the link to Totten’s interview with Meotti.)

One of the issues Totten and Meotti discuss is the resurgence of open anti-Semitism in Europe. Meotti defines “[t]he current European anti-Semitism [as] a powerful mix of Islamist pressure on Europe by large Muslim communities in its midst and a leftist-progressive ideology.” Students of history will note that for decades (even before the foundation of the State of Israel), European powers such as England, Germany, and Italy were sympathetic (and sometimes more than that) to Middle Eastern Arabs, always at the expense of the Jewish population, and this attitude has not changed significantly in recent years. Not surprisingly, the charge of anti-Semitism (which modern liberal sensibilities like to reformulate as the much more politically-correct anti-Zionism) rankles with some readers.

Nearly as interesting as Totten’s blog posts are the comments which follow the articles. Some nut jobs get on and leave absurd comments, but most readers have something legitimate to say. I was struck by the comment and counter-comment of two readers in particular. Read what “Craig S” has to say in response to the interview:

Very interesting article, and sounds like a very sobering book but it’s very frustrating to read about Sweetish and Norwegian prime ministers ‘hating’ Israel. And no I’m not anti-Semitic, I have Jewish grandparents, Judaism is part of my history. I’m also not anti-Israel, but to read any criticism of Israel’s governments policy as being hatred is just so frustrating. The Swedish and Norwegian governments don’t hate Israel, by stating International law, as accepted by the UN, the International criminal Court and the vast majority of states in the world. Calling for a withdrawal from the West bank and East Jerusalem is not hatred, it’s not anti-Semitic! Yes I’m sure there is a fringe in the British trade union movement that is anti-Israel, probably even a few individuals that are anti-Semitic, but calling for boycott of what I believe was settlement goods not Israeli goods is not anti-Semitic its a legitimate tool to try to pressure the state of Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories…

I’m sorry to rant but defining criticism of Israel as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic takes away from the real anti-Semitism we see, the desecration of Jewish graves in France and other parts of Europe that is anti Semitism, not criticism of the occupation and a boycott of (illegal) settlement goods. ‘Hatred’ shouldn’t be banded about to delegitimize policies and statements which criticise Israel and call for the creation of Palestine on its national homeland, side by side with Israel on her national homeland. There is no hierarchy of national aspirations; the Palestinians have the same rights as the Jewish people or any other national group seeking the right to self determination.

Craig S’s is the voice of Western liberalism, the type of person who defends the right of free speech for those who criticize Israel, champions the Palestinian right to self-determination, and resents the label “anti-Semite” being applied to those who use the BSD movement as a “legitimate tool to try to pressure the state of Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.” (And as an added bonus, Craig S has Jewish grandparents, which gives his words—like those of Richard Goldstone—the added legitimacy it needs.) I can read Craig S and think to myself, “Yeah, it’s all just a misunderstanding. All this criticism of Israel around the world is completely legitimate, and any pro-Israel voices who cry foul are just stifling debate. All Israel needs to do is clear out of Judea and Samaria, give the Arabs back their land, and all will be well.” It’s enticing, and it sounds reasonable. What’s the big deal?

And then “Daniel in Brookline” logs on and takes on Craig S’s points one by one. Check out his response:

to read any criticism of Israel’s governments policy as being hatred is just so frustrating.
Why does this issue keep coming up? Criticism of Israeli government policies is not the problem; Israelis do it all day, every day. (Read any Israeli newspaper, and I do mean any Israeli newspaper.)
If you think that Israelis should not settle in the West Bank, for example, you’re entitled to that opinion, but let’s explore the connotations of what that means. Presumably you don’t think any nation is entitled to use land it captured in a war, and as such you also advocate America’s evacuation of Texas, New Mexico, and California. If you don’t feel that way, then, to make your point, you must also explain why you think Israel is different.

The Swedish and Norwegian governments don’t hate Israel, by stating International law, as accepted by the UN, the International criminal Court and the vast majority of states in the world.
“The law is an ass.” Please don’t tell me what the majority says; Israel is not up for election by the combined population of the world. Tell me, instead, what is right and what is wrong.

Calling for a withdrawal from the West bank and East Jerusalem is not hatred, it’s not anti-Semitic!
See above. Is there any other nation you’d advise to cut its national capital in half, and hand over much of its territory (and all of its strategic depth, such as it is) to its sworn enemies, who are on record promising that they’d use that territory to start a new war?
If you advocate such policies for Israel only, then you should be prepared to explain why only Israel deserves such treatment. Because believe me, Israel’s situation is not unique in this regard; if anything, Israel is exceptional for its generosity, compared to other countries.
None of this is antisemitic, unless it’s Israel’s character as the world’s only Jewish state that bothers you.

Yes I’m sure there is a fringe in the British trade union movement that is anti-Israel, probably even a few individuals that are anti-Semitic, but calling for boycott of what I believe was settlement goods not Israeli goods is not anti-Semitic its a legitimate tool to try to pressure the state of Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
Would you care to explain why this is ‘legitimate’? Would you refuse to buy goods from one American state but not another? (With Arizona attracting a lot of attention lately, this might be closer to reality than we think.) Would you expect the United States to jettison one of its states in response to your actions?

There is no hierarchy of national aspirations; the Palestinians have the same rights as the Jewish people or any other national group seeking the right to self determination.
Israel has no obligation to commit suicide, and she does not have to honor the yearnings of self-determination of those pledged to destroy her.
As far as I’m concerned, if the Palestinians really want a state of their own, let them prove that they can, and will, be good neighbors. Let them prove by their actions that Israel can vacate territory, as she did with Gaza, without the response being a daily rocket barrage, as it was in Gaza.
And let’s not forget that the West Bank was offered to the Palestinians, by Ehud Barak in 1999 and again by Ehud Olmert a few years ago. The offer was rejected both times. What have the Palestinians offered? Have they offered, for example, to stop killing Israelis for a time?
I don’t know where you live, Craig. But I guarantee you that, if the Palestinian territories were only a few miles away from you, and treated you the way Israelis have been treated, your country would respond at least as harshly as Israel has.

All those facile notions, those calm, rational, democratically sound opinions get blown out of the water. The double standards applied to Israel, the irrelevance of “international law” (as though such laws were truly applicable or binding) to Israeli settlements, the absurdity of establishing an enemy state on one’s borders, the madness of splitting one’s capital with a sworn enemy, the total ignorance of past offers of land for a state in the last 10 years, and the naïveté of those who think that the Palestinian Arabs only want “self-determination” instead of Israel’s destruction—all rendered dust.

The only thing I would add that Daniel in Brookline didn’t write is the fact that this IS the homeland of the Jews, and NOT the homeland of the Arabs. The Green Line does not delineate the line between two distinct homelands; it’s the line marking the 1949 Armistice between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. Hebron is NOT part of any Arab homeland, nor is Shilo, Jericho, or the Old City of Jerusalem. This whole thing is the Jewish homeland, and the Arabs are recent arrivals, with a handful going back to an Arab colonization effort in the 7th century, and most having come from neighboring countries as a result of Jewish immigration in the 19th century to avail themselves of the new economic opportunities that opened up. Jewish offers of land on which to build an Arab Palestinian state are gifts, and certainly not within the Arabs’ “rights.” Those offers are based on over 2500 years of Jews being driven from our own homes and being packed off to exile or death, and serve as an acknowledgment that however they got here, the Arabs are here now and to uproot and expel them would be cruel (though certainly not unprecedented in world history), expensive, and assuredly violent. If the Arabs were really only interested in “self-determination,” they would have embraced one of these offers and gotten underway building themselves a state years ago. The fact that they haven’t should raise eyebrows, including those of Craig S and others like him.

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I’m not sure there’s a soul in the Jewish world who doesn’t know who Alan Dershowitz is.  Made a full professor at Harvard Law School at age 28, one of America’s premier defense attorneys, a stalwart defender of Israel (though not of the settlements), and prolific author of books about the American legal system, Judaism, and Israel, Dershowitz was recently offered (and turned down) the job of Israel’s ambassador to the UN.

I’ve had The Best Defense on my bookshelf for ages.  After spending years accumulating books, I’ve given myself the task, in recent months, of eschewing bookstores, book sales, and the library, and instead pulling out books that have been gathering dust on my shelves and reading them.  (In the course of this exercise, I am evaluating which books I like enough to replace on my bookshelf to reread, lend, or recommend to the Cap’n, and which get tossed onto the pile for my next book swap.  This, of course, makes more room for new books when I go back to collecting them.)  I’ve been on a nonfiction reading streak, and The Best Defense appealed.

I have always found Dershowitz very readable.  His intelligence and sense of humor come through no matter what he writes, and this book shows not only his great legal acuity but also a larger degree of humility than I’ve seen in many of his other books.  (Published in 1982, it is one of his earlier books; perhaps the humility wore off over time as fame and fortune accompanied his career success.)  This book is Dershowitz’s examination of some of the problems that exist in “American blind justice,” i.e. its lack of blindness.  While he observes that the American judicial system is one of the better ones in the world, he has often come up against police perjury, prosecutors who withhold evidence and collaborate with witnesses who lie on the stand, and judges who are either activist or have a personal stake in the outcome of a trial which influences their decisions.  The limitations of defense attorneys are not ignored, but Dershowitz makes a case for their necessity in our society, despite how their clients’ crimes and sleaziness are often projected onto them by the media and the public.

To illustrate his observations about the court system, Dershowitz draws on his colorful experiences as a trial lawyer defending JDL terrorists, a man tried for murder for shooting a corpse, First Amendment issues including pornography and a nude beach on Cape Cod, providing legal defense for Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet court system, and the case of the Tison brothers who were tried for murders their father committed, and among a few other cases.  Some of the cases are more gripping than others (the Tison case had me riveted), and some were still unresolved at the time of publication, but all of them served as excellent examples of some of the flaws in the American judicial system.

It is ironic, but while I found myself very left-leaning in my youth (college and for many years after), I—as much as anyone else—criticized defense attorneys like Dershowitz for defending slimy characters like Leona Helmsley and O.J. Simpson: flashy, loud, aggressive defenders who seemed to revel in the limelight they themselves enjoyed while the media followed every motion and witness in the course of the trials.  I say “ironic” because it should be the liberal thinkers in a society who should be the greatest proponents of the right of even the shadiest, most unsavory—and yes, guiltiest—characters in society to a quality defense.  It is only since I’ve backed off from my unquestioningly liberal views that I have begun to see things differently, and Dershowitz’s critique of the seamier side of the judicial system, his vivid descriptions of the ways in which people accused of crimes are not dealt with fairly (or legally), and the reasons why a defense attorney must focus all his or her energy on providing a forceful, even aggressive, defense resonated with me.  Dershowitz does not spare trial lawyers from his critique; he takes to task trial lawyers who compromise their clients’ interests through serving their own desire for fame, for a cozy relationship with prosecutors and judges, for laziness, for activism (when dedication to a cause is greater than that to a client), or for excessive integrity (when a “general reputation may be built on the imprisoned lives of those defendants whose short-term interest in freedom may have been sacrificed to the lawyer’s own long-term interest in developing a reputation for integrity”).

I’ve often wondered how defense attorneys sleep at night, having as they do the job of trying to get their clients (who are almost always guilty of the crimes they’re accused of) freed.  Dershowitz answers this by writing, “I do not apologize for (or feel guilty about) helping to let a murderer go free—even though I realize that someday one of my clients may go out and kill again.  Since nothing like this has ever happened, I cannot know for sure how I would react.  I know that I would feel terrible for the victim.  But I hope I would not regret what I had done—any more than a surgeon should regret saving the life of a patient who recovers and later kills an innocent victim.”  This is an interesting analogy.  The difference of course is that the surgeon who saves a life is keeping someone from dying, not from doing jail time (which is what most murderers get).  And in this scenario, Dershowitz also doesn’t mention the surgeon knowing that his patient is a murderer, whereas the defense attorney seeks to keep a known murderer from being punished.  In my view this is not a fair comparison.  But I digress.  I take Dershowitz’s point about a defense attorney’s job being that of helping his client go free.  If I were accused of a crime (one that I’d done, or one that I’d not done), a zealous, savvy, highly skilled lawyer dedicated to nothing but securing my freedom would be exactly what I would want.  In each of the cases he discusses having taken on, Dershowitz describes the tactics and strategies he and his legal team employed, from drawing on precedent-setting cases to prevent his clients from being sent to the electric chair, to rushing out to a barber for a conservative shave and haircut before defending clients before a court known to scorn “bearded, long-haired-hippies.”

