The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks


Howard Adelman

Are the peace talks led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s special envoy, Isaac Molho, for the Israelis, and  Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh for the Palestinians, headed for a comprehensive peace deal, a bust, an extension or interim measures?  What are the prospects of arriving at a deal on water, security, settlements, mutual recognition, borders, Jerusalem and refugees?

Since the start of the negotiations and the prisoner release on 29 July 2013, the talks began with a rocky start when Israel approved the construction of 1096 settlement units in the West Bank, 63 new units in East Jerusalem, and then an additional 900 units in East Jerusalem in mid-August just after talks began. In spite of this initial flurry of activities and mutual recriminations, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiators have met an additional eleven times since the opening of the talks, four times in August, four times in September and four times in October, three very recently on the 18th in Jerusalem, the 20th in Jericho and the 21st in Jerusalem once again. Martin Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and the head of American Secretary of State John Kerry`s advisory team, actively participated in the flurry of recent talks.

Most recently, on Wednesday the 23d, John Kerry met with Netanyahu in a very long meeting in Rome following talks Kerry had with the Europeans, the Saudis, and the Arab League, each with their own special issues quite separate from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – American spying on European leaders, American talks with Iran against Saudi vehement opposition, and America`s equivocal dealings with the new Egyptian military government. It was not clear what instigated the long meeting in Rome, but it did not seem unrelated to the letter that Netanyahu released the day before congratulating the Jewish visitors to Hebron to honour their matriarch on the reading of the parashat this week depicting Sarah’s death and burial. Netanyahu wrote: “I hope that the ‘Hebron Shabbat,’ with its thousands of participants, will deepen our connection to the city of our forefathers”. Even though the talks were to focus almost exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Rome meeting almost certainly spent a bit of time on the positive news emerging from the Iranian-American talks on nuclear weapons if only to assuage Netanyahu`s fears that a deal would be struck before Iran took positive steps to end its nuclear enrichment program and make arrangements for its enriched stockpile.

The Americans leaked that the purpose of the Rome talks was to pin down Netanyahu on the compromises that he is prepared to make on the final status issues as the talks pass the one-third mark on the nine month promised deadline. What compromises are expected? The deal on water is already in the bag and has been for years, secured more recently since Israel has a surplus of gas from its Mediterranean fields and is able to desalinate water to produce surpluses to sell to the Palestinians.

The security aspect of the agreement will build on the successful cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians as evidenced most recently on Tuesday with the Shin Bet slaying of Mohammed Assi, 28, one of the Islamic Jihad Tel Aviv bus bombers in 2012, who was trapped in a cave near the village of Bilin in the West Bank. The solution to the security issue is also connected with the recent progress on the ground of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in shutting down the tunnels and taking action against Hamas militants in the Sinai. Evidently, Israel has been very influential in helping Egypt obtain from the USA equipment to enhance Egypt`s counter-insurgency capabilities.

On settlements, Israel has made clear that it has no intention of limiting its building of residential units in areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank already intended to be part of the exchange of territory between Israel and Palestine and it is likely that the exchange of territory will have to come close to parity in restoring the same amount of non-Israeli land occupied by the Palestinians in 1967 and not 94 or 97 or even 99%. Border adjustment, though not an easy issue, is no longer an intractable one, especially since, in practice, certain areas are already clearly Israeli or Palestinian. The key issue will be what happens to the settlements that will remain on Palestinian lands to be transferred to the new Palestinian government. There will be no attempt to massively empty the settlements as was carried out in Gaza. Instead, the settlers on Palestinian lands will likely be given a generous economic package to repatriate to Israeli land or to live under Palestinian rule if they so choose, though Palestinians remain adamant that all settlements should be vacated.

This leaves the three tough issues. The Palestinians will not accede to Netanyahu`s demands that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state for they see that as a betrayal of both Palestinian-Israeli citizens as well as undermining their claims on behalf of the refugees. Netanyahu might give up on this explicit declaration in return for some implicit concession as well as an agreement on protection for the settlers who wish to continue to live under Palestinian rule.

The Jerusalem issue is also no longer as intractable as it once was given the current practices of Israelis of avoiding travelling into Palestine residential areas. Certainly, the temple mount will fall under some super-national authority with agreements on archeological arrangements. Whether this agreement extends to include other holy sites, whether the boundaries of a super-national jurisdiction go beyond the temple mount and extend to the Arab parts of the Old City, or whether the problem will be disaggregated along functional lines, I have no idea. However, given the extent of the enormous amount of work and maps already developed, this remains a tough but no longer impossible issue to overcome.

The biggest issue remains Palestinian refugee return – not actual return since very few are expected to return and Israel has been adamant that it will not accede to anything but a humanitarian gesture in this area. The issue has been and remains how to grant a right of return but a right which can never be exercised as a right. Past efforts to square this circle have constantly floundered. The other serious worry is that insufficient preparations have been undertaken on the compensation issue in spite of an enormous accumulation of international precedents not only re the Jews in Europe but with all the discussions of various groups that have been `cleansed`. Unlike the right of return issue which goes to fundamental identity claims by the Palestinians, the compensation issue is a practical one which can flounder if insufficient attention is paid to working out the concrete details. Further, to the extent those details can be settled, the more likely the Palestinians will be in a position to accept an equivocal agreement on the right of return.

I myself remain pessimistic that an agreement can be reached over the next six months, but such a deal no longer resides in never never land and has moved into the arena of possibilism.



Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise


Howard Adelman

Steve McQueen stated that issues of race are not a priority in his work; the horror of hell and the damnation beyond is. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon first travelled from the north through the various stages of hell as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He now enters purgatory when he is resold to Edwin Epps on a plantation from, but no longer even in, hell. Satan`s fall created hell. But the earth displaced by that fall became purgatory that existed on the other side of the mountain far away from northern eyes. But the main difference between hell and the purgatorial life of field slaves on a cotton plantation is not so much the prevalence of cruel actions as the malicious motives for those actions.

As Steve McQueen said of his film, Shame, “The film is more about what people don’t say rather than what they say. It’s about undercurrents, internalization. People generally say things out loud that are designed to make other people feel comfortable. So it becomes like poker — you have to look for the tell. And you’re relying on the audience to pick up on things that are recognizable but at the same time unfamiliar. “McQueen`s themes have been about the imprisonment and abuse of the body that is being imprisoned, whether in the story of Bobby Sands` hunger strike in Hunger, or the tale of the sexaholic in Shame. To quote McQueen, “man`s body is both his escape hatch and his prison.” The individual body and the body politic as an American gulag become the new setting to explore what happens to a man`s soul, to his spirit or ruah.

I read one review that described Solomon Northup in terms of his humanity, which, in spite of his searing experiences, grows larger as the film progresses. Another film reviewer wrote that Solomon`s saving grace was the dignity with which he endured and observed his own and a nation’s shame. Nonsense! Solomon Northup’s humanity and his dignity are initially sacrificed on a very slight commercial whim and then both are lost gradually and inexorably stage by stage in every scene of the film. This is the film’s real horror that goes much beyond sadistic physical abuse. Slavery demeans not only the white slaveholders but those enslaved as well. Only Solomon’s will to survive and see his wife and children once again sustain him – not his humanity, not his dignity. In fact, at each stage of the drop, another slice of his humanity and his dignity have to be sacrificed in order for him to survive.

Although Solomon Northup continues to balance between fragility and a determination to survive (see McQueen’s 1996 short, Just Above My Head), Solomon had to first surrender his material well-being, his pride in his skills and education, his sense of entitlement because of his northern origins and birth as a free man. Much more is asked of Solomon now that his freedom, pride, dignity and sense of self have seemingly been totally stripped from him. His spirit now has to be crushed. In 1831 in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, southern states passed legislation forbidding the teaching of literacy to Blacks and even forbad them from holding religious services without the presence of a white minister. Ford, the mild-mannered but morally corrupted slave owner in hell, preached to his Black slaves. Epps does so as well. But Epps offers a very different lesson.

Edwin Epps preaches to his slaves from the New Testament, Luke 12:47 in particular: “And the slave who knew his master`s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes.” It helps to know the context. The previous verse, 46, reads: “The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” The verse that follows is also helpful: “The one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Solomon is flogged 16 times with a plank early in the movie then he receives another flogging with a rope. But the greatest horror is yet to come when he is not flogged but is forced to flog another slave.

Thus, while Epps is using the Gospel of Luke to justify whipping his slaves – 40, 50, perhaps 150 lashes – the original text stresses how the naïve and innocent, who did not even recognize slavery, is led to commit deeds worthy of a flogging – telling outright lies. The passage refers to the ultimate humiliation, taking up the whip against a fellow slave while receiving relatively few lashes. To repeat, from one who has been given much, much will be required.

However, first purgatory must be established as an integral part of ordinary life. McQueen recreates the work rhythms and routines of a cotton plantation as described so precisely in Northup`s autobiography. Instead of the field slaves located some distance from the manor house, as in Tara, in this movie the intimacy between slaves and master is well established. Slaves and slave owners live cheek by jowl next to one another. However, the slaves remain committed to freedom and sing their songs of desire even as they go about the work pretending not to notice the degradations being meted out against them in beatings, whippings and even lynchings. Solomon eventually joins in to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (the balance to “Run, Nigger, Run” sung by the cruel foreman in Hell) and symbolically accepts that he is a slave in equal status to the others. This is the very title of Eugene Genovese`s great book on slavery with the subtitle of The World the Slaves Made.

Roll Jordan 
Roll, roll Jordan, roll 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll) 

Now brother, you ought to been there 
Yes, my Lord 
A sitting in the kingdom 
To hear Jordan 

Well, roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there (oh yes) 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Rollover Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my sister, you ought to been there now 
Sister, you ought to been there 
My sister, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Well my brother, you ought to been there now 
Brother, you ought to been there 
My brother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Further, the character of the Great Satan, Epps, must be established. He is a fire eater and a man filled with lust and wrath, cunning and conniving, and insistent on doing what he wants with what he considers his property. He is also a drunken sot who slips on pig slop and tumbles over his own fences. Like Dante`s Satan, the once most splendid of God`s creatures has fallen so far that he has become a man without an ounce of grace, slobbering and tongue-tied. He is a bully, a rapist but also a very conflicted sadistic soul.

Then there are the seven deadly sins of Purgatory characterized by excessive passion (lust, gluttony and greed), by deficient passion (sloth) and by deformed passion (wrath of a very different order than the simple resentment of Tibault, a wrath that is infused with malice as are envy and pride. Lust is not just the indulgence in sexual intercourse between Solomon and the slave woman lying next to him who seduces him, but it includes Solomon`s lust for freedom. That lust is so strong that Solomon lets his guard down to finally steal paper, make ink and a pen and entrust the letter he writes to Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), an itinerant carpenter working on the plantation.

Unbeknownst to Solomon, Armsby was not motivated by good will towards Solomon but by greed himself, greed to win Epps` favour and gain the opportunity to become an overseer on his plantation. Armsby discloses Solomon`s plan to Epps. Epps threatens to cut Soloman`s throat. Solomon escapes by telling a blatant lie, insisting that Armsby`s tale was a tissue of lies. The treachery is reversed – not by truthfulness or honesty, but by an inverted betrayal that is so bold to be convincing. This is a turning point. Solomon turns on his betrayer and fabricates a story out of whole cloth to show how the one who betrayed him was really out to betray Epps – and Epps believes him. Solomon has given up all claims to justice and truth, to self pride and human decency as, in order to survive, he sacrifices any threads of clinging to his social humanity.

We also have the gluttony of the slave owners with their great displays of food – from which Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) offers crumbs to her slaves. The close-ups of the meager food offering on Solomon`s plate at the beginning of the film, repeated in purgatory, tell a good part of the story. Leonardo Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie, in Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained was also a very depraved villain but one with polish and wit, with cruel humour and an aristocratic sense of self. Epps as played so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender is no Candie for he disdains any veneer of civilization and rather makes a mockery of the social graces of high society. With Epps, we are beyond the malicious violence of Tibault and into the twisted malevolent pleasure that the totally unpredictable Epps takes in tormenting his slaves, sometimes indulging them while at other times he wallows in their humiliation, making them dance to southern aristocratic reels in their nighties as if to prove that Negroes in the south lacked any sense of rhythm. Epps is a manic depressive and obsessive madman who can switch in seconds from degrading his slaves to picking up, twirling around and dancing with a young daughter of a slave who is only clothed in a nightdress. Epps is not a real and present danger but an ominous, often silent and unpredictable menace as we in the audience suffer in agony in anticipation of his next atrocity. Surely, he cannot become worse! But we are as deluded as Solomon.

God`s wrath is meted out to Epps in the destruction of the cotton crop from cotton worm, but Epps only blames the plague on the shortcomings of his slaves when it is Epps` mistreatment that allows a slave to die while picking the crop. The dead slave`s real sin is one of insufficient passion for life; he simply gives up. But the worst sins of purgatory arise from passions that are now infused with malice, primarily Epps` wrath focused on the obsession of his life, the slave, the beautiful but hapless Patsey who is also the best of his pickers who can collect 500 pounds of cotton a day compared to Solomon`s 138 pounds. When Patsey returns after a short disappearance, Epps` wife completely loses her cool at her husbands obsession; in an earlier scene she three a wine decanter at Patsey. Epps himself, furious at his own need for Patsey, ties her down and even forces Solomon to whip her. As Patsey’s flesh is shredded into raw strips, so is Solomon’s soul. Patsey, like the woman walking the tightrope in McQueen’s short film, Five Easy Pieces, combines extreme vulnerability and impossible strength of character. Patsey is Dante`s Beatrice who allows Solomon to survive in purgatory.

Eventually, Epps has to complete the whipping task himself when Solomon fails to sustain sufficient wrath and self-loathing. Solomon has no more stomach for whipping than he had for picking cotton. The flogging is totally inhumane and we wince as the flesh is torn open and even more when the other slave women try to treat her open wounds. It is by far the most horrific scene in the movie, made much more horrible by the degradation to which Solomon has been reduced in participating in such an evil act just to survive.

Finally, paradise appears on the horizon in the form of Brad Pitt playing Bass, a very different kind of carpenter, a Jesus figure from Canada who is outspokenly anti-slavery. Solomon tells him his story. The film could have frivolously been called “Saved by a Canuck” as Brad Pitt plays the Canadian itinerant anti-slavery carpenter who finally carries Solomon’s message north to report on the whereabouts of Solomon and his illegal capture and confinement. Shortly after, John Waddill arrives with the sheriff and the required legal papers and whisks Solomon away over Epps` futile protests. Solomon is then very quickly redeemed and returns to paradise and his family. But what a paradise!

The trip through purgatory was horrific but richly sensuous, remorseless in the depths of the degradations reached. But paradise turns out to be cold. The family members gather round and, as expected, hug the returned captive. But the members of the family, including his new son-in-law and grandson, are all strangers. Like a returning veteran from the Iraq War, they cannot possibly recognize what Solomon has been through. What a contrast with James Foxx` reunion with his wife at the end of Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained.

John Ridley has certainly superbly selected from Solomon Northup’s unbridled and sweeping autobiography, managing to combine a highly structured organization of a descent into hell, a passage through purgatory and a re-entry into paradise while remaining absolutely true to the realism of Solomon`s tale. The film has a brilliant cast beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Lupita Nyongò plays Patsey with passionate desperation and Michael Fassbender is suitably vicious as Edwin Epps – all deserving of Oscars as respectively best actor and best supporting actress and actor.  But every single minor character is also perfectly cast and superbly preformed, in the cases of Paul Giamatti portrayal of Freeman and Paul Dano`s performance of Tibault.

Sean Bobbitt`s cinematography is superb, whether photographing ominous cloudy skies or the ripple of the water behind a paddle wheeler, but culminating in the single unbroken shot of Patsey`s beating as the camera circles both Solomon and Patsey, a technique that forces the viewer to share the suffering of both as one whip stroke follows another. Photographing the action from the positional perspective of the characters, particularly Solomon, allows us to share his experience with much greater intensity. It is a camera that refuses to look away.

The music of Hans Zimmer is often very simple but always infused with great emotion; it is sometimes humble, at other times, majestic, but always infused with nobility. The myriad of slave songs reinforce the realism: Alicia Key sings “Queen of the Field. Patsey endures her suffering rto “Driva Man”, ”a sparse, brooding, slow-swinging jazz number” ”about an enslaved person reaching `quittin’ time` while also trying to please the overseer to avoid getting beaten.” Gary Clark Jr. sings “Freight Train”.  

Do NOT miss this movie!

The evening before last, my son, Gabriel, and I went to see Survival, oops!, Gravity in 3D starring Susan Bulloch and George Clooney. If you like high-tech amazing amusement rides that keep you very tense, go see the movie. Enough said! Except, any comparison between Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave as competitors for the Oscar for best picture is ludicrous. 

Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave                                                                                 


Howard Adelman


Last evening, Nancy and I went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave. I have no intention of giving the story away and depriving you of your enjoyment, even though there is little to “enjoy” in this brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing movie. You will have to take it on trust that there is relatively little plot in any case – just a series of events cascading unremittingly downwards. Appropriately, given the film’s structure, I will use analogy to depict the film, but you may prefer to see the movie first before you read the blog.

Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is to the American institution of slavery what Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg (that other Steven) is to the Holocaust. Only Twelve Years a Slave is a better film as terrific as Schindler’s List was as a movie. It is better because it is even more gritty and horrific than Spielberg’s authentic account of the clearing of the Krakow ghetto while also much more profound. The surrounding story of Oscar Schindler was a Hollywood fictional character even if based on a historical one, one so successful that it has largely been adopted by official accounts, including that of Yad Vashem. Oscar Schindler was, in reality, a spy against the Nazis for the Abswehr, a money runner for the Zionists and a philo-semite from youth when his two best friends who lived next door to him were sons of a rabbi. Though in real life also a philanderer and gambler, in the movie he is also portrayed as an opportunistic Nazi who undergoes an epiphany when he sees the girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Krakow ghetto – the only colour scene in the movie before the ending. Oscar Schindler henceforth dedicates himself to saving a small remnant of about 1100 Jews. This Christian overlay of simplistic personal sin and redemption is so typical of Hollywood films on the Holocaust; the film ends not only with Christian redemption but with the redemption of the Jews in the promised land of Israel continuing the link in the imaginary eye of the triumphal creation of Israel with the horror of the Holocaust as its precondition. This contrasts markedly with the role of Christianity in Twelve Years a Slave – but more on this later.

Both movies are about a very tiny minority, Schindler’s List about one relatively small group among an absolute relatively small total who were actually saved from the Holocaust, while Twelve Years a Slave is about an even smaller group of relatively free Blacks captured and sold into slavery and an even much tinier group of Blacks who were restored to their free status. But Schindler’s List focused on seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a redeemed Christian through whom the redemption of the Jews in general is made possible. Twelve Years a Slave shows slavery as it was perceived, experienced and felt, slavery as it was beaten into the flesh and the mindset of one man, a former free man from Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon Northup, born free, well educated and relatively prosperous with his own home and thriving musical career as a violinist, is tricked and sold into slavery at a slave sale in New Orleans in Louisiana.

Steve McQueen and Steve Spielberg share another element in common. Spielberg cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in his 1997 critically acclaimed film Amistad. In Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor plays the main character (Pratt, née Solomon Northrup) utilizing very few words but a myriad of facial expressions and bodily movements to reveal his character and thoughts. Both films are about non-gratuitous, almost banal, violence and racism. But the differences far outweigh the similarities between the two films, especially the main subject matter of each. Though Schindler’s List is unequivocally a Holocaust film, Twelve Years a Slave is about much more than slavery. It is about the inferno, purgatory and heaven that one man goes through depicted with the poetic imagery of a modern-day Dante.

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s best-selling memoir of his life when he was captured as a free man and sold into slavery in 1841. We know from the title of the film that he will be rescued and redeemed after twelve years of unremitting torture. Solomon, presumably the wise, but actually naïve northern prosperous Black, is, like Dante, in his mid-thirties when he begins his descent. Solomon is like one of those ancient soothsayers with his head screwed on backwards as he wallows in his success and glories in his prosperity just as Job once did. But his face is really “twisted toward his haunches
and (he) found it necessary to walk backward because he could not see ahead.”  The film is a backward path and a downward descent beyond hell into purgatory before Solomon is rescued and restored to paradise.

The first part of the film quickly traduced begins with a prosperous Solomon seen with his wife and two children in Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon tucks his two children into bed insisting they go to sleep quietly and make no noise, an ironic adumbration of his own future where his own voice had to be shut down lest he give offence to whites after he is sold into slavery. The family owns their own home and Solomon travels extensively on concert tours. He has white friends. He, his wife and children are all well dressed. In one incident at a general store, a black man, who has presumably slipped away from his master, approaches Solomon to speak to him, but Solomon is distracted by his wife’s demand to purchase a new handbag of the latest design and the approaching black man is found by his master before he has a chance to speak. The descent into Hell begins with this most casual sin of indulgence and the “poetic justice” meted out against Solomon. So passes the first sin and the beginning of the descent into hell disguised by the peace and generally non-racist tenor of this superficially idyllic scene.

The animal in Dante’s Commedia first encountered is the black and white leopard, which, for Dante, represented the radical political split between the Black Guelphs (the political papists), in this film, actual Blacks who were to be saved by what the state rights advocates argued was the new imperial president in Washington, and the White Guelphs, in this film, the white southerners who opposed the imperialist or strong federalist claims of Washington. Dante was then the Chief Magistrate of Florence and saw himself as a keeper of the peace by serving as a bridge between two radically divided worlds. What begins in mild material indulgence quickly descends into the other sins of indulgence on the first level of the inferno, before descending further into the hell of violence and malice.

At the upper level of Hell we encounter four other types of self-indulgent sins before we descend lower into the middle reaches of hell where two types of violent sin await Solomon and then, at the base, the two types of malicious sin. In 1841, Northup met Merrill Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Abram Hamilton (Taran Killam) who claim to be entertainers. They offer Solomon a position with a very high pay – one dollar for each day on the road and an extra three dollars for every show he plays – for playing the violin as part of a travelling Circus Company. They meet Solomon in Washington, where the deeds they practiced were not then illegal, and they ply Solomon with both drink and flattery. As a result of his naiveré and lack of sufficient wariness, Solomon ends up drunk and wakes up only to find himself bound in chains in a slave cell in Washington cast into the second circle of the first level of hell and insensibility.

Solomon refuses to believe he has been tricked and betrayed by Brown and Hamilton and insists that his new-found friends were artists, not kidnappers. Solomon is in denial. He threatens his jailers, John Birch (Christopher Berry) and his turnkey, Ebenezer Radburn (Bill Camp), with justice and has no true recognition of the perilous state in which he finds himself. This appeal to and belief justice in the face of blatant evil is the third circle of indulgence expressed by Solomon.

Radburn beats Northup to silence his claim that he is a free man and insists he is a Georgian runaway slave whose name is Pratt. On top of the material indulgence, Solomon’s sense of pride, his belief and faith in justice, he now has to surrender his faith in truth and even his own identity. In the upper level of hell, Solomon is stripped of all he believes in – prosperity, success, self pride, a belief in justice and in truth, and even his own sense of self. Solomon is ready to be transported to middle-Hell.

With other slaves he purchased, Birch ships Solomon by sea to New Orleans to his partner, Theophilus Freeman, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti. En route, it is clear we are in hell as coal is shoveled into the furnaces of the steamer and as we watch the ripples of water left behind and viewed through the repetitive slats of the paddlewheel of the steamer. The circle goes round and round and down and down. In New Orleans, we encounter gratuitous violence, violence rooted in ideology rather than utility, and we are now beyond the level of indulgence. Upon his arrival in the middle level of hell, Solomon watches helplessly as his Virgil, who taught him the ways of survival, how to stay hidden and betray yourself to save yourself, is set free, if not from slavery, at least from the horrors that Solomon will continue to face. Solomon has been cast into his hell by what are otherwise ordinary or even noble beliefs, conceived as indulgences in a country strongly rooted in institutionalized slavery. Solomon now must truly encounter the sins of others.

The first circle of violence is the treatment of the captives as less than human. Freeman tells his buyers that the young boy, whom he ruthlessly separates form his mother, will grow into a fine and strong beast. It is as if he is displaying cattle for sale as he lauds the bodies of the slaves and haggles over the monetary value of each. He will not compromise on a sale in consideration of the feeling of the inconsolable mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children by the garrulous Freeman who wallows in his own logorrhea.

We experience a twofold violence, violation of the individuals treated as mere meat and violation of any human relationships. But that violence will bear little resemblance to the third and bottom circle of hell when Solomon is confronted, not with simple greed and inhumanity, but with actual malice. The malice stands in stark contrast with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the “good slave owner” who purchases Solomon and Eliza. Ford ineffectually tried to convince Freeman to at least keep the girl with her mother, but to no avail. Though a good and sincere man, he is still a slave owner, but also a moral coward as Eliza points out to Solomon. Ford’s wife is less sensitive; she tells the grieving and inconsolable Eliza who will not be comforted that she will soon forget her children.

Solomon’s intelligence and creativity flourish under Ford and he successfully suggests tying the cleared logs to together to ship them down river to the saw mill or market. John M. Tibault, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dano, oversees the work of Ford’s slaves picking cotton to the tune of Tibault singing “Run Nigger Run”, ironically, originally a Negro folk song cheering slave flight and warning that time is running out, but sung as a demeaning song about Blacks who steal crops and run from the “pattarolls”.

Oh run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run nigger flew

Nigger tore his shirt in two

Run run the patty roller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run through the field

Black slick coal and barley heel

Run nigger run the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Some folks say a nigger won’t steal

I caught three in my corn field

One has a bushel

And one has a peck

One had a rope and it was hung around his neck

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Oh nigger run and nigger flew

Why in the devil can’t a white man chew

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Hey Mr. Patty roller don’t catch me

Catch that nigger behind that tree

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away 

Nigger run, run so fast

Nigger, he got away at last

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

However, for an unexplained reason, Ford gets into financial difficulties and has to sell some slaves to settle his debts to Tibaut. But Ford continues to hold a chattel mortgage on Solomon for the unpaid part of the sale. Tibault is the exemplification of malice driving violence. He resents Solomon’s smarts. Tibault challenges Solomon’s uses of nails provided by Ford’s overseer, Chapin. Chapin intervenes and Solomon speaks up, asserting that Tibault wanted to beat him for using the nails that Chapin provided. When Chapin challenges Tibault, asking what’s wrong with the nails, Tibault does not reply but stares malevolently at Solomon. Chapin walks away with Tibault evidently trying to quiet Tibault’s furious resentment at being upstaged and put in his place by a black slave.

In a subsequent confrontation, Tibault attacks Solomon for a second time when he arrives with two others (Cook and Ramsey) on horseback with whips and a rope. Thibault attempts to hang Solomon, but Ford’s overseer, Chapin, intervenes, and reminds Tibault that he has a debt to Ford, secured by a chattel mortgage on Solomon, so hurting or killing Solomon would in law be an attack on Ford’s property. Chapin also threatens Thibault’s two companions and they ride off. Tibault sneaks off in shame. However, Chapin does not cut Solomon down even though Solomon’s toes barely touch the ground. After a number of hours, Ford comes to the rescue and releases Solomon from his noose.

Why did Chapin allow Solomon to continue to hang just after having rescued him? The implied answer is that Chapin’s malice is even worse and a different order of sin than Thibault’s overt hatred and resentment even as he appears as a rescuer. For at least Tibault’s malice was worn on his sleeve, whereas Chapin’s resentment goes much deeper and his violence is more indirect and cloaked in protectionism and the rule of law. 

When we reach the bottom of hell, the movie’s real horrors are just about to really begin. For we now transition from hell to purgatory when Solomon transits through a short period clearing land of cane, trees and undergrowth to prepare the land for planting cotton before title to himself as a chattel is sold to the venomous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender who starred in McQuuen’s two previous feature films – Hunger about the 1981 northern Irish hunger strike and Shame about a sexaholic) on a cotton plantation where slavery is pure torture but where repression is finally linked to desire and not just survival, to eros, admittedly a perverted eros in the various forms of lust, gluttony and greed, sloth and malicious love mixing wrath, envy and pride as Patsey, played in an Oscar winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, becomes the object of Epp’s passion and wrath, his pride and disdain, as he whips Patsey in the most horrendous scene of the movie as black skin is torn open by the lashes to reveal the pink and blood soaked  bloody flesh beneath.


Tomorrow; Purