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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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