Dershowitz is most persuasive when he discusses the freedoms that underlie even the very imperfect justice system in America.  He writes, “Part of the reason why we are as free as we are, and why our criminal justice system retains a modicum of rough justice despite its corruption and unfairness, is our adversary process: the process by which every defendant may challenge the government. …I believe that defending the guilty and the despised—even freeing some of them—is a small price to pay for our liberties.”  This is a compelling point: when justice systems are dismantled, or have no appeals process (the Cap’n reminded me of the Cardassian justice system, where the verdict is decided before the trial begins, and the trial is held merely to stir up the public and serve the government’s ends), then freedom is seriously compromised.  Defense attorneys are “the final barrier between an overreaching government and its citizens,” words which would seem more predictable coming out of the mouth of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican than an active member of the ACLU.  When Dershowitz traveled to China in 1980 to advise the People’s Republic on its criminal justice system, he was asked, “Why should our government pay someone to stand in the way of socialist justice?”  His response is that “[s]ince not all defendants are created equal in their ability to speak effectively, think logically, and argue forcefully, the role of a defense attorney—trained in these and other skills—is to perform those functions for the defendant.  The process of determining whether a defendant should be deemed guilty and punished requires that the government be put to its proof and that the accused have a fair opportunity to defend.”

Over the years I have become more suspicious of government power.  It’s not because of any run-ins with the law, and it’s not because I’ve become rich.  Rather, I believe I understand human nature better, and all of its temptations to stray from the proper path.  (Sadly, this book confirms some of my darkest suspicions of human nature.)  And as a Jew and an Israeli, I have also seen, both in history and in the present, the zealousness of the media, governments, and public opinion to convict a people and a nation of unspeakable crimes without proof or even a proper hearing.  The court of world opinion is strikingly similar to the Cardassian courts, where nowadays Israel is guaranteed to lose its case, no matter what it is, before the trial even opens.  Justice can, at times, seem to be as elusive as, well, peace in the Middle East.

In the end, I don’t know whether my liberal credentials have been enhanced or diminished by my views, which have been further shaped by reading Dershowitz’s book.  On the one hand, my belief that everyone deserves a spirited defense in the court system would seem to argue in favor of my liberalism.  On the other hand, my belief in that creed stems from a conviction that people are NOT basically good or trustworthy, and must be checked and balanced in an adversarial court system, which suggests a more cynical, conservative view.  At the end of the day, I don’t suppose a label on my political views much matters.  What matters is one of the statements Dershowitz closes the book with: “To me the most persuasive argument for defending the guilty and the despised is to consider the alternative.  Those governments that forbid or discourage such representation have little to teach us about justice.  Their systems are far more corrupt, less fair, and generally even less efficient than ours..”

Hear, hear.

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The independent Michael Totten

A couple of years ago, my friend Michael A. Burstein (a science fiction writer; here’s his website) steered me toward independent journalist Michael Totten’s blog.  I was pleased to find Totten’s reporting thorough, thoughtful, and unprejudiced.  He takes a keen interest in the Middle East, visiting Lebanon and Israel frequently.  With Israel in most journalists’ sights, I was pleased to find someone reporting on my adopted country who clearly has no hidden agenda. (I was also pleased to discover he’s a fellow Portlander.  Ah, that rainy, rosy city in the beautiful Northwest.)  He writes in a clear, unassuming prose, and his longer pieces are always accompanied by photographs that lend another dimension to his stories and interviews.

Totten was in Israel in August, and two of his pieces resulting from that trip pleased me in particular.  The first is an observation on the kindness of Israelis (not, I would guess, the first thing one thinks of after reading the news these days).  In this piece, published in the online Commentary magazine, Totten writes,

A few days ago, I announced that I’m leaving for Israel this week now that I’ve finished and sold my book, and the same thing happened that always does when I mention in public that I’m on my way over there. My in-box filled with offers of generous assistance from Israelis whom I’ve never met or even heard of. Most offered to buy me dinner. Some said I could sleep on their couch or in a spare bedroom. A few even offered to show me around, introduce me to people, and set up appointments for me. …

This rarely happens when I go anywhere else in the world. It happens every time I’ve announced a trip to Israel, though, in times of peace and during war, and it has been happening to me for years.

I get these sorts of offers from the entire range of Israeli society, from people affiliated with Peace Now to the settler movement. I can always count on kind and generous people in Arab countries to help me out once I’ve arrived, but only Israelis reach out so extensively, so consistently, and in such large numbers before I even get off the plane.

The second piece is an interview with David Hazony, an American-born Israeli writer and former editor-in-chief of Azure magazine.  While they mostly discussed Israeli politics and society, Totten also includes a video about Hazony’s new book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, published last month, and recently added to my Amazon wish list.

I highly recommend Totten as a source of news and perspective.  He has done some fascinating interviews, and because he publishes many of them on his own blog, he does not have to cut them to fit space in print.  This allows for tangents and thoroughness which it’s rare to find anywhere else.  I don’t always have time to read his long pieces, but I was rewarded by his interview with a former Iranian Revolutionary Guardsman, and on my list to read are his interview with Michael Young about Lebanon (viewed from the inside) and with Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli Middle Eastern analyst who specializes in Lebanon and has visited that country undercover, both with and without a passport.

Journalists who are independent, both in the financial and in the mental sense, are a rare find these days, and Totten is too good not to read.  Please join me in supporting Totten by making a contribution to his efforts, and by enjoying his high quality reporting.

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A few months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale conferred rabbinical ordination on Sara Hurwitz.  It created something of a furor at the time, which has since seemed to die down (at least in the Orthodox circles I inhabit).  I gave the matter some thought at the time, and wrote a post about it.

I knew Hurwitz was not the first woman to apply herself to the same rigorous study as men do everyday with the goal of smicha in mind.  I’ve had a copy (signed, it turns out—it seems the  Cap’n and I met her years ago) of Haviva Ner-David’s Life On the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination on my shelf for at least a decade now, and never seemed in the mood to read it.

Then Yom Kippur came around.  The Cap’n buys me a seat in shul every year, but for years I have lacked the sitzfleish for anything more than shofar blowing or neilah.  The rest of the time I’m home, dispensing snacks and drinks, making sure the kids don’t put each other’s eyes out, and alternately davening alone or reading a book of Jewish interest.  Scanning the shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, and still in a feminist reading mode after Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I took down Ner-David’s book at last.

Boy, have I missed out all these years.  It is an honest, learned, deeply thoughtful exploration of one woman’s attempt to navigate her feminism and commitment to traditional Judaism simultaneously.  From her decision to wear a tallit katan and pray with a tallit gadol, to laying tefillin, to deciding to pursue her studies toward smicha, Ner-David feels much of the same incongruity between her sense of her worth as a woman in the secular world and her second-class status in the Orthodox world that I do.

Now before anyone’s blood pressure goes through the roof at my calling women “second-class,” understand me first.  That does not mean that women are not valued, or that their contributions to the preservation of Jewish tradition are not important, or that they all should feel oppressed every single day.  But to be honest, many of the customs that limit women’s participation in prayer, in donning ritual objects, and in pursuing ordination, are socially and culturally constructed rather than rooted in Jewish law.  And there is incontrovertible evidence that women are not counted as fully human, as fully endowed with the rights that men enjoy.  Where a man says a blessing every morning for not making him a woman, a woman’s comparable blessing is to thank God for making her according to God’s will.  Women cannot serve as witnesses in the majority of legal cases in Jewish law.  Women are legally “acquired” in a kinyan, or exchange, in marriage.  And a woman cannot divorce a man without his consent.  (It works in the reverse as well, but many more women are refused a divorce than men, leaving them unable to remarry and often subjected to blackmail, extortion, and long term emotional abuse.)  There are apologetics for each of these situations, and I’ve heard most of them.  Some women don’t buy them and leave, heading for the more liberal Jewish movements that have rewritten them or done away with them altogether.  And some like me stay, but don’t like them much and hope for a way to be found to soften, reframe, or solve them altogether within the boundaries of Jewish law.

Ner-David describes her life as a child growing up in an household typical of those headed by Orthodox Jews who came of age in the 1950s, where kashrut in the home was a given, but where most women did not cover their hair, families often ate out at non-kosher restaurants (ordering fish or other permitted species of food), and mixed dancing at simchas was not the cue for the rabbis to walk out of a wedding reception (something I witnessed in the 1990s).  Her parents expected to pass on their tradition to their children, but Ner-David could not escape the irony that while she relished the time spent studying Talmud with her father, she could never be a rabbi, while her elder brother—to whom the doors of the rabbinate were wide open—had no interest in learning.  She shares her doubts about God and religion as a teen, gives an account of her bout with anorexia (which she connected to her struggles with her parents over religion), her own gradual return to traditional Judaism, and the choices she makes for herself and her children as an adult and parent.  (Her strong desire for her gan-aged daughter to wear a tallit katan, while it is halachically acceptable, seems to me to border on pressure rather than an invitation.  This is one of my few reservations about this book.)

A feeling of homelessness seems to permeate her journey, where she moves from a feeling of alienation as a teen to outright rejection of Judaism as a young adult, to a new discovery of the beauty and awe of tradition (in concert with her husband, whom she met in college), to a struggle to find a place that is right for her where the form that her faith and devotion takes is often received with confusion and even hostility by other traditional Jews.  Yeshiva University’s ignoring her application to their rabbinical seminary, the refusal of the women studying at Drisha Institute in New York to study in hevruta with her, and her rejection a few years later when she applied to a program that trains women to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity)—all because she had the audacity to dedicate herself to Torah study on a level usually reserved for men—are some of the examples of reactions she gets to her views of Judaism.

What is in question throughout the book is Ner-David’s intentions.  What is she trying to achieve?  Or, more accurately in the minds of her critics, what is she trying to prove?  Is she on a power trip?  Does she seek glory and titles for their own sake?  Is she the one who is actually hostile to Jewish law, culture, and society?  Ner-David, well-versed in the sources, gives the reader thorough discussions of the texts and poskim relevant to each of her topics (e.g. mitzvot, halachah, chuppah, tumah and taharah, and Torah learning).  She explains why she has made the choices she has, and accepts that other women make other choices according to their and their communities’ interpretations of the laws and customs.  (I read with interest her discussion of why she covers her hair, and while her decision is informed by many of the issues that lead other women to cover their hair, it still doesn’t persuade me to cover mine.)  It is clear to me that her pursuit of Jewish learning is both for its own sake and with a goal in mind: to put that learning to its full potential use.  This is not scorned when a man (even a mediocre man, or a power-hungry man, or a man with limited interpersonal skills) does it, but Jewish learning for women, while it has improved immeasurably in quality and access in recent years, still seems to be viewed as accessory to wifehood, motherhood, and livelihood.

After reviewing the sources regarding women’s Torah study, she relates an incident in which she was serving on a panel in Israel discussing feminism and Orthodoxy.  On the panel with her is Rabbi Seth Farber, a young Orthodox rabbi who describes himself as a feminist.  (It’s 1997; Farber later goes on to found the organization ITIM which helps would-be converts to Judaism and others in Israel navigate the swamp of the Israeli rabbinate.)  After describing her vision of where Orthodoxy might go to allow greater participation by women, she asks Rabbi Farber directly, “Why, if there is no halakhic barrier to women becoming rabbis, are Orthodox rabbis today denying women the right to become rabbis?  Why are you against giving s’micha to women who study the same texts as male rabbinical candidates?”  Rabbi Farber answers that authority, not a piece of paper, makes someone a leader, and that women must first gain that authority and respect.  He tells Ner-David that she is doing a disservice to the Orthodox feminist movement by seeking smicha now, and that in doing so she deflects attention away from the really important issues and giving the opposition easy ammunition to discount the cause.

