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


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

Machiavelli: Netanyahu and Trump

pBibi Netanyahu won the 2019 Israeli general election. He has, in my mind, correctly been hailed as a brilliant Machiavellian politician, even by those strongly opposed to his policies and performance. As Gal Beckerman wrote in The New York Times, “no one can dispute his genius at political survival.” And survival in power is at the core of Machiavellianism. Neill Lochery, in his 2016 biography of Bibi, The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, painted a portrait of a politician fixated on survival, on persistence, on endurance. It is the essence of Netanyahu’s modus operandi. As Lochery wrote, Netanyahu’s career “has been all about survival.” Not quite!

Some, or even most, commentators believe that this focus on retaining power and developing the resilience to do so is incompatible with having goals and an agenda. But that would be incorrect. The goal of Bibi has always been to secure the geographical boundaries of an expanded Israeli state even as Lochery portrayed the details of Bibi’s Machiavellian domestic and foreign moves. Contrary to popular opinion, Bibi is not a radical right ideologue cut from the same cloth as his father, Benzion Netanyahu. A two-state solution, yes, but not necessarily a two-state solution. Benzion would never have made such a concession.

On the other hand, Netanyahu junior did not simply bow to the left and then to the right just to keep power. Keeping power was a requisite to achieving his long-term goal. That is why he is a Machiavellian and not an ideologue like his father. And that is why he is neither a pragmatist nor a practitioner of realpolitik. That is why he is also not an immoral fantasist like Trump. He has been and remains flexible as required by the historical moment, but to retain power, and to retain power to achieve a specific goal.

Lochery incorrectly dubs this “pragmatism.” There are two meanings to pragmatic, in ordinary parlance suggesting practicality or common sense in contrast to conceptual or aesthetic ideals, and, in a second meaning, a derivative adjective of the philosophy of pragmatism. But Lochery errs in branding Bibi a pragmatist in either sense. He is definitely NOT wedded to common sense, but displays an uncommon sense of what it takes to stay in power while refusing to adjust to what others consider common sense in dealing with the security and survival of the State of Israel. One may disagree with his vision of how to achieve it or whether that should be the goal, but that is his vision. He has one, but Machiavellian means offer the instruments to achieve such a goal.

Nor is Bibi a philosophical pragmatist who insists that an idea is valid if it is doable, if it works, if it leads to success. Bibi is committed to the idea of a stronger, expanded Israeli state even if a majority of Israelis, and certainly the rest of the world, are committed to reifying some version of the Israeli 1967 state. An idea is not simply valid because it can be successful. In Netanyahu’s definition, the job of a politician is to use the means necessary to make his vision of the future succeed.

A Machiavellian politician has a huge political toolkit to pursue success rather than be committed to others’ views of success. Pragmatists don’t simply twist and turn to adapt to the flavour of the day. They are instrumentalists of a very high order, but a very different instrumentalism than Machiavellianism. And that Machiavellianism does not convert Netanyahu to the practice of realpolitik either. Bibi held onto Israel’s ties to a bipartisan American vision of Israel, but, at the first opportunity to make a move when an opening occurred to advance his goal, he sacrificed that fundamentalist conviction of fostering American bipartisan support for Israel that previously defined the character of Israeli political success. In the process, he will soon supersede Ben Gurion and become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

I propose to tackle Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism by considering his political practices, both under the popular view of Machiavelli and the scholarly view of Machiavellianism. In the next blog, I will then see how Moses as well, who Machiavelli admired enormously, can be seen as a Machiavellian in the scholarly interpretation I put forth.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat and politician, historian and philosopher of the Renaissance, has deeded to modernity an idea of politicians as simply scheming unprincipled opportunists who will use any means available to retain power. A politician to succeed must be cunning, constantly scheming and inherently unscrupulous. Politics is then viewed as a high-level confidence game based on deception and manipulation. On the personal level, politics may even be neurotic and narcissistic, pessimistic and paranoid, self-serving and stealthy. Both the principle of “the end justifies the means” and the strategies embraced by realpolitik have been credited to Machiavelli. This is Machiavelli’s legacy in the popular imagination, but is this what he thought?

Though Donald Trump shares a few of the above characteristics, he is too impulsive and so lacking in self-control and discipline that he would be considered an insult even to the popular view of Machiavellianism. More importantly, Trump is a liar on a gargantuan level and he tells lies that are easily exposed. “Wikileaks is a marvellous godsend.” “I know nothing about Wikileaks and have nothing to do with it.” Trump repeatedly utters the most contradictory of assertions. Most importantly, Trump’s narcissistic psychopathy is self-destructive, while Machiavellianism, even in the popular imagination, is identified with a determination to succeed. What Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism and Donald Trump’s psychopathy have in common is an indifference to public moral standards and a willingness to push forward with little if any regard for the effects on others.

However, does this popular view of Machiavelli have anything to do with the views Machiavelli espoused. His most famous book is Il Principe (The Prince) or The Ruler. In Chapter 6 entitled, “Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability,” he depicts Moses as a ruler who rose to power through his ability, even though he is often depicted as a man who simply carries out the will of God. Like other great leaders, Moses was an opportunist, not in the sense of taking advantage of others, but in turning situations he faced into opportunities to advance an agenda.

True Machiavellians are men of courage and ability. Donald Trump is a coward and offers little evidence of any analytic skills, though he certainly has an instinctive grasp of populism. Further, Machiavellians are reformers rather than restorationists of nostalgic agendas. Disagreements with the direction of those reforms should not blind an observer to respecting an agenda as infused with advancing the ruler’s vision of the well-being of the polis. Trump, unlike Bibi, has absolutely no vision of the well-being of the American polis. And, Bibi, contrary to much of his portrayal, is not a mini-Trump, even though he faces indictments and Trump may do the same, even though both denounce fake news, even thought Bibi advertises his partnership with The Donald and even though they both seem to enjoy a strong personal rapport. The reality is that Bibi is a nationalist of a very different order than Donald Trump, a visionary rather than nostalgic nationalist.

Unlike Trump, true Machiavellians, in advancing their agendas, recognize the fickleness of the public, note that enthusiasms wane and fade. The true Machiavellian is able to sustain a long-term agenda and, in some way, use penalties to enforce discipline and accept sacrifices for the sake of a long-term goal. Their tenacity is not to be confused with blind dogmatism indifferent to realities on the ground. Rather, a Machiavellian in the scholarly rather than popular sense has to deal with the resentments and resistances within the body politic and recognize that, however despised or resented for the tactics used, eventually he will be lauded and honoured and accorded affection and respect. The men close to the real Machiavellian are loyal and devoted; a great Machiavellian is able to expand and grow that core rather than treating others as disposable instruments à la Trump.  

Bibi Netanyahu aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian even if he does not quite succeed. Donald Trump does not even qualify as a player. Bibi Netanyahu demonstrates superior skills in manipulating others, whether Donald Trump himself or Vladimir Putin, while Donald Trump goes through acolytes as if they were candy lifesavers. But there is another even more profound difference between an authentic Machiavellian and a Donald Trump. Machiavellians and Trumpists both despise those saintly and noble figures who make a profession of goodness. They regard such a person as fated to come to grief since politics is considered, by authentic Machiavellians, as the art of the possible rather than the delusion of the impossible, whether bad or good. Trumpists are simply bad. Machiavellians make discerning judgements about when it is best to be good and, at the same time, recognize whom one must ignore and what good can be discarded in favour of longer-term goals and aspirations.

Where Netanyahu fails as an authentic Machiavellian compared to Moses is in his lack of prudence in charting a course that avoids scandal and indulgence in vices that undermine his hold on power. That does not mean that an authentic Machiavellian will not use vices and bad means if viewed as necessary to maintaining his rule. The measure is not whether an action is characterized as virtuous or a vice, but whether the action contributes to one’s success or undermines it. Thus, a true Machiavellian ruler is not ostentatious, but a miser. At the same time, he is willing to set aside parsimony when incoming revenue is sufficient and enterprises can be initiated which benefit the people, or, at the very least, do not impose additional burdens. However, more generally, an authentic Machiavellian adopts a practice of niggardliness, even though it is a vice, but does so only when it reinforces his reign and hold on power.

