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

Micah Goodman Catch-67 Part III Projections and Theory

As many do, Goodman predicts that Palestinians will be a majority in the Palestinian Mandate in the not too distant future because of their birth rate. That would mean a stark choice for Israelis – an apartheid state in the West Bank or a unitary state in all of Palestine? But the latter presumes the inclusion of Gaza. Further, the latter assumes that Palestinians would not continue to be denied political rights, but not in a way to entail apartheid or that Area C might be divided from the rest of the West Bank with additional land added to make the Palestinian area approximately equivalent to the area controlled by Arabs in 1967. This would presumably be done with Israel controlling the security of the area and Jews who continue to live in the Palestine proto-state area being ensured physical protection and the same civil rights that West Bank Palestinians would have who remained in Area C that would be annexed by Israel.

Goodman also has a thesis about the shift in the position of the Left in Israel, from a politics in which no peace with the Arabs was possible, to one, after the Six Day War, where the dream of trading land for peace was surrendered and Israelis came to believe the Arabs were unwilling to make peace. At the same time, labour Zionists were surrendering their socialist dream. For Goodman it is no accident that the ideal of peace displaced the ideal of egalitarianism in the Left dreamers of Zion. Goodman never justifies this substitution thesis.

Further, Goodman casts that shift into a constant religious time trope of Leftist idealists. “The past is rooted in sin; the future in redemption.” (40) UN Resolution 242 calling for an exchange of land for peace mirrored and even underpinned that trope, but this was rejected by the Arab League’s three no’s, no to exchange of land for peace, no to negotiations and no to recognition. The problem is that Goodman truncates this whole shift and only offers less than a page to the peace with Egypt. Scholars like Seth Anziska (Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo) argue that, rather than marking a definitive shift to a peace path, Camp David, in reifying the Israeli rights to settlements in the West Bank and hiving off the agreement with the Egyptians as a separate accord, built in the key obstacle to ever concluding a peace with the Palestinians, namely the rights to settle in the West Bank.

According to Goodman, “The peace treaty that was ultimately signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979 gave the new left a fresh impetus and injected it with new hope.” (45) However, according to Anziska, the Camp David Accords effectively denied Palestinian existence as a collectivity and ensured Israeli control over the very space under most contention. Jimmy Carter’s attempt to ensure Palestinian sovereignty was permanently undermined.

This is a very different narrative, and neither one of the Left nor the Right, but a claim to be based on objective evidence rather than tropes and myths. Peres’ vision of a transactionalist peace based on mutual economic interests had been structurally undercut by the political terms of the Camp David Accords. In effect, the Israeli Left was lying to itself and lying to the world even if not deliberately or consciously.

Why is this important? Because Goodman’s whole thesis depends on two competing ideas, the dream of a Greater Israel and the dream of Peace Now. But what if the dream of peace now is underpinned by a structural arrangement that inhibits and undermines the possibility of peace and fosters, even if unintentionally, a Greater Israel. More significantly, what if the dream of Greater Israel is not really a dream of an Israel controlling the security and population of the West Bank and really merely annexing key areas next to Israel? Then the desperate vision of a future unitary state in which Palestinians constitute the majority (Goodman 69) is but a misleading nightmare and one not really shared in any depth by Israelis, even if the Left often pays lip service to that nightmare. The tension between a Jewish and non-democratic vision versus a democratic but Palestinian majoritarianism is simply a false dichotomy.

For that is not how most Israelis offer their narrative. The occupation did not instigate the Second Intifada. The Second Intifada took place in spite of the offer to end the occupation and retreat from the settlement activity and perhaps even because the offer was seen as a sign of weakness. The Left was effectively destroyed.

But why did the Arab League three no’s not destroy the peace process, but the Second Intifada did? Goodman argues that, “The new right and the new left are mirror images. The new left no longer argues that withdrawing from the territories will bring peace. Rather, leftists maintain that sustaining a military presence there will bring disaster. The new right no longer argues that settling the territories will bring redemption. Right-wingers claim that withdrawing from them will bring disaster. Both have replaced their greatest hopes with their darkest fears.” (61)

This is not how I read the developments since the Six Day War. The new right and the new left are NOT mirror images but complementary. It is not that leftists any longer believe that sustaining a military presence in the West Bank will bring disaster, but they have come to believe that the combination of withdrawing a military presence and withdrawing the settlements will bring disaster. Right wingers still believe that the settlements in the West Bank bring redemption, but have come to believe, by and large, that settling the whole of the West Bank is no longer required for redemption. The two sides have come from different places to adopt complementary theses. Further, the Left has surrendered hope for despair rather than fear. The Right has surrendered faith for a more refined and limited resignation.

What I (and Hirschman) call the passions, Goodman calls ideology. What I (and Hirschman) call interests, Goodman calls arguments. However, ideologies and passions are supported by arguments, but ones very difficult to dislodge. By contrast, arguments for interests depend almost exclusively on empirical details. Further, instrumentalism (arguments for interests) define a modern identity. In contrast, ideologies define a more classical moral identity that is as true of the Left as it is of the Right. Both, contrary to Goodman, justify courses of action.

Thus, Goodman and I have a theoretical difference as well as a difference in reading the history of Zionism. Goodman writes that Israel is a liberal democracy surrounded by anti-Western cultural forces, one resisting any Western invasion and one desiring to purify the Middle East of a foreign non-Islamic presence as well. Goodman wrote that antisemitism was rooted in the belief that any non-Muslim sovereignty in the realm of Islam was an offence against God. (67) However, any international survey of the left in the world and some right-wing governments, especially of Putin’s Russia (cf. Izabella Tabarovsky, “Soviet Anti-Zionism and Contemporary Left Antisemitism”), suggests that the roots of antisemitism go much deeper and far beyond simply the Islamic world.

I concur in Goodman’s picture of the complementary passionate forces behind the “resistance” that oppose the instrumental ones. In that sense, the Palestinian passions match and are opposed to the complementary Jewish ones. I am convinced that interests and only interests can be aligned, a factor that Goodman shoves to the sidelines. However, security interests rather than economic interests divide Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. It is the combination of security interests and passionate beliefs that deliver a knockout blow to any economic instrumental forces behind cooperation.

Goodman argues, as do many Israelis, that the issue of the Palestinian right of return has haunted Israel’s existence since 1948. In reality, the prospect of refugee return was initially just an adjunct to a Palestinian return to dominance. It only became a real prominent issue, other than a propagandist one, when the trade of land for peace was on the table after 1967. However, contrary to the dominant conventional wisdom, the return of the Palestinians to Israel proper in the multilateral talks did not turn out to be the enormous obstacle as originally envisioned. The main issue instead became the problem of a “right” to return rather than actual return and the problem of return to a Palestinian state rather than Israel. For most Palestinian refugees already lived in Palestinian-dominated territories. Nevertheless, Goodman, like Halevi, continues to believe that Palestinians have to trade the right of return for Israelis surrendering control over the land in the West bank when this is no longer a key issue.

Like Halevi, Goodman also views the Nakba as dominating the Palestinian narrative, which it does. But just as I have argued that the Holocaust can be both historically and mythologically detached from the idea and rebirth of an Israeli state, so can that happen with the Nakba. It is not the determining huge force that both Halevi and Goodman attribute to it.

This is Goodman’s summary of the residue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are “three components: the centuries-long trauma of Islam’s humiliation by the West; the decades-long trauma of the mass Palestinian exodus during the War of Independence; and the fifty-year trauma of occupation and military rule from the Six-Day War to the present. The solution of two states for two peoples addresses only the third component.” (78)

My argument is that the only real issue is the occupation and a meaningful and doable partition. Nothing can be done about a past sense of humiliation and it cannot be addressed by any accord. On the other hand, the Palestinian refugee issue can and has been handled by ready-at-hand compromises and has not turned out to be the envisioned obstacle imagined by both Israelis and the West and advertised as such by the Palestinians.