I’m sure many people would agree with Rabbi Farber, and it gives Ner-David pause as well.  But on considering this point, I must say I am still not convinced.  Does he suggest that women are not currently deserving of respect and authority?  My Orthodox shul in Newton had many well-respected female teachers of Torah, women were invited to give divrei Torah to the whole congregation on Shabbat (at the conclusion of the morning service), and two very competent women served as shul president during my time there.  What is left for women to do?  And to say that Ner-David has not chosen her timing well is hard to support.  Would he have told Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony that they were doing women a disservice by lobbying for women’s suffrage before men were ready for it?  I would venture to guess that as difficult as it is for men to let go of power, women would still be sitting around waiting for an invitation to vote if they hadn’t advocated for themselves back then.  As for deflecting attention away from “the really important issues,” I fail to see how that is so.  Some of the really important issues of the day include finding a solution to women trapped by their husbands in failed marriages, spousal and family abuse in the Orthodox world, rabbinical intransigence in conversion, and the increasing estrangement of many rabbis in the Israeli rabbinate from the needs of the society they’re supposed to serve—none of which would be hampered by consideration of women’s merit to become rabbinical leaders.  (In fact, I think that by making women rabbis, some of these problems could well be solved more efficiently than by leaving them up to the men currently in charge who seem unable to come up with any solutions.)

Despite the many walls and glass ceilings Ner-David encounters, her doggedness in pursing what she believes is a natural, gradual, rational evolution in Orthodoxy toward greater opportunities for women is inspiring.  In a world where one so often reads about rabbis who shun any public life for women at all, who persecute those who disagree with them (or worse, write them off as non-Jews), and who view as seditious any challenge to their own practices which they are convinced are pure Torah miSinai, Ner-David’s portrait of her teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, is of a man firmly rooted in Torah, whose goal is to make the Torah available to everyone, including those in liberal institutions (Reform and Conservative), religious and secular, men and women.  Regarding the latter, Rabbi Strikovsky quotes Rabbeinu Tam who points to Devorah, a judge who ruled during the period of the Judges in Israel.  He asks, “What was Devorah’s position?  First, she was a leader of the people.  Second, she adjudicated matters of law: Torah law, Jewish law, halakhah.  If a woman can reach this level of learning and leadership ability, of course she can receive s’micha.”  Rabbi Strikovsky is not a political man.  “His agenda,” Ner-David writes, “is driven purely by the pursuit and dissemination of Torah knowledge and values as he understands them, and he will not be limited by other people’s sociological baggage.”  This, of course, points to the question one could just as easily ask those who oppose women’s ordination: “If Jewish history and Jewish sources point to women’s proven ability to be leaders in the Jewish world, isn’t refusing them that opportunity politically motivated?”

My parents-in-law belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue.  It’s always jarring to my mother-in-law to visit us and attend our shul, where she and I sit on the women’s side of the mechitza and the action—the davening, Torah reading, all the speaking parts—happens on the other side.  I can still remember how it felt when I attended my first Orthodox services.  When she whispers to me, “This is a big boys’ club,” I know how she feels.  But I still can’t feel comfortable with the choices liberal Judaism has made in response, dispensing with serious engagement with Jewish texts, paring down the Hebrew service to a few memorized utterances whose meaning no one understands, and devaluing core Jewish practices like dietary laws and Shabbat observance.  There has to be a way for a feminist Orthodox Jew to live her life without denying either her feminism or her Orthodoxy.  I owe women like Ner-David, Blu Greenberg, and the many learned women who support and organize the JOFA and Kolech conferences in America and Israel, women much more learned and dedicated than I am right now, my admiration and gratitude.

This book was published in 2000.  It’s now ten years later.  Where is Ner-David now?  She and her family relocated from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hannaton the Galilee, where she is instrumental in reviving the kibbutz and inviting progressively-minded Jews to move there and create an open, observant Jewish community.  She teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and is the founder of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage.  She writes articles for publication, which can be accessed at the ZEEK website.

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A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot.  Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library.  They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library.  After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.  French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women.  It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.”  It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help.  (This IS the early 1960s, after all.)  Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble.  The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard.  Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses.  Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled.  And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much.  They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin.  Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.

I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era.  As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to.  It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel.  There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem.  When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless.  French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.

This is a radical feminist work.  That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely.  Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic.  (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.)  French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way.  Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility).  Of what are the women the source?  Not much.  They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men.  It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel.  Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family.  She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.

Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do).  Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better.  What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves.  Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.

Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true.  (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.)  This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it.  As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve.  Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women.  Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women.  Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions.  One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting).  A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination.  Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX.  Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows.  Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past.  Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women.  But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.

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I recently finished reading Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992).  From his childhood to his service in World War II, and into his career as a statesman for the newborn State of Israel, his account is filled with the insights and observations of a scholarly, well-mannered, intelligent thinker and actor.  I admired his work showing other UN ambassadors the layout of the country and the nature of the dispute between Jews and Arabs before the Partition vote, taking part in the  struggles over the ensuing decades in the UN which was marked by increasingly alliance-driven politics, and  I couldn’t help but feel pride at Israel’s many (alas, unsuccessful) attempts to avoid war, especially in light of the current climate which accuses Israel of aggression no matter how it behaves.

There were many passages in which Eban illustrated in a brief encounter the nature of the actors with whom Israel found itself on the world stage.  His meeting with Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, in summer 1947 shows the mentality operating in the Arab world then (and now):

I said that I had a simple suggestion.  If there is a war, there will have to be a negotiation after it.  Why not negotiate before and instead of the war?

Azzam’s reply was indignant but shatteringly candid.  “If you win the war, you will get your state.  If you do not win the war, then you will not get it.  We Arabs once ruled Iran and once ruled Spain.  We no longer have Iran or Spain.  If you establish your state the Arabs might one day have to accept it, although even that is not certain.  But do you really think we have the option of not trying to prevent you from achieving something that violates our emotion and our interest?  It is a question of historic pride.  There is no shame in being compelled by force to accept an unjust and unwanted situation.  What would be shameful would be to accept this without attempting to prevent it.  No, there will have to be a decision, and the decision will have to be by force.”

His wit and chutzpah are also reflected in tales of his encounters with unsympathetic powers such as the Soviet Union in the form of Ambassador Andrei Vyshinski:

A vice presidency of the General Assembly of the United Nations is not an onerous function, but it did bring me into frequent proximity with the heads of the major powers at dinner parties and consultations.  At one of these functions, having watched Vyshinski’s lavish absorption of vodka, I decided to take advantage of his amiability to pose a question: “Tell me, Andrei Andreyevitch, why don’t you let the Soviet Jews emigrate?  What does it really matter to the Soviet Union?”

His reply: “What are you talking about?  If the Jews leave, everybody will want to leave!”

The next morning, in the cold light of sobriety, he sought contact with me very early and said anxiously: “I hope you understand that yesterday was joke.”  Then with great formality, “Since was only joke I assume Your Excellency did not send telegram…”  I left him in suspense for a castigatory moment and assured him that My Excellency had not cabled his heretical words.  Siberia receded from his horizon.

Above all, Personal Witness at many points was a lesson in the political dictum, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Some examples include when Israel was accused of exacerbating the violence of Jordanian cross-border attacks by retaliating (recall the international response to Operation Cast Lead); Egypt’s belief in 1967 in its right to “exercise ‘rights of war’ against Israel, while claiming immunity from any Israeli ‘acts of war’ against themselves” (reference the Palestinian Terror War, when the world’s indifference to terror attacks on Israeli civilians contrasted with its loud condemnation of IDF incursions into terror cells in Jenin and Bethlehem and construction of the security fence); and the PLO’s shift from terrorist tactics to the political arena where they made enormous gains by repackaging the conflict from an Israeli-Arab one to an Israeli-Palestinian one, where “Israel was now portrayed as powerful, sated, established, and recognized, while the Palestinians were by contrast dispossessed, bitter, dissatisfied, and implacable.  The current of world opinion flowed away from the embattled victor toward the defeated aggressor.”  I have also heard many times in the past 15 years Israelis discounting the importance of Israel’s alliance with the United States.  Whether because they find themselves frequently exasperated with the U.S.’s pressure on Israel to act in American interests at the expense of Israeli interests, or for pettier reasons (puffed-up pride, anti-Western feelings, etc.), I appreciated a thought experiment proposed by Eban in this context: “Imagine that some natural disaster were to cut America and Israel off from contact with each other; there would be no telephones or postal services, no commerce or tourism, no monetary transactions between the two countries.  Who would notice it first?”

My impression from reading the book is that Eban was happiest, and most in his element, in the foreign service.  That milieu seemed best suited to his cosmopolitan sensibilities, gave ample voice for his considerable rhetorical skills, and kept him far away from the rough-and-tumble of Israeli domestic politics.  This stint as Foreign Minister took him through the UN vote for the Partition Plan, its recognition of the State of Israel, the War of Independence, the 1956 Suez-Sinai War, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.

It came to a disappointing end for him in 1974 with Golda Meir’s resignation, after which he resumed his Labor Party duties as a member of the Knesset.  In this period, his narrative leaves the lofty world of international diplomacy and enters the viper pit of Israeli domestic politics.  Not only are his descriptions of his rivals and enemies in the Israeli government withering, but his relative discontent in his new inferior role is palpable to the reader.  After Likud’s meteoric rise to the government in 1977, the greatest obstacles to peace in Eban’s mind were no longer the Arabs (who, no matter what proposals are put to them to make peace, always refuse) but Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and the Israeli people who voted for them.  Eban describes Begin as a phony and an am ha’aretz (a rube), with “courtly Polish manners,” a deft hand at flipping a kippah on and off his head depending on his audience, and a pathetic ignorance of protocol.  Likud’s disinterest in giving away the territories acquired in the Six Day War earned it his scorn and disapproval, and the settlement movement is described as a diplomatic mistake indistinguishable from insanity and national suicide.  In describing the 1978 Camp David Accords as having language built in which call for negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians toward establishing a Palestinian state alongside peace with Egypt, he bitterly assigns blame for the lack of implementation of this part of the accords to Begin, and only mentions many pages later that the Palestinians had no interest in participating in the requisite negotiations either.  Early in the book, he rejects the pat labels of “hawk” and “dove” to describe political leaders, explaining that “To be invariably in favor of military solutions is just as absurd as to be unrealistically opposed to any use of force in situations of conflict.”  One of the more disappointing turns he takes is constantly applying those very labels to describe the Likud and Labor parties’ platforms and leaders in later years.

His descriptions of the abuses of the Palestinian Arabs by the Israeli government and army draw from the most extreme examples.  His indignation at the absence of equal rights for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza ignores the fact that in order to provide them with full rights, those lands would have to be annexed by Israel, something he strongly opposed.  To leave the lands in a suspended state indefinitely, with no clear governance, no clear status as to borders, as an effective “hot potato” which neither Egypt nor Jordan would take back even in exchange for peace, is impossible to understand.  While Realpolitik demands that the Arabs here have SOMEWHERE to live, the fact that 242 does not call for a retreat to June 4, 1967 lines, the fact that the Arabs have refused every offer of land made to them from these territories (and show every sign of walking away soon from Obama’s Washington talks with nothing but a show of pouting obstinacy and threats of self-destruction), and the fact that—hard though it may be for people like Eban to recognize—given the state of unremitting war we’ve been at with these particular Arabs, the presence of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza are Israel’s only guarantee of safety from the increasingly well-armed, fundamentalist Muslim, Iran-sponsored terrorists who infest them.  Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice PM and Minister of Strategic Affairs, recently observed that when discussing territorial compromise with the Palestinian Arabs, if we’re talking about peace, the West Bank has plenty of room.  If we’re talking about a continuation of the conflict, it’s more complicated.