That principle applies to virtues as well as vices. Mercy is a virtue. An authentic Machiavellian must both display and be considered merciful. But not weak. He should not appear to be a wimp or a bleeding heart. More importantly, the high value placed on mercy should not detract from a willingness to be cruel when considered necessary to secure the well-being and stability of the realm and when critical to ensuring citizens remain united and faithful. The latter is critical. For in all situations, an authentic Machiavellian fosters unity even as he suffers and even destroys forces directed at disunity. An authentic Machiavellian may be a dissembler, but his goal is never to fracture the body politic, but to strengthen and reinforce it. Sacrifice others when absolutely necessary. But never sacrifice simply because of personal inconvenience or distaste.

Loyalty must be developed, not presumed. Individuals must not be discarded whenever they fail to meet the whims and standards of the moment. Though a true Machiavellian is not driven by a desire to earn the love of the people, he certainly wants to avoid inflaming their hatred. A pathological psychopath as a leader will wallow in public demonstrations of affection to soothe his insecurities. An authentic Machiavellian will not kowtow to win affection, but will scrupulously seek endurance and prevent hatred driving the emotions of the populace. A true Machiavellian practices a politics of hope rather than fear, but hope founded on prudence rather than wishes and dreams or fantasies and delusions.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the psychopathic narcissistic ruler in contrast to an authentic Machiavellian one is the disrespect the former holds with respect to the rule of law while the latter holds law in the highest esteem. However, a Machiavellian is not an idealist. He must be willing to employ force whenever necessary. A true and great ruler will know when law must be bracketed and force employed. As Machiavelli wrote, “One must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Always a fox but, if necessary, a lion. But one always able to disguise and hide one’s foxiness, to disguise this character and feign another. A true fox dissembles so that he is not recognized as a fox. Abraham Lincoln offers and excellent example. What is most important is that the fox succeed in his deceptions.

Abraham Lincoln projected mercy, was seen to have a reservoir of deep faith, humanity and religion topped off by integrity. He was to all public purposes “Honest Abe.” Netanyahu rarely if ever lives up to such a standard as much as he tries and aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian. In the end, he lacks what it takes to excel as a Machiavellian. On the other hand, compared to most of his rivals domestically and on the world stage, he is an exemplar of Machiavellianism.

With the help of Alex Zisman



“REDEMPTION: One year after an historic loss, Virginia wins its first title.” This was the headline this week in The Washington Post reporting on the victory in the men’s NCAA basketball finals of Virginia’s victory over Texas Tech by a score of 85-77. I do not watch sports on television, so please forgive me for not recognizing at first that this was a college contest between two universities. But I could not ignore the first word of the headline, a word I usually associate with religion even though it has a common ordinary and secular application.

Basically, Virginia not only won its first NCAA basketball championship, but it did so in overtime, the first NCAA championship to go into overtime since 2008. Virginia did so against the background of the year before in March of 2018 when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed by 74-54. In 2019, the team redeemed itself from the previous year’s humiliation. Individual team players also redeemed themselves. Kyle Guy, named the most outstanding player, scored 24 points. Ty Jerome scored 16 points and had eight assists, the last with 12.9 seconds left in the regulation game. Jerome dribbled up the side rather than directly down the centre and fed the ball to DeAndre Hunter in the corner, who, at halftime, had only scored five points. Hunter scored and the game was tied 68-68 as it went into overtime.

It was during overtime that the team really redeemed itself, making all 12 of its free throws. Hunter scored another three-point shot with 2:09 left to provide a 75-73 lead and eventually Virginia won by eight points, 85-77.

Sports figures can redeem themselves. So too can sports teams. Bus redemption is also used in politics. Yesterday, I wrote about the Israeli election. In that case, one party, Labour, embarrassed itself by winning only 6 seats when it previously held 20 seats and once was the “natural” ruling party of Israel. That party had been dominated by Ashkenazi, but tried to recover from its gradual decline by bringing in Avi Gabbay, a rags-to-riches Mizrachi who had become the CEO of Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Gabbay’s most fateful mistake that proved that he could never become Prime Minister was to declare that he would not sit in a coalition with the Arab parties. This meant that the centre-left would never win enough seats in total to form a government.

In one case in sports we had a successful redemption while in the second case in politics, a political party failed not only to redeem itself but went down to ignominious defeat. Neither is a case of religious redemption. This past week, I attended an event at my synagogue called, “In Pursuit of Redemption: Where is Redemption Found in the Jewish and Catholic Traditions? – An Interfaith Program in Anticipation of Pesach and Easter.” This joint Jewish-Roman Catholic program included wonderful choral music based on the exodus theme, a 1987 film (Babette’s Feast) adopted from Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) 1958 last collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, and commentary on the film.

Religious redemption differs from secular redemption in a number of important respects:

  • In the secular meaning, an individual, a team or a party redeems itself; in the religious meaning, God is the redeemer and humans serve as God’s messengers.
  • The third blessing of the morning prayers declares that God alone is the eternal redeemer; in other words, when God redeems, it is not a contrast between one point in time and another, but the redemption is forever.
  • Instead of being redeemed from loss, you are redeemed from oppression in the Hebrew tradition and from sin in the Christian tradition
  • In the Jewish tradition, a collectivity, the Jewish people, is redeemed rather than simply an individual as in the primary meaning in Christianity, but this contrast requires qualification – see below.
  • There is another secular meaning of redemption in commerce, as when a bond is redeemed or a debt repaid derived from the core meaning derived from the Latin, “redemption” from “redimere,” to buy back.

However, the latter is also the core meaning in Hebrew. The verb, gä’al, means “to regain possession by payment,” in other words, “to buy back.” Paying a ransom is a form of redemption. But there is another meaning referring to revenge, “to avenge bloodshed” by blood (Numbers 35:19). The Passover holiday is about redemption. The Hebrews were spared the death of their oldest child by putting blood on their door-posts. Further, the entire narrative is a story of redemption from oppression in Egypt to freedom and sovereignty in their own land.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (The Human Role in Redemption) claimed that there could be no redemption without an individual assuming responsibility and taking action. Though God grants the redemption, humans initiate the process. (pp. 152-3) Man must be God’s shaliach or messenger, a malakh, an angel. When Virginia redeemed itself by winning against Texas Tech, individual players had to be the source of that redemption through their athletic skills. The religious dimension is added by declaring that a player’s and the team’s overall effort depended ultimately on God’s will. In Prophetic Choice, Martin Buber wrote that, “There is no other people in the world that believes in the great value of each and every person in humanity [to shape] the future so that the Creation will be fixed (takana) and redeemed by virtue of the will and actions of humanity.”

National salvation in this view is not a guarantee, but dependent on human choice and action. It is not a matter of optimism, but of hope that requires human activity for fulfillment. God may be the redeemer, but redemption depends on a partnership. That initiative requires putting the conditions for redemption in place. In the morning Amidah prayers in this morning’s synagogue service, nineteen blessings ae recited. The first three praise God (1) as the God of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, (2) for His power and strength and (3) for the sanctification of God’s name. The prayer for redemption is number 7 which asks God to rescue the people of Israel, but it is preceded by three other prayers, (4) a prayer to grant understanding (binah), (5) a prayer for repentance (teshuvah) and (6) a prayer for forgiveness (selichah).

Thus, though the story of Passover is a tale of travelling from oppression to freedom, there are prerequisites, praising God for choosing the Israelites to receive the Torah, for His strength and for the holiness of His name. There are three other prerequisites that belong to the individual – understanding, repentance and forgiveness. Redemption stands on these six divine and human supports. This suggests that redemption follows from three conditions that are a human responsibility – understand what one did and why one acted in the way one did, acknowledge responsibility for one’s actions and ask forgiveness for one’s failings. Then and only then is one in a position to be redeemed.

Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus offered a wonderful interpretation of the Passover narrative which puts women at the centre to ensure understanding, repentance and forgiveness as prerequisites to the redemption of the people. Exodus begins by relaying how the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became enslaved and oppressed by a pharaoh who did not know Joseph, culminating in the order to kill the firstborn of the Israelites.

First, Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives, are instructed to look (ur’iten) at the birthstool to see whether the infant is a boy or girl and, if a boy, to destroy the newborn child (Exodus 1:15-16).

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת-הָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַל-הָאָבְנָיִם:  אִם-בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ, וְאִם-בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה. 16 and he said: ‘When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, ye shall look upon the birthstool: if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.’