When we add to this the distorting emphasis on the demographic problem – which Goodman still sees as central – and Israel’s alleged growing diplomatic isolation that ignores Israel’s wider diplomatic and economic acceptance, we are being served a narrative that makes the problem much more difficult to crack than it really is. The choice is not really total withdrawal or the impossibility of peace as Goodman describes the Hobson’s choice at the beginning of Chapter 6 in concurrence with a dominant Left narrative. The choice may be significant unilateral withdrawal, very gradual security withdrawal and very gradual increased transfer of state powers to Palestine. Such a belief need not reinforce a continued Israeli domination of the West Bank. This is, in essence, the Goodman peace initiative restored.

Goodman argues that, “The right’s denial of the demographic risk is deeply rooted as is the left’s denial of the territorial security risk.” (91) I have suggested that the focus on the demographic issue is a sideshow and that there is very little if any denial of a security risk by most Israelis. Further, left wing Israelis have their own hidden passions and are not just instrumentalists just as the right has its own instrumentalism and is not governed simply by passion even if leftists tend toward cosmopolitanism and rightists tend to emphasize nationalism. The left’s reverence for a positive view of nationalism is well documented in Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Zionism by definition prioritizes nationalism over cosmopolitanism without denying the importance of an internationalist outlook.  The vast majority of Israelis still value the precepts of Zionism and only the radical left, as Goodman contends, despairs of Zionism. (118)

Micah Goodman Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War Part II Israeli History

I have suggested that the issue is not psychological, not humiliation. The issue concerns the general conviction among most Palestinians about the intentions of the Zionists. The Palestinians believe (and I concur are justified in believing), that the Zionist movement, from the beginning, wanted a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Initially, up until 1935, Zionists may have wanted a state in which a majority of Jews in Palestine (as a result of continuing immigration and land purchases) could live alongside and in co-existence with a minority of just over a million Palestinians. A minority of Palestinians accepted that this was indeed the goal of the Zionists which their leaders were determined to oppose. Most believed, and continue to believe, that Jews have no right to live in any part of Palestine – except perhaps pre-Zionist Jews and their descendants.

After 1935, the Jews first gave up on co-existence because the Palestinians, they realized, were unwilling to live as a minority in a majoritarian Jewish-dominated unified state. It may be correct that the Palestinian belief that Jews looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the indigenous Arab population in 1948 was incorrect, but the Jews were very willing to accept the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians even if they were not responsible for all or even most of that dispossession. Jews may not have wanted a wholly Jewish state before 1935, but certainly after 1935, they did want to live in a majoritarian Jewish state even if, reluctantly, that meant partition when the numbers no longer seemed to be there to immigrate to Israel following the extermination of European Jewry.

Further, the influx of the Jews from Arab lands and of over a million Russians seemed to revive and reinforce the belief among many Israelis that Jews could indeed live as a majority in a unified Jewish state, especially if Gaza was excluded from it. This was not a belief based on humiliation and simply nostalgia for the past, but on a realistic appraisal of Israeli intent and practices. Settlements were needed for physical security and became the wedge for Israelis to revive the belief in a majoritarian Jewish state in Israel, Judea and Samaria. Under such circumstances, given the understandable Palestinian response, the Left in Israel began to wither on the vine. It is that shrinking Left that nostalgically clings to the Green Line as the reference point and experiences humiliation when dealing with the larger international community. However, that humiliation as a psychological state rather than a result of events is not the reality of the Palestinian identity, but a projection of guilt-ridden Leftists onto the Palestinian psyche.

Why the correlation between Jewish Israeli (and diaspora) religious beliefs and the resistance to surrender the settlements and even cease their expansion? Goodman’s observation of this correlation is accurate. Further, it is true that Jewish Zionism has shifted over the history of the creation and development of the Israeli state, but so have the beliefs of secularists. The latter are no longer overwhelmingly socialists. Among many of the latter, the old belief in a majority of Jews governing the old polity of Palestine has been revived.

It did so, I contend, more forcefully among the religious only because the religious were traditionally less disposed to rely on force and on the modern priority of interests to determine their future. While gradually accepting interests as a determining factor, hence an increasing emphasis on security, they are, because of their beliefs, more prone to give greater emphasis to passions than interests. And the passion for a Jewish dominated state in all of the Mandate of Palestine is, in their minds, an old and honourable Jewish dream.

What about the shift on the Left? Did the Left evolve from a social movement to a diplomatic one? There were always Zionists who relied on international diplomacy and the infusion of interests from the international community to help find peace. Those numbers, I declare, have always been a minority. They never shrivelled. Rather the belief in partition as the answer shrivelled, especially among those who believed in partition between a physically secure Jewish state and a Palestinian one. With the retreat of that conviction, the Left turned itself into a marginal political force.

What about Goodman’s historical portrait of the development of Zionism? I would argue that he makes as many mistakes as Halevi. Ze’ev Jabotinsky was no different than the Zionist leadership on the Left in believing that a Jewish majoritarian state depended upon cooperation with Britain – at least, until 1935. Goodman does not provide a single endnote to back up his conviction that Jabotinsky was always sceptical of the British and always believed that they would betray the Jews. Endnote 1 to Chapter One cites Jabotinsky’s concerns about the stability and reliability of the British in 1918. But concern about instability and reliability cannot be equated with complete distrust. Jabotinsky simply believed that if the Jews did not prove themselves capable of creating facts on the ground through the use of force, Britain would be prone to desert the Zionist cause.

Britain did desert the Zionist cause of a majority Jewish polity in all of Palestine because the British leaders came to believe, mostly correctly, that Britain had been led to support the Balfour Declaration by naïve Christian Zionists, and that it was far more realistic to protect the route to India by winning the favour of the Arabs. Most colonial British officers on the ground opposed the Jewish vision. Jabotinsky, as an ex-British officer, knew this. He also knew that the British respected power. Thus, his reliance on arms even as he initially counted on British diplomacy to forward the cause of the Zionists even when he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison by the British for organizing the arming of a Jewish militia. It was over differences on the use of force and his ambition to create a majoritarian state over the whole of the original Palestine Mandate and not just the Mandate west of the Jordan after King Hussein had been awarded Transjordan as a prize, that he split from Chaim Weizmann in 1923, but not over the need of British diplomacy to advance the Zionist cause. By 1935, he was among a group of Zionists prophesying disaster for European Jewry and was not even the most apocalyptic one. Nahum Goldmann provided that.

Goodman was correct that Jabotinsky was the strongest and loudest voice predicting Arab resistance to the Zionist dream of a majority Jewish state in even the post-Transjordan Palestine Mandate. But the belief in British betrayal and in the extent that Germans would engage in extermination came much later than Goodman suggests. Why is this important? Because it is critical that we not simply align prophecy with political opinions.

Goldmann was a moderate, but had the greatest apocalyptic vision. Jabotinsky’s was more run-of-the-mill, but, among the Zionist leadership, he was the greatest nineteenth century foreign policy realist and old fashioned nineteenth century liberal who believed in the supremacy of the individual. He would have been just as appealing, if not more so, to Jorge García Granados and Enrique Rodríguez Fabregat, the Jewish Zionists’ strangest supporters on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). It is now Jabotinsky’s vision that prevails in Israel today.

What about Goodman’s contention that the basic dominant belief on the Israeli Right today is Jewish religious maximalism versus the moderates? Currently, the population of the West Bank consists of about 3.3 million (some estimates go as high as 4.5 million, though, as Goodman shows, Yoram Ettinger in the advancement of the position of the Right insisted there are only 1.75 million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.) I myself accept the position that, in fact, the population of the West Bank is made up of 2,400,000 Palestinians alongside 900,000 Israelis, with half of them living in Greater Jerusalem. I believe Goodman concurs in this even though he refuses to arbitrate among demographers. It would take at least another long treatise to sort out this dispute.

However, accepting the position of Ettinger for the sake of argument does not help. For the issue is not really Palestinian displacement or even the risks of Palestinian domination, but uprooting of the settlements. Shifting the emphasis to the issue of Palestinian displacement, in reality, a non-issue, serves only as a distraction from the problem at hand.