Overall I enjoyed this book (particularly the first two-thirds or so).  Eban’s mastery of the English language was a rare pleasure to read.  His accomplishments in academia, history and diplomacy were impressive.  His accounts of meetings with high-level government officials from all over the world (in which he clearly reveled) were fascinating, and the collegiality he shared with his equals and staff in the Israeli foreign service was heartening to read.

I recently reviewed Eban’s My People: The Story the Jews, which I found well-paced, uncluttered, inspiring (without being too adulatory), and beautifully written.  But in Personal Witness, the reader gets to know Eban better as an individual, and sees that while Eban was motivated in his career by his care and concern for the Jewish people and Israel, his secular Jewish beliefs and inflexible attitude toward the more academic, high falutin world of diplomacy made it difficult—if not impossible—for him to understand the beliefs and behavior of disenfranchised Sefardi and Mizrachi Jews, settlers, and Orthodox or haredi Jews.  Yet despite his distaste for these sectors of the Israeli population, he himself descends into imbecilic rapture in describing the Labor victory in 1992: “It was the end of the Likud era for years, perhaps a decade.  The Zionism of the founders had returned.  It would be pragmatic, visionary, terse in expression, concrete in affairs and alive to the movement and the impulse of the modern age.  Rejoice, beloved country!  Israel had come home to itself.”

Of course, it is easy to criticize Eban nearly 20 years after this book was written.  I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  There was no way for him to know that Rabin’s administration wouldn’t last more than four years, that Oslo would end such a colossal failure, and that Labor would find itself marginalized by the creation of Kadima and the nation’s disgust with the worn-out formula of “land for peace.”  Or was there?  I can’t help asking myself whether despite Eban’s careful study of Arabic, Arab history, and the Koran, he had a poor understanding of the Arabs’ attitude toward Israel’s presence in the Middle East.  As far as wishing it gone, he understood that.  But reading the Israeli side of the decades-long conflict feels like only half the story, and I couldn’t help but feel that the whole time Israel debated what to do with the territories and the Arabs living on them, there seemed little insight on the part of Eban and the Labor Party into what the concurrent debates were in the Palestinian Arab camp.  It’s as though each decision was made in a vacuum, in a state of communication blackout, where the only contacts that ever surfaced between the two sides were offers made and rejected.  (I wonder if there is an honest, polemic-free account of the inside of the PLO/PA during that time.  Anyone?)

And too there is the temptation to wonder what Eban would have said after Camp David in 2000, when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat nearly everything he asked, and was turned down?  What would he have said in 2007, when Israel marked the 40th anniversary of its possession of Hebron, Shilo, Jericho, Gush Etzion, Beit El, and Shechem, which also marked 40 years of unsuccessful peace negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs?  He was very good at reckoning the numbers of lives lost in war and the number saved by peace; what would he think of the number of Israeli civilian lives lost in “peace” since Oslo?

There is one passage that I will remember well, not only because it comes at the end of the book, but because of its saliency.  Eban writes,

When I asked Anwar Sadat why he made the astonishing transition from the denial of Israel’s existence to the conclusion of a peace treaty, he said simply: “Because you had my land.  I tried every way to recover it without the hazard of making peace: I tried UN action, four-power, three-power, two-power pressure.  I tried war, armistice, international condemnation.  I reached the answer that only by peace could I recover my land.”

If only Arafat, or now Abbas, could reach the same conclusion.  The calculus of how many Israeli lives could have been saved by giving away land to the Palestinians at any time since 1967 is impossible to figure.  Could it have prevented the first Lebanon War?  The Intifada?  The brutal attacks in the 1990s (the Oslo War)?  The Palestinian Terror War of the early 2000s?  Or would giving away the West Bank have resulted in the same sort of non-peace Israel got for unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon and Gaza?  The Left would have us believe the former; the Right, the latter.

Eban’s book sheds intriguing light on the events in the first half of Israel’s existence, while his commentary on the later years seems shadowed by doubt and uncertainty.  Whether this is because he wrote the book chronologically and was beginning to feel his age when writing the latter part of the book, or because he simply couldn’t see well enough what currents were running through Israeli and Arab society, is unclear.  In the end, his honesty in titling the book “Israel Through My Eyes,” thereby acknowledging his own limitations as an actor and reporter, is one of its chief strengths.

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The challenge of recognition

For some weeks, I have been making my plodding, gradual way through Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992).  In addition to being one of the chief architects of the newborn State of Israel (chiefly in the area of diplomacy, at one time serving simultaneously as Ambassador to the U.S. and Ambassador to the U.N.), and perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the Left I’ve ever read, he was a master of the English language, the bon mot, and the quotable quip.  (Some may have heard one of his more famous expressions, that “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”)  I have read his positions on international and domestic issues with interest, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always learning more about the complexity of each difficult choice Israel has had to make in its history.

One passage in the book caught my eye in particular, since it is an issue that comes up repeatedly as Israel and the PA dance the two-step around even the thought of sitting down to negotiate peace: the demand of Israel that the PA formally recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”  I have written about this in the past, disparagingly, and Eban seems to have thought along similar lines:

In articles in the world press, I took sharp issue with the Israeli and American demand for PLO “recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”  I considered this to be demeaning for Israel.  Under the UN General Assembly Resolution 273 admitting Israel to membership in the United Nations, we were a peace-loving state equal in sovereignty to the United States, the Soviet Union and all the other Charter signatories.  How could we solicit an organization of vastly inferior international standing to recognize our right to exist?  Our government was asking the Palestinians for what was the hardest thing for them to do and the least useful thing for us to receive.  I wrote that Israel’s right to exist was independent of anyone’s recognition of it and that no self-respecting nation had ever put its own legitimacy to challenge long after the world community had recognized its sovereignty.  Later, when Menachem Begin announced his cabinet to the Knesset in June 1977, I had the satisfaction of hearing him support the view that Israel should never ask anyone to “recognize its right to exist.”

And yet when I read this passage aloud to the Cap’n, the following conversation ensued:

Cap’n:   Hmmmm.

Me:   Don’t you think that makes sense?  Who are the Palestinian Arabs to recognize or not recognize us?  Why do we need their recognition?

Cap’n:   We don’t.

Me:   Then why do you think Israel is so stuck on this idea?

Cap’n:   Because formal recognition of Israel by the PA would mean the end of the conflict.

The Cap’n is right, of course.  It’s not about “recognition” at all, at least in the sense of their admitting that we are here and that they’ve thus far failed to drive us away.  But to recognize Israel in the political sense, aloud, formally, and for all the world to hear, would amount to a renunciation of their goal to stamp us out—something they agreed to do in 1993 by altering the PLO Charter, but have never done.

A reader asked me recently whether Abbas might not prove to be a pragmatist after all, and see peace as within the interests of the Palestinian people.  I replied that Abbas has not officially renounced violence against Israel, even calling last week’s Hamas-claimed murder of four Israelis (including the much-loved special ed. gan teacher whom I sometimes used to see when dropping Banana off at her gan next door last year) an “operation” rather than an “attack.”  As long as violence is judged to be either in or not in the Palestinian people’s interests, and not morally wrong, I see little chance of an end to the conflict.  To give away land for a nation of people sworn to our destruction without receiving any confirmation of their intention to respect our sovereignty, borders, and right to security, would be suicidal for Israel.  Because once we do so, there is no going back for Israel, either.  If we don’t get all the assurances of security up front, we can’t ask for them later.  Eban also writes, “Whenever agreements are discussed between Israel and an Arab state, the question ‘Can they be trusted?’ always arises on our side.  In such agreements Israel renounces concrete possession in return for behavioral assurances.”  And those assurances have all too often been violated.

The Cap’n and I learned from a talk given recently by Col. (res.) Dany Tirza that the peace offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000 was turned down not because it was insufficiently generous, but because Barak insisted that with this offer had to come an end to the conflict.  Who makes peace with the understanding that the war will continue indefinitely?

If that is what recognition of Israel really means, then I begin to understand its centrality in any discussion of peace.

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Last summer, on my family’s trip to the US, I read Daniel Gordis’s latest book entitled Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.  At the time, I couldn’t resist collaring the Cap’n every few pages to read him a passage that seemed to me to nail the problems, challenges, and feelings Israelis face on a daily basis—things that the rest of the world increasingly appears not to understand.

Earlier this year, I reviewed an earlier book of Gordis’s, Does the World Need the Jews? In that book, Gordis seeks to answer the question that seemingly faces many young Jews in the United States, i.e. “Why be Jewish?”  In this more recent book, Gordis sets out to answer a similar question, this one directed at both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, namely, “Why be Israeli?”

In his introductory chapter, Gordis acknowledges the plethora of books written which speculate about whether, given its manifold challenges from within and without, Israel can survive, but sets out in this book to answer a different question.  “Of much greater importance than asking whether Israel can continue to exist is examining the question of why Israel’s survival might matter in the first place.  What has Israel done for the Jewish people?  How has Israel changed Jewish life not only inside the Jewish state, but around the world?  Do the Jews really need a state?  And if they do, what must they do to save it?” (author’s italics).

Gordis is a true intellectual, and while a fervent Zionist, also has the ability to scrutinize Israel’s many problems including poverty, corruption, and an educational system that does a poor job of preparing young Israelis to pick up the mantle of Jewishness and Zionism and continue the work of forging and defining the Jewish state.  He spares no effort to take a balanced look at Israel’s many challenges, including the inequalities that exist for Israel’s Arab citizens, and the security threat posed by them; the divide between what the Palestinian Arab rank and file deserve from their governments, even as they themselves elected sworn terrorists to represent them; and the world of identity, intellectual, and cultural possibility opened up to world Jewry by Israel, even as 50% of Jewish Americans aged 35 and younger responded in a study that the destruction (“not its gradual disappearance, or the slow withering away of the state”) would not be a personal tragedy for them.

I relished Gordis’s discussion of the many benefits to Jews everywhere of having a Jewish state, including the restoration of hope of Jewish survival after the Shoah, the opportunity to fashion a state based on our own Jewish values, to solve problems with the unique tools of Jewish wisdom, and to fulfill the Biblical prophecy to gather in the exiles of the world.  His chapter, “The First War, All Over Again,” charts the emotional roller-coaster that Israelis have been on since embarking on a series of attempts to make a lasting peace with the Arabs, all of which seem to end in betrayal and disappointment, recreating for them the feeling that they’re fighting the War of Independence over and over again.  He addresses the combined threats of terrorism, Iran, the United Nations, Israeli Arabs, but concludes that while these threats are real, they are not the greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish state.  The need for Israelis to be able to stay engaged in the work of defining their own identity as a Jewish and—at least in some measure—democratic state is crucial.  Israel cannot be a Hebrew-speaking America without forsaking its goal as a refuge and homeland for Jews.  He distinguishes the two thus: “While democracy may well be part of the purpose of American national life, the Jewish state was not created in order to be a democracy.  It was founded in order to change the condition of the Jews” (author’s italics).  As such, Gordis is prepared to admit (as was Rav Meir Kahane before him) that, in the words of Professor Ruth Gavison, “‘Non-Jews may not enjoy a feeling of full membership in the majority culture; this, however, is not a right but an interest—again, it is something which national or ethnic minorities almost by definition do not enjoy—and its absence does not undermine the legitimacy of Israeli democracy.’”

In order for Israel to function as the Jewish state, Gordis determines that there are several things Jews must address.  One is the concept of the New Jew, created in the early days of Zionism and the State, which dispensed with what was seen by some influential intellectuals as the superstitious trappings of religious ritual.  Prayer, study, and even belief in the God of Israel were dismissed as impediments to forging a new, non-European, non-victimized Jew.  This has resulted in young Israelis today who don’t know the basic prayers (including the Shema) and rituals (including havdalah), who find religion in their trips to the Far East after army service, and who are beginning to feel that their cultural ties to the Jewish state are unraveling.  Another thing Jews must address is the image popular among Jews for generations (and most popular now among Diaspora Jews) that Jews are pacifists, and that Jews as soldiers and fighters (even in self defense, even for survival) is somehow un-Jewish.  Drawing on history, the Bible, and current events, Gordis shows how peace is the Jewish ideal, but that war is sometimes necessary, and failure or refusal to prosecute it to its end can carry with it lasting and devastating consequences.  A third issue to be confronted is the increasing irrelevance of the Jewish rabbinical establishment in Israel (namely, the chief rabbinate) in the lives of ordinary Israelis.  While it has the power to obstruct Israelis who wish to have non-Orthodox weddings and conversions, it has nothing to say to them about the morals and ethics of living as Jews in a beleaguered country, riddled with challenges and problems, in the 21st century.