This seeing is understanding that the sacrifice of the males is no longer to be symbolic by performing a circumcision and drawing forth a drop of blood. Then, Shiphrah and Puah review their past practices and expertise and determine that they cannot do what they have been ordered to do and they engage in “wholehearted repentance” to draw closer to God and away from the authority of the Pharaoh. In order to succeed, they lie. The two midwives told the Pharaoh that the Israelite women gave birth so fast that they never got there on time.   

They ask for and God forgives theirs sin for they lied in God’s name to confront the affliction and cause of the Israelites and for the sake of God’s name. God can then get on with redeeming His people. The Pharaoh then simply ordered the Egyptians to throw the first-born males of the Israelites into the Nile River. From the tribe of Levy, a male infant is born to an Israelite woman, her first son. When she (2:2) “saw, votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא) how beautiful the infant was, she hid him and then, after three months, put the child in a wicker basket coated with bitumen and pitch and floated it down the river where the baby was (2:5) “spotted,” votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף). The princess sees a baby crying and her heart goes out to him and she too disobeys the order to kill the first-born Hebrew male.

One has to see and understand before there can be any redemption. One has to concretely repent by engaging in civil disobedience. Then and only then will God forgive you for a sin of disobedience for it was carried out for a higher cause. Moses follows a different path. He, too, is also overwhelmed with compassion as he saw an overseer whipping a Hebrew slave. (2:11) Seeing no one about, he killed him. But Moses did not see, as the women did, with compassion, but only with regard to his own safety. And he was wrong in believing he did so undetected. He had been spotted and fled Egypt. Moses at this point did not understand (that is, comprehend with compassion), did not repent but fled and was not forgiven for killing the overseer.

Understanding must be conjoined with compassion. Repentance is not simply saying you are sorry, but taking action and committing a crime in the name of a higher law. The action is then blessed by forgiveness. The women were the first to understand, to repent by their actions and be forgiven by God for their transgressions against the political authority of the day. In contrast, Moses acted rashly out of compassion and did not understand, committed a crime but fled the scene and, therefore could not be forgiven and was not yet ready to serve God as the redeemer of His people. It would take time before Moses would be able to see, would be able to disobey earthly authority, would be forgiven for his initial rash action. Moses had to look and see with understanding as well as compassion. Then he would not only personally change direction, but change the course of history.

Only when Moses passed those markers, could the Israelites be delivered from their oppression and be redeemed (geulah). Gaal means cover or protect (Job 3:4) Geulah also refers to the redeeming of property. Redemption in the material sense is conjoined with religious redemption. The Israelites are redeemed by gaining the land of Canaan.

The narratives of redemption in the Torah, is not only the one of the Exodus, but the one of Esther celebrated recently as Purim, and, even more telling, the story told in the Book of Ruth. Naomi was left with two Moabite daughters-in-law and all three were widows. She returns to the land of Israel with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, who exhibited extraordinary love and compassion for her mother-in-law. Ruth, a Moabite, was blessed with understanding.

What you sow you shall not necessarily reap, for you must ensure that enough grain is left for the poor and the needy. Leviticus 23:22 reads:

כב  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם, לֹא-תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ, וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  22 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God. 

And again in Deuteronomy 24:19-22:

ט  כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה, לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ–לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה:  לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.  {ס} 19 When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hands. {S}
כ  כִּי תַחְבֹּט זֵיתְךָ, לֹא תְפַאֵר אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 20 When thou beatest thine olive-tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.
כא  כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ, לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 21 When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it after thee; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

Naomi and Ruth are among those needy. They are widows. The two women tied together by a ribbon of compassion come in contact with the compassionate Law of Sowing and Reaping. Ruth meets with Boaz, the steward of God’s land titled to both he and his brother. Ruth is his sister-in-law. She goes to him while he is sleeping and protecting his grain from thieves and uncovers his feet in an act of submission and states: “I am Ruth your maid. So, as a close relative, spread your covering over me.” In effect, she seduces Boaz. This too is an act of repentance in the sense of challenging norms in the name of a higher norm. She is clearly forgiven by both Boaz and God for being forward. As a result, Naomi redeems her son’s land and Ruth is redeemed through marriage to Boaz.

Exodus is the story on a collective level of the sequence of understanding, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. It is both an individual and a collectivist motif. Further, it is material as well as “spiritual.” That is why the 1987 film, Babette’s Feast, is so interesting. Gabriel Axel’s Danish film is Pope Francis’s favourite movie. The two beautiful and beatific sisters in the film are God’s angels (malokhim) who turn their backs on realization of success in this world, one from marriage to an army officer and the other from fame as a divine singer. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Brigitte Federspiel) perform good works and conduct prayer groups to honour their Lutheran father, the original Protestant pastor of this Danish community dedicated to simplicity and community.

The two angels take in a refugee in flight from the French civil war, Babette, (Stéphane Audran) who lost both her husband and son in that conflict. She carries an introduction from Filippa’s opera singer suitor. After 14 years of payless service to the two angelic sisters, Babette wins a lottery from a gift of a ticket by the man who wanted to make one of the sisters famous as an opera star. Redemption in the normal sense is inverted. For Babette uses all the money to put on the most splendid feast possible, quite the opposite end of what this small Lutheran cult dedicated to minimalism are used to. The food and drink serve to redeem the villagers from their gray and narrow and puritanical world and remind them of God’s beautiful and sensual and aromatic and tasteful material bounty.

Thus, the Passover feast is an integral part of the path of redemption, for redemption is both material and spiritual. And, at the end of the seder, instead of four ponderous and leading questions, the matriarch of the house can ask her guests whether “she has served enough of too much.”

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Israeli Elections

By now, everyone knows that Netanyahu, as predicted by polls, will take the reigns of power in the new Israeli government, even though Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party (B&W) or Kahol Lavan gained the same number of seats – 35 – as Netanyahu’s Likud, and even though B&W did significantly better than polls indicated. The reason is simple. To form a government in a Knesset of 120 seats, you need at least 60 seats. Each leading party had to get the support of minority parties controlling 25 seats. Netanyahu could count on about 30 of that 50 up for grabs while Gantz could only assemble 10 or so and, at best, 20, if he had the courage to include a Palestinian-Israeli party within the government – a highly iffy prospect. The Bibi-Benny show was just that – a show.

Further, Likud won more votes than B&W, 13,000 more. However, the story of the election was not what happened to the two leading parties, but the fate of the minor parties. This has always been true in Israeli elections where the government is dependent on forming a coalition. The threshold for qualification as a party in the Knesset remains low, even though since 2015 it has been raised to 3.25% of the actual vote. This morning, in an exciting photo-finish, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash party seemed to have passed the electoral threshold and a few hours later did not. Orly Levy Abekasis’ Gesher, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and Hayamin Hehadash did not rise above the electoral threshold.

Meretz almost held its own with 4, and possibly 5, seats, down from 6, while Labour was down to an embarrassing 6 seats from 19. The large number of seats that B&W won were drawn from Labour. At the same time, other possible allies evaporated – Hatnuah under Tzipi Livni and the Green Party under Yael Pran. Further, even the Arab parties altogether only won 10 seats, down from 13, largely due to a lower turnout. If Palestinian Israelis turned out in proportion to their 20% of the population, they would control 24 seats. The centre left lost because the Palestinian Israelis turned out in low numbers, assuming, of course, the far-fetched proposition that Gantz could have formed a government with a Palestinian-Israeli party included in his coalition.  

In the last forty years, the right in Israel has established itself as the natural ruling party of Israel with the centre as the major opposition incapable, with exceptions, of creating a constellation that could normally bring it to power. The left has been pushed to the margins. Why? Because Israeli politicians believe that if they formed a “natural” coalition on the centre and left, they would have to openly campaign on including Palestinian Israeli representatives in government. And that, they believe, would cost them centrist votes, perhaps more than enough to offset centrist gains.

The election seems to have proven that if the centre cannot win against a leader indicted, not simply accused, of corruption and obstruction of justice, they can never again win. As Tom Friedman put it so eloquently in The New York Times where he compared Bibi Netanyahu to Donald Trump: “They are both men utterly without shame, backed by parties utterly without spine, protected by big media outlets utterly without integrity. They are both funded by a Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. They are both making support for Israel a ‘Republican’ cause — no longer a bipartisan one. And they each could shoot an innocent man in broad daylight in the middle of Fifth Avenue and their supporters would say the victim had it coming.”

But that is too simple. Netanyahu is no Donald Trump. He is well read, clever, uses Putin and Trump as pawns to advance Israeli causes as well as his personal ones. Bibi has to be recognized as a brilliant Machiavellian political force. Trump is only a populist one and has largely been unable to legally advance any coherent agenda. While he rhetorically spouts off, he has to be increasingly regarded as a pawn of far more intelligent and deliberative international forces. In contrast, Bibi has a very coherent even if reactionary and ultimately defeatist strategy. Can a clever Machiavellian of the centre left emerge? Can Gantz aspire to such a role? He is a man of integrity. But can he emerge as a potential ruler of all the citizens of Israel and not just Jews and not just, as Bibi does, rely only on Jews that support a right agenda? 

The centre-left can never again win unless a much larger eruption takes place in the Israeli political firmament. Most Israelis can add. Most Israelis recognized that an upset was far-fetched; the best that the opposition could do was to attempt to unite to a degree behind a centrist party that could win the most seats in the Knesset and, therefore, could be asked by the President to form a coalition with the support of a majority in parliament. But the latter prospect was extremely unlikely.

Simply put, that earthquake would require a leading party to campaign openly with a promise to include one or more Palestinian-Israeli parties in government AND to retain control of the vast majority of centrist voters. Palestinians might then turn out to vote, not only in increased numbers, but with even a greater proportion than Jewish parties. If Palestinian-Israelis could control 24, and perhaps up to 30 seats, and if centre and left Jewish Israeli parties viewed them as allies, the reign of a right that, at heart, disrespects the rule of law, disrespects an independent judiciary, disrespects a free press and, combines this disrespect into a platform undermining political civility, would be over. Kowtowing to extremism would end. Dissing and demonizing minorities rather than ensuring their rights are protected would end. A politics of hope would replace a politics of fear, a politics of spectacle and a politics that might grant immunity to an individual indicted for a crime.

That is the story on the centre and the left with no real bottom-line surprise. The story of the right is somewhat different. Likud gained seats, up 5. Ultra-orthodox Jewish parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, also improved their standing to 15-16 seats together. Netanyahu needed the support of a party or parties that won at least 9 seats. The Orthodox Union of Right-Wing Parties won only 5 seats. Netanyahu had already promised the Education and Justice ministries to Rafi Peretz amd Bezalel Smotrich’s far right Rightist Union party. The far right now provided the winning hand of 5 additional seats. The party includes Jewish Power, an ultra-nationalist religious party advocating ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It is made up of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who would ban intermarriage between Jews and Arabs.

That is because Likud could count on the support of parties holding the remaining 9 seats. Avigdor Lieberman’s largely Russian immigration-based Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) with 5 seats (down from 6) and Moshe Kahlon’s centre-right Kulanu with 4 seats (after the party dropped from 10) would hold the balance of power. They were part of the last government. Would Gantz be willing to woo those two parties by offering them significant portfolios? Possible, but not likely, and, in any case, not enough to put them over the top into a majority without the support of Palestinian Israelis.

Given the party platforms and the actual campaigns, the prospect of a centre-left government was very dim indeed. The platform of Meretz would have to occupy centre stage and Palestinian Arabs would have to demonstrate a degree of enthusiasm for such a joint Palestinian-Jewish aggregation. The prospect of either let alone both was virtually nil. Why, then, the illusory hope among centrists and leftists? Simply put, because they had nowhere else to go.

B&W could join a broad coalition with a Likud Party, a real possibility if Netanyahu was no longer leader, but there is no incentive for Netanyahu whose long-range goal is to solidify and control the concentrated Jewish population areas in the West Bank. That is increasingly likely to become a short-term goal along with gaining legal protection from the indictments he faces. Why would any settler – and there are well over a half million – vote for a party that would not normalize and legalize where they live even if it meant supporting an alleged crook?

Could a centre-left party or cluster of such parties create a winning scenario given the shifts in demography and allegiances of the diverse population of Israel? Could a party at one and the same time argue for increased rights and benefits for Palestinian Israelis while advocating the incorporation of the Jewish-dominated areas of the West Bank? Could a party that is so strongly secular genuinely recognize the Jewish religion as an inherent and strengthening part of Zionism while also defending and protecting the Supreme Court, the rule of law and equality among all citizens, including the duty of both Haredi men and Palestinian Israelis to offer their services towards the security of the state though not necessarily in combat roles? Could a party genuinely protect the rights of asylum seekers from Africa, the rights of economic “guest workers” in Israel while continuing to prioritize Jewish immigration? Could a party both support greater investments in health care, education and infrastructure while, at the same time, enhancing a laissez-faire economy AND state interventions in support of nationalist collective goals, such as strengthening Jewish control in the areas with majorities of Jews and incorporating those areas into the land claimed to be part of the State of Israel?

Could an openly nationalist Jewish Israeli party also be the party that fought against racist platforms, policies and rhetoric that denigrate 20% of the population? Could such a centre-left party not only recognize the right and actuality of 10% of its citizens, many its most successful ones, living abroad while serving in the military and paying equal taxes as Israelis, and then offer the same possibility to Jews in the diaspora who learned Hebrew, served the security of the state and also paid equal taxes? Could such a party openly offer a right of return on the same terms to Palestinians to take up citizenship in their own state even though it was distinctly smaller than that envisioned by Oslo while Israel retained its security predominance in Palestine?

If the vision of either the right or the centre-left logically leads to a bi-national Jewish-Arab state, that would undermine both Jewish (Zionist) nationalism and Palestinian nationalism. A two-state solution must remain a prominent goal of such a party because 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 1.5 million in Gaza and another 1.5 million Palestinian Israelis should not live without both equal participation as citizens in a sovereign state and identification with a state that recognizes and refines Palestinian nationalism.

Just asking such questions indicates the contradictions any centre-left party has to overcome in order to become the government. Gantz never offered such a disruption. He allowed the peace camp to cling to Oslo that has been killed by a combination of Palestinian intransigence and Jewish rearguard powerful resistance as well as an exclusionist rather than inclusionist nationalism.  

With the help of Alex Zisman



I have never received as much response to a blog as my last one “On Death.” When I went out, the first four people I met said that they had read my blog and were very moved by it. Below, I have selected a very few of the responses that I received by email.

But first, a bit of business. A number of you told me that they forwarded my blog to friends. If those friends want to subscribe, they can do so either through MailChimp or by emailing me directly at I have long passed the limit on numbers below which I could distribute the blog at no cost to myself. There is now a cost, but it is small. Once paid, there is no additional cost for including many more subscribers. Past blogs are posted under Howard Adelman on WordPress.  

One reflection. I often say that I write primarily to clarify and express my own thoughts to and for myself. Though that may be true, I think it is also misleading. For I have taken so much delight in the responses to my last blog, that the pleasure and instruction my blog gives to others must have much more importance for me than I seem to grant heretofore. Thank you for them. They really fill me with pride.

Ten selected responses follow:

Your blog today was moving and poignant. I forwarded it to two friends who recently lost parents. It resonated very much with them.


Thanks Howard, for sharing your heart, your thoughts and beliefs on this experience of being at your brother’s bedside.  It is so important that we talk about these experiences and our feelings and our beliefs about a subject that so many of us seem afraid to address, despite encountering it so often these days.  Once a week I am at a hospice, talking with ill people, and being in their presence is a privilege.  

I will save this writing.


Good to see you online. Life Visiting my mom today, I read most of your blog to her. She totally agrees with you. It was very cathartic for her. Old grief surfacing, but in a healthy way. Thank you.


May your love for your brother deepen as you live through your prayers.


Thank you for you blog. A belated condolence to you on the death of your brother Stan. I knew him briefly through a friend of mine whom he had dated a few years back. We spent some time together in New York.  I recollect your brother as a feisty, well-read, maverick sort of guy with a wonder lust for travel. He most certainly danced to his own unique drummer.


You were…celebrating and remembering your brother Stan and experiencing his shiva with family and friends. It sounds as though it was – as it was for me – helpful, even therapeutic. I love the concept of shiva and how it eases the first, most difficult week. I have grieved for my parents since they died (in a car accident) in 1985. 


I have never given much thought to what grievance itself meant – but accepted both the pain of their loss – missing them and also welcoming the frequent triggers that whip up specific memories. 

Anyways, rambling on a bit. Apologies. 

Thanks again for sharing your experience and insights.  All good wishes


May his memory always be for a blessing.

Canadian novelist, Helen Humphreys, wrote Nocturne, a love letter to her brother who was lost to cancer. I think this book might resonate with some of your experiences. It has been a comfort to me as our family presently navigates the decline of my two brothers.

C.S. Lewis’ book on grieving was likewise useful to me when my father died. As I was saying kaddish. I was in the twilight zone with the latter death, but the fog eventually lifted. 

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


Thank you, Howard, even in your grief, for sharing your beautiful gift of being able to put the most profound and personal thoughts into words…words that certainly resonate with me and the recent loss of friends and family.

I am so sorry I was away and unable to visit during shiva. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. That phrase now sounds so hackneyed, but it’s what we’ve got and is sincere.

May your dear brother’s memory – the bells – be for a blessing.

Warm regards.


1.       It would be worth thinking about what we’d be doing differently if we were granted eternal life.  In what ways does our certainty of the finality of life influence our decisions, thoughts, aspirations, actions?  What sense of time would we have without this certainty?  What sense of commitment to people or causes?  Would some of us even care to live a life well lived without knowing that there is an expiration date, albeit not printed on the product?  Death is an important aspect of life and not the opposite of it. 

2.       My other issue is that even in countries where there are more or less liberal laws re: assisted suicide, you usually need several doctors’ attests to the fact that you have an incurable disease bringing unbearable suffering to you, before you are granted the dignity to go whenever you are ready.  Why do you need to justify to others, by others, this most deliberate decision a sovereign individual can make to end their life?  We extol the inalienable right to our freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but we do not grant individuals the dignity of ending their lives equally freely, whenever they decide, regardless of their reasons.  You are forced to beg for mercy, to depend on total strangers for their permission, and in some cultures, you are even considered a criminal for attempting to end your life and might be penalized after a botched attempt.  Your life does not belong to the doctors, the tax man, the employer, or the family.  It is yours to maintain or to dispose of it as you see fit.  And please do not come with the usual Phil 101 arguments about the slippery slope of misused assisted suicide for self-serving reasons.  That is not assisted suicide but murder, most selfish.  Even mourning the dearly departed itself is self-centered: we, who are left behind, are coping with the loss we have suffered instead of selflessly agreeing with the deceased’s most solemn wish.  I am not pleading for a misuse of assisted suicide in any form by another, but for the individual’s inalienable right to end the spectacle, without having to pacify the world with reasons deemed acceptable by others. My pain over losing you cannot override your wish to end it all. 

Th last two blogs were published online with the help of Alex Zisman.

On Death

I woke this morning at 1:14 a.m., much earlier than my usual early mornings. I had been dreaming. I remembered my dream. I had been called to remove the bells from my brother Stan’s coffin. (He was buried 9 days ago.) When I got to the room – the coffin was not at the gravesite – instead of the metal poles upon which the coffin was placed to lower it into the grave, there was a similar device, but made up of much thinner rods and with no flat ropes attached used to lower the coffin. Instead, this metal frame sat atop the coffin. This rectangle made out of slim metal poles had a number of bells attached. I had to remove the bells before the coffin could be lowered into the grave. I tried to remove them but I was having a great deal of trouble and woke up.

Some dreams are easy to interpret and this one was even easier than almost all of them. My brother may have died, but he lives on in my head, not as simply memories, but as a brother whom I am not quite ready to bury. I feel his loss. However, I do not feel abandoned. I just miss him more than I think I missed him when he was alive. When I ride the TTC bus, I think that Stan will never ride a bus again.

Nor do I fear death. I do fear dying. I hated sitting by Stan’s bedside and felt helpless as he struggled. He was unequivocal. He wanted to die. So would I in his position. And I was as helpless and tied up as he professed to feel. I could not fulfill my promise and help him. As it turned out, he saved me from my turmoil and guilt because he went very rapidly at the end. I do not believe he feared extinction. Nor do I think I do or will. However, I cannot stand the idea of suffering for no purpose. I cannot stand the idea of wasting everyone’s time and resources just to keep me alive for a week or a month or several months longer.

However, I am a hypocrite. Because I did not feel my time was being wasted as I sat by his bedside. One afternoon, we had the best talk we ever had about our grandparents and parents, even though I could not answer his repeated question about whether our grandparents had been happy. My time was wasted when I was impotent and could do nothing to relieve the distress of his dying. He was not distressed about dying; he was distressed about the process. That was when he felt powerless. The fear of powerlessness was attached to dying, not to death. Death would be a relief from the suffering of dying and he welcomed it as did I.

Death is not an enigma that stymies me and pushes me towards some belief. It is just a given. It is not a puzzle. Death is not something I must conquer. I am not a megalomaniac. Death is certainly not a scandal that needs to be made bearable so that life can be made liveable. God should not be expected to kill death. For God is death – death as well as life. God is NOT dead. But God, to repeat, is death as well as life. Eternity embraces both death and life and we are part of that eternity in being born and dying. When, in the Amidah, we praise God as mechaye hametim, as one who can revive the dead, this should not be interpreted as the resurrection of someone who is dead, but the revival of the life of those who died within those who live, within me. Through grieving, I can better integrate the life of my brother into my own.

Certainly, something killed my brother beyond his control – his three strokes, his heart attack, but primarily his cancer that we knew nothing about until five days before he died. I know that did not bother him. It did not bother me. I have never wanted to control what I cannot. However, I become angry when I cannot control what I should be able to control. I become enraged when I cannot control suffering that I see as unnecessary.

My older brother, Al, fought death. Stan and I vowed not to. And Stan did not. He kept his vow. He simply wanted to die with dignity and, for a relatively short period, he could not. Death is not an evil. Suffering is. Death is to be welcomed as an end to suffering and is not to be feared. And I truly believe that I do not fear it. Nor did Stan. That does not mean he welcomed death when he was alive. Only when he was dying. Only when he was suffering.

I do not feel wounded by the loss of my brother. His dying enriched me for it was an integral part of the way he lived. But suffering, distress, extreme discomfort, horrific pain – none of these are what life is about even though they often, unhappily, accompany life. But when they are not accompaniments but have taken central stage, I hate living for that is the same then as hating dying – but not death. I know that is what Stan felt.

When death is inescapable, life is NOT preferable to death. Dying is then morbid. And death is to be greeted as a gift. To fight for survival to the very end is neither an inner necessity nor a moral preference. It is simply stupid. Stupid personally and stupid for society. Death should not and need not be delayed when it is inevitable. If I ever believed that Judaism advocated holding onto life to the very end, that would kill my love for Judaism.

When I – and my brother Stan – want to determine the timing of our death, it is not because we want to play God. Neither of us wanted physical immortality. But we do want to be able to exercise our free will to choose as much as possible death when we are dying, when death is inevitable and suffering is unending. That is what it means to celebrate life. The fact that life is temporal, is of limited duration, is just reality. So be it.

Nor is our concern with escaping unnecessary suffering part of a slippery slope to the illusion that life must be without difficulty. We both loved life’s difficulties. We welcomed them. They challenged us. They still challenge me. And that challenge does not entail searching for a metaphysical answer to the meaning of life. I have no problem about the meaning of Stan’s life. He was at heart a basically very good guy. He did good things. And the best thing he ever did was contribute to giving life to his son and making a small contribution to raising him, small in the overall multiplicity of factors that shape a life, but very large for Ari.

Stan never turned to God because life was difficult. He never turned to God period. I did, but not because life was difficult, but because God was such an intimate part of that difficulty. God for me has never been a source of solace.

God is the source of darkness as well as light, but a very different kind of darkness than that on the face of the deep before light was thrown upon and enriched life. For some people, God is a consolation. For others, an inspiration. For still others, God is unnecessary freight to be readily discarded.

For me, God is a reminder of my responsibility. God was not responsible for Stan dying. Nor was I. But I was responsible for not being able to relieve his suffering when he needed my help. When I pledged to give him my help. A quick death after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer relieved me of that sense of inadequacy and failure I felt as his death approached. I was saved by a relatively quick death.  

Stan died on a Wednesday morning when he was supposed to be transferred to a palliative care hospice. We waited for hours. He never arrived. The previous Friday, we and he learned from his doctor in the neurological unit that, as a result of trying to find out why he continued to be tired and why he kept giving off a series of large burps, that he had metastases in his liver and lungs.

I know – I read it every morning and evening when I say the prayers of a mourner for the thirty days required of a Jew – that I should pray for strength and a restoration of hope given the death of my brother. But other than feeling weaker with my advancing age, I do not feel any need for strength. In a weird way, I feel stronger in certain dimensions with Stan’s death. I feel I have an even greater responsibility to the next generation. And his death certainly makes no dint in my sense of hope.

If you love life with all your heart and with every thread of your spirit, then, however, death comes, how can it not be a welcome terminus to a life well-lived and about which you were blessed. Dying may not be welcome, but surely death is.

I guess I do not understand what grief is. But perhaps I do. Stan is missing in action. Missing in being. Missing in becoming. He’s not here. Only the bells. Only those tinkly reminders of who he was and how he chose to live his life. Those bells remind me how he currently enriched my life, Ari’s life and all those others whose lives he touched. No wonder that I could not remove them.

Stan did not need, nor do I, any silly idea that he has a life after death, other than the life that is part of my own and so much more a part of Ari’s and part of the continuity of life on this earth. And he is a reminder that we must do everything in our power to ensure it continues for the sake of future generations. 

It is an absolutely silly argument to suggest that life has no meaning unless there is a possibility of an afterlife. That is an insult to life itself. It is a pretence. It is an illusion. And an absolutely unnecessary one. Life is so meaningful that it does not need the crutch of a promised afterlife. It is simply not true that we all want to know what is beyond the grave, unless we mean by that what the future will be for our children and grandchildren. My brother didn’t. I do not. We did not need science or philosophy to disabuse us about an afterlife. For neither I nor either of my brothers held such a belief. We did not need religion to offer it as a prospect, for that only made us suspect religion as being part of a con game.

We both believed that it was a crock to hope for a life beyond the grave other than the life that lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew you. Grief should be embraced, not perceived as suffering and requiring relief through an illusion, through a delusion. I am never going to be able to sit and laugh with my brother again nor berate him for his strong convictions nor tease him about his contradictions. But I can remember a number of the occasions when these occurred.

I do grieve. But in doing so, I am not suffering. Grief is NOT an illness from which one recovers, but a feeling which may fade over time, but which stays with you. You do not recover from it as you would a broken bone or measles. You live with it as it morphs and takes on new shapes. Certainly, it recurs intermittently. Sometimes, I go hours without thinking of Stan. Some day it will be days and then perhaps weeks. That is what happened with my disquiet about my older brother’s death. But as I stood by my brother Al’s graveside after we had buried Stan, that sense of presence, that sense of absence concerning Al, returned with an unexpected force.

I believe that the grief I feel is an intimate part of life and not something to which I will leave behind once the mourning period is over. I neither want to contain my grief or give it time limits. Grief is part of life. I want to experience it. I want it to help me understand my brother and my relationship to him.

In saying Kaddish morning and night, my concern is not with death or even with acknowledging Stan’s death. I am not in denial. I do not seek to remain intact while I grieve, but to properly grieve so I may understand myself, to understand Stan, and to understand the world better. To repeat, grief is NOT an illness from which we require healing and for which we need to impose limits. I am sure I will grieve for the rest of my life and, to the inevitable extent that the grief fades, to that extent I grieve for the coming loss of contact with the spirit of my brother.

Why then the pause? Why the seven days of shiva? Why the thirty days of shloshim? Why the continuity of the grieving ritual for 11 months? Not in order to get past it, but to enrich it, to not let the opportunity pass us by, for grieving is a great teacher. Without those periods, we lose out; the sensitivity to loss fades all the faster. Nor is grief an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to life. For grieving is central to life. It brings us closer to it rather than distancing us from it.  When a week ago, on Saturday evening, all my children, all their cousins and I and my wife sat around a table with a few others, we laughed for almost three hours on end as each told a different story about my brother Stan and his idiosyncrasies.

Mourning a life is remembering a life. Is celebrating that life. Is re-enacting that life. Is making that life vivid. That is why I wanted my friends and family around. That is why the community support was so terrific. I could share his life with them.

Why then do I say Kaddish? Why do I recite it twice a day? It is all about God. No, about God’s name. It begins:


Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified

God’s name is sanctified, not in life after death, but in this world, in the world that He created. The Kaddish addresses our lifetimes and our days, in the lives of the people of Israel. It is not about the days that purportedly follow life in eternity. And when we say we wish to bless that name for ever and ever, we mean for as far into the future as possible, not for some myth of eternity outside of time. We pray for peace on this earth as we laud and praise and extoll, glorify and exalt that name.

My brother did not extoll God’s name. I now do. In some future blog I will explain what is in that name that is worthy of of such exaltation.

Black Earth Rising- Part II

Why Black Earth Rising? Why that title to the series? The earth in Rwanda is distinctively red. During production, the series had an alternative title – The Forgiving Earth, suggesting that Black Earth Rising is about salvation and redemption through unpacking the past and forgiving “the other” to create a strong and thriving nation. I give almost nothing away to let readers know that the reconciliation of the two sisters, the current authoritarian President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi and a former general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero, ends the series. However, that thread is a minor and mostly symbolic sub-plot, inserted artificially because of the themes the writer/director wants to underline. But why Black Earth Rising?

The romantic and idealistic theme is clear. People should move beyond their past sectarian violent conflict through reconciliation and respect for the other. How to do that? Unpack the repressed memories. Dig up the mass graves. Except there is only the slightest hint of mass graves in the whole series. Instead, the focus is not on the group, but on the individual. Further, it is in the individual for whom the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, between a British and Rwandan identity, will be buried in order to participate in the resurrection. It is a message of a new globalized identity rooted in human rights that will allow age-old animosities to be interred.

As if the animosities were really and deeply about ethnicities! Humans can find any Other to target – to define as Other, to define as wholly Other, to define as an inferior Other, to define as a threatening Other, to define as a threatening Other who must be quarantined and exiled, to define as a threatening Other from whom security can be gained only through extermination. In watching the series, you do not see the downward spiral. Only the plotted recovery of the cast by the removal of mysterious unknowns.

But the problem is not about what is unknown. For all along, the challenge was that we ignored what we already knew to allow either hope or hatred to blind us to the reality unfolding before us. Whether idealistic or brutalist, the source of the conundrum is not in the weakening of our eyes or in the connection of our brains to processing what we see, but in the blinkers we choose to wear. Hatred and hope, hope and hatred, are merely reasons for mindblindness, not causes. The dream of transforming the colour of the red earth of Rwanda into rich black earth that will allow richness to emerge – material richness, cultural richness, moral richness – is simply a fraud. And however, exciting the drama that unfolds through the plot, the resurrection emerges as a deus ex machina, an artificially imposed solution on a horribly painful part of all our history that rings false.   

How did that happen? How could the brilliance of a volcanic Michaela Coel playing Kate Ashby and John Goodman – his real name so appropriate to the false idealism underpinning the series – playing the cynical, world-weary but rights driven international human rights lawyer, Michael Ennis, end up resulting in the feeling that one has been cheated, that the deck has been stacked, that the dice have been loaded? I believe that the use of the genre of a thriller, while entrancing and keeping us mesmerized, also keeps the viewer blinded. We are literally blindsided by the inadequacy of the simplistic and misleading result to the absolute horror of the evil and atrocious bloodiness of the genocide.

Let me provide some real grounding, and not in a black earth totally absent from Rwanda. The series is basically about the ability of legal systems of justice to bring mass murderers their just deserts. But just look at the phrase – “just deserts” – as if the solution to blood and gore on a massive scale is an energy bar, as if justice were just the sweet ending to a delicious meal. In reality, it is a desert, an arid plain or a rocky and craggy Sinai out of which only morals can be handed down from on high as simplistic formulas. John Goodman can play the role of a jocular salesman of the new international human rights regime in the name of which we have watched a new form of lies and injustice roll out in front of us.

Atrocities are not excavated; they are buried deeper under pap. Sometimes it is the pap of providing John Goodman with a silent prop to show what a caring and committed individual he is under his cynical idealistic blather – that is, a wife in a coma of frozen silence. The viewer has to know it is pap because we do not feel the pain of John Goodman’s loss. We never feel that Michael Ennis hurts, hurts so deeply that he needs to cover that pain up with comic asides and witty banter.

