The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender

Incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”

 

 

 

 

Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.

 

10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III Our Boys: MetaEthics – A Review [Chol NaMo-eid Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26]

In this blog, I will discuss some of the ethical issues raised in the series Our Boys under the following headings:

Metaethical Issues:

Selection

Theme: terrorism versus hate crime – racism

Equality: moral superiority and self-righteousness

Viewing God and Goodness

In the last blog in this series on Our Boys, I will probe the following ethical issues:

Ethical Issues (in Part IV):

Representation

Proportionality

Punishment

Responsibility

I intended to raise the issue of selection in Part I of this series of blogs on Our Boys, to discuss “The Boys” rather than just Our Boys, but decided to confine the discussion of ethics to a separate blog. However, I forgot my original intention and in a typical Freudian slip ended up sometimes mistakenly calling the series, The Boys.

The ethical issue at one level is fairly straightforward. How we interpret history, agency, choice and individual responsibility depends, in good part, on how we tell our stories. What is at stake here is a very thin slice of history that focuses very much on individual actions rather than historical patterns or structures. This slim historical event is then represented through a docudrama with its own limitations and biases. Inherently, there will be an implication from a piece of micro-history about larger events, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the development of systems of justice or just war theory, to name but a few. Such an examination will touch on human nature and the extent to which it is sociologically determined, but will not deal with issues, such as whether history has a direction, that is, whether there might be progress. At that level, a specifically focused representation is most likely to be indifferent to such larger issues or adopt an agnostic approach. Scale selection has its own built-in biases.

However, the issue of selection – and, therefore, bias – comes up in the specific slice of history represented. The murder of a sixteen-year-old Arab teenager began with grainy material from another crime, the murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers. Excluded was the issue of teenagers killed in the Gaza War before any of these murders. In Part I, I focused on two deaths and alluded to a few others in May of 2014 after the U.S. mediated peace talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority imploded in April, and, therefore, to some degree between Hamas and Israel. In Operation Brother’s Keeper, the search for the missing Israeli teenagers for 18 days in June of 2014, six Palestinians were killed, none of them minors, but almost 300 minors were detained. In the 50-day summer war with Gaza that followed finding the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers, of the estimated over 2,000 killed, 490 minors in Gaza died while Israel lost 64 soldiers and six civilians, one of them a four-year-old boy.

Why focus then on one 16-year-old Palestinian teenager killed by three religious Israelis? The explanation is that the focus was on a horrendous hate crime rather than terrorism or war, and, further, one committed by Jews rather than rabid anti-Semites or anti-Israelis. Further, it was a crime of ostensible vengeance, though the target had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of the three Israeli teenagers. The suggestion of the series is that, while revenge was an immediate motive, the deeper factor was the denigration of Palestinians, particularly by some West Bank Jewish zealots.

Thus, the choice of the story has significance in the message contained in the tale. The reference in the series is to “our boys,” both our three boys who were murdered and the three Jewish Israelis, two of them just boys, who were murderers. Though a Palestinian teenager was killed, the TV series is about our Jewish boys. For as Jews, we must take immediate responsibility for both victims and murderers who are Jewish. Thus, the entire Jewish population of Israel during the eighteen days of the search became mesmerized and focused on the abduction of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. When the bodies of the three sixteen-year-olds were found, virtually all Jewish Israelis as well as Jews around the world felt immense grief.

When it came to the Arab teenagers killed by Israeli troops in the military exchanges with Gazans prior to the murders, any possible teenagers killed during Operation Brother’s Keeper in the 18-day search for the abducted boys, and more Palestinian teenagers killed in the 50-day war, Operation Protective Edge, that followed, our “Jewish” responsibility is moved to an outer tier. Thus, the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdier that initiates the series is a matter of Jewish collective guilt and responsibility and the effects on the Palestinian family, and, to a minor degree, the Palestinian community, one step removed.

The focus on the three Israeli murderers rather than the three victims is viewed by some Jews as a travesty. Those murderers are then generally depicted as “crazed,” thereby excluding them from the “normal” Jewish body politique and placing them outside the norms of the Jewish community. There is, indeed, a selection bias. It is inherent in any document or documentary or docudrama. It cannot be avoided. But it does suggest, even if absolutely unintended, priorities.

Further, rather than simply unconcern for the three Jewish victims, implicit in the alternative focus on the murderers, particularly the two teenagers, there is the danger of a possible presumption of moral superiority. Jews don’t arbitrarily murder innocent victims. Arabs presumably do. Therefore, when Jewish boys actually do commit an atrocity of this type, it demands attention, not particularly to deter such crimes in the future, but to understand how those Jews lost their moral compass. Thus, the propensity of the narrative, again almost certainly not intended, will be to reinforce a sense of self-righteousness. The greatest significance of this series, in my mind, is that this pitfall is very largely avoided.

One critic expressed his outrage at the series precisely because it was not self-righteous in its choice of subject matter. “What makes us different in a world of violence and extremism is that we do not glorify terrorism, nor do we respond to it with joyous celebration and the distribution of sweets to children. Jews who commit acts of terrorism are not rewarded with lifelong stipends for themselves and their families nor do they have schools and public places named after them in their honor. They are punished by law, as were the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.” (Rabbi Benjamin Blech)

However, the role of religion, in particular, Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, did play an important role in the interpretation by the makers of the film. This is not only because the killers were Orthodox youth, but the moral understanding of those boys which emerged in the trial and derived from their yeshiva studies, gave the youngest of the boys, Avishay Elbaz (played by Adam Gabay), an ethical rationale. The intention is revealed in the action. “But,” Avishay protested, “I called out not to kill him.” But the prosecutor countered, “You held his arms down. You helped in the killing. You did not try to actually stop it.”

Another angle of insight was the inner conflict of Rabbi Shalom Ben-David (played by Yaacov Cohen), who headed the yeshiva where the boys studied. He was also the father of the uncle who instigated the act and the grandfather of the two boys. On the one hand, he wanted those individuals to own up to their respective responsibilities, particularly his own son. On the other hand, he was strongly driven to seek protection for his son and grandsons and rationalize their crime. The tension between these two polar positions also affected his shift over time from defensiveness to an ethics of responsibility.

The rabbi is not only a father and grandfather, but a moral leader. He lives as if he were Moses asking God to show him the way of righteousness so he can properly lead and, thereby, make Jews a light unto the nations – hence the inherent search for rather than assertion of moral superiority. (The two should not be confused.)  And God answers, as He did to Moses, “I will make All my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” But, He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)

One of the shattering moments in the series comes when the rabbi visits his son in prison and asks him to take full responsibility for what he did and not hide behind a mask of insanity, a choice that would benefit the court’s treatment of his two grandchildren. His son does not own up to what he did. The rabbi turns his back on his own son and walks out. It is as if God suddenly hid His face and would never more be seen by that son.

The dilemma is how do we see goodness? How do we transmit what we see? The answer in the tale is clear – we do so when we do not stereotype the other, when we respect the other, when we identify with the pain of the other and when we do not get so caught up in our own pain that we disregard the help we can give to the other We certainly do not engage in murder of the other, even when at war with them.

The rabbi who headed the yeshiva at Har Not clearly tried to hide his face from God, clearly tried at first to avoid his own duties and acknowledgement of his own responsibility for what happened, but he shifts and changes, not because he sees God, but because he stares evil in the face of his own son. We only see goodness pass us by when we stare directly at evil. We must not look away.

But what of the depiction of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness”? (Exodus 34:6) Man cannot see that God. Humans can only act by serving those very values of God. And the rabbi eventually does, even though the iniquity of fathers will be visited upon their children. (Exodus 34:7)

Where is that best done? Not simply in a psychological-sociological meeting of a son with his father and a father with his son, but in a court of law where the granting of grace and of punishment is left in the hands of a judge who must balance punishment with grace, and withhold any emotional approach to the case.

However, that is harder to do than it sounds. For the psychiatrist confronts Simon, the composite investigator (played by Shlomo Elkabetz) who comes across as the epitome of both detachment and determination, a jaded sensibility but also judiciousness. He is, in turn, justly accused by the psychiatrist of betraying, not only a promise to her, but of tricking the youngest boy into confessing by seemingly extending to him his full compassion.

This shabat portion comes in the midst of Sukkot, of the Festival of Booths, in which we welcome strangers as well as family and friends to share our hospitality. Essentially, the series, Our Boys, is about the important task of respecting strangers and the terrible consequences when this lesson is forgotten. Welcoming strangers is an action, and if Succoth is to be restored to its once mighty holy status, then good deeds will count much more than the study of words.

Our Boys is not, as some critics contend, a condemnation of Israeli society. Quite the reverse. It upholds both the Israeli system of justice as well as the religious roots of the imperatives of responsibility.  The brilliance of the series is that it does this with nuance rather than self-pride, with grey-on-grey rather than in a black and white morality.

Part II Our Boys: A Review – Side Effects and the Aftermath

In the previous blog, I gave away very little about the show. In this blog, I give away somewhat more, but the focus is on the side stories and especially the aftermath not covered by the docudrama. I advise readers not to read this blog if they intend to watch the show and have not seen it or finished watching the episodes.

One special aftermath was the reaction to the show itself, especially by the Prime Minister of Israel. The show received an unintended burst of attention when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only dubbed the series as “fake news,” but called the show antisemitic. It is NOT. Not in the least.

Was this part of Bibi’s practice of Trumpian distraction since the Elections Committee had just denied the Likud Party request to prevent the media from reporting on the graft cases against Bibi prior to the “second” election this year? The party letter to the Elections Committee claimed that Guy Peleg, the key investigative journalist covering the investigation of Bibi, was guilty of intentionally misquoting transcripts to harm the prime minister. At the core of the four indictments were claims about Netanyahu’s efforts to control the media coverage of himself. Bibi dubbed the claims a “blood libel” and called Channel 12 a propaganda outlet.

Shlomo Filber, appointed by Netanyahu as Director of the Communication Ministry, had given testimony to police that the prime minister personally instructed him to do something about the proposed reforms in the communications and internet sector since the media tycoon, Shaul Elovitch, was unhappy about them. Similar to the proposed impeachment indictments against Donald Trump. Bibi has been accused of offering a quid pro quo to Elovitch, who controls Bezeq, Israel’s largest communications giant, in return for favourable coverage of himself.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s transcript of the charges against Bibi make up the majority of the 57-page criminal indictment put before the court at the beginning of this month. The court determined that the case should go to trial. It is the first of four charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, Mandelblit, in his summary of police allegations, charged that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, had accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods and more favourable media coverage in exchange for political favours and Netanyahu’s intervention with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of media moguls, including Israeli-born producer Arnon Milchan, whose credits include Fight Club and Pretty Woman.

On Friday 30 August, Bibi called on Israelis to boycott Channel 12 and its owner for co-producing the show with HBO and airing it. He claimed that the show was a packet of lies and sought to tarnish Israel’s reputation in the world. The Likud Party pointed out that Keshet, the Israeli channel, has been the source of the greatest amount of investigative journalism on the charges against Bibi. Guy Peleg, its most important investigative journalist on the story, was accused of being a puppet of Keshet and of having launched “a terror attack on democracy.” President Reuven Rivlin, as the opening speaker at a Keshet 12 news conference on 5 September, urged Israelis not to “believe incitement and insults.” Netanyahu’s son, however, claimed that, “the series tells the whole world how the Israelis and Jews are cruel and bloodthirsty murderers, and how the Palestinians are badly done by and oppressed.” It absolutely, under any reasonable interpretation, does no such thing. Watch it and decide.

The show does omit a great deal. For example, six were initially arrested for the murder of Abu Khdeir. There is no reference to the other three in the series. In the aftermath, Tariq Khdeir, Abu’s 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin, was beaten by Israeli undercover police officers caught on camera. He had been caught up in a protest, but had not been a participant. Another cousin, 19-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was arrested during a 28 July 2014 protest. The series vaguely alludes to this harassment of the Khdeir family, but does not zero in on it even though John Kerry suggested harassment of the family as a possibility.

There was more. Tariq was released quickly after a raft of protests, but kept under house arrest. After he returned to America to go back to school at the Universal Academy of Florida, Israeli police ransacked his East Jerusalem home though he was cleared of any wrongdoing in January 2015. The officer convicted of the assault on Tariq received a suspended sentence of 45 days of community service and a four-month suspended sentence.

The series does abbreviate a great deal, as it must. Most significantly in my mind, unless I fell asleep during a segment of an episode, the family of one of the Israeli victims, the Fraenkels, called the family of Abu Khdeir to condemn the murder and offer condolences. The other families of the murdered Israeli teenagers followed suit. Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three victims, 16-year-old Naftali, not only condemned the murder immediately, but broke her shiva to declare, “Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.” She declared that, “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder.” The series did not cover the responses of the three families of the three Jewish teenagers killed just before the Arab boy was killed in a revenge hate crime. I would have liked a greater exploration of the bypaths and aftermath of the murder, but a marvellous production cannot accomplish everything.

However, there was one very significant inclusion. The Israeli Memorial Office, independently of the justice system and without obtaining the approval of Abu Khdeir’s family, mounted a plaque on the wall of the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial at Mount Herzl. The plaque was eventually removed at the request of the family, who viewed the action as an effort to polish Israel’s image and did not want their son memorialized alongside Israeli soldiers. One incident also not included was the Jerusalem Council order to the family to remove Abu’s image that had hung outside their home for four months and the threat of a $500 fine every day it was left hanging after the order was issued. Purportedly, hanging Abu’s image contravened Israeli municipal law.

The series ended with notes of the sentences received by the three Israelis all convicted of murder. One minor who confessed and fully cooperated with the investigators, received a sentence of 21 years. His cousin, also a minor, was sentenced to life in prison. Their uncle, Yosef Haim Ben-David, 29, owner of an eyewear shop in Jerusalem and a resident of the Geva Binyamin settlement, who instigated his nephews to commit the crime, received a sentence of life in prison plus twenty years. The three had burned Abu when he was still alive. They had beaten him with a crowbar or a heavy wrench and kicked him. The three were indicted not only for the abduction and murder, but for the unsuccessful earlier attempt to kidnap a young child from her mother’s arms, an incident only alluded to in the series. But the earlier torching of an Arab store or a series of other incidents of hate crimes were ignored. From the series, one is left with the erroneous impression that this was not only an exceptional case that led to murder, which it was, but was an exceptional case altogether. It was not.

Also omitted was the widespread instigation of revenge among Jewish Israelis after the three religious settler teenagers were killed. The graffiti painted on the house of the principle investigator of the murderers of Abu – “traitor” and even worse – was shown in full detail after the conviction of the three religious Israelis for Abu’s murder. It seemed that no lessons had been learned about incitement.

Before the murder of the Arab boy and after the three Jewish boys were murdered, in addition to Shaked, MK Michael Ben-Ari, various Jewish Agency officials, hooligan racist supporters of the Beitar football club, all incited violence against Palestinians. Rabbi Noam Perel, head of Bnei Akiva, the world’s largest religious-Zionist youth organization, called on the IDF to be transformed into an army of avengers. None of them were charged with inciting violence, though they grew quieter after the Palestinian teenager had been murdered. The IDF did threaten to punish any soldier severely who posted hate messages and/or photos supporting either racism or vengeance.

In the opening episode, at 3:45 a.m., Abu Khdeir was forced into a car by two assailants who spoke Hebrew according to witnesses, for it was Ramadan and the streets were not empty; boys had just left a local mosque to prepare for the pre-dawn morning meal. The police came, met with the family and urged them to file a formal complaint at the police station. They did not do so immediately. By morning, the police recognized that the boy had been abducted and they quickly launched a search and found his body. Further, the father had gathered video evidence of the abduction and had traced his phone; it turned out that it was in the possession of one of the abductors.

However, the father had a number of legitimate complaints that were supported in the portrayal during the series. His interrogation was lengthy and concerned very specific details of the family life – pocket money given to Abu, sibling rivalry, past misdeeds – all reflected in the first episode. The investigation seemed to be initially propelled by the suspicion that this was an honour killing, though there was virtually no evidence to support that view except for a murky allusion to a girl (?) who was to meet with Abu.

On 27 July 2014, the three main suspects were arraigned. The main suspect, Yosef Ben-David, announced, “I am the messiah” in the entrance to the court. At a second pre-trial appearance on 18 November 2014, Ben-David went silent and declined to cooperate with the Jerusalem District Court, though IsraeIi mental health officials deemed him able to stand trial. In contrast, an American psychiatrist had been imported to testify otherwise. The two minors pleaded guilty to abduction, but pleaded innocent of the charge of murder. In the most riveting part of the prosecution of the one perpetrator who fully confessed, the argument for convicting him of murder as well was powerfully made. And he along with his cousin were both convicted of that murder as well as of assault.

Abu Khdeir’s mother, Suha, throughout the proceedings remained totally pessimistic that justice would be meted out by an Israeli court. Before the trial she opined, “I don’t have any peace in my heart, even if they captured who they say killed my son. They’re only going to ask them questions and then release them. What’s the point?” In the series, she warmed up somewhat to the Israeli judicial system, but, nevertheless, both she and her husband criticized Israel for treating Palestinian terrorism with a far harsher hand than Jewish terrorism. The Khdeir family called on the Israeli government to demolish the murderers’ homes just as they demolished the homes of Palestinian terrorists. Hussein Abu Khdeir, the father of the victim, was very disappointed that the youngest boy who confessed, escaped a life sentence. The murderer could be expected to be released on parole in ten years when he would be twenty-six.  

In July 2016, the Abu Khdeir family petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to demolish the homes of the murderers as happened to the homes of Arab terrorists. In July 2017, the Israeli High Court rejected the petition since it would be ineffective as a deterrent. Such incidents were rare and the long time lapse between the murder and any possible demolition would undermine any deterrent effect. Yet the court affirmed the principle that the home demolition policy was valid for both Jewish and Palestinian terrorists. The Abu Khdeir family simply viewed this as more window dressing.  

The family remained bitter towards Israeli politicians, including Shimon Peres who was then president. But they welcomed the condolences of the families of the three Jewish victims of Arab terror, some opposition MKs who received death threats from extremist right wingers and a contingent of Jews that travelled to the family home on a number of chartered buses. This part of the tale was not part of the series.  

There is one final observation, not about “fake news,” but about the bias of any media given the target audience. The story of the three murdered Israeli teenagers was shown from the perspective of an aggrieved nation. Our Boys does not treat the Palestinians as an aggrieved nation, even though the Palestinian segments had been directed by a Palestinian. Instead, the perspective is that of the aggrieved family and a Palestinian society that tried to use the murder for political purposes. In contrast, the Israeli media focused on the potential for further revenge attacks and/or additional Palestinian reprisals and upheavals.  

Was this somewhat skewed or a more or less honest reflection of the reactions of each of the societies? I will not dare to speculate on an answer to that question, but I will explore other ethical issues raised in my final and third blog on the series.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I Our Boys: Background – A Review

Our Boys is a ten-part Israeli television series co-produced by HBO and the Israeli network, Keshet. There are almost no spoilers in Part I of my review. THIS IS A MUST SEE SHOW!

The series, made by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael, is a docudrama rather than a documentary of the real events it reproduces. Part of the enormous controversy generated by the show was the selection of which events to document. Why the murder of one Arab boy and not the abduction and murder of the three Jewish boys? Why open with the granular footage of the three murdered Israeli boys and not the killing of protesting Arab teenagers in Gaza in 2014? Joseph Cedar justified his focus because the show was not about terrorism but about a hate crime. But the main Israeli investigator in his court testimony called the murder of the teenage Arab boy “terrorism” and the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial in Jerusalem recognized the murder of the Arab teenager by Jewish right-wingers as an act of terrorism.

A time line:

  • May 2014: many Palestinians in Gaza killed protesting against Israel
  • 12 June 2014: three Israeli Jewish teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were abducted and murdered;
  • in the search for the killers, “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” hundreds of Palestinians were arrested
  • 30 June 2014: the bodies of the three Jewish boys from the settlement of Alon Shvut were found in a field near Hebron
  • 1 July 2014: after the funeral, hundreds of right-wing Israelis rampaged through Jerusalem yelling, “Death to the Arabs” and were morally supported by important Jewish members of the Israeli Knesset; not mentioned in the series, Ayelet Shaked posted a quote from Israeli journalist, Ori Elitzur: “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.”
  • 2 July 2014: the day after the funeral of the three Jewish boys, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was abducted from outside his father’s store in Shu’afat, East Jerusalem; his charred body was found at Givat Shaul in the Jerusalem Forest only a few hours after the crime had been committed
  • 6 July 2014: the crime was solved and three Israelis were arrested
  • The same day, seven Hamas militants were killed in a tunnel explosion in Khan Yunis as a result of an accidental explosion of their own munitions or an Israeli IDF airstrike. Hamas launched 40 rockets towards Israel.
  • 8 July 2014: the aftermath, the 50-day Gaza War
  • 23 September 2014: Hamas members Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa, the murderers of the three Jewish teenagers, were trapped and killed in a shootout.

Our Boys, part investigative crime thriller and part socio-psychological drama both of the Palestinian community and the Jewish Israeli community, is also a geographical lesson about the gritty streets of Ramallah, West Bank religious settlements, the roads connecting and dividing the communities, as well as the interiors of Israeli courts and offices. However, the most memorable geographic icon is the Jerusalem Light Rail that passes through a half mile of the Shu’fat area where Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s family had their electrical repair shop as well as through other parts of East Jerusalem. In the riots after the murder, the Jerusalem Light Rail was severely damaged.

The heavy breath of politics haunts each episode. But most of all, the show is a dramatization of a complex, multi-faceted lesson in ethics and could easily serve as case material for a university course on international ethics, terrorism and hate crimes.

Who are “Our Boys”? While writing this review, my top monitor has pictures of nine boys, five of them Jewish Israelis and four of them Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank. All are teenagers. I will introduce them according to the calendar as they appear on the world historical stage.

On 15 May 2014, during the Great Return March commemorating Nakba, the name Palestinians give to the disaster that befell them with the creation of the Israeli state and the exodus of 720,000 Arabs, three Palestinian teenagers, Nadeem (Nadim) Nawara (17), Mohammad Salameh (16) and Mohamed al-Azi (15) were shot within one hour while participating in that march.  I have not included the picture of Mohamed al-Azi because he recovered from his wounds. The other two did not.

Further, because Nawara’s parents had permitted an autopsy, the world learned that Nadeem had been killed by an M16 round to the chest. Israel claimed to be using only rubber bullets. Further, because there was film footage of the incident, an Israeli border police officer, Ben Deri, copped a plea bargain and was convicted of “serious negligence.” Prosecutors definitively demonstrated that both the police and soldiers had been ordered to use only rubber-coated pellets. The prosecutors could not supply evidence that Deri had deliberately used live ammunition in place of rubber bullets when he shot Nawara from a distance of less than 200 metres after Nawara had hurled a stone. Ben Deri had two guns, one used and loaded with rubber bullet and the other with live ammunition. He claimed that he had mistakenly reached for the wrong gun. The officer received a sentence of nine months in prison and ordered to pay the victim’s family US$14,000.  

In the case of sixteen-year-old Mohammad Salameh, the parents had not given permission to have an autopsy performed and no video was produced. No one was ever charged. Did this have anything to do with the fact that his namesake had been a convicted perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing serving time in a Florence, Colorado prison and was regarded as a martyr by many Palestinians of the Hamas creed?

In any case, there were many other pictures I could have used, such as that of Mohammad Abu Thar, named after Mohammad Abu Thar al-Ghaffari who was a very early and very important supporter of the prophet Mohammed in the early days when the prophet only had a few disciples. The sixteen-year-old was also killed for participating in the demonstrations, but not during that hour on 15 May that I selected. There was no autopsy; there was also no video and no charges.

16-year-old Mahmoud Majed Gharabli also died by real bullets when an IDF sniper used live ammunition and not just rubber bullets to quell the demonstrations in May, but died only on 4 July 2014 during the effort to gather the evidence that led to the charges and conviction of the three Israelis. The sniper was not charged.

There were other teenaged Gazans killed in those demonstrations. On 14 May alone, 60 Palestinians participating in those demonstrations died the same day, among them many teenagers. By 30 May, of the 136 who died, seventeen of these “children” had been killed during the demonstrations. I have on my monitor pictures of only two.

Their deaths are not part of the story told in Our Boys. They are not among the boys to which the series refers. The first three murdered Jewish Israelites mentioned in the series opener were Eyal Yifrach (19), Naftali Fraenkel (16) and Gilad Shaar (16). The three teens had been hitching a ride at the Geva’ot Intersection just west of the Alon Shvut (“oak of return”) settlement, a kilometre just northeast of the Etzion Bloc in the Judean Hills directly south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The boys were headed for Beit Shemesh, their initial target before dispersing to their homes.

Alon Shvut is considered part of Greater Etzion and the site is believed to be the location of the Battle of Beth Zecharia between the Maccabees and the Seleucid army following their defeat of the Seleucids in Jerusalem. The settlement was built on 920 dunams confiscated from the Palestinian village of Khirbet Zakariya. This is not irrelevant to the story.

After the Six Day War, Yigal Alon was a sponsor of the re-settlement of the location in 1970 since Etzion had been captured and destroyed by the Arabs in the 1948 war. Alon Shvut is the location of Yeshivat Har Etzion that offers a five-year program combining military studies and training alongside yeshiva study. Just as kibbutzim in the old days provided a disproportionate number of army officers, by 2014 this settlement was providing a disproportionate number of religious officers for the IDF. It is not the Har Not yeshiva depicted in Our Boys.