Years ago, my mother said she read an article which suggested that the Jews in Israel should pick up and leave the country.  This would, of course, allow it to be overrun by Arabs who, through their incompetence, corruption, and apathy, would oversee its returning to its fallow, Ottoman-era state.  Then, the article supposedly stated (somewhat fantastically), the world would beg the Israelis to return and rebuild what would then, once and for all, be recognized as their land alone.  I was shocked by this notion, not only in light of the certain destruction of every last trace of Jewish presence here (modern and archeological) but the certainty that Jews would never be able to come back.  Two of Gordis’s final paragraphs echo this bleak prognosis:

Were Israel just a state, the high cost it exacts might not be justified.  But as we have seen throughout the book, Israel is not just a state.  It breathed life into the Jewish people at precisely the moment when the Jews might have given up.  It gives possibility and meaning to a Jewish future.  It enables the Jews to reenter the stage of history.

That is why the calls for Israel’s demise must be resisted.  For what is at stake is not just the Jewish state but the Jewish people as well.  Statehood has revitalized the Jewish people, but the Jews are very unlikely to get another state should this one fail.  Whether the calls are for the outright destruction of Israel, or for the gradual erosion of Jewish sovereignty through ideas like a shared binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the result would be the same.  Jewish life as we know it would be lost.  The regained optimism, vitality, and confidence of the Jewish world would disappear, probably within a generation.

Israel’s enemies understand that.  It is time that the Jews did, too.

I’ve been a fan of Gordis’s for years.  Like me, he once believed wholeheartedly in the possibility of leading a thriving Jewish existence in the Diaspora.  And then, like me, he and his family heard the irresistible siren song of aliyah and came here to live.  Gordis has spent his life since aliyah working tirelessly to increase the Diaspora world’s understanding of the daily challenges Israelis face in our shared homeland through his essays, and in his capacity as a vice president at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, in creating a learning institution to help prepare the next generation of Israel’s leaders, who he hopes will be prepared to address the many quandaries and problems described in this book.  I admire him for his Jewish learning, for his accessible writing, for his relentless pursuit of truth (even if it’s uncomfortable), and for his willingness to apply himself to the task of solving what he sees are some of the very serious problems that face Israel and Israelis.  While it is possible he will not see the full benefit of the fruits of his labors, he has internalized the admonishment of Rabbi Tarfon not to refrain from trying.

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In college and for some years afterward, I was a card-carrying Liberal.  I championed the poor and disenfranchised, and automatically mistrusted capitalism, the government, and anyone powerful.  I didn’t necessarily have a lot of facts about the world at my disposal (despite—or because of—being a recent college graduate), but my dogma of rallying behind the underdog made those facts unnecessary in most cases.

Jokes have been made about how as people get older, they tend to get more conservative.  This may be because their opinions, formed in their youth and eventually calcified in their minds, become outdated (and hence, conservative) over time.  Or, perhaps, aging has the effect of making one better able to appreciate depth, complexity, nuance.  Wisdom begins to trump fervor, and facts push emotions off center-stage.

I don’t mean to insult Liberals here (or to praise Conservatives—I consider myself neither), but over the years, I have come to recognize some of the flaws in their thinking.  In their impatience to make the world better, they don’t take the time to fully understand the problems they wish to tackle; they see the world for what they want it to be rather than the way it is.  Opinions and dogma become conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom, unfortunately, is often wrong.  The economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom,” wrote, “We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life.  We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.”  In Galbraith’s view, economic and social behavior “are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring.  Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”

The road to my abandonment of Liberalism has been slow and gradual.  First I discovered that what one reads in the press is not always true.  When Barbara Bush was invited to speak at the graduation of the Wellesley College class of 1990 (as runner-up to Alice Walker who canceled her plans to speak), a conversation took place on campus with students asking whether the wife of the President was really an appropriate choice of commencement speaker over, say, a woman who has carved for herself a distinguished career.  At no time was Mrs. Bush dis-invited to speak, but when wind of the arguments and counter-arguments on campus reached the press, a firestorm took over op-ed pages all over the country.  Students on campus refused to speak to the press, leaving the press to take the idea of hairy-legged, radical feminists bashing the First Female and run with it.  Wellesley, feminism, and the individual students who were identified as having spoken out on the issue were maligned; at least one student received death threats and moved off campus to an undisclosed location until the furor subsided.  On graduation day, the press was present in great numbers, and once the First Ladies (Mrs. Gorbachev accompanied Mrs. Bush and spoke briefly through an interpreter) had finished speaking and were driven away, reporters and camera operators broke frame and stood around, idling and chatting loudly as the students were given their diplomas.

This vicious and distasteful media circus, that worked itself into a frenzy all spring and only expired after Mrs. Bush’s very gracious speech (and the college’s and students’ gracious reception of her), left a lasting impression on me.  Since then, I’ve studied propaganda and the power of limited exposure to facts and events, utilized Snopes to investigate urban legends and gross fabrications on the Web, and watched several seasons of Penn and Teller’s Showtime series Bullshit! which exposes fraud, consumer exploitation, and the creation of new conventional wisdom.

All this introduction is meant to contextualize the place of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics (published 2005) and Superfreakonomics (2009) in my continuing education.  Freakonomics sets the tone for both books as an exercise in curiosity, employing the tools of research and economics to explain human behavior.  (Each book stands alone, however.)  While economics is perhaps one of the fields traditionally distrusted by Liberalism (and indeed, many items of conventional wisdom buoyed by Liberals are sunk by the facts in these books), the principles that inform Levitt’s inquiries are both sound and useful.  The worldview of the his work is described in the following fundamental ideas:

  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.
  • Dramatic events often have distant, even subtle causes.
  • “Experts”—from criminologists to real-estate agents—use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda.
  • Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so.

Levitt (the economist, a professor at the University of Chicago) and Dubner (the writer, a New York-based journalist and author) use the tools of economics to ask questions about human choices and behavior, and seek answers through history, research, experimentation, and interviews of enterprising people engaged in activities ranging from high-end prostitution, to investigating what really happened the night Kitty Genovese was murdered, to inventing simple, effective, inexpensive solutions to devastating hurricanes and global warming.  Some of the issues they tackle in their books include

  • Why cheating to lose is worse than cheating to win
  • What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think
  • Why the 1960s were a great time to be a criminal
  • Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?
  • The various costs of being a woman
  • Why is chemotherapy so widely used when it so rarely works?
  • Robert McNamara’s other career
  • “Big-ass volcanoes” and climate change
  • Monkeys are people too (in which it is revealed that—aw, hell, you have to read it to believe it)

Levitt’s insights and observations are sharp, fascinating, ticklish, and his curiosity is infectious.  Dubner’s writing is ingeniously structured, witty, engaging, and amusing.  They are a successful team, and their books are a revelation in an era in which too many people seem to have too little curiosity or interest in information.  Their stated hope is not only that people will find their brand of inquiry interesting, but will find ways to utilize it themselves.

Reading these books was entertaining and enlightening.  But more than that, I would say that reading these books is necessary.  In the following excerpt, one gets both a taste of their work, and a look at how experts and journalists disseminate information to the reading and listening public:

Consider the recent history of homelessness in the United States.  In the early 1980s, an advocate for the homeless named Mitch Snyder took to saying that there were about 3 million homeless Americans.  The public duly sat up and took notice.  More than 1 of every 100 people were homeless?  That sure seemed high, but … well, the expert said it.  A heretofore quiescent problem was suddenly catapulted into the national consciousness.  Snyder even testified before Congress about the magnitude of the problem.  He also reportedly told a college audience that 45 homeless people die each second—which would mean a whopping 1.4 billion dead homeless every year.  (The U.S. population at the time was about 225 million.)  Assuming that Snyder misspoke or was misquoted and meant to say that one homeless person died every forty-five seconds, that’s still 701,000 dead homeless people every year—roughly one-third of all deaths in the United States.  Hmm.  Ultimately, when Snyder was pressed on his figure of 3 million homeless, he admitted that it was a fabrication.  Journalists had been hounding him for a specific number, he said, and he hadn’t wanted them to walk away empty-handed.

It may be sad but not surprising to learn that experts like Snyder can be self-interested to the point of deceit.  But they cannot deceive on their own.  Journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists.  Every day there are newspaper pages and television newscasts to be filled, and an expert who can deliver a jarring piece of wisdom is always welcome.  Working together, journalists and experts are the architects of much conventional wisdom.

To some people, these books may seem overly skeptical, amoral and cynical, celebrating the baser instincts of human beings and seeing only the negative side of things.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Levitt and Dubner are hopeful, optimistic, and celebrate curiosity, questioning, and fact-finding: things any intelligent person should value.  As Dubner writes in the Explanatory Note of Freakonomics, “Levitt’s underlying belief [is] that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and—if the right questions are asked—is even more intriguing than we think.  All it takes is a new way of looking.”

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Jewish histories seem to have a theme to them.  I remember reading Solomon Grayzel’s History of the Jews and his beautiful introduction in which he states clearly his thesis, that whenever a door was closed on the Jews somewhere in the world, another was opened.

Abba Eban too has a theme in My People—that no matter where the Jewish people found themselves, no matter how well or how ill things were going for them, deep down their spiritual life was still rooted in Eretz Yisrael.  This is not surprising given Eban’s contribution to the founding of the State of Israel and his service in many capacities, including as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador to the US while simultaneously serving as a liaison officer to UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine).  He was a master of the English language (and nine others besides), a fact which becomes clear in this fluid, incisively written history.  It also accounts for the facts he chooses to include in his uncluttered, well-digested narrative.  He stresses the dignity, ethical foundations, flexibility, work ethic, diplomatic skill, and worldwide network of fellow Hebrew-speakers that allowed Jews to move from place to place and re-establish themselves, create successful business ventures, and act as diplomatic and economic liaisons between countries and societies (e.g. European Christians and Arab Muslims).  He also makes clear the Jewish claims to return to the land of Israel and the evolution of Arab attitudes toward this claim, from a willingness to compromise (Palestine only having been in Arab hands for 400 of the past 4000 years of historical record) to a rejection of their former support for a Jewish National Home and insistence on being awarded Palestine to compensate for the lands Britain and France refused to give them after World War I, and an attitude that persists to this day “that sovereignty belonged to Arabs wherever they were and to Jews nowhere at all.”  He also spells out in detail the chipping away of Britain’s post-Balfour promises to the Jews, including “the exclusion of Transjordan from those provisions of the Mandate which referred to the establishment of the Jewish National Home,” the closing off of Palestine to Jewish immigration in the Jews’ greatest hour of need (the Shoah), and its refusal to protect the Jews during Arab riots and massacres, or even to let the Jews protect themselves.

Jewish histories are often hard to read because of the necessary exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in the Holy Land, the expulsions, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and the seeds of the current conflict over Israel’s existence.  To live as a Jew in the 21st century is to study the alternately glorious and horrific past, and to hope tentatively for a glorious, more secure future.  It’s to be told to quit whining over the Shoah, that it never happened, that it wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, or that an even bigger, better one is on the way, so get ready.  Eban writes something about the Shoah that I think describes well how it fits into the modern Jewish psyche:

Jewish history and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust.  No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth.  Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality, a residual distrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall, a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost, all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.

Much has been written about the possibility of creating a single state here, democratic, with Arabs and Jews participating fully in the political process.  I think it is easy to imagine that from a distance.  Doesn’t that happen, and with Christians and others besides, in the US?  Isn’t that happening (albeit with some serious problems) in Europe as we speak?  Why not in the Middle East?  Eban writes of the Jewish and Arab nationalist movements following in the steps of the nationalist movements that created much of the European landscape in the 19th century, and as the Middle East was redrawn following World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire.  Neither the Arabs nor the Jews envisioned the other as full participants in their own society: the Arabs because the Jews would once again be relegated to dhimmi status as infidels (if indeed they were allowed to remain, which is not part of the current Arab Palestinian dream), and the Jews because after living for nearly 2000 years as guests in other countries, being tolerated when they were needed and either expelled or killed when they were not, it was time to return Home, to have a small—but to them significant—piece of land on which to build a state where they were welcome, not tolerated; in which immigration quotas which had spelled the doom of millions in Europe were lifted forever; where they could build a society centered around their language, their religious roots, their history, their ethical values.  Addressing the impression given by Arabs that this land is rightfully Arab, Eban writes, “[T]o be Middle Eastern does not involve being Arab or Moslem.  It is not an offense against the Middle Eastern tradition for a non-Arab and non-Moslem sovereignty to live and flourish in the original home of Hebrew memory and thought.  The question is not whether Israel will change its special nature, but whether the Arabs will come to terms with Israel as it is.”

It sometimes seems, especially from an Israeli vantage point, that the discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict is really a way of voting, populating, or recognizing Israel out of existence.  (All this because open war and terrorism have not succeeded in eradicating it.)  And yet, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on 22 November 1967, made clear that “[w]ithdrawal from occupied territories was made conditional on the establishment of peace, the total abolition of belligerency, and the establishment of secure and recognized boundaries.”   Absenting the conditions laid down—i.e. establishment of peace, cessation of violence, and creation of secure borders—withdrawal is not an expectation.  Nowadays, as then, Israel’s friends and not-so-friendly acquaintances have pushed it to take “risks” for peace (many of which Israel has taken, and gotten bloodshed instead of peace).  Indeed, Eban’s following words could have been written as easily today as decades ago: “[A]dvice tendered to [Israel] from safe distances on how to be secure without resisting Arab assaults was received with robust skepticism.  Popularity was important; but it was more important to be alive than to be popular.  A weakened, vulnerable Israel attracted more affection than a strong and resistant Israel.”

Eban’s telling of the story of the Jews follows their fortunes as they were forged as a people, established themselves in their own land, dealt with the tensions of their location as powers rose up and jockeyed for position around them on all sides, the loss of their land, their sojourns in other countries among other peoples, and their eventual return to their homeland.  Given what the Jewish people endured, achieved, and—uniquely among dispersed peoples—survived, their return to the Land of Israel is a great gift—a miracle, a mitzvah to perform, and a tremendous relief.  Never again to have to depend on the whimsy of governments and hostile majorities, and to be reunited with the land of our birth, are not something the Jews should be expected to give up.  Part way through the War of Independence in 1948, Eban writes, “While Arab armies invaded Palestine, the Security Council met to debate whether a breach of peace had taken place, as the Americans charged.  The Americans demanded sanctions and a cease-fire; Britain opposed.  Arab delegates promised peace only if Israel’s independence were rescinded.  The Israeli answer was brief.  ‘If the Arab states want peace they can have it.  If they want war they can have that too.  But whether they want peace or war, they can only have it with the State of Israel.’”  Later, he states, “Israel would have preferred to flourish in peace with her neighbors.  But she was also capable of flourishing without it.  Behind the shield of strong military defenses, with an eye vigilantly fixed on hostile frontiers, Israel went on with its work.”

The saddest thing about reading history?  One might just as well be reading a newspaper.

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I’ve been a devoted Jane Austen fan since I was 13, when the BBC aired its version of “Pride and Prejudice” on Masterpiece Theatre.  Since then, I have read most of her novels, and seen at least one dramatized form of each of them.  My favorite of her novels (which for me means the one that rivals Pride and Prejudice most closely) is Persuasion; Anne is so passionate, yet so sensible (a rare combination in the Austen world), and all the girls love a sailor.

Over the intervening decades (nearly three) since then, it has been interesting to see the many movies and series that have come out attempting to capture Austenland.  I have not seen every one, but I’ve seen enough, I think, to provide some thoughts and recommendations (or pans, as the case may be) about what has crossed my screen.

Pride and Prejudice

This is the one everyone loves to make, and the jewel in the crown of Jane Austen’s repertoire.  To this day I remain in love with the first “P&P” I saw on television, the 1980 version with Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth and David Rintoul as Darcy.  Garvie is plucky and pretty without being beautiful.  She personifies Lizzie’s vanity and sense of indignity perfectly, and Rintoul is tall, dashing, and although quite wooden in his demeanor, not excessively so for one of his character and social position in the story.  Fay Weldon’s screenplay sticks closely to the novel and does it justice.  Mrs. Bennet is flighty and nervous without being hysterical, very close to Austen’s portrayal of her in the novel.  Lady Catherine is played by the deliciously snooty Judy Parfitt, a natural for the part.  To give this haughty character a sharper edge than even Jane Austen gave her, Fay Weldon gave her an excellent speech.  When she is entertaining Lizzie and the Collinses at Rosings, she asks Lizzie about her family.  “Five children?  And all girls?  What can your mother have been thinking?  If I’d had more than one child, they would all have been boys, and remarkably well-favored!”

A&E’s much better-known 1995 version, starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie, to my mind, came nowhere near the Fay Weldon version for screenplay quality.  This one was written by Andrew Davies, who usually nails English novels for the screen.  (His “Middlemarch” [1995], “Moll Flanders” [1996], and “The Way We Live Now” [2001] are only a few of his screenwriting triumphs.)  Davies missed the mark with this screenplay by repeating salient points in the plot throughout the story, making me as a viewer feel annoyingly patronized.  It’s difficult to describe exactly how he does this, since it’s been some time since I’ve seen the series, and could not bring myself to see it a second time.  I’ll just say that in my opinion, the acting is not an improvement on the 1980 version (Julia Sawalha’s Lydia appears to be on crack and Jennifer Ehle spoke so fast at times I couldn’t understand her—despite the fact that she’s American) and the writing is significantly poorer.

The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the principal roles, also left me cold.  It strayed from the story more than the others, Knightley was more giggly than I thought Lizzie should be, Macfadyen’s haircut for the film was the worst, most distracting clip job I’ve ever seen, and while Donald Sutherland did a creditable job as Mr. Bennet, it was very strange to see him in a role as an England country gentleman.  This version also, I felt, patronized the viewer by making Lizzie have a great epiphany at the end, and shout, “I misjudged him!”  The writing in this film did not lead me to that same conclusion at the time, and I found it overall to be awkward and unpersuasive.  While I recognize that its portrayal of Mrs. Bennet (played beautifully by Brenda Blethyn) is more sympathetic than I think Austen intended, I appreciated her being given the line, when Lizzie asks why she can’t think about anything but marrying off her daughters, “You have five unmarried daughters and see what else you can find to think about!”  However, I have one thing to praise in this movie, and it is not a small thing: the buildings look worn, the grounds muddy, and the characters truly unwashed.  While my favorite is still the 1980 version, the characters in that one look as clean and scrubbed, and the sets all as clean as in a soap opera.  Not so realistic, methinks.

As for the other versions, including the 2003 “Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy” (is it about Mormons?), and all the TV series made in the 1950s and 1960s, I haven’t seen them.  I was forced once to watch the version made in 1940, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, and written by none other than Aldous Huxley.  The costumes, following the success of 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” no doubt, were American ante-bellum style rather than Empire; the actresses shrieked their lines rather than spoke them and acted more like hens running around a barnyard than Englishwomen in the early 19th century; and the very un-Austenian plot twist, where Lady Catherine actually schemes to ensure that Lizzie and Darcy marry was unforgivable.  I do not recommend this version.

Sense and Sensibility

This is my least favorite novel and I have to admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I began it but never finished it.  This may in part have been because my first experience of it was seeing Emma Thompson’s award-winning version in 1995, with her and Kate Winslet as the sisters Elinor and Marianne.  I liked the casting of this film, with Hugh Grant as a beautifully awkward Edward Ferrars, Alan Rickman as an older, but still smoldering, Colonel Brandon, and Greg Wise as the lively but seriously shady Willoughby.  Emma Thompson was 10 years too old to play Elinor, but I forgave her for that because of her great performance.

This made me dubious about how I would feel at watching the newer (2008) version with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as the sisters.  I ended up loving it.  Andrew Davies came through beautifully on the screenplay, and while I found the Colonel Brandon completely unappealing (which may be how Austen preferred him to be, actually) and Dominic Cooper too much of a boy to be the rake that Willoughby turned out to be, the two principal actresses were magnificent, and I may prefer Hattie Morahan’s Elinor to Thompson’s after all.  The locations were beautiful and the other performances steady (though I couldn’t help thinking that the Edward looked more like a lumberjack from Colorado than an heir to an English family fortune).  As of now, I think I like both versions equally, though if I want to see the whole story in one sitting, I need to go back to the Emma Thompson version; the Davies must be watched in two or three sittings.


I have seen three versions of this.  Despite its popularity, I do not care for the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version.  I found her Emma to be pretty and vain, a creditable performance if a little overacted.  I adore Jeremy Northam and found his Mr. Knightley adequate.  But something about the whole movie bothered me.  Perhaps it was the lighting, which was inexplicably dark, obscuring the actors’ faces during scenes of intense conversation.  Perhaps it was the casting of familiar faces (Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Jeremy Northam) who frequently appear in British costume dramas.  Or perhaps I’d just seen too much of Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, and was tired of her (just as I grew tired of Julia Roberts when she made six movies in two years in the early 1990s.)

I welcomed the other version of “Emma,” released the same year but eclipsed by the glitz and marketing of the Paltrow version.  This quieter version starred Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the principal roles.  The other names were less well-known, and Andrew Davies’s writing satisfying.

But I have a new favorite.  My mother-in-law, who snaps up anything Austen for me when she sees it, gave me the newest (2009) version starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller.  Garai was also in “Atonement” and Kenneth Branagh’s awful, awful “As You Like It.”  She also had a bit part in “Amazing Grace,” which I watched primarily for another glimpse of Ioan Gruffudd.  I was unsure what to expect: another “Emma”?  The series was written by Sandy Welch, whose “Jane Eyre” and “North and South” I loved.  Jonny Lee Miller conveys intelligence, warmth, ruggedness, and noblesse oblige as Mr. Knightley.  (He is one of my new favorite actors.)  Michael Gambon plays her wonderfully doddering and nervous father, to whom she and Mr. Knightley are given time to show their devotion in this version.  And Garai’s Emma is marvelous.  Pretty and vain, like Paltrow, she appears more nuanced in this version (a credit both to her acting and to Welch’s writing).  The more leisurely pace of this series over the Paltrow film also allows for much more development of character and subtlety of relationships.  While I love Toni Collette’s acting, she played Harriet as stupid compared to Louise Dylan’s innocent, indecisive Harriet.  Where the Paltrow version overall felt like a sledge hammer, this was a fine, well-balanced chef’s knife.  Writing this review, I’m tempted to go back and watch it again tonight.  Man, it was good.


I have only seen one version of this novel on film.  The mid-1990s saw a flurry of Austen novels made into films.  This one in 1995 starred Amanda Root, best known at the time for her Shakespeare roles, and Ciaran Hinds as Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth, respectively.  The writing by Nick Dear was beautiful, and the performances by actors well-known (Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, and Fiona Shaw) and lesser-known superb.  Root and Hinds have plainer faces than viewers, especially American ones, are used to seeing.  But the Irish Hinds is dashing nonetheless, and Root is made up and coiffed prettier as the story goes on, reflecting the re-warming of her relationship with Wentworth, whom she was pressured to refuse nine years earlier.  I love Anne’s character for its steadiness despite being surrounded by a flaky, dandified father and a snooty, bitchy elder sister.  Except for outbursts of reason, she seems to blend into the woodwork for much of the novel, until the end where she not only surprises and upsets others, but is assured of getting exactly what she wants and living happily ever after.  (I don’t think that’s giving the end of an Austen novel away too much, is it?)