In Jeffrey Goldberg’s long piece in The New Yorker referred to in the last blog, in his estimate when he wrote the piece in 2004, 800 Jewish settlers lived among Hebron’s 150,000 Palestinian residents. Currently, the World Population Review claims that there are just over 700,000 in the whole of Hebron with just over 160,000 in the city alone. The city has the largest population concentration in the West Bank. Wikipedia claims its population in 2019 was just over 215,000 with 500-850 Jewish settlers living in and around the old quarter in Kiryat Arba, Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano, Tel Rumeida and Avraham Avinu. 

Four of these five settlements trace their roots to pre-Israel times and some to periods even before modern Zionism, though some, like Avraham Avinu, expanded into nearby vacated Palestinian stores. In 1929, an Arab pogrom erased any Jewish presence in Hebron when sixty-seven Jews were murdered. A valid argument can be made that none of these settlements are about religious extremism, or, at least, not just about and perhaps not even mainly about messianic Judaism, but about re-establishing the rights of Jews to practice their religion in places of worship that have been part of their religious heritage.  

Tel Rumeida can be traced back to 1807, though the outpost of Ramat Yesha established in 1984 was originally considered a provocation before it was legalized in 2001. Beit Romano goes back to 1901. Beit Hadassah dated originally to 1893. Only Kiryat Arba can be traced to the post-Israel period in 1968 immediately after the victory in the Six Day War, but it too began as an effort in the outpost of Givat Ha’avot near the Cave. Nevertheless, it contradicts the Goodman thesis that extremist West Bank settlement began almost a decade after the Six Day War, for, Goodman contends, up until then settlements were established only for security purposes.

Though I believe that all received financing from the Movement for a Greater Israel and the last was spearheaded by the Zealot, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, most of these settlements can be defended on two other principles: prior domain and an insistence that the areas of ancient Israel cannot and should not be made Judenrein. There is very little evidence that these settlements by Zealots are intended to displace Palestinians.

However, it was in Hebron in 1994 that the Jewish terrorist, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslims at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Jeffrey Goldberg described racist comments, like “Arabs are sand niggers.” Goldberg described religious Yeshiva boys harassing and insulting Arab girls, though there was even more antisemitic graffiti. Further, although Levinger favoured civil but not national political rights for Palestinians, he also believed in incentive transfers as a mode of ethnic cleansing, though he insisted Jews would protect Palestinians as long “as they behaved.”

The reality, however, is, as Goldberg found out, the settlers are zealots driven to act in God’s name. “Cohen and other settlers say that they are obliged to fulfill God’s command that Jews settle the land of Israel. But there are safer places to live than King David Street in Hebron. I asked Cohen how she reconciled her decision to settle here with an even greater imperative of Judaism, the saving of lives—in this case, those of her children. She glared at me. ‘Hellenizers’—secular Jews—’will never understand,’ she said with contempt.” Cohen had hung a picture of Baruch Goldstein as a martyr for God. There is also a rendering of Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem in which the Dome of the Rock has been replaced by an imagined Third Temple.

But the demographic reality is that up to three-quarters of the settlers in The West Bank have settled there for economic reasons, not because of religious beliefs. Even the religious settlers can be divided into two different groups, the Biblical literalists who believe they are following God’s plan and direction in settling Judea and Samaria and the Zealots, like Levinger, who would also physically resist any effort of Israeli authorities to uproot them. Levinger’s followers are Zealots and they live in the midst of Palestinian-populated areas along the ridge of the Judean Hills. It is these Zealots who are accused of destroying the olive trees of nearby Palestinian farmers.

To be continued

Micah Goodman Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War Part I General Background

The biggest difference between this book and that of Yossi Klein Halevi’s (Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour) is that Goodman’s book is about dialogue among and between Jewish Israelis and not between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. However, neither book takes up the issue of a necessary dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. It is important to realize that Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian Israeli author of BildungsromanDancing Arabs (2002), Let It Be Morning (2004), and Exposure (2010), has given up on writing his comical weekly column for Ha’aretz and even given up on the idea of an Israeli Palestinian identity for himself and his family. He moved to the United States in spite of the enormous room he had for expressing the Palestinian Israeli experience. Both Goodman and Halevi ignore this dimension of a necessary dialogue.

Goodman argues that (and I would also argue, as in much of the political world elsewhere) reasonable disagreement has collapsed as different factions have moved into their own intellectual silos. The capacity to listen has vanished. But Goodman’s book is not about listening to different narratives, but listening to different positions and the arguments in their support among Israelis.

The result according to Goodman: Israelis recycle the same ideas over and over again. There is no exchange on the central issue of borders and the future. On that, Goodman begins the book with a map of how the West Bank is divided among Areas A (under both Palestinian and security control – the large Palestinian population centres in the West Bank), Area B under Palestinian civil jurisdiction but Israeli security control, and Area C where most of the Jewish settlements are under both Israeli civilian and military control.

While Israelis, according to Goodman, are driven by two types of fear, Palestinians, as Halevi argued, are driven by a history of humiliation. However, Goodman’s focus is on the differences between the two Israeli positions as outlined above. I appreciate Goodman’s book for his effort to break through the impasse on the peace process. I largely agree with him concerning his approach to dealing with peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, I find that I disagree with how he arrived at his conclusions. I particularly disagree with him with various points in his narrative of the development of Zionism. This raises questions about how these differences affect both his analysis and conclusions. As well, I disagree with both his logic and some of his theoretical assumptions. Sometimes, I am just confused about his position.

For example, how is it that Goodman claims that the solution requires detaching opinions from identities if the position of the Right, as articulated above, is a matter of interests rather than an identity issue? However, at other times, he considers the motivation on the Right to be an identity issue, an identification of Zionism with occupation and control of the whole of the Mandate territory and not just fears for the security of Israel. If so, how then is it that the Right is driven mainly by security issues and not ideology?

The Right may be driven by military security fears, but their position is framed in terms of passions rather than interests.  Thus, unlike Halevi, the core issue is not one of passions, of existential anxieties, but of interests. However, the passion of the extremist Israeli zealots offers the greatest obstacle to peace because it is they who do not accept the Talmudic injunction to control one’s passions. Rather, they lionize warrior believers and portray the Palestinians as Amalekites who need to be ethnically cleansed from the land of Israel, and exterminated as a national movement at the very least.

That means, for Goodman, that the passions have to be bracketed, passions identified with two respective positions. The war within Israel is simplified as one between peaceniks and those who believe in a Greater Israel where the whole of the West Bank would remain part and parcel of Israel. It is a war between Leftists who want to withdraw to the Green Line established before the Six-Day War and once more be regarded as a normal non-occupying state respected by the international community and Rightists who do not want to give up any territory, not only because they believe in Greater Israel, but because they believe withdrawal would leave Israel “shrunken, weakened, vulnerable, and doomed to physical destruction.” But then one becomes confused, for Goodman argues that it is a conflict between identity politics (the Left) and fear of an existential threat, though couched in messianic visions (the Right).

Goodman offers the model of the debate between Hillel and Shammai in the first century CE and claims that Hillel won the debate because Hillel demonstrated that he understood and could take into account the position on the other side, that his side was “agreeable and forbearing” showing restraint rather than extremism, a willingness to teach the position of the other side and genuinely listen to it and even modify one’s own position in light of what one hears.

Other than which direction to light Hannukah candles, the key debates between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were more serious. Members of the House of Shammai were elitists; members of the House of Hillel were democrats – learning was open to anyone. Shammai was a dogmatist and absolutist when it came to ethics; Hillel was nuanced. Shammai permitted marital divorce only in cases of serious transgressions; Hillel insisted that a man and wife could divorce for any reason. The followers of Shammai were Zealots, the followers of Hillel much more willing to compromise with foreign authorities.

Goodman seems to be saying that there is a correlation between unbending dogmatism and elitism, hard ethical standards and very restrictive grounds for divorce while Hillel not only listened but was a liberal and a peacenik. If the parallel is continued, then Leftists are the modern equivalent of the House of Hillel while Rightists follow the path of the House of Shammai. The Left appears to be less dogmatic and more open to hearing the other side, more, however, when that other side is Palestinian rather than the Israeli Right.

Does Goodman suggest that the Left listens while the Right does not, a position upheld with respect to the different political positions in the U.S. by Professor Nicole Hammer in her study, “Messengers of the Right”? It is not that CNN is the propagandist voice of the Left and Fox News that of the Right, but that Fox News is a propaganda medium and CNN is not. (See Jane Mayer, “Trump TV,” The New Yorker, 11 March 2019). It would appear not, since Goodman argues that both the Left and the Right are locked into silos where they only hear echoes of their own positions.

Goodman, like Halevi, holds that Palestinians are largely governed and driven by the emotion of humiliation while Israeli Jews are driven by fear. Ironically, the Jewish zealots agree that Palestinians feel humiliated by the way they are treated. On 24 May 2004, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a long piece in The New Yorker called, “Among the Settlers.” As Goldberg tells the story, “Look at this,” Eliyahu, a zealot said. “It’s humiliating. We should kick them out of here for their own good. What they have to go through, it’s too much.” However, the reverse might be true. Palestinians desperately want the soldiers of the IDF to feel ashamed because the soldiers sometimes kill unarmed civilians, sometimes prevent Palestinians at checkpoints from reaching medical help in hospitals, and sometimes even kill children, something hard to prevent when children are used as child soldiers and as shields.

However, unlike Halevi, Goodman does not count on empathy and understanding of the Palestinians to overcome differences in the two different narratives of the two peoples. Goodman would certainly not go as far as the zealot who remonstrated Jews for their empathy. “Stop being Jewish! Only a Jew would say, ‘Imagine yourself as a Palestinian.’ Could you imagine a Palestinian imagining himself as a Jew?” Goodman is sympathetic to empathy but does not consider empathy the main tool for pursuing reconciliation.

Here again, as I have alluded to in other blogs, currently, and in spite of the flare up in Gaza over the previous weekend, Jewish Israelis have never felt more secure. The Israeli Democracy Institute before the last election showed that the foremost question in the minds of Israelis was not security and terrorism, war and peace, but bread-and-butter issues. This was also true of Palestinian Israelis. Further, the issue of leadership ran a close second followed then by security. Just 19% of Jewish Israelis and only 3% of Palestinian Israelis prioritize defense issues.

Further, with greater security has come greater compassion for the Palestinian position on the Right as well as the Left. The sense of fear, in spite of Gaza, has abated. In fact, because Gaza was evacuated of settlements such as Gush Katif, and this resulted in much greater insecurity, Israelis of virtually every ideological position but the far Left have become convinced that settlements are not the key obstacle to peace. Israelis are generally quite willing to continue the occupation to prevent a recurrence of Gaza.

Further, they “know” that the settlements cannot be the core issue because Arafat turned down a fair offer from Barack to exchange land for peace, an even fairer offer from Bill Clinton and the fairest offer possible by Olmert in 2008, though, to be precise, Olmert was an impotent Prime Minister when he made the offer and it was very unlikely that he could have backed that offer with real action. Further, Palestinian officials in their national literature still object to the existence of Israel, still refuse to recognize any historic Jewish connection with Palestine, and still reward terrorists as martyrs of their cause, specifically child soldiers who sacrifice themselves as screens and stone throwers for militants and sometimes even serve as suicide bombers. For Arafat as for Abbas, “This child . . . that hero, becomes a martyr? We are proud of them.”

Goodman contends that the Gaza withdrawal transformed messianic Judaism. “Nationalism did not transform secularism; secularism transformed nationalism instead. Secularism provoked a form of nationalism among Religious Zionists that found justification not only in the Bible but in the soil and redemption as well.” Here, I confess, I could not follow Goodman since, in my reading of the movement of messianic Judaism, it was never simply about a Biblical commandment and always both about security and “blood and soil.”

The major shift that took place, as I understand Israeli history, is that Israelis know that the 440,000 Jewish Israelis outside of annexed Jerusalem in the West Bank cannot be uprooted and relocated in return for any peace deal even if Israelis believe that a real peace is possible, even though a majority objected to the settlements in the first place and even though they find messianic Judaism antithetical to everything they believe. The egg, as they say, is hopelessly scrambled.

Most Israelis, like retired General Moshe Ya’alon, believed and continue to believe that the settlements do not serve a security purpose, but, on the contrary, exacerbate the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and enhance the need for greater security measures. A diplomatic peace treaty would provide more security than occupation. Goodman argues that this belief is founded on two mistaken assumptions, one which minimizes the power of the historic conflict, what I have referred to as the passions, and a second which overestimates the value of any diplomatic accord.

On this I concur with Goodman, but will argue that the real issue is uprooting the settlements now that they have been established. Look at the difficulty of uprooting 5% of that number in Gaza. And look at the result, not only from the Palestinian point of view, but from that of the international community. I suggest that Israelis are not so much driven by insecurity and fear as by despair, at least with respect to prospects for peace.  

Look at a map again, this time of actual Israeli Jewish settlements. The vast majority of the Israeli Jews in the West Bank live in Area C. Out of 127 settlements, Modiin Illit, 2.3 km. from the Green Line (73,000), and Beitar Illit (Gush Etzion), 10 km. south of Jerusalem (59,000), two primarily ultra-Orthodox settlements, account for about 30% of the population of about 440,000 outside of Greater Jerusalem. The issue is not just drafting a peace accord that does not endanger Israelis, but one that can be realistically implemented by both sides. Uprooting the vast majority of settlements in the West Bank cannot be implemented by Israelis. Guaranteeing a peaceful neighbour with Palestinians of all political stripes cannot be guaranteed from their own side.

In sum, in this general overview, I believe the focus of the book on the Left versus the Right as the fundamental dichotomy leaves out both Palestinian Israelis and the vast majority of Jewish Israelis who do not align with either the extreme Right or extreme Left who insist on the Green Line as their reference for establishing peace. No peace plan premised on uprooting most of the settlements on the West Bank, let alone in Greater Jerusalem, is workable. And I remain unconvinced that Israelis are primarily motivated by fear while Palestinians are driven by humiliation.

In the next two blogs, I will examine Goodman’s narrative of Israeli history to test both its historical accuracy and whether it supports the peace process he recommends. I want to follow this up with an examination of his logic and his theoretical assumptions.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel Part V: The Individual Members of UNSCOP

Any survey of the attitudes of the representatives on UNSCOP had to appall any detached Zionist counters of votes on the committee. The views of John Hood were inscrutable since he said little initially and seemed mostly interested in not alienating the Arabs. It was only years later in the archives of Canberra that we learned that John Hood, was not, as required, an independent member of the committee. He was there to represent the interests of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Australia, Herbert Vere (H.V.) Evett, who wanted and needed the votes of Islamic countries to support his bid to be president of the UN General Assembly.

Justice Ivan Rand had a record as a fair man, but saw himself as forging compromises. After all, in Canada he was the author of the Rand formula that defended the right of dissenters not to belong to unions but requiring that they pay dues to the union that represented their interests. Further, Rand was a strong Canadian federalist who had an instinctual repulsion of partition given Canada’s two-nation federal system. Finally, given Canada’s role in the British Commonwealth, a Canadian delegate might be expected to be more sympathetic to the British position.

However, it was Ivan Rand who concluded by August that the Negev should be allocated to the Jews even though there were 100,000 Arabs living there and only 3,000 Jews “otherwise it would remain sterile and useless. The Zionists had indeed convinced the committee it was really only they who could and would redeem the land. In addition to land to absorb refugees, the selling of Jewish enterprise influenced where the border would be drawn.

Similarly, Karel Lisicky from Czechoslovakia also came from a bi-national country of Czechs and Slovaks and indicated an initial wariness of partition. Yet, in the end, he not only supported partition, but, impressed by the Zionist enterprise, concluded that the Dead Sea Works should be inherited by the Jews and that meant having territory right up to the Dead Sea. Further, “the whole sub-district of Beersheba should be included in the Jewish State.”

In contrast, Dr. Jorge García Granados of Guatemala was a traditional nineteenth century liberal who quickly came to admire the pluck, the egalitarianism and the self-discipline of the Jews in Palestine while just as immediately taking offence at the Arab boycott of the committee and the Arab commercial enterprises he visited, in particular, a cigarette factory where he witnessed children of 10, 11 and 12 employed to roll cigarettes. The use of child labour by Arab businesses appalled him.

Sir Abdur Rahman was a very interesting member of the committee. He was an eminent jurist, a Muslim who opposed the efforts to partition India. Thus, he was likely to be affected by his Islamic identification as well as a strong opposition to partition. Nasrollah Entezam of Iran openly identified with the position of the Arabs in Palestine who made up two-thirds of the population and he did not see why Jews, most of whom were new immigrants, should determine what happened to the territory of Palestine.

Dr. N.S. Blom was another puzzling figure. A former colonial officer of The Netherlands in Indonesia, he was not ill disposed to colonialism as were almost all the other members of the committee. However, given the presumed sympathies of the Dutch towards the Jews, it was believed that he would support partition. It was only after research in the Dutch archives that it was revealed that Blom, like Hood of Australia, was not an independent member of the committee but a representative of the foreign office with clear instructions not to alienate Islamic states for their votes were needed to support the Netherlands continuing occupation of Indonesia as a Dutch colony. So he equivocated most of the way through the proceedings: “we should not have the sole responsibility for enforcing a solution which is not accepted by both parties and which we cannot reconcile with our conscience.”

Dr. Alberto Ulloa had been the principal delegate, but Dr. Antonio García Salazar, the alternate, quickly became the main representative on the committee. He was a religious Roman Catholic and former Ambassador to the Vatican. His views were not immediately discernible but were eventually revealed to be a primary interest in the role of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.

Justice Emile Sandström was another eminent jurist on the committee who was elected chair and who played his cards very close to his chest so it would be difficult to know how he might vote. However, given the peaceful separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, there was no reason to expect that he would be antithetical to partition.

Like Dr. Jorge García Granados of Guatemala, though not as vocal, Professor Enrique Rodríguez Fabregat of Uruguay was another Latin American nineteenth century liberal who easily became a strong admirer of the efforts of the Zionists in Palestine. “What a decent and straightforward life those people live. Who could doubt their honesty, their sincerity, their humanity.” Further, Jewish enterprise would benefit the economic development of the Arabs, a claim subsequently reinforcing the belief that the supporters of Zionism and partition were really possessed of a colonial mentality.

This was not true of Vladimir Simic from Yugoslavia. Though he came from a communist country, it had already been expressing its independence of the U.S.S.R. that had seemed sympathetic to the Zionists. Further, Yugoslavia was a federation of different nationalities with inherited long-term fears of fracturing into ethnic nations. It also had a substantial Muslim Bosniak population. He could not be counted on to favour partition.

What was an objective initial count?

Favour Partition               Opposed to Partition          Question Mark

2                                      5                                        4

If outsiders knew what we now know about Hood and Blom, the count would have been as follows:

Favour Partition               Opposed to Partition          Question Mark

2                                      7                                        2

The Zionists needed at least six votes to support partition. How did they get to earning the support of 7 members with 3 supporting a federal rather than a unitary state and 1 member (Australia) abstaining? The task seemed not just daunting but impossible, especially since, on first glance, the propensity of the committee would seem to support either a federal state or a unitary state with a Palestinian majority.

The easiest votes to track were those of John Hood and Dr. Nicolaas S. Blom. When in early August, Evett did not win the nomination for the presidency of the UN General Assembly, he did not release Hood to vote as his conscience and intelligence would determine, but ordered him to abstain lest his actions puzzle anyone who examined his rhetoric prior to the vote. The irony of this was that when the votes of the countries for supporting the recommendation for partition came up in the General Assembly in November, Evett cast the first vote in favour of partition and immediately became a hero for Australian Zionists who, to this day, refuse to see him as other than a very strong supporter of Israel.

In the case of Blom, when the Arab League voted in early August to support Indonesian independence, the Netherlands reversed its instructions to Blom who was then free to vote for partition. In September, Blom, unlike the others on the committee, justified his support for partition on international law and the terms of the British Mandate. But, as he wrote once he was free of the fetters of the Dutch foreign office, the “most basic issue which should be of decisive influence” was the matter of Jewish immigration in general and of the refugees in particular which had to be recognized “as a problem of extreme urgency and importance.”                      

Given that lineup and some clear cases of good fortune for the Zionists, even though Hood eventually abstained, the vote might have been expected to be:

Favour Partition               Opposed to Partition          Question Mark

3 + 1(?)                                      5                               2

How did the Zionists grow their support from 3 to 7 votes? Further, why did the votes against partition support a federal state rather than a unitary state dominated by Palestinian Arabs?  Upon reading the archival notes of the committee, the answer is clear. Sandström ended up supporting partition as the only reasonable conclusion. The conclusion was based on the reality of the situation, the overwhelming evidence that the two nationalities could not cooperate in a common federal polity. At the same time, Sandström not only ignored, but dismissed out of hand the Zionist case based on historical claims and even references to international law. Further, as Sandström wrote in the Majority Report, “Jewish immigration is the central political issue…and is the one factor above all others which makes impossible any effective cooperation between Arab and Jewish communities in a single state.” There was not a single reference of the impact of the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

García Salazar of Peru, who was part of the working group on partition and favoured a two-state solution, reversed himself and announced on 27 August 1947 that he was “no longer in favour of partition.” In any case, he had favoured a Jewish state restricted to Jewish population centres and a much larger Arab territorial entity. He agreed once again to support partition, even partition that gave much more territory to the Jews, only when the agreement was made to support a tripartite partition rather than simply two political entities. Ivan Rand was the author of this compromise for he had all along held out the possibility of a “free” city of Jerusalem “as a future bargaining asset.”

A Jerusalem under international control was seen as giving the Roman Catholic Church considerably more power in Jerusalem than if Jerusalem had been divided or if Jerusalem had been subjected to shared sovereignty. Jerusalem as an international city was traded for unanimity in the working group on partition. However, it was on this compromise that the hand and mind of Ralph Bunche became evident. The size of that international city was not restricted to the holy sites, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, Gethsemane and a link to Bethlehem. The extent of the autonomous zone from all of Jerusalem to Bethlehem was determined as a by-product of the desire to keep a conflictual area under trusteeship and used by Rand as a trading chip.

But that only yielded 5 votes in support of partition. The other two votes came from Karel Lisicky of Czechoslovakia and Justice Ivan Rand. Ironically, it was Ivan Rand who persuaded Rahman, Entezam and, much more easily, Simic, to support a federal rather than a unitary state. In the end, Rand favoured a definite solution and a partitioned state with an economic union as the most feasible practical solution. Lisicky came to the same conclusion.

A key component of the committee was the staffing, particularly Ralph Bunche of the U.S. who had headed the Trusteeship Division of the U.N. He anticipated that partition, a federal state or a unitary majoritarian state would mean war and no U.N. member with clout willing to prevent it. He strongly favoured transferring the Mandate to a UN Trusteeship using a committee of experts on the issue. However, the UNGA chose a different path.

Again, as secretary for UNSCOP, he could have played a strong role in trying to sway the members to adopt his position. (See his “Memorandum on the Palestine Problem,” 23 May 1947 based on the rights of each community, but neither on historical or legal precedents nor security concerns, that was released just before Trygve Lie convened the first formal session of UNSCOP on 26 May.)

However, Bunche was the ideal mandarin, a remarkable man dedicated to ensuring that the committee could undertake their work in an independent fashion. He was also a man committed to an international order built on goodwill and steeped in pure motives. From that stance, he had accepted the principle that resettlement of the Jewish refugees in other countries, especially in the U.S., was the way to go. It is also interesting that in his taxonomy of solutions, the two adopted, partition (majority) or a federal state (minority) were given short shrift by him in favour of a bi-national unitary state under a Trusteeship.