Amar Abu-isa Aysha and Marwan Qawasme, two Hamas “soldiers,” abducted the three young Israelis. The hypothesis was that the kidnappers intended initially to offer their captives as an exchange in return for freeing Palestinian prisoners. However, they had only expected to give one or two of the boys a ride in their relatively new Hyundai i35. When the boys got into the car and saw they were in danger, one managed to phone and say they had been kidnapped. The abductors also saw that they were outnumbered when they only expected to give one or two boys a ride. An altercation broke out and the Arabs shot the boys in the back of the vehicle, drove to a deserted field and disposed of the bodies, but only after burning their vehicle and acquiring a new one. They dumped the corpses in the Halhul area near Hebron where they were found 18 days after the killing.

Initially, the officer who had received the original phone call took it as a prank when he could not get a reply. Only seven hours later, when the boys were reported missing, was a very extensive manhunt operation launched. By 13 June, Abu-isa and Qawasme were named as prime suspects. In the wake of the murders and numerous rocket attacks from Gaza, a 50-day Israeli response code named “Operation Protective Edge” was launched.

The show opens with real-world news footage about the three missing hitchhikers. There was no dramatic re-enactment. As a viewer, if totally unprepared for what is to be unveiled, one might reasonably suspect that the series will be about the deaths of those three boys, the pursuit of their killers and the aftermath. It is not. Instead, the show takes a one hundred and eighty degree turn and focuses on the kidnapping of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir and his murder.

The killing and burning of his corpse are not shown in the series. However, the last 24 hours of his life before his disappearance form the focus of the first episode. When the body is found and discovered to have been burnt, the Jewish terrorist unit of Shabak or Shin Bet, the internal security service rather than the Mossad, took control of the case. Initially, the unit was convinced that Jews could not have committed the crime because “Jews would not commit such an atrocity.” They suspected it was an honour killing because the boy was probably secretly gay.

Hence, a major theme of the series – “fake news.” And there is plenty of that in the series as the security services cannot control the narrative in either the Jewish or the Arab community. In the latter, the boy murdered and burned is turned into a community martyr for a cause. In the Jewish press, especially that controlled by the Orthodox Jewish Community, the murder is either justified as legitimate revenge or rationalized as the deranged and irrational response to the murders of the three innocent Jewish teenagers.

The show adopts the perspective that every one is guilty to different degrees. Responses vary with character, culture, circumstances and a century old competition over the right to return. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes, thereby, effectively an unnamed character is this investigative crime drama of the discovery, investigation, trial and aftermath of the three killers, two religious teenagers from Jerusalem who are cousins and their uncle from the West Bank settlement of Geva Binyamin who operated an optical store in Jerusalem. In light of the witness testimony, the videos of the abduction

and tracking the car’s vehicle license and registration, the killers were very quickly tracked and the full confession of one led to the complete proof of the crime.

The drama is not about the crime itself but about the investigation, the trial, the side effects and the aftermath. I will describe the killers in the next blog and their conviction.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Spies and Traitors: A Review of Henry VIII

Three events took place the week before last. I have been writing about the least significant, our trip to Stratford (Ontario) to see three plays: Henry VIII, Nathan the Wise and Birds of a Kind; I have already reviewed the latter two. The second big event: President Donald Trump is finally headed towards his impeachment (though not necessarily conviction) for evidently trying to blackmail the President of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, by holding back a very large military aid package authorized by Congress and needed desperately to fight the Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Trump wanted to get Zelensky to search for possible dirt on one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden and his son. By association, Biden would be besmirched, not because any evidence will be found, but because Trump will claim that, because he is being investigated, Hunter Biden must have done some terrible things. “Of course, Hunter Biden discussed his nefarious business with his father,” The Donald opined, as usual projecting his own way of behaving as universal in the world at large.

But this blog is not about that contemporary most notorious and perhaps most incompetent traitor who uses foreign policy to advance his personal political agenda. I am interested in traitors who insinuate themselves in a regime to serve the foreign policy of another regime, but who maintain their disguise for a lengthy period. More generally, I am interested in the dramatization of historically very significant and able traitors as dramatized on stage and in films.

But first, the most notable event of the week previous to the last, the celebration of Brian Urquhart’s hundredth birthday. Actually, he turned one hundred years of age on 28 February 2019, but his birthday was celebrated as the UN General session opening. Brian Urquhart was hailed as one of last century’s greatest diplomats for his forty years of service to the United Nations covering both its inception and its trajectory during the Cold War. “Urquhart always brought a high level of idealism, courage, geniality, genuine warmth and sly British wit over humankind’s foibles and, most importantly, a love for the UN, to his postings.”

But the most startling credit noted in the many accolades he received was recognition as a very accomplished spy. Brian Urquhart a spy!!! Of course, as a diplomat at the UN in the immediate aftermath of WWII, he had to be a chameleon both to do his job and to serve the UN, for his boss was a Soviet apparatchik who kept instructing him to misrepresent events in service of the USSR. He did not do as he was told but as his integrity dictated, always in a way clever enough to get away with it. The reality was that he had actually been a spy, but a spy, not in the poseur mold, but as an intelligence officer in the 1st Airborne Corp of the British Army. He became famous for analyzing the incoming signals intelligence to forecast that Operation Market Garden to seize the Dutch bridges over the Rhine River was headed towards disaster. And the operation was an overwhelming catastrophe, perhaps setting back the allied victory for as much as six months. The incident, and his role in it, were portrayed in the film, A Bridge Too Far.

That is not the kind of spy who interests me, as estimable as signals intelligence is, but rather spies who are poseurs, spies who operate within one state to serve a foreign power. The play Henry VIII has as its central mover of action, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a spy in the court of Henry VIII on behalf of the pope while claiming to be a spy on the pope for the king. The disguise is deliberate; the character presents himself as an extreme loyalist to the regime. In reality, he served to undermine rather than enhance national interests. Poseur spy narratives share a common motif with a play about identity politics – Birds of a Kind and Nathan the Wise – hiding one’s true character from others. The drama in both is the reveal.

A note first on Henry VIII himself and the play. For 36 years, from 1509 until his death in 1547, Henry ruled England during the dawning of the English Renaissance and the English Reformation. He was only 17 when he was crowned king and married off to his recently deceased brother’s widow, who was six years older. Henry was a very bright and quite a dashing young man, over six feet tall and very well-built – a dramatic contrast to the very fat and ill man that he was in his older years and as we most often see him portrayed. He was athletic, energetic, and exceedingly well read for a member of the aristocracy. He was also very innovative – but often in the wrong direction:

  • Insinuated the divine right of kings in the English constitution
  • Centralized and expanded his power
  • Appointed himself head of the Church of England
  • Used charges of treason on those who fell out of favour, sometimes justly (Cardinal Thomas Wolsey), but mostly unjustly (others also named Thomas – More and Crammer)
  • Used extra-judicial means to dispose of them – bills of attainder

Though renowned for having six wives, in particular for getting his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in Spain annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, in fact he deeply loved his first wife.  Martha Henry in her production understood this and conveyed it well. “Henry obviously adored Katherine. He admired her intelligence and her feistiness. When abroad, he named her regent “as he knew she had the fortitude to control the nobles and to run the country while he was away.” Martha Henry takes this insight to create in the role of Katherine, executed with a superb dramatic performance by Irene Poole, an unforgettable performance.

This king in love with his first wife is the one we meet in Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII. He had, however, three deep flaws. He enjoyed extravagance, at great cost to the national treasury. He ventured into military adventures abroad, at even much greater cost to the national treasury, and did so mostly unsuccessfully. But most of all, in spite of his brilliance, his wilfulness and his intelligence, he was initially very naïve. By 1515, Thomas Wolsey had risen to become archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor of England and a cardinal of the church. He was easily Henry’s equal, saw himself as such, but always presented himself as Henry’s most loyal servant. He was Henry’s close friend.

The two presumably schemed together for Wolsey to acquire the papal tiara. Little did Henry know that this was a guise to hide the fact that all along Wolsey was a spy on the throne of England in service to the pope. Further, Sir Thomas More, perhaps the most brilliant of the triumvirate of Henry, Wolsey and himself, entered into the forefront of the political fray as a new councillor in 1517, but is not included in the play in a period dominated by the machinations of Wolsey. (For a drama centering in good part on the interaction of More and Wolsey, see A Man for All Seasons. Wolsey says to More, “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.” Wolsey was characterized by an extravagant immoral squint.)

The play Henry VIII comes to a climax over two key events – Henry’s affair with Anne Boleyn and Henry’s rescinding of the 1524 tax that Wolsey tried to take the credit for even though it had been imposed upon his urging. Henry VIII, the most promising of monarchs, was now very unpopular for his unsuccessful military adventurism abroad and the fiscal disaster at home. The play is not about the rise in power of More or Henry’s break with the pope over his annulment of his marriage to Katherine, but about the discovery that Wolsey had been a mole for the pope. The play at its core is a spy story.

Martha Henry is perhaps even more brilliant a director than she was as an actor. The performance of Irene Poole as Katherine, as I indicated above, is a work of art to behold. Through Shakespeare’s brilliant words and Jonathan Goad’s exuberant Henry VIII, the play that is really a tour de force of pomp and ceremony, that cannot be realized on the tiny stage and in a small theatre, is nevertheless carried off by a combination of the most wonderful costuming and organized movements of the actors even though the drama is ultimately an episodic connection of scenes and acts that succeed more than lead into one another. And the ending has a great deal to do with history but virtually nothing to do with the dramatic action of the play. From Tim Campbell as Duke of Buckingham at the beginning of the play, who is initially an independent voice quickly squashed by Wolsey, to the host of other lords (and ladies), it is hard to find a flaw.

Except, and it is a big except, in the most important role in play in my estimation, that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, performed by veteran Stratford actor, Rod Beattie. The performance is a disaster. Why is it a disaster and who is at fault?

Rod plays Wolsey as an example of the banality of evil. He is bland. He is unassuming. He manipulates and maneuvers in scenes “behind the scene.” He is a schemer and plotter, but comes across as a plodder. Henry VIII is enthralled by him, but by watching Rod Beattie play Wolsey, a member of the audience would never be able to figure out why a smart guy would be taken in by this overweight bore. Other than in his words and in his role, where is the demonstration of shrewdness? The suggestion is, I believe, that he used his calm and understated exterior to manage and control a mercurial Henry VIII.

However, look at the words Shakespeare puts in his mouth; they betray that characterization. Even before that, listen or re-read the Prologue addressed to the audience. For the pomp and ceremony is but a cover for a different play.

Be sad, as we would make ye: think ye see
The very persons of our noble story
As they were living; think you see them great,
And follow’d with the general throng and sweat
Of thousand friends; then in a moment, see
How soon this mightiness meets misery:

Who is the character that begins as the most successful in all of England at the time, though of relatively humble origins? None but Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Who begins surrounded by the loyalty of other lords as he organizes the execution of the one independent thinker of the bunch, the Duke of Buckingham? Who falls into the bottom of a deep canyon where “mightiness meets misery?” None other than Cardinal Wolsey. That is the core of the play that Shakespeare makes clear.

As Buckingham says, “no man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger.” Buckingham continues:

I wonder
That such a keech [a fatty lump] can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ the beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

Vanity of vanities. A keech who darkens the earth with his overwhelming presence. Not an unassuming manipulator in the guise of a humble man. We are told to expect an overwhelming and dominant presence before Wolsey even appears on stage to reveal how, spider-like, he weaves his plots. As Lord Norfolk notes, he is a powerful and overwhelming presence.

But who does Martha Henry bring on the stage? Not a man who long ago left behind his humble origins, not a big as brass braggadocio consumed by his own brilliance, made all the more blinding by the mediocrity of the lords with their inherited titles who surround him. But a man who feigns humility, who speaks plainly and without eloquence, who cannot hide his pride in himself, whereas he is described by Norfolk as the devil incarnate, a man who made peace with the King of France (Putin?) “purchased at a superfluous rate” only to sabotage it.

Wolsey in the play and in history was a man who loved and exhibited power, who bore grudges and punished all who would defy him. Vengeful and carrying a sword with a very sharp edge, he was a man who slithers and darts hither and thither. And he enters and we expect to watch him humiliate the brave and vocal Duke of Buckingham. The expectation is there. The humiliation is there. But not the means to execute it. As portrayed by Rod Beattie, Wolsey would not be able to swat a fly, yet he is supposed to be a man that brought the whole of the English aristocracy to its knees.

Wolsey has a venemous mouth, but what emerges in the Stratford production is pap that belies the very words uttered. Even Buckingham, mistakenly, muzzles his words lest he awaken the beast in his sworn foe and enemy of the people. Wolsey reviles Buckingham, but the performance is in striking contrast to the depths and volume of his spleen. He makes Buckingham look like an outright amateur in getting the king to take his side. Buckingham plans to use honour to combat insolence and we watch in dread at the failure of such a strategy in dealing with a serpent. Except this is not how Wolsey is portrayed. And anyone both watching and listening cannot help but be thrown off by the incongruency.

I could go on and on with description after description, with speech after speech, with scene after scene, to show how out of kilter Wolsey’s portrait is on stage with that of the historical character and the one Shakespeare put on stage. What Martha Henry, with all her brilliance, demonstrated is that she has not the least clue about what it takes to be a successful spy. And certainly not on why they fail.

When Wolsey is caught out, from the production watched, you cannot figure how such a clever plotter with such great attention to detail could make such an error in allowing damning and incriminating documents to be misfiled. There is also the ambiguity of this self-pitying rascal who has great remorse, not for what he did, but because history will not remember him. There is not an ounce of true regret, for that would be totally out of character, but just another performance, just another guise. Instead, we are led to believe from the performance that he might have truly come to confess his sins before his Lord Jesus.

For me, the problem was not all of Wolsey’s frauds, as enormous as they were, but the fraud I saw on stage in the central character of the play. Why would anyone believe that Wolsey died fearing God, that he felt bad about scheming against the king, that this greedy, acquisitive manipulator was truly remorseful? Katherine, the one character of true integrity and insight, knew better.

Let me end by offering a twist on a quote from A Man of All Seasons: “I believe, when politicians forsake their public duties for the sake of their own private gain, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

With the help of Alex Zisman

Listen: Ha’āzinû – Deuteronomy 32

For the first time in my life, I finally really read Moses’ final oration to the Israelites from Mount Nebo on the border of Israel just before he died and before his people entered the Promised Land. I read it three times. I was so upset! I phoned my daughter in Boston where she teaches rabbinics. She also happens to be a poet. I explained why I thought I was so put off. 

First, there was the context. Facing death, Moses in the previous parashat had just appointed Joshua as his successor and prophesied how God would lead them to victory when they crossed the border; every seven years at Succoth they would have to gather together to relive the experience. Moses also prophesied how, when the Israelites became comfortable, they would slide away from their faith in God, spurn Him and turn to other gods; evils and troubles would befall them. 

Then Moses recited the famous Ha’āzinû poem that constitutes this week’s portion. It makes Dante’s inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy describing his trip through hell, feel like a spa. Beside the Ha’āzinû, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his depiction of the human fall from grace is but a vacation cruise. For both those epic poems are, at their core, poems of nostalgic longing for Eden before the Fall, depictions of the life lost given what life will be like after we die if we do not repent our sins. With all the horrors described, the focus of these poems in contrast to that of Moses is on loss rather than the use of memory to shock and cajole, to disturb and disrupt. Then we are faced once again with a universal flood, but a flood that is the consequence of our own making. 

Ha’āzinû is a scolding screed calling on the Israelites in the midst of their wickedness to remember where they came from, to remember their history and how far they had fallen to the point where they “neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who brought you forth.” (32:8) The point is not, however, to get back to where they had been, to an Arcadia, to the Israelites’ initial love affair with God in the wilderness with its frequent fights and angry separations, but to recall their responsibilities to the future, their duties under the covenant they once made with God. It is a depiction of a wasteland left as the after effects of climate change because we failed to listen, because we failed to heed and sacrificed our children’s futures to satisfy our current material needs. The poem is not an elegy, but a call to action, and all the more horrific for that.

God would then rain misfortune upon them with famine and deadly pestilence, wild beasts to attack them, venomous snakes to creep among them and wars to decimate them. One could anticipate an inversion of the Promised Land of milk and honey. Most of all, their enemies would gloat. Their God had deserted them. God would Himself pronounce that all this was His own vengeance for their betrayal. Their day of disaster would be near. 

However, it is He that deals death and gives life. It is He on Yom Kippur who chooses who will live and who will die. “I will make drunk My arrows with blood.” (32:41) Then God will wipe the earth of those who dared laugh and gloat over the suffering of His people. The waste, the death, the slaughter, the destruction of the earth will make the Great Flood look simply like a catastrophic interruption and not a horrific end. 

I hate horror movies. But there was a second and even more important reason for why I was so upset. The depiction of God turned me off, not this time because he was so wanton in the horrors He delivered upon mankind, but in His characterization.

ד  הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ,  {ס}  כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט:  {ר}  אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל,  {ס}  צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.  {ר} 4 The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He.
ה  שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם:  {ס}  דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל.  {ר} 5 Is corruption His? No; His children’s is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse.

God as the Rock of Ages has always turned me off. For the God I find in the first four books of the Torah is a God who changes, not a fixed being, a God who learns not a God of perfection, a God who is open to argument rather than an impenetrable fixture of the firmament. In this depiction of God as a Rock, humans, with all their failings, are viewed as a blemish, crooked and perverse, not so much because of what they do, but because of who they are. They are human-all-too-human. They are not God or even gods.

There is a third factor that repelled me. It was not just the horror show. It was not just the depiction of God and of humans by contrast. It was the poem itself. I thought it read like a string of clichés. My daughter advised me to read Isaiah again and to read an excellent 1988 essay by Harold Fisch, “Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poets and Interpretation.” It turned out to be a brilliant piece of academic writing on poetry as self-referential.

 At the core, I had failed to see these as the origins of the images echoed in what followed rather than as worn out images that had been repeatedly used as fading echoes of the original. For, as Northrop Frye wrote, poetry is an echo chamber, a process that at its core enables memory to work. Imitation and repetition are its modes and are its communication tools. As Rabbi Jay opined, poetry is not in itself self-explanatory. It can only be grasped in the context of the mode adopted for expression, the anti-pastoral in this case, and the reverberations with and on other poetry.

When Moses calls out, “Give ear” as heaven and earth are witnesses for all time, we in the present hear the echo, but not as a nostalgic call to the past, but as a call to take responsibility for the present and the future. Words are not dispensable and frivolous throwaways, but fraught with the weight of ages. Words bind and command. They are in all seriousness the ultimate deed. They grow like vines and establish networks, and, with wine, they transport us across time so that we can recall the terrible disasters that befell us as a people and the enormity of the utter ruin we now face.

In addition to my repulsion at a horror show, in addition to my dismissal of a version of God that I rejected, in addition to my failure to appreciate the power of these images in the original collective imaginary of the West, my daughter had observed that I had failed to put myself in the place of the author. In addition to Isaiah, read Samuel 15, she advised. Poetry as rebuke is like no other. See Moses as an avatar, she advised, a leader who sums up his life for himself as having lived as an alien among a people hostile to his and God’s message. He is espousing a post-exilic theology, a time when the first temple was seen as an exercise in idolatry for which the people had been punished both by the destruction of that temple and with their being cast into exile.

I read and corrected for the last two failures. But what of the horror? What of the depiction of God as a rock? I reread the poem once again. (My apologies in advance for any misinterpretations of either my daughter or of Fisch.) In the light of my daughter’s remarks – or at least what I took from them – and reading Fisch’s essay, I now understood the following:

א  הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה;  {ס}  וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי.  {ר} 1 Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
ב  יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי,  {ס}  תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי,  {ר}  כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא,  {ס}  וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.  {ר} 2 My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.

Moses calls on all of nature, not just the Israelites gathered before him, to hear his words. As heaven and earth are my witness, like the rain, like the dew, hear the distilled words from my experience. Hear the lessons that I have learned from history. That is Moses’ message. The pastoral references are not cited to recall the beauty and harmony of nature with nostalgic longing, for, as in Genesis, God said, and there was. 

א  בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Or, as I would render it, in the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth, the word precedes the material world. Poetry in this idiom is not a call to return to the beauty and pleasantries of nature, but to remember the importance and priority of the word as poetry, which, in its conciseness and its intensity creates a new imaginary.

  •  No Return, No Refuge. Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.] The basic message of the covenant, as I wrote in last week’s blog on the Torah, is the sin of covering up and the obligation to uncover the cover-up, an act signified by the circumcision of Jewish males.
  • Consider the image of the stone, not as a characterization of God, but as a characterization of God by a people living in a barren place, in the wilderness, in the desert where there are only stunted dead trees and no branches and nor leaves to shade one from the beating sun, a desert of rock and stones with no water on the surface except the dew that falls in the morning. There are no roses and no lilacs. For a people in a rocky desert, God is the Rock of Ages, a solid and fixed reference for a cohort on route to the Promised Land, God is a cloudy mist that leads them or a fiery presence that protects them.
  • The horrors inflicted on the Israelites as a result of their wickedness would be to return them to exile, return them to the desert stones and their burning heat. Return is not a recovery of an Eden, for the Jewish paradise belongs to a future of aspiration rather than a recollection of an idyllic past.
  • Jewish history is not about eternal recurrence, of what goes ‘round must come ‘round, of simple exchanges in the positions of polar opposites with history depicted as a teeter-totter, but a journey which builds on past recollection to move forward. Only by recollecting that past, only by remembering, re-experiencing and re-enacting our history can we move on. The past must remain present if we are truly to move into the future and accept in full our responsibilities to society and to this planet. For our history is not a record of steady progress, nor a seesaw movement, but a record of cataclysmic interruptions and the destruction of the Promised Land that we took so much labour and time, so much sacrifice and suffering, to reach.
  • Moses, whatever his shortcomings, whatever his bitterness and disappointment at not being able to enter the Promised Land, whatever the impact of that experience on his prophecies for the future, he remained never one to engage in nostalgic memory, neither for the court comforts of his Egyptian youth nor the idyllic simplicity and passivity of his young adult life as a shepherd.
  • Poetry itself is timebound rather than timeless. In this context, the words do not transport us into another realm, but back to earth; God is the word that enables His people to survive and thrive as a nation.  

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Spy – Part II: An Evaluation of the Series

After the depiction of the series in Part I, I will now evaluate it in terms of its truth value, its presentation of ethical dilemmas and, because it is Yom Kippur this evening, its theological significance.

As Sasha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen busily constructed his façade as a spy in Syria, the life of Nadia, his wife played by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, very slowly dissolves into suspicion and depression. As Cohen celebrates his epicurean lifestyle, Nadia lives on the equivalent of macaroni and cheese. One is left at the end of the series with the feeling that Nadia suffered even more and more deeply and for a much longer period than Eli Cohen when he was captured in 1965. For “reasons of state,” was the Mossad, and, indirectly, the Israeli government, guiltier for what they did to Nadia even more than the willingness of Cohen’s superiors to expose their agent to ever increasing risks?

And Cohen does what almost all spies do in such circumstances as he becomes more certain of his cover and more confident in his techniques of dissembling. He gets careless. Regularity and repetition are the greatest dangers to a spy. And Cohen fell into a trap of his own and his minders’ making.

Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license?  I already indicated my suspicion that it was the latter. Whether true or not, and it seems unlikely that it was true, the introduction of such a scene seems gratuitous and exploitive of a notorious name.

But there are far more serious questions about the verity of the series. Professor Abu Khalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, treated the series as Zionist propaganda and raised a number of questions. The movie set is clearly not Damascus, but to quibble over this is to complain about any movie or series where it is rare to place it in the real setting. There are, however, more serious questions.

  • Eli Cohen never befriended Amin Al-Hafez and could not have done so since he served as a military attaché in Buenos Aries after Cohen left Argentina; however, the historical records indicate that Al-Hafez was banished to Argentina in September of 1961 when Eli Cohen was in that country – he moved to Damascus in February of 1962; is the published historical record incorrect?
  • In Syria, Al-Hafez was only the Interior Minister when Eli Cohen was there; in fact. Al-Hafez became President of Syria on 27 July of 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February of 1966.
  • There is no evidence that Al-Hafez met Eli Cohen – but there is in Cohen’s reports to Mossad and in the treatment meted out to other Syrians whom Cohen met; there is every reason for Al-Hafez to deny he never met Cohen.
  • The same could be said of Abdul-Karim (Ma’azi) Zaher al-Din (Nassim Si Ahmed), a senior military officer. Khalil claimed that there is no evidence to show that he knew Eli Cohen – except the Mossad files. Al-Din had every reason to deny he knew Eli Cohen; on the other hand, critics admit Cohen befriended his nephew, Ma’dhi Zaher Al-Din, a junior officer, so that it is very likely that the nephew introduced Cohen to his uncle.
  • As one critic of Khalil wrote, “all the actions of the Syrian government around his unveiling and execution point to a deeply emotional and personal reaction from a leadership who were angry, deeply humiliated, hurt and seeking retribution.”
  • Al-Hafez’s wife was a conservative from Aleppo and it is beyond credulity that she would have reached over and grabbed Cohen by the genitals; whether she in fact did or did not, it is a gratuitous scene irrelevant to the spy story and one suspects is a bow to sensationalism and depreciates the seriousness of Eli Cohen’s mission. I cannot recall if either book made such a claim.
  • Critics can claim that it is laughable that Eli Cohen would have been escorted to the front lines of the Golan Heights while admitting that he did indeed visit the Al-Himmah area in the southern part of the Golan Heights; the evidence is pretty incontrovertible that Cohen used that visit both to report on what he saw and to use it as an entry to offering the gift of the Eucalyptus trees, to which many soldiers fighting in the Golan could attest and which the critics do not deny were there; the overwhelming evidence seems to confirm that Cohen visited a sufficient piece of the Golan to understand the fortifications and then make them very visible to the Israelis through the gift of the trees to provide shade for the Syrian soldiers, There are also the photographs of the fortifications
  • The change of plans and personnel for the Golan following the 1966 coup did not mean the fortifications were changed nor the trees
  • The critics do not deny that the plan to divert the Jordan River water was sabotaged or that the Syrian efforts to build a nuclear reactor were destroyed.
  • The Druze counter-espionage chief, Ahmad Suwaydani, may indeed not have been in Buenos Aries when Cohen was there; but this bit of poetic license was used to introduce the character early on and show how determined and resolute he was in uprooting spies; it detracts not one whit from the core narrative and compliments him for his acuity.

In sum, the general truth of the narrative and the interpretation of Eli Cohen’s role as presented in the series is generally true, though the director in the notes made clear that the episodes were based on the Eli Cohen narrative and were not an attempt to precisely represent the story. However, there are some minor incongruities on the Israeli side. Why, as Eli Cohen’s daughter complained, did the series claim that Nadia was a maid? Her daughter insisted she never was, but I cannot remember where the description took place.

What about how the Israeli characters are presented and the ethical tensions of the interpretation? A very acute one is that of Emmerich as Cohen’s handler, Dan. He is presented as both determined and smart, wary and worrisome, especially in light of a previous agent of his who was caught. He is also presented as a compassionate man sincerely concerned about the effects of Cohen’s long absences on his wife Nadia. His inner conflicts about keeping Cohen in the field, taking even more risks to gather further information and his desire to please Nadia and cut short Cohen’s exposure are both understandable and ring true. But, in the end, interests of state win out over the personal concerns. However, I found it questionable why Mossad would insist on contacts at the same time daily when Cohen could have been given a code that dictated changes in times.

The other person truly torn apart in the series is Eli Cohen himself. His role as a spy required him to suppress his deeper self, his love for his wife and family versus his passionate desire to serve the state. But he did tire. Before he went off to his final mission, he asked to come in from the cold. The effort to repress his love and his life had taken a great a toll and he appeared to be on the edge of losing it. Did he become careless? Was that why he was caught? The drama of the suffering of Nadia and of Eli Cohen as well as his handler are at the heart of the dramatic tension in the series. Conflicts over ethics, social and political priorities drive the drama. Other conflicts, such as the one between his Mizrachi versus Ashkenazi identity, are introduced but then dropped.

There is one even deeper tension that needs literally to be uncovered, though I am pretty sure it was not a conscious goal of Gideon Raff, the director. This evening, we begin Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, yom (יוֹם) means ‘day’; kippur (כִּפּוּר) (or kaphar) comes from a root verb that means ‘to atone’. Hence, Yom Kippur is usually expressed in English as the “Day of Atonement.” That is because kippur or kaphur means both to cover and to uncover, to repress and to purge, to make a reconciliation and to cover with pitch. The same word seems to have two very opposite meanings.

In the Yom Kippur service, we insist, on the one hand, that we are righteous and have not sinned and that we are arrogant, obstinate and have sinned. It is the same contradiction. For in our self-righteousness, we claim purity, but in our heart of hearts, we know that this self-righteous insistence is but a cover up of our sins. Further, the biggest sin of all is the cover-up itself. As one rabbi put it, “We pretend to be someone blameless. But we are not the person we pretend to be.” Further, we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked that we cover up the fact that we are not perfect, that we have sinned.

Rabbi Splanski, citing Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, pointed out in Torah study, that there is the all important aval (in English, “but”) that occurs only twice in the Torah.

In Genesis 17:19 –

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן, וְקָרָאתָ אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִצְחָק; וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם, לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו. 19 And God said: ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.

Aval means “in truth.” And the meaning can best be grasped by the context. For preceding God’s promise that Sarah will bear a child in her old age, are six verses on the covenant and its primary sign, circumcision of the male infant.

ט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, וְאַתָּה אֶת-בְּרִיתִי תִשְׁמֹר–אַתָּה וְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ, לְדֹרֹתָם. 9 And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations.
י  זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, אַחֲרֶיךָ:  הִמּוֹל לָכֶם, כָּל-זָכָר. 10 This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.
יא  וּנְמַלְתֶּם, אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם; וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם. 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you.
יב  וּבֶן-שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים, יִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל-זָכָר–לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם:  יְלִיד בָּיִת–וּמִקְנַת-כֶּסֶף מִכֹּל בֶּן-נֵכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזַּרְעֲךָ הוּא. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.
יג  הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל יְלִיד בֵּיתְךָ, וּמִקְנַת כַּסְפֶּךָ; וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, לִבְרִית עוֹלָם. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
יד  וְעָרֵל זָכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמּוֹל אֶת-בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ:  אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, הֵפַר.  {ס} 14 And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.’ {S}

When a male Jewish child is circumcised at eight days old, the foreskin of the penis that covers up the glans is removed. Not only does the circumcision inflict on the flesh a painful lesson that even a father who loves you as a child more than even his own life, can inflict pain. If such a father can do that, so can anyone. Therefore, we must be wary. We must not let down our guard. On the other, the circumcision is about totally revealing one’s core passions. Circumcision is an unveiling, is a statement that one will always remain open in spite of the harm inflicted on oneself, that you will always retain the consciousness that you must uncover the fact that your worst sin is to cover up your sins. 

Genesis 41:21 –


כא  וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.
21 And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.’

We must come face-to-face with our guilt, with our past sins, but most of all with our refusal to admit we are sinners and our insistence on presenting a false face to the world. That is precisely why spy stories are so interesting. Because they are inherently cover-ups, wearing disguises and pretending to be who we are not, but for the sake of revealing more important truths and, in the process, coming to terms with our own fallibility as the very task we undertake is to project infallibility.

The Spy does it all. In the end it is a theological exercise exploring the relationship of cover-ups to the effort to do anything to uncover secrets. Thus, it is sad that those who accuse the series of being untruthful and Zionist propaganda continue to engage in a cover-up of what took place instead of seriously probing and questioning the presentation.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Spy – Part I: A Review of the Series

People who serve in signals intelligence are often called spies. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan. They were undercover agents using their eyes and ears to bring back impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side. James Bond, in contrast is less of a secret agent type of spy, but more a fearless character of adventure with little to do with secrecy or mystery, and much more to do with a mixture of daring and charm, though his direct enemies are characterized by their disloyalty and treachery. But the spies who really interest me and I find most fascinating are those, like Smiley in a John Le Carré novel, who are poseurs and serve undercover in foreign countries over a period of time. They are traitors in the countries in which they work and loyalists to another regime.

If we are paranoid, we are always surrounded by informers planted from abroad or corrupted from within. But even if we are not, we are well versed that there may be spies on our native soil. The fact that we do not know whether they are there or not is part of the mystery. And they are a danger. Recall Guy Fawkes Day commemorating 5 November 1605 when a cabal of Catholic Englishmen plotted to blow up Parliament.

Novelists and playwrights are intrigued by spies because they are poseurs within a form of literature that is, after all, make-believe, fiction posing as reality. Like spies in reality, these writers are fascinated by covert behavior as well as undercover observation because these traits go to the heart of what they do. And in both realms, risk-taking and suspense are key to the stories, both for the teller of tales and the agents in them. Writers and spies must of necessity be devious.

Mis-direction, make-believe, masks and mapping, both of the geography of our environment and of our internal souls, all are at the core of any spy story and almost all fiction. The poseur spy must appear to be what he is not while the fictional author must make appearances and descriptions tangible, textured and real.

Among poseur spies, many are seedy and marginal characters with a black cloud of self-betrayal hanging over their heads. Though these types intrigue me, I have much more interest in spies like Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in King Henry VIII’s court and Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy working in the highest places in Damascus, Syria. They are brilliant and accomplished men who reach the highest offices in the land in which they play the role of a traitor for one side and a hero for the other. They know where their deepest loyalties lie and are not generally permeated with self-doubt. They are dissemblers par excellence and, as such, take the very methods of the spy realm to an altogether higher level by combining charm and guile, hidden feelings and glib language. They are flatterers who, in their sycophancy, hide their contempt, and, though rare because of the skill and serendipity required, nevertheless, infrequently but much-too-often, reach the highest offices in the land.  

Canada has its own history of notorious spies. Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk working in the Soviet Union’s embassy who defected to Canada was easily the most famous and most notorious. Currently, Cameron Otis, the high-ranking RCMP officer whose apartment was raided to reveal dozens of computers and encryption methods in the plethora of PCs found in his Byward Market condo in Ottawa, recently made his initial court appearance.

Eli Cohen was one of the best and most famous spies in history; he is the subject of a current entrancing Netflix bio-pic series released a month ago, The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and Ali G fame. In Who Is America? Sacha Baron Cohen posed as an Israeli interviewer who tricked gullible Americans into saying the most outlandish things. Borat, of course, was also a poseur in order to trick the unsuspecting into embarrassing situations and responses. Since I never watched Borat or Ali G, I did not have to discard comic expectations when watching Sacha play Eli.

If you are looking for spine-tingling suspense in a spy drama, there are only rare moments in this series. The story itself and Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance are what intrigue the viewer even if one is fully familiar with the narrative details. Sacha Baron Cohen builds on his previous straight role in Les Misérables. This is neither an adventure tale nor a deep bore into what made Eli Cohen so successful. As presented, the achievement appears to be a combination of Syrian ineptitude, Eli Cohen’s skills as a poseur, which Sacha Baron Cohen portrays with absolute conviction, as do in their roles, Noah Emmerich as Dan Peleg, Eli’s supporter but conflicted Mossad handler, his colleague, Maya (Yael Eitan) and Shlomo “Moni” Moshonov as the determined Mossad chief, Jacob Shimoni. Critics of Israel are bound to be outraged at both the exaltation of the hero and the negative depiction of Arabs. For this bio-pic is really focused on the expertise and determination of this Israeli hero and his Mossad handlers, but even more about how they wrestle with internal ethical tensions.

The occupants of high office in Damascus focused especially on Colonel Amin Al-Hafez (or Hafiz, Waleed Zuaiter), whom we first meet in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but subsequently as a general and member of the Ba’ath Party who became President of Syria on 27 July 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February 1966. The Syrians were indeed embarrassed and absolutely enraged much more than the Americans tricked by Sacha Baron Cohen in a comic role. For Sacha Baron Cohen, in a dramatic role as Eli Cohen operating under the fake identity of Kamel Amin Thaabeth Tabat or Thabet or Thabeth (Arabic: كامل أمين ثابت‎), was presented as totally pulling the wool over the eyes of the Syrians until he was caught.  The sense of betrayal of the Syrian leadership is palpable. But smothering even that feeling is Al-Hafez’s sense of being so profoundly duped.

Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, played a critical role in the 1963 coup that brought the Ba’athists into power. He would displace the blame onto the president who succeeded Al-Hafez for the Syrian losses in the Six Day War, turn the tables and overthrow Nureddin al-Atassi in 1970 who had led the 1966 coup. Ruthlessness seems to beat embarrassment almost every time. I am mindful of that even though I strongly support the impeachment of Donald Trump. However, he plays no significant role in this series.

There are several other Arabs of note, first and foremost the intense and menacing Syrian Intelligence Colonel Ahmed Su’edani (Alexander Siddig) who disliked and distrusted Cohen and eventually caught him red-handed transmitting information to Israel. In contrast, the Syrian businessman, Sheikh Aheikh Majid al-Ard (Uri Gavriel), befriends Eli Cohen and even eventually facilitates an engagement with his daughter. Evidently, Cohen met the sheikh on a boat from Genoa to Beirut in 1962. The most colourful Arab character is perhaps Ma’azi Zaher al-Din played by Nassim Si Ahmed as the half-wild Algerian-Mexican lieutenant who paves the way for Eli Cohen’s entry into the Arab ex-pat community in Argentina.

Borat was a comic figure. Eli Cohen, however, was anything but, even though he too wore a bushy moustache. For Borat deliberately and humorously spoke in a tortured English accent while Cohen in reality spoke fluent Arabic even though the series is overwhelmingly in English. Cohen is brilliant as a tall, handsome and supposedly very rich Arab import/export businessman using Damascus as his base and both charm and money, dark glasses and expensive suits to seduce the upper echelon of rulers in Syria who attended his lavish parties. The picture below, if it can be transmitted, shows how handsome the real Eli Cohen was and how closely Sacha Baron Cohen took on his appearance in the series.

To get to peace, countries very often use two-track diplomacy, that is, secret channels for dialogue, usually using academics or other non-government officials to conduct negotiations for which a regime can at any time deny any responsibility. In the conduct of war, they use spies, undercover agents who are the critical complement to their military prowess. And none have been more critical to Israel – at least, as far as we can tell – than Eli Cohen, known best for his audacious arrangement to plant Eucalyptus trees along the edge of the Golan Heights ostensibly to shade the soldiers manning the “pill boxes” along the rim of the Golan Heights which allowed the artillery of Israel to destroy that three rows of  the “Maginot Line” with deadly accuracy in the opening of the Six Day War.

In the movie flashback from the final hanging, there are references to Eli Cohen at first as a very disgruntled former Mossad spy in Egypt in Operation Goshen that smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel in the early fifties, possibly a player in The Lavon Affair and its botched attempt to bomb Egyptian facilities that was to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, and his flight to Israel himself in December 1956. Once there he became a depressed signals clerk in the Mossad. His opening current position is that of a resentful clerk in an insurance office after having twice been rejected as a Mossad agent.

The series follows a double-track format, one track in Israel where Mossad finally recruits Eli Cohen to be their “spy in Damascus” and, also, afterwards, to nurse and hold the hand of Eli Cohen’s long-suffering wife, Nadia, played brilliantly and totally convincingly by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem. They were married in 1959 just before he was recruited, trained and then established his Syrian identity as an ex-pat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires in 1961. Between February 1962 and 1965, he rose in a world of flash and corruption, wealth and dissolute behaviour, in a Las Vegas version of Damascus filmed in colour, while in the depressing black and white parallel track, Nadia’s life seems to disintegrate into loneliness and, surprisingly, apparent penury in Bat Yam. Was the latter accurate? If so, it is perhaps much more embarrassing to Israel than the high-risk exposure into which they placed Eli Cohen for reasons of state.

There is another question about the verity of the series. Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, the fabulously wealthy Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license? The fact that I ask the question is, in itself, a minor criticism of the series. For success of a spy film about reality depends on the movie communicating masking and lying in the most honest way possible.

The latter is a major theme in the video series as well as the account, Our Man in Damascus: The thrilling, shocking, true story of Israel’s most daring spy by Eli Ben-Hanan which ends with Cohen being caught, tortured, tried and hung in the Damascus’ Martyrs (Marjeh) Square on 18 May 1965 before a derisory mob shouting the equivalent of ‘Down with Israel’ after a visitation by the elderly Chief Rabbi of Syria, Nissim Andabo. This is where the series begins with Cohen’s body left to dangle for six hours. However, the series more closely followed the French version of the tale as told by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu d’Israel in the nondescript titled The Spy Who Came from Israel.

The film series depicts Cohen’s recruitment in 1959, training, positioning himself in Buenos Aires as a Syrian businessman who longs to return to his native country (which he does in 1962), the route used to infiltrate the power elite in Syria. According to the series, rivalling his greatest exploit, the intelligence he supplied on the military fortifications on the Golan Heights, was the information he gathered on Syria’s plans to divert the Jordan and starve Israel of water and Syria’s efforts to build a nuclear reactor. Those plans were sabotaged by Israel.

However, I do not recall the Ben-Hanan book being about Nadia, but it is a long time since I read it and I must have given my copy away for it is no longer on my bookshelves – or, at least, I could not find it. But this is a core trope of the series – the disintegration of Nadia’s life into loneliness and the sole responsibility for two young children (I believe there were three) in contrast to the high life Cohen was living as a multi-millionaire in Damascus. In the series, Cohen is depicted as almost puritanical in resisting the enticements of a corrupt Lothario, but somewhere I believe I read that Cohen had a long series of mistresses. In the series, he is too much in love with his wife and family and only gets involved with the daughter of a very wealthy Syrian businessman as part of his cover and only under orders of his Mossad minder.

To be continued – Part II An Evaluation

With the help of Alex Zisman