Mansfield Park

I first saw the 1983 version many years ago.  It starred Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny and Nicholas Farrell (of “Chariots of Fire” fame) as Edmund.  I don’t remember much of the 6-episode series except that the story was not my favorite, and it seemed somehow washed-out, uninspired.  I think the BBC had a period in the past of being a factory for transferring novels and plays to film.  As an English major, I saw many Shakespeare plays on film a la BBC and found them serviceable but very much of a uniform style and stamp.  Without recalling much more detail, this is how I felt about the first version of “Mansfield Park” I saw.

I was never entirely satisfied to leave Mansfield Park in that unelevated state in my mind.  A colleague of mine in my teaching days was a great fan of Jane Austen, and Mansfield Park was his favorite of her novels.  I decided to give it another try.

I was pleased to see it had been remade in 1999, with Frances O’Connor (whose title role in the 2000 “Madame Bovary” I thought excellent) as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller (see glowing praise above for “Emma”) as Edmund.  The characters in this version had more depth, the mystery in the house was darker, and the danger to Fanny more palpable.  For me, this film redeemed the story.

Northanger Abbey

If the 1990s were the decade of dramatizing all of Jane Austen’s novels, it seems the 2000s are remaking all of them.  Northanger Abbey is a smaller-scale novel than most of the others, with fewer characters, less adult involvement, and a much less clever heroine.  The BBC came out with its stock version decades ago, but there is a new one made in 2007 that I found quite good when I saw it recently.  Catherine, while not the sharpest tool in the shed, has a clear moral compass, and was acted well by Felicity Jones.  The other actors are (to Americans, at least) unfamiliar.  (Sylvestra Le Touzel is back, playing the older Austen generation now.)

There are a few subjects on which I’m a DVD junkie: English novels, Elizabeth I, and anything by Mike Leigh.  As long as they keep makin’ ’em, I’ll keep watchin’ ’em.

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This is the final post in a series of four in which I pose a question I’ve had about Arab culture and the Arab world for some time, and the information I was able to glean from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, which I finished reading recently.

What challenges must the Arab world overcome to live at peace and improve their quality of life and standing in the world?

The Arab Mind offers the viewpoints of many Arab critics regarding the steps necessary to overcome the Arab world’s backwardness of the past many hundreds of years.  The theme that keeps recurring—and this will not fall lightly on the ears of traditional or Islamist Arabs or their politically correct leftist friends in the West—is that of emulating Israel.  How can it be that Israel—the greatest enemy of the Arab world—their whipping boy—the country they love to hate—has the answers to their stagnation woes?

On a linguistic level, Patai points out the development of ancient Hebrew to the much more grammatically precise modern form of the language.  He claims that this same development is necessary to Arabic if it is to function as a clear mode of communication with those outside the Arab world, to “become more factual, rid itself of its traditional rhetoricism, its exaggeration and overassertion, and transform its perfect and imperfect verb forms into semantic equivalents of the past and future tenses respectively of Standard Average European.”

Socially speaking, according to Patai and some other Arab critics he cites, the position of women in Arab society needs to be improved.  Female infant mortality rates, in contrast to that in non-Arab nations, is higher than that for males.  Patai posits that factors contributing to this may include poorer care of girls as a result of the disappointment that accompanies their birth (since boys are favored markedly in Arab society), the continued practice in some places of clitoridectormy and its accompanying risk of infection and complications, and the high birth rate of Arab women, increasing the chance of death in childbirth (to 30 times higher than that of Western women).  Education of girls, and access to work for women are also factors that need to be addressed.  Even some Arab men have recognized that the continued physical, psychological, and educational impoverishment of women is unacceptable.  Patai quotes Arab author Jurj Tarabishi as saying “that while people are wont to say that there are 100 million Arabs, this is wrong, for in fact there are only 50 million since the women are prevented from taking part in social responsibilities.”  Patai himself writes that “as long as the mental faculties of the mother are hemmed in, encysted, and stunted by the illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition in which she is kept by the male-centered ethos of Arab culture, she will go on instilling into the minds of her sons and daughters the very same character traits, values, concepts, and ideals that have been so bitterly excoriated by Arab critics of the Arab personality…”  Colonel DeAtkine, who penned the foreward to the book, writes, “There is no doubt that the cultural bondage in which women are held is one of the main causes of the stagnation of Arab society.”  From his experience in Iraq, DeAtkine concludes that, “[f]ar more sensible and realistic than the men, [Arab women] are the key to cultural and political change in their world.”

Another area in which Patai and others observe that Arab society must improve is in the embrace of democracy, with its tenets of freedom including free speech and press, and the rule of law.   Patai writes, “In an address in Kuwait, [Abdul Rahman Salim al-Atiqi, former Kuwaiti minister of finance and subsequently adviser to the Amir of Kuwait] deplored the ‘constant oppression’ in the Arab countries, and ‘regretfully’ noted that, by contrast, the Israelis enjoy freedom of opinion to the extent of being able to criticize their own leader.” Patai also records that “The correspondent of The New York Times in Kuwait, who reported the above speech, noted that it was remarkable ‘how many people, not only intellectuals, but mainstream government bureaucrats, say openly that the reason Israel keeps defeating the Arabs is not that the Arabs don’t have the resources but that their societies are not organized along democratic lines like Israel’s.  Israel’s secret weapon, they say, is the strength that comes out of democratic action.’”  While Israelis have been disgusted and discouraged over so many of their public figures and leaders in government being hauled into court in handcuffs for charges of corruption, graft, and even rape, many Arabs have watched the circus with envy and admiration for the Israelis’ system of justice which holds their leaders to account for their misdeeds.  Israel’s freedom of the press is also not lost on our Arab neighbors.  Khaled Abu Toameh, who writes for the Jerusalem Post, has commented that he has never once been told what to write by the Post’s editor, whereas journalists’ work is heavily monitored and censored by Hamas and the PA in Arab-occupied territory.

Scores of Arab critics of Arab society and culture have grudgingly admitted that for the Arab world to succeed in the modern world, it must learn from the Jews.  One such critic, Dr. Salah al-Din al-Munajjid, in a book analyzing the reasons for the Israelis’ defeat of the Arabs in the Six Day War, writes that “‘[t]he Jews adhere to reality, study it in an objective, scientific manner, and act to adapt themselves to reality or to adapt reality to themselves.  But we cling to fantasy, delusions delight us, and we passionately love to talk; but soon, how painfully and bitterly reality hits us in the face!’”

Observers of European history note that with the advent of the Renaissance, the embrace of science, and the humanistic writings of John Locke and others like him, religion was slowly fractured, and eventually eroded.  While religion has not been eradicated, it has been weakened to the point that it no longer exercises nearly the influence it once did over government or human behavior.  While many modern Arabs have relaxed the hold Islam has over them, most Muslim Arabs remain dedicated to the beliefs and practices of Islam.  For them, the challenge lies in finding a way to balance their cultural and religious identity with the skills and knowledge necessary to take their place in the modern world.

As a personal observation, I have heard many in the Western world voice the opinion that Arabs are not ready for democracy, and are unsuited to it culturally.  Such people regarded George W. Bush’s military engagements in Iraq as wasteful, futile, and motivated by unbecoming evangelical zeal.  Its prosecution is worthy of scrutiny and sharp criticism, but I wonder if the attempt to spread democracy is really such an evil.  Throughout the Arab world the level of poverty, ignorance, and isolation from the outside world is perpetuated among the poorer classes, while the oil-rich enjoy all that the modern world has to offer.  The ruling class blames the West for its own failure to provide a life for its people, and the people, unaware of the true cause of their isolation and poverty (and culturally inclined to believe what their fellow Arabs tell them) take the bait.  Those among the wealthy and (sometimes Western-) educated sector of society (e.g. the 9/11 bombers) blame the West for their feeling of ambivalence in Arab society, i.e. their elevated status and disengagement from the poor populace, but their inability to truly “fit in” with the Western society they have learned so much about.  Jihadist Islam provides a violent, cathartic outlet for the rage this ambivalence sometimes engenders.  To perpetuate the ignorance of the majority of the Arab population is to encourage the continued sense of alienation of the more educated in that society.  The freedoms brought by democracy can be learned, just as they were by the colonists in America who knew them only from books of philosophy, but had never before experienced them.  It is true that the societal norm in most Arab countries is marked by traditional values, strict separation of the sexes, where men have access to little education and women almost none, and where a culturally seeded fatalism preserves the status quo.  But if that norm were to change, and opportunities for education and self-determination were to increase, then the demonstrations we have seen in Iran against their leadership, the joy of the Iraqis in tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein, and the fear and resentment of the Lebanese at being taken over by Hizbullah could be transformed into the kind of society the Arabs themselves admit to wishing for, where their leaders are held accountable for their crimes, where the press is free to print what it wants, even if it is not flattering to the government, and people are free to take to the streets without fear of being shot or beaten to death by the government’s thugs-for-hire.

This discussion of Raphael Patai’s book by no means acts as a thorough review of the book.  There are dozens of other topics he discusses in detail, providing historical examples and the views of a range of Arab apologists and critics.  For its sweeping examination of Arab culture and attitudes, and a window on why the Arabs have, as a group, chosen to adopt certain attitudes and behaviors toward each other, Israel, and the West, I found it invaluable.  For its value to soldiers serving in the Middle East, Colonel DeAtkine praises it as a “field tested” book.  He writes, “My former students, who were officers engaged on a daily basis with the Iraqis, found their cultural instruction to be invaluable and related to me many examples of Iraqi cultural traits described by Patai.  The instruction helped them work with Arab leaders and better understand their ambivalence, methods of conflict resolution, sensitivities to loss of face, proclivities to excessive rhetoric and habit of substituting words for action, disinclination to accept responsibility as well as their traits of hospitality and generosity.  These officers conducted thousands of successful meetings, settling disputes and averting crisis situations at village, tribal, and urban neighborhood levels—all of this unreported by the Western media.  Such successes are, apparently, not sufficiently dramatic to garner media attention.  Nevertheless, in the long run these positive incidents will have lasting influence on the people with whom they dealt, and will pay dividends long after this conflict has ended.”

This does not mean that Patai, while possessing a firm grasp of trends in Arab society and psychology, could anticipate every twist and turn history would make.  When he wrote his last edition of this book, he saw slow progress in the Arab world, encouraged by small changes in education of women, in the example of Kuwait’s use of its oil money to create a successful welfare state (in the best sense of the word), and in the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.  He apparently did not sense the undercurrents of hatred which have stirred those with extreme interpretations of Islam into a worldwide network of jihadist Islamic terrorists.  That the defeat in 1967 (and again, if you look at the big picture, in 1973) should be the last open war declared against Israel, and that the struggle against both the Jewish State and the West should assume a new form with snipers shooting at motorists, suicide bombers, and Western-educated middle-class men flying planes into skyscrapers, clearly did not suggest itself to him.  But perhaps like many Westerners, he was unable to connect the dots between attacks on the West by Arabs and see not the isolated actions of a few disturbed individuals, but a trend which was escalating over time in both scale and sophistication.  Or perhaps as a passionate scholar of the Arabs, he chose not to see it.  (He died in 1996.)  Yet despite its limitations, I think this book is an excellent starting-point for those who wish to understand the Arab world better.

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This is part III in a series of four.  Each post contains a question I’ve had about Arab culture and the Arab world for some time, and the information I was able to glean from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, which I finished reading recently.

Why can’t we in the West resolve our differences with the Arab/Muslim world simply by talking?  Why will Obama fail in his rapprochement to the Arab world?  And why is he a poor mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Arabs have a strong code of honor that they believe has been violated by the West.  Whether it’s the West’s ultimate triumph over the Arab Muslims who successfully conquered the Middle East and North Africa, the arbitrary creation of Arab states in the Middle East following the First World War with governments that suited the Europeans, Israel’s foundation, or the long period of stagnation in the Arab world for which Arabs blame the West, an Arab’s sense of lost honor can usually only be restored by violence.  The blood feud is still alive and well in the Arab world, and while it does not often lead to large-scale bloodshed, there is a belief that there are circumstances in which only killing can restore lost honor.  One circumstance is the rivalry between two principal tribes in a given region which periodically breaks out in violence.  Another is when a woman or girl is suspected of having violated the strict sexual mores of Arab society, and hence brought dishonor on the men in her family.  In these situations, it is up to her father and brothers to kill her, and then her paramour (to retaliate for the loss of a member of their family).