What about wonder woman, whether on her daily runs or swimming vigorously in a pool? Michaela Cole is certainly an intriguing presence. But in the end, what we have watched is a marvel comic character dressed in the costume of a genocide survivor. It is the absence that pains me deeply, not what is present before me. And the contradictions! Instead of showing the drama of the interaction of thought and feeling, her brilliance as an investigator is used simply as a foil for her periodic emotional breakdowns. The two states play off one another without either throwing much light on the other.

While watching brilliant performances trapped in a convoluted plot of various threads that never come together to knit a sweater, and while our attention is kept by hints and reveals that end up as disguises and cover-ups, I ended up feeling used and abused. But not just me. History most of all. The Rwandan genocide was a horror show of world historical importance. Like the holocaust, it demands immersion, demands at the very least vicarious pain, demands our attention to reality. The device of the drama entailed in the pursuit of one’s personal identity falls so short of the immensity of the evil that instead of experiencing at least some cathartic relief, I felt as if I had been served terrible Chinese fast syrupy sweet and sour chicken with overcooked beans and undercooked rice in a commercial food court.

The Rwandan genocide was visceral. The Rwandan genocide cannot be captured by a zombie horror movie even with the best of actors and the highest production quality. And justice was never done, most of all, not by the international criminal court. The series suggests that the ICC is the only way to go to obtain justice. French justice was just an effort to cover up French complicity. Rwandan justice was really an exercise in revenge. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha trying the genocidaires offered the template for a solution.

However, nothing can be further from the truth. The suggestion that the West can make up for its total irresponsibility by not intervening when it easily could to stop the genocide in its tracks by afterwards creating a system of international justice that is detached, that is purportedly fair and that follows all the rules of a liberal system, is just so much hogwash.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha that tried the leading perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide lasted 21 years. The result – 61 convictions. Yes, 61, Yes, just 61. 93 individuals were tried. The trials cost US$2 billion dollars, or just about $330 million per conviction – $330,000,000. That is the total value of the GDP for the Philippines.

True, Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. He had been charged with 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity – that included rape. He was a former Hutu mayor of Taba in Gitarama prefecture in the year prior to and ending with the termination of the genocide. He was a former teacher and school inspector and considered fairly intelligent.  But he was not simply a passive bystander, but personally engaged in the supervision of murdering Tutsi. He provided the lists to the militias who went house-to-house searching out victims.

The ruling is important in the history of international law. He was not found guilty of breaches of the Geneva Convention concerning war crimes, but was found guilty in accordance with the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was unprecedented and offered an historical landmark. However, this significance in meting out international human rights justice is ignored in the series.

Former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, a banker in his earlier life who was sworn into office when President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash and Prime Minster Agathe Unwillinglyimana was assassinated, was convicted. He was the first ever head of state to be tried by an international criminal court is the name of ending immunity for the powerful. He pled guilty. But the trials of the mass murderers after World War II had already established that principle, and at immensely less cost. And with far greater public education – for after all, these were show trials, but of victors.

The Eichmann trial by an Israeli court was a show trial, but hardly a victor’s trial when six million Jews had been murdered. But it was even a greater show trial to demonstrate that Jews could no longer be killed with impunity. The trial initiated the awakening of historical consciousness and an historical conscience of the evils of the Holocaust fifteen years after WWII had ended – a result that Hannah Arendt not only ignored, but implicitly deplored.  Show trials raise the level of awareness. They introduce us to the horrors committed. But there is no evidence they serve as a deterrent. The ICTR’s president, Danish Judge Vagn Joensen, opined that the convictions served as “powerful deterrents to those committing similar crimes in the future”.

Nonsense! Absolute nonsense. Nonsense without a scrap of evidence to support such a conviction about the effects of convictions on the global scale. Contrast the results with those of the Rwandan gacaca courts (“justice among the grass” rather than from the black earth) that tried over 130,000 and meted out not only justice but a foundation for reconciliation. While far from perfect to say the least, while sometimes the courts were used for vengeance rather than justice, while the court was sometimes abused by providing opportunists an excuse to seize property, these local communities processed over 100,000 convictions. However. Like the ICTR, the Rwandan courts failed to communicate that any understanding was gained about the cause of genocide at a deeper level. If I were to weigh the ICTR against the Rwandan court system, with all of its enormous flaws, the latter would win hands down, the exact opposite message of Black Earth Rising.

But the most serious injustice of the series concerned the implicit suggestion that the post-genocide crimes in the Congo by Tutsi “rogues” – the series at least did not trace them back to the Rwandan government – were equivalent to the crimes committed by the genocidaire in Rwanda. This is just a great historical lie. The claim is often made that over 600,000 Hutu were killed mercilessly by Tutsi in the Congo, more or less balancing the 800,000 murdered in the genocide. But this ignores a number of facts.

The 600,000 figure came about because the number of Hutu refugees remaining in Congo after the 1996 return was an illusion, a grossly exaggerated figure based on totally false counts of the number of Hutu refugees living in camps in the Congo. Certainly, atrocities were committed against those Hutus. Perhaps as many as 60,000 innocent civilians were murdered in crimes against humanity. But the murders were not part of a genocidal effort.

Certainly, more died in the Congo compared to Rwanda, about twice the number. Not over 10 weeks but over 10 or more years. They were casualties of disease, of hunger and of atrocities, casualties in the midst of war rather than results of intentional mass murder with the goal of absolutely exterminating the Other. There is no comparison and no balance by setting the two situations side by side. In my conviction, this was the greatest atrocity committed by the series.

Thus, whatever the power of the series, in fact, precisely because of its power, the reprehensible falsification of history and ethical distortions emerge as an abomination rather than some form of revelation that contributes to reconciliation.

Pain must be felt and expressed and not buried deep under moral claptrap and technical wizardry.

Black Earth Rising – Part I

This morning I woke very early as usual. In the evening, I escape these days by watching an Israeli romantic comedy series called Shtisel (I hope I spelled it correctly) about a rabbi’s family in Mea Shearim, the ultra-orthodox part of Jerusalem. But I don’t escape. I can’t escape.

As my brother Stan says, “We are all tied up.” There are clues that I too am somehow all bound up. Three obvious ones. I was washing my hands after brushing my teeth this morning. I just turned the hot water on without diluting it with cold. And then was startled that hot water was burning my middle finger. I had forgotten that I was holding my hand under the hot water to remove the shaving cream from my Bic shaver and hand. It is a good thing that our hot water is not heated to a higher temperature.

Then I nicked my chin with my razor as I shaved. I rarely do that, especially since I am on a blood thinner and the bleeding always takes a while to stop. The worst is, I took 42 minutes to take a shower. A shower usually takes 3-5 minutes at most. I was in the shower for 42 minutes. And I did not know it. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing. I don’t know what happened to the time when I was in the shower.

Perhaps I am just very tired. Can you sleep standing up in the shower? Perhaps I have the abilities of a horse. I think I am very tired from dreaming. Because of my sleep phase cycle – I have sleep phase disorder – I rarely remember dreaming. When I wake up, I am wide awake and at my computer in 15 seconds. But last night, I only slept for little more than two hours. When I saw the time, I went back to bed. But I don’t know whether I slept or not. I seemed to be half awake. But I was dreaming. I know because when I dream, I wake up highly disturbed and upset – unusual for me.

I also know because I remember fragments of the dream. It was a long epic. In one scene, I walked onto the wing of a float plane and helped two people disembark. I do not know who the two were and could not remember their faces. In another scene, I was rafting down rapids – sometimes the big tube seemed overflowing with people. At other times, I turned around and there was no one there in the boat with me. In another scene, I was in a sling hanging from the hospital ceiling zipping along hospital corridors as if I was on a zip line. I could not make sense of the narrative. I just know that it seemed to go on and on.

However, the ending was hyper-realistic. I was in the hospital with Stan. I think highly of the nurses and doctors, the dietician and the social worker, who have looked after my brother. But not in the dream. The cardiac doctor came by to boast at the great success they had in removing the blood clot from Stan’s anterior coronary artery and inserting a stent. I burst out: why didn’t you puncture the artery? What the fuck is it worth making his heart hum like a well-oiled pump if you cannot get rid of the blood now collecting in his stomach? As I raged away at this very considerate but now bewildered professional, he slunk out of the room looking back in fear and trembling at this wild raging elephant who would squash him if he could.

The neurological team were in the room next. Stan, what day is it. Fuck, I don’t know what day it is. Why should Stan? Why are you asking him? What is your name? Stan muttered his name. Where are you now? I don’t know. How old are you? Silence. And on and on they droned. Why are you asking him all these questions? You know he has lost his short-term memory. And I told them that he had been very disruptive and active that morning. He had asked me to call mom, or Ma as Stan always called my mother. He had fallen out of bed at 1:00 a.m. and the nurses found him on the floor. We will prescribe him with a regular dose of hydro-morphine instead of only administering it when he was in great distress and requested it, they promised.

Can’t you give him something to restore his dignity? Then the psychiatric team arrived. I had seen the intern three or four times, but that was the first time I met the psychiatrist. He tried to speak to Stan to determine whether he was delirious. Stan totally ignored him.

Then the palliative care team arrived. They too tried to question Stan to determine whether he could pass the test for MAID, medical assistance in dying. Two separate physicians would have to interview him for an hour each to determine whether he was in full possession of his mental facilities, sufficiently to be legally capable of deciding whether to ask for help in dying. But if he was, and he had been, then we believed that there was a slim possibility of recovery. Therefore, we did not search out the assistance of MAID. And when we learned survival was not possible, it was too late. That is the Catch-22 in which the law places patients. And we wonder why so few apply for MAID.

Choose death when you are not dying because you may not be able to do it when you are. For leaving a living will to that effect was useless. The two doctors were sweet. They were solicitous. They were unctuous. As the honey flowed from their mouths, it gradually filled the room and drowned us all in the sticky thick molasses. But at least death had then been sweet.

Finally, the social worker arrived. Lucky for her, she never actually did. She announced that she had finally been able to make arrangements to transfer Stan to the hospice. They lifted Stan out of bed with a sling, packed him into a wheel chair, put on a seat belt and propped him up with pillows on all sides. As they wheeled him into the elevator at the sixth floor, down to the first floor and out to the waiting ambulance, I asked if I could accompany Stan and hold his hand as we travelled the short seven blocks to the hospice. It was against regulations. I would have to travel by TTC or take a cab. I stood by as the ambulance pulled out of the semi-circular driveway onto Bathurst Street and plowed into the path of a tractor trailer. Stan must have died instantly.

And I woke up.

However, it really was not the vivid scenes that crowded into my head that I remembered most. I remember the smell. I remembered it acutely. I thought dreams were always visual. But this one had been pungent. It was the smell of decaying corpses. I not only smelled it in my dream. I smelled the odor in the shower. I knew what that was. I knew it very well. It was a smell from 1995 when we were double-checking the body count of over 17,000 men, women and children that had been dug up from a mass grave at a technical school in Rwanda. Because the corpses were packed so tightly, they had barely decayed. The bodies were laid out on the benches in the school rooms. Some women’s bodies still had the staves that had been stuck up their vaginas.

What was that smell? A mixture of noxious gases and decaying flesh, so putrid and rotting that it crashed through all the antiseptic smells of the real hospital. As the fluids leaked from Stan’s body, those liquids covered the tile floors. The poor cleaning ladies that would have to mop up that mess. Stan’s sumo wrestler’s diaper was overflowing at the edges. They’ll never be able to clean the floor.

I began imagining the enzymes eating through Stan’s flesh like a swarm of locusts as I stood on that hillside to escape the stench from inside those school rooms. I was back there. I was here. I was nowhere. The odours were distinctive. I had never smelled them before or since, except when the memory recurs. Rot, feces, must, the sulphuric smell of rotting eggs, the foul smell of meat kept too long in the fridge, mothballs and the garlic odour that seemed to be the only really welcome smell, even a sweet scent, as these odours mixed and crowded into my brain, as they infused my memory with that recurrent experience, lately very rare, but now back with the power of a cyclone.

It was the smell much more than what we saw that was embossed on my memory from Rwanda. The gravesite had been dug out with a bulldozer by a French contractor three weeks before the genocide began. I estimate that the mass grave was about twenty feet deep. It was quite a contrast with the shallow graves you see in films that prisoners or concentration camp victims are forced to dig before they are shot and fall into the graves they had just dug. In Rwanda, death had been industrialized in a very different way than in the Holocaust.

The stench! The horrid stench! 

April 6th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide that killed from 800,000 to one million Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutu over ten weeks, a rate far faster than the murder of the Jews in the Shoah. In 1995, counting over 17,000 corpses in a technical school in Rwanda was incomparably the most searing experience of my whole life. How can you marry such a profound episode in human history with the genre of a murder mystery and a trial movie packaged as a thriller and use the combination to unpack both the problem of applying universal human rights law to a most sordid historical event and an African tragedy that was followed by what Gerard Prunier called, Africa’s first world war?

Black Earth Rising is an 8-part 2018 BBC-Netflix co-production that appeared on Netflix in North America at the end of January 2019 and which I watched last week. It was an accident. I had not read what the series was about.

Kate Ashby, played magnificently by Michaela Coel, is a genocide survivor. She is the not only the heart and soul of the film, but the brain as well. And she is courageous beyond belief. This is the story of an athletic wonder woman with the body of an Olympic athlete and the fiery intensity of a volcano. She was rescued and adopted by a British human rights attorney, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), who appears only in the first two episodes. As cool and collected as Eve is, Kate is incendiary.

Eve’s partner is Michael Ennis, an internationally-renowned attorney, played by John Goodman with snide humour and cynical asides. Kate works for Michael as an investigator. Hugo Blick directed the award-winning 2014 series, The Honourable Woman, that probed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wrote and directed this tale about the prosecution of international war crimes. Blick in the series plays the role of a villain, an unscrupulous and cynical defence barrister, Blake Gaines, who defends Patrice Ganimana (Tyrone Huggins), an alleged war criminal and genocidaire living in safety and luxury in London. Blick not only plays but delights in revealing the dark side of humanity. His doppelganger is Lucian Msamanti (David Runihura), the Rwanda president’s consigliere who delivers a brilliant performance well matching Blick’s. Within both, evil is at war with goodness, only Blick thrills in the victory of evil at the same time as he deeds goodness to a posthumous life. Msamanti, in contrast, tries so hard, and often fails to have goodness checkmate the evil of instrumentalism.

The story begins when Eve Ashby agrees to prosecute Simon Nyamoya (Danny Sapani). Simon was a Tutsi general in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that defeated the Hutu-led genocidaires in Rwanda in 1994 but subsequently evolved into a warlord and mercenary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ostensibly responsible for many slaughters there. Eve is torn between the calling and mission of her adopted mother to prosecute war criminals whomever and wherever they are and Kate’s demand that her mother expend her talents and energy on making sure that all the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide are brought to trial. The main target, according to Kate, should be Patrice Ganimana.

The plot is propelled by the pursuit of justice for Ganimana as secrets are gradually revealed about the shape shifting among the esteemed human rights lawyers and Kate’s parallel pursuit of her own identity – British or Rwandan – but revealed over the course of the series as a much deeper tension. There is a parallel external divide between two “sisters, one the current President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi (Abena Ayivor) and the other, a Rwandan general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero played by Noma Dumezweni. The unveiling of the narrative is really propelled when Kate pursues the truth about a Roman Catholic French priest, Father Patenaude (Pascal Laurent) whom Alice Munezero allegedly murdered in cold blood. 

The use of dual tracks is also employed as the legal case against the Hutu Genocidaire, Ganimana, and parallels the effort to bring Alice Munezero to justice. Unfortunately, in spite of the intensity and the suspense, the criss-crossing of dual paths sometimes obscures and even buries the character of the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Congo. Even on the surface level, I sometimes had difficulty following the plot.

The parallelisms between Hutu and Tutsi criminality, authoritarianism and the defence of human rights, traditional and contemporary colonialism, British dedication to human rights versus French and Belgian perfidy in supporting a genocidal regime, an orderly and prosperous but dictatorial Rwandan state versus the vision of Rwanda as, not the Singapore of Africa, but of much more fully democratic and prosperous alternative.

I got lost in the plot sometimes. At other times, I became angry at the plot as it uses stereotypical thriller devices to excite the viewer, but devices which have nothing to do with the themes of the series. And I was devastated to see Kate disappear so early in the second episode. She was such a wonderful personality and I barely got to know her.

But I did get to renew my acquaintance with the genocide. Once again, I was in touch with my rage at those who stood by and did next to nothing. In spite of the excellent acting and production values, in spite of the intrigue and the mystery, I felt my insides turning out as one again I watched a deformation of both history and the judicial system in the name of humanitarianism and justice.

To be continued.