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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