It is important to understand this sense of shame and the actions needed to overcome it in order to begin to understand the diplomatic decisions made by Arab nations and their leaders.  Patai notes that “[i]n every conflict those involved tend to feel that their honor is at stake, and that to give in, even as little as an inch, would diminish their self-respect and dignity.  Even to take the first step toward ending a conflict would be regarded as a sign of weakness which, in turn, would greatly damage one’s honor.  Hence, it is almost impossible for an Arab to come to an agreement in direct confrontation with an opponent.  Given the Arab tradition of invective and proclivity to boasting and verbal exaggeration, any face-to-face encounter between two adversaries is likely to aggravate the dispute rather than constitute a step toward its settlement.”  In one marked exception to this, Patai explains Egypt’s willingness to make peace with Israel by describing the positive effect on Egyptian society of Egypt’s strong showing on the first day and a half of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  While they were ultimately beaten and seriously threatened by a successful Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal by the end of the war, the fact that the Egyptians crossed the Suez in the early days of the war and penetrated the Sinai, threatening the Israelis’ weak defenses there, restored in Egyptian minds their sense of honor that had been robbed of them by serial defeats by Israel up to that point.  (To this day, Egyptian schoolchildren are taught that the war in 1973 was a great military victory over Israel.)  This tipping of the balance of honor back in their favor put the Egyptians in a position where they could feel more magnanimous than humiliated, and could open the necessary channels to negotiate a peace with Israel.

Mediation is something Arabs are open to, but this requires not only a feeling of parity with their enemy, as described above, but also a mediator qualified for the job.  Patai describes a trusted mediator thus: “It goes without saying that the mediator must be a person whose impartiality is beyond question, and this means that he must not be more closely related to one side in the dispute than to the other.  He also must enjoy such a high status that neither of the two disputants can in any way exert pressure on him.  Preferably, he should also be a wealthy man, so as to preclude any suspicion of being accessible to bribery.  In sum, the ideal mediator is a man who is in a position, because of his personality, status, respect, wealth, influence, and so on to created in the litigants the desire to conform with his wishes.”  One other quality, which Patai says is present in mediators among the Kabyles (Algerian Berbers) is that of trying “to find fault with the party from whom pardon is being sought, so that a balance can be established and the supplicating party avoid complete humiliation.”  This, I think, is one of the most important qualities a mediator can have, since creating a sense of equality between the litigants has shown itself so crucial, as in that of the Egyptians prior to their peace treaty with Israel.

Obama is not an ideal mediator according to this formula.  As the leader of the free world, he possesses unquestionable status, and bribery is unlikely to be a threat to negotiations done through him.  As the son of a Muslim, and a Westerner, he is both related and not related to the parties.  And he has done much to distance himself from the Israelis, which seems intended to make him more trustworthy to the Arabs.  But he still appears biased to both sides: to the Arabs for his anticipated continued military support for Israel, and to Israelis for not making any demands on the Arabs to relinquish their commitment to destroy Israel, to prepare themselves domestically for peace, and to renounce terror to “build trust” with the Jews.

For many reasons (some already addressed in the earlier posts) Arabs do not trust Westerners, and if the choice is between forfeiting their honor by making peace with and via Westerners, or continuing to fight through their Arab/Muslim alliances forever, they will choose the latter.  PA President Mahmoud Abbass has run from US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit back to the Arab League to get their approval to continue negotiations.  This shows that the real movers and shakers who will (or won’t) give the green light to an Arab-Israeli peace process are not the Americans, but Abbass’s fellow Arabs.  Similarly, Obama’s attempt to woo Syria (evidenced by his sending John Kerry to Damascus and reopening diplomatic relations with hereditary President Bashar Assad) in an effort to lure it from the influence of Iran has already failed.  No sooner did Kerry return to the US than Assad announced that Syria is and always will be a staunch ally (read: client state) of Iran.

One additional point that I  think is worth noting is the difference in style of communication between Westerners and Arabs.  (Without a familiarity with this discrepancy, successful negotiations are unlikely.)  Patai goes into great detail about some of the vagaries of the Arabic language that contribute to Westerners’ sense of Arabic statements as verbal bluster.  He also quotes Arabist Edwin T. Prothro, who suggests that “persons interested in presenting the Arab point of view to Americans and the American point of view to Arabs … ‘should keep in mind that statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions.  Statements which Arabs view as showing firmness and strength on a negative or positive issue may sound to Americans as exaggerated.’”  The opposite is also the case: “a statement which seems to be a firm assertion to the Americans may sound weak and even doubtful to the Arabs who read it.  If communications are to take place between peoples of different cultures, then attention must be given not only to problems of language codification but also to problems of culture and cognition.”

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This is part II in a series of four.  Each post contains a question I’ve had about Arab culture and the Arab world for some time, and the information I was able to glean from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, which I finished reading recently.

Why does the Arab world nourish such an obsessive hatred of Israel?

There seem to be several interesting paradoxes alive in the Arab world.  One of them is the tendency to view the West’s technological edge as both ruthlessly imposed and selfishly withheld, as mentioned above.  Another is a fatalistic attitude imposed by Islam on the Muslim Arab.  Where Islam demands that the faithful accept their lot as determined by Allah, good or bad, and any attempt to change that fate set by Allah comes with a punishment, on the other hand, there is a tendency to blame forces outside themselves for their misfortunes.  So while Israel has been a thorn in the side of Arabs for as long as the Jews have been here in any significant numbers (beginning in the 1880s—sixty years before the founding of the State), and Israel’s presence and victories over the Arabs could well be interpreted as the will of Allah, Arabs nonetheless also embrace the custom of revenge and blood feud, and as long as they believe they have been dishonored and humiliated in the eyes of the world, they will pursue vengeance.

First by coming into existence, by threatening what the Arabs viewed as their rightful sovereignty over this land (debate on this subject will be suspended for this post), and ultimately by beating them on the battlefield, Israel has inflicted a wound to the Arabs’ honor, and “blackened” their faces, in their own terminology.  Believing that that honor must be recovered, Arabs have (in general) refused to negotiate or even open channels of direct communication with Israel.  When, at the conclusion of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel attempted to return the lands conquered to their former occupying powers (Syria, Jordan, Egypt) in exchange for peace, the response from the Arab world at the Khartoum Conference was the “Three No’s”: no recognition, no negotiation, no peace.  To suffer a crushing defeat as these nations just had, and to turn around and grant the Jewish State the same honor they themselves possessed by their mutual recognition in order to recover their land would, in their minds, only have compounded their sense of humiliation.  Patai writes that “there is no greater shame than defeat by an enemy, and especially an enemy such as Israel, the Jews, who ever since the days of Muhammad have been looked down upon by the Arabs as dhimmis, a people brought low and subjected as well as protected by Islam.  If it is Allah’s will that the Arabs be defeated by such an enemy, or any enemy, it is up to them to plan patiently for the revenge which alone can restore their honor, even if they have to wait for it for years, or if need be, decades.  When the attainment of such a supreme value is the goal, the pressure to achieve it mounts until it is strong enough to overcome the threat-inaction pattern.”

This observation by Patai raises another important point.  It should be noted that Arabs are often prone to exaggerated statements and substituting words for actions.  (This tendency may account for the unwillingness of Westerners ever to take Arab threats seriously.)  While Patai describes the psychological value of these verbal habits, he does note that there are exceptions, when violent words may well be followed by violent deeds, and that should not be ignored.  Since “[d]efeat and domination by an adversary who had been weaker than the Muslim armed might are thus more painful to the Arabs than for nations who throughout their historical contacts with the West have always experienced it as superior in military power.”  The fragmentation and fall of Muslim domination in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East at the hands of the Ottomans and Europeans saddled them with a sense of shame at their economic, intellectual, and cultural impoverishment compared with the West.  So while in personal encounters and even some contacts between national leaders and the press, there can be dramatic or violent threats made which never come to execution, on a pan-Arab level, in conflict with Israel and the West, most threats from shame-faced, angry Arabs may not be immediately forthcoming, but they can be assured to be genuine.

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I recently finished a book entitled The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai.  Originally published in 1976, it was revised in 1983, and re-published in 2002 (after the terrorist assault on the United States on 11 September 2001).  The book includes a valuable foreward by Norvell B. DeAtkine, a retired US Army colonel who possesses a graduate degree in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut, served for 8 years in the Middle East, taught for 18 years at the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and is now an independent Middle East consultant.  DeAtkine offers a glowing assessment of the value of this book to Westerners working and serving in the armed forces in the Middle East.  While it took me some time to get through the book in its entirety (it is at times a bit dry and academic), its thoroughness in exploring every aspect of Arab culture and society, from the sense of honor to the Arabic language to the love of conferences and summits gave me a better understanding of the people I’m surrounded by where I live in Yehudah.  Patai’s examination of trends in Arab thinking and society stem both from the point of view of a Western Arabist who was welcomed into that society by Arab friends, and from the point of view of Arab defenders and critics of Arab customs.

I am by no means an Arabist myself after reading this one book.  But I discovered answers to many questions I have had about Arabs, and have a better grasp of why American foreign policy under Barack Obama is doomed to failure.  Over the next few days, I will be presenting some of my questions (not all; that would be the book itself) and the information gleaned from Patai’s book that I think helps to answer them.

As the West catapults forward in the progress of science, medicine, technology, and every other field, why does the Arab world seem to recede into the past?

Where Westerners value innovation and are constantly trying to make things smaller, more powerful, faster, and cheaper, Arabs value what is ancient over what is modern—and the older the better.  Patai states that “in a culture in which traditionalism is pronounced, change and innovation in every area of culture are inhibited.  Moreover, in such a culture, the greater the antiquity of a feature, the greater its traditional value, and, hence, the greater the resistance to changing it.”  There has been an attitude of incuriosity in the Arab world for some time to the progress the West has embarked on in the last almost 500 years.  When Arab author Omar A. Farrukh set out to write his book The Arab Genius in Science and Philosophy, he intended to extol the Arab contribution to theology, mathematics, natural sciences, and philosophy.  However, “none of the outstanding Arab scientists and philosophers he discusses lived later than the fourteenth century.”

Arabs have also not shown themselves culturally inclined to embrace manual labor the way Westerners do.  The notion of a homeowner proudly fixing his own lawnmower (or using it, even) is foreign to Arab culture, where getting one’s hands dirty is not something to be desired or praised.  This has also resulted in a resistance to some of the industrialization (though not all) that the West has undergone in the last 150 years or so.

Perhaps the most important thing that contributes to stagnation of contemporary Arab society is the debate—internal and external—concerning Western knowledge and technology.  Some Arabs choose to see these innovations as evil and imposed on Arab society without Arab approval, while other Arabs burn with resentment that these valuable tools of modernization are being kept from them by self-interested Westerners who desire to humiliate the Arab world.  Whichever point of view an Arab adopts regarding Western knowledge, many Arabs are concerned about the impact of that information and influence on their traditional culture which does not lend itself to such forces of innovation.  While there are some in the Arab world who would like to perpetuate the maintenance and worship of the old over the new, the unavoidable example of (mostly hated) Israel cannot but represent a reproach to many Arab critics of Arab society.  Patai notes that “there is indeed a strong desire among thoughtful Arabs to introduce far-reaching changes into the traditional texture of their society, and to reshape the Arab man in a new mold.  They also show that the enemy, Israel, is being considered by many highly articulate spokesmen as the exemplar which the Arabs must emulate, primarily in order to be able to defeat Israel, but also in order to become progressive, to advance themselves, and to occupy a place of honor in the modern world.”

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