In considering the deliberations, there was no mention of the Holocaust nor of any guilt about the Nazi program of elimination of the Jews. The major issues were the sense of social justice among the Zionists, but most of all, the plight of the remainder of the Jewish refugees still in DP camps in Europe. The delegates, every one of them, were absolutely appalled at Britain for firing on the refugee ship, the Exodus. 

The Zionists could be said to have won 7 votes out of 11 for partition by the skin of their teeth and not because of the misfortunes of the victims of the Holocaust or guilt over their extermination.

Obviously, a much larger study on the creation of UNSCOP and its terms and conditions is needed. When the UK referred the matter of Palestine to the UN for advice, the UN failed to obtain a prior commitment from the UK that it would assist in implementing whatever recommendation was forthcoming. Many more details are needed about the minutiae of UNSCOP’s deliberations and conclusions, on developments at the UN leading to the partition decision, and on the plans for implementing and enforcing that decision.

The U.N. could have decided to use force but did not. As Dr. Jorge García Granados wrote, “the Jews were forced to set up a state by themselves with only the moral authority of the United Nations partition resolution behind them, but with assistance against armed invasion.” Most interestingly, the plans to derail the decision with a Trusteeship by the U.S., and then the turn against Trusteeship, needs to be described as well as the failure to get the U.S. to play an active role in the implementation of the resolution. However, I hope that this narrow summary provides strong evidence that guilt over the Holocaust played no role in the support for partition and allowing Jews to have a state of their own in a partitioned Palestine.

Seventy-two years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems no nearer a solution. However, clarifying that guilt over the Holocaust in 1945 to 1948 played virtually no role in support for partition does suggest that the international community cannot be relied upon to enforce a just decision, whatever that decision might be. Guilt over the Holocaust did not count then and guilt over the plight of the Palestinian refugees, the conditions in Gaza or the security threats against Israel are unlikely to be key factors in determining any international role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Missing from the discussion in this book (an edited book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is a systematic analysis of the role of the United Nations in the termination of the mandate.” In the absence of such a systematic study, myths have been allowed to grow and displace an objective historical account.

The Holocaust and the Creation of Israel Part IV: UNSCOP in General

During and following the Holocaust, Jews were in shock and grief. Distrust of the Western states had grown by leaps and bounds. Not only the survivors but the Jewish leadership as well faced getting on with the task at hand. That does not mean that these strong self-disciplined men They were virtually all men at the time) did not sometimes break down in despair. But, by and large, they kept their focus on the possible rather than on the much larger dream that had been lost to them. Practicality prevailed. We will take the refugees off your hands in return for a partitioned Jewish state in Palestine.

This approach was enhanced by the UNSCOP exclusive focus on Palestine, whereas the Anglo-American Commission of Enquiry in 1946 had included within its mandate the position of the Jewish remnant in Europe. The Holocaust was now merely part of a fading backdrop as UNSCOP zeroed in on what to do about Palestine.

As I explained in the last blog, this was not because the extermination of the Jews of Europe played no role in the policy deliberations on Palestine by Muslims, by Jews and by other states. However, the motivating factor was not guilt. As Brian Urquhart wrote in 1987 (A Life of Peace and War), in “this most complex and tragic of historical dilemmas, where two ancient peoples were in unequal but deadly competition for a small but infinitely significant piece of territory, a struggle made critical by Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews (my italics and as depicted in the last blog) on the one hand and the emergence of Arab nationalism on the other. Britain must be enabled to relinquish the mandate with dignity. The Jewish refugees from World War II must be allowed to settle. The Palestinians’ interests and rights must be protected. A plan must be found to accommodate the conflicting rights and demands of Arabs and Jews.”

UNSCOP was propelled by the refusal of Britain to accept the main recommendation of the Anglo-American Commission to move 100,000 refugees to Palestine. That became a central concern of their deliberations, as we shall see, for the Committee soon came to a unanimous agreement that, in spite of the very opposite expectations of the UK when it referred the issue to the UN, the British role in the governance of Palestine was over. The members of UNSCOP openly distrusted all of the British so-called experts and relied far more on what they saw and heard, especially the impression in July of the perfidy, ruthlessness and inhumanity of the British in dealing with the voyage and arrival of the Exodus. The only question was: what would succeed Britain and under what political arrangements?

Jacob Robinson noted that in the First Special Session on the Palestine question that there were countries strongly in support of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC). There was only one country that backed the Zionists – South Africa – a fact used against Israel ever since. Most UN member counties, thankfully, took a detached view. The key views were those of the members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Of course, exploring their views does not provide a definitive answer as to whether guilt over the Holocaust affected the recommendation for partition which was adopted and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in November of 1947. However, it is a powerful indicator because it offers a cross section of voices of key players in determining the recommendation with archived records of discussion. There is an assumption behind this focus. The UN was an independent agent and not simply either an instrument of the Great Powers or of the “collective will,” whatever that is, of its members.

Further, it is important not only to focus on the Majority Report recommending partition, but the other conclusions and rationale as well. These included:

·       Determining that the two communities in Palestine were irreconcilable;

·       Placing primary economic and political responsibility for implementation on the inhabitants, meaning that the expectation of war was inevitable;

·       Limiting immigration to sovereign control; on the one hand, that meant limitation by absorptive capacity – at that time and place, the land available; on the other hand, it meant allocating a higher percentage of the land to the Zionists than the existing population warranted to absorb 250,000 refugees;

·       Considering the value of economic unity in spite of the deep divide.

The Minority Report, recommending a federal solution, in spite of the enormous enmity between the Arabs and the Jews, concluded that interests would trump passions since, “it is extremely possible that if a federal solution were firmly and definitively imposed (my italics), the two groups, in their own self-interest, would gradually develop a spirit of cooperation.” After reading both reports, it is hard not to conclude that the Minority Report was more consistent in its thinking but less grounded in reality. The Majority Report rebutted, that only in two independent states could the onus of responsibility for the economic and political success of both be placed in the hands of each community and argued that the only way the Minority Report could be implemented was if force was used. Cooperation could not be forced, especially when immigration was at the centre of the divide and one side, the Arabs, insisted on hegemony that left no room for self-determination by the Other. As Sir Allan Cunningham told the committee, “Whatever solution you find must be imposed.” But the U.S. had vetoed that possibility.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The Palestinians through the Arab Higher Committee had decided to boycott the proceedings as I have said. They had a rationale. For the Zionists had boycotted the London Conference in 1946 while they had attended. However, the Bevin plan that resulted gave the Jews an autonomous province with total control of immigration, a position anathema to the Palestinians. Though the Bevin plan did not include partition, to the AHC it appeared to be the next worst thing. AHC decided more could be obtained by a boycott than by participating.

However, the AHC had already been weakened because of the divisions among the Arab states and between each of those states and the Palestinian leadership. The Zionists were also seriously divided, but that did not prevent most Zionist groups arguing for an independent Jewish state. Further, the AHC also alienated itself from UNSCOP, not only by its boycott, but by its extremist rhetoric against any Jewish immigration. Further, the AHC was adamantly opposed to any outside body recommending the future of what for them had to be a Palestinian majority state. Palestinian self-determination meant ignoring any non-Palestinian, especially a UN body, playing that role.

Ironically, the Arabs did count on Britain to bring them over the finish line. However, UNSCOP was an impartial committee dedicated to reasonableness and compromise. The passion of the AHC and its leadership, and the unwillingness to contemplate any compromise to dilute their right to self-determination in all of Palestine, turned off every one of the committee members who, whatever their personal and national biases, did believe in “reasonableness.” Reasonableness meant compromise. The Zionist acceptance of partition meant giving a degree of self-determination to the Arabs. The AHC’s adamant opposition to any self-determination for the Jews and any control of immigration inherently made them appear to be uncompromising.

The U.S. proposal of 11 neutral countries had been accepted, though the U.S.S.R. initially challenged the definition of Australia and Canada as neutral countries. Neutrality did not mean absence of bias, but exclusion of Jews and Arabs and a lack of any known prior commitment to a resolution of the crisis, or existing commitments that predetermined one outcome rather than another. It also meant procedural fairness. The balance in selection of countries would help ensure impartiality overall.

Dean Acheson had argued that Canada was indeed neutral because it did not have “a really serious Jewish problem.” The U.S. had originally nominated New Zealand, and, as we shall see, this would have made a substantive difference. But New Zealand declined and Australia was named. The two eastern European countries originally proposed were Poland and Czechoslovakia, but Yugoslavia was substituted for Poland. Like the switch of Australia for New Zealand, the inclusion of Yugoslavia instead of Poland would prove detrimental to the Zionists, though they were somewhat lucky when Guatemala and Uruguay were chosen rather than Brazil and Spain as originally proposed, given the members chosen by the two Latin American countries.

One might have thought that in the selection of two western European countries, the substitution of the Netherlands for Belgium would have favoured the Zionists given that Belgium was a unitary binational state, but, as we shall see, that did not prove to be initially true. Choosing India instead of Turkey seemed on the surface to favour the Zionists, but this again proved not to be true. Certainly, if the Philippines had been named instead of Iran, this would have helped the Zionists. Overall, serendipity and the selection of countries did not initially appear to work in favour of the Zionists.

The choice of “neutral” countries over the participation of the Great Powers, as favoured by the Eastern Bloc did mean, as Lester Pearson of Canada had predicted, a weakening of the authority of UNSCOP and its ability to implement any recommendation. UNSCOP would turn out to be a moral voice but not a practical route to avoiding violence in Palestine.

I will focus exclusively on the individual representatives on UNSCOP, what their attitudes were or were likely to be in May 1947 and how and why their attitudes and beliefs shifted between mid-May of 1947 and the end of August, a period of less than four months when the majority on the committee recommended a three-fold partition of the country, the creation of two states and the internationally run region of Jerusalem linked by an economic union among all three entities and mutual dependence in matters of security. What were the original attitudes of the members of the committee in May of 1947 to the two key questions that preoccupied the committee – the plight of the refugees left in Europe and the three-way political conflict in Palestine of Arabs versus Jews and both against Britain?

At the very beginning of its deliberations, the committee determined that Palestine, because of its small size and the political tensions between Arabs and Jews could not be an answer to the so-called Jewish question. This was not a formidable start for the Zionists. As it were, this guiding principle was abandoned or shunted into the background by all the delegates over the next four months. So much for guidelines! Nevertheless, it became clear that the principle of self-determination of Jews in their historic homeland would NOT guide the deliberations of the committee. The principle written into the Palestine Mandate had been abandoned. Practical challenges and internal politics took over as commanding determinants in the deliberations – none of which had anything to do with either Zionist premises and certainly with the Holocaust.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Movie Review: Everybody Knows Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

Though the principle of the obligation of charity includes everyone, that is not where it starts. Everybody Knows is a film about the inability of each and every member of the family and group of friends to reprove another because each has never learned to critique oneself. Instead, rebuke is expressed as resentment absent of love, as defensiveness rather than openness to an Other. It turns out that everybody knows the deep secret that only the father and mother of a kidnapped girl supposedly know, but no one knows how to engage in inter-personal criticism or conversation.

There can be no grudges underlying that criticism. There can be no resentment underpinning a reproof, such as the resentment that when Paco, the son of a servant, bought his land from Laura at a bargain-basement price, there is a deeply held belief amongst family members that the deal was rotten. In the end, however leaky the boat, however deep the wounds of the past, Asghar Farhadi’s films are ultimately about compassion and humanity.

Everybody knows this. We are commanded to do what we already know. However, Everybody Knows is about denial, is about ignoring what everyone knows, not just as a general commandment, but as a very specific piece of information that, as it is revealed, thrusts a dagger at the unity, at the harmony, at the solidarity of a Spanish family. (No spoiler alert is needed. I do not intend to reveal the hidden secret that everyone knows.)

Penélope Cruz (Laura) is a Spanish woman who has married an Argentinian and lives in Buenos Aries. The movie begins with her return after many years with her two children in tow, her frisky free-spirited impulsive sixteen-year-old daughter, Irene (Carla Campra) and her younger, almost dopy son, Diego (Iván Chavero). They return to a small village outside Madrid where her family lives. She is there to attend the wedding of one of her sisters, Ana (Inma Cuesta), to a very nice guy (Roger Casamajor) at the same time that she learns that the marriage of her other sister, Mariana (Elvira Mínguez) has fallen apart and the couple have evidently decided to split. (That turns out to be a convenient lie and a cover-up. The couple do eventually split in a much deeper way because together they threw an axe into the core of the family.)

In one opening, the wedding is a raucous, joy-filled affair attended by members of this large family and their friends in a picturesque village and filmed with photographic genius by Pedro Almódovar, cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine. The film has a second opening. Javier Bardem (Paco) is joyously picking grapes with his workers, grapes to be made into wine, not sacral wine, but wine to be enjoyed as an intrinsic part of celebrating life, wine that is truly holy. The spiritual in this movie may be identified with rebukes in a family, but it is not identified with asceticism and abstinence, though Ricardo Darín as Alejandro will testify that his life was saved when his daughter was born and he swore off alcohol. The narrative of the movie will testify to the falseness of the claim.

The wine is holy in the Jewish sense of making the physical world spiritual by making what seems mundane holy. Wine is specifically suited to this because, as Paco lectures to a group of students, wine improves rather than, like other foods, decaying with age. Wine gains in character and in personality courtesy of time. It gets better over time. Thou shalt become a holy people by saying a blessing over wine. Wine testifies that it is by raising the physical to the spiritual, not rejecting the physical, that we become holy. And the holiest moments of the film take place in the first forty minutes in drinking wine and celebrating at a very joyous wedding in the Spanish sun and when Alejandro, the abstainer lest he resume his alcoholism, has not yet appeared, not yet come from Buenos Aries.

Time is at the centre of the film, not as a Kantian aesthetic framework for framing our sensible experiences as successive moments, but as the phenomenology of time, as a clock in a church tower with a hole in the clock that no longer keeps accurate time. Instead, Laura and Paco unite in a race to play for time and prevent a tragedy at the same time as we learn that it was the last moment of ecstatic time that set the stage for the unfolding possible tragedy. For the wedding, which was a time of unbridled joy, turns into a fast-moving suspense thriller and a nightmare in which the past will erupt to haunt the present.

We know this before we actually learn of it when Laura’s high-spirited daughter, Irene, climbs the circular stair with Paco’s nephew, Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) who is clearly smitten. Irene in the first one-third of the movie instills in the audience the gravest sense of unease, of anticipation of disaster. Like all towers where princesses dwell, this one is haunted by secrets, first and foremost, the fact of Laura and Paco’s initials carved into the stone wall of the tower as a phantasm provide eternal proof that the two were once lovers. But this is a heartbreaking film, about two lovers who inadvertently broke each other’s hearts, about a ravaged and grieving mother cast in an existential angst over her missing daughter, and her own mother who also knows who the villains are. Paco as a take-charge man who, in the end, drinks suppressed and long forgotten memories rather than wine, as his heart is torn apart a second time and he falls apart into vulnerability even as he saves the day.

Instead of wine improving with age, the unresolved love and secret between Laura and Paco, the failure to open up fully to one another in the past, has eaten away at each of their spirits, so, in spite of the beauty of Penélope, the rugged handsomeness of Javier and the real electricity between them, everything dissolves into thin air. The mystery begins by trying to figure out the family tree and is sustained as we try to understand the role of Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie) whose part I never came to understand, except it is she who hired her nephew (?) to take drone shots of the wedding mélange as the drone retreats upwards and the family shrinks and its members become indistinct. Is she the eye of God, of a heavenly surveillance of the tragic scene? Her role is suspiciously sinister. I finished the film perplexed about her part.  

The film begins in celebration. In contrast, in the Jewish nation, we begin by mourning our losses. We begin with Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for the soldiers who fell in battle for the nation and the civilians who lost their lives to terrorists. Only then does Yom HaAtzmaut follow. We begin, rather than end, with a broken heart. Self-criticism and critique of others provide the opportunity to repair the world. Only when we have paid the cost of such repairs, only when we understand why the repair was necessary, why the sacrifice was made, are we entitled to celebrate.

When Everybody Knows begins with such enormous celebration, such overwhelming joy, the sense of creeping disaster, of what is festering behind that joy, begins to haunt us so that when the disaster begins to unfold, we are tossed to the ground. Only when the order is reversed in real life, can we move on to repair the world.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I: Parashat K’doshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27 Movie Review: Everybody Knows Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

I have published the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s song from his album, I’m Your Man, as introductions to other blogs. It requires reprinting even though it is never sung or hummed in the film, Everyone Knows, but its prophetic pessimism haunts the film.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows 

K’doshim is the heart and soul of the Holiness Code in the Torah. The section offers instructions on how to be a holy people. Parashat K’doshim also includes the commandment, “You shall surely rebuke your kinsfolk…” (Leviticus 19:17) What does becoming a holy people have to do with a commandment concerning rebuking the members of your family? And what do commandments about becoming a holy people and rebuking the members of your family have to do with a Spanish film, Everybody Knows, directed and written by the brilliant Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi? (Dancing in the Dust, 2003; Beautiful City, 2004; Fireworks Wednesday, 2006; About Elly, 2009; A Separation, 2011, that won awards around the world, including the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, the first Iranian director to win such an award; and The Salesman, 2016, his tribute to Arthur Miller) What can the parashat have to do with his first non-Iranian Spanish movie that stars such powerhouses as Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín?

Serendipitously, though I missed the film when it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival (8 September 2018), and did not see it in its general release in February when I was in Mexico, I saw it last evening on Netflix. However, isn’t the movie simply an artistic combined thriller and whodunnit, a somewhat turgid melodrama? It is all of those, but very much more. However, for a real stretch, what does the weekly Torah reading and this film have to do with Israel’s Memorial Day to its fallen soldiers and Israel’s Independence Day?

The questions alone are a challenge to comprehend. I will start with depicting the central theological problem of the Holiness Code and then connect the theme with a movie that appears simply to be a melodrama but reveals itself to be, at its core, a film with a powerful religious theme. I will end by then connecting the theological conundrum in the Torah and the theme of the movie with Memorial Day and Independence Day in Israel.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2) God also commanded, “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) As Hillel taught was the core of Judaism, “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד), or, as in this passage in Parashat K’doshim – “love your fellow as yourself.” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ) The latter dictum offers a hint of a connection with a movie that reveals itself to be about hidden grudges within a family, resentments, rebukes and exercises in revenge. But what connection could there be about becoming a holy people?

Given his own uniqueness, God wanted his people to be set apart from the other nations of the world. That is one way to interpret the commandment. But note that the latter is surely the most difficult commandment of all if only because it is impossible for an individual to fulfill. In contrast, in all romanticism in all cultures, uniqueness is revered. Further, rules of sexual conduct, rules about eating and praying, all of these can be obeyed by an individual. But a commandment to become a holy people, kol adat B’nai Yisrael?

There is the clear implication that an individual on his or her own cannot become holy. Nor is holiness restricted to priests, those with holy ordinances, the elite who enjoy the advantages of prosperity, or to those who are reborn in God or Christ, or even to those who give of themselves for the sake of others. There are examples of all these types and more in the movie. The priest who officiates at the wedding is rebuked from the pews for always begging for more money to repair the church, implying that he neglects to tell them what they need to know to repair their communal souls. To become holy requires an extended family, a community, a nation. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

You shall be holy. It is a work in progress. Israel’s status as God’s holy people is fluid. It is an effort that most challenges us when we encounter a maelstrom in our lives. When we need it most, we are commanded to become holy. And the effort emerges in the hour-to-hour, day-to-day struggles that we all engage in as we go through life, but made all the clearer in the bright sun-dappled Spain that turns into a rainy and dark film after we are at our most celebratory and when we enter an intimately painful phase and are most emotionally torn apart in frantic desperation.

The clue about how to be holy is that we must imitate God, imitate the divine. Imitatio Dei. But what does that mean? At the very least it means caring for the other. And not just an other individual. But caring for the collective we. Not just the workers engaged in a class struggle. Not just the Democratic cosmopolitans at war with the local nationalist patriots and ethnic nationalists so that we become holy be being different than others. Make America great! No, holiness, entails becoming a holy nation that is a light unto the nations. And that effort starts with the family, starts by understanding how to rebuke the members of your family and your friends and deal with the barely hidden ghosts of the past that cast shadows and serve as specters on a film initially filled with brilliant sun-kissed light.

The Hebrews emerged as a distinct people in the early Iron Age (1200 – 1000 B.C.E.). In no other religion, in no other culture, does the requirement to be holy fall on a whole people. Does this mean simply exclusivity? Does this mean simply following a unique set of dietary and other laws? If so, how could a people then be a light unto the nations?

Becoming a community, a light unto the nations, is the most important way we sanctify our lives. That is the critical way in which we become partners with the divine. But then why is holiness defined as that which sets us apart, that which defines us as not part of a community, not part of a nation and not part of the community of nations? How can separateness be intrinsic to spirituality while the injunction insists that the only way we can become holy is through a community becoming holy?

Entitlements, literally, having title to something – a piece of land or a house or an estate or a particular vineyard or a set of unique laws – are not equated either with separating oneself from others or in obeying the command to joining with others to become a holy people. Becoming separate and holy at one and the same time has nothing to do with privileges either earned or awarded. It has almost everything to do with sharing criticisms with members of one’s family, of one’s community, with how one rebukes and how one accepts rebukes. Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure while everyone shares in a broken feeling and everybody knows that the captain lied and that the plague is coming.

This blog is an exercise in criticism. It is really about myself before it is about the Torah portion, a movie or the sequence of Jewish holidays. I share it with others so that we can together engage in self-examination. When I write about Everybody Knows, it is to work towards bringing out in the open what everyone already knows. That was the mission of Socrates. It is not intended as an assault on my own identity, on the identity of another and certainly not on the great artistry of someone who can create a great film. Criticism is simply a craft, like knitting, an effort at sharing and giving my meagre gifts to the world, at understanding the tensions underneath the surface, and not at tearing apart the world. Most of all, it should never be about challenging one’s identity. There is no need to be defensive and every reason not to be.

I am not speaking simply of the cliché instructing us to only engage in constructive criticism. For criticism if it is real, if it is profound, has to deconstruct. But how do we deconstruct at the same time as we enhance our love for one another? The Torah provides an answer, at least in general. Hochei-ach tochi-ach et amitecha. To rebuke properly, you must do it twice. You must criticize yourself and your own shortcomings before you remonstrate others, specifically your kin. Criticism is about initiating dialogue and a more general conversation so that we do not hide from one another, so there are no longer unburied secrets and unhealed wounds.

When one mother at the Denver STEM School Highlands Ranch, where a student died this week in another shooting incident, contacted authorities in the school before the shooting to suggest that, given the evidence of her son, the school might be a pressure cooker about to explode because of reports of violence, bullying and stress, she warned of the possibility of another Columbine. The school officials subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against her.  

Everybody Knows at its heart is about this failure to rebuke oneself before turning on others. The command to love your neighbor as you love yourself is not as simple as it appears. Certainly it means taking responsibility for the stranger, for the men and women who pick the grapes on your estate in order to make wine. Certainly it means taking care of the disabled, the pater familias of the clan which is celebrating the marriage of one of his daughters even though he is an irate and resentful former gambler and alcoholic who must use a chair lift to get to the second floor of his house. Certainly, it entails that we understand that we are all God’s children, all “children of the Lord, your God’ (Deuteronomy 14:1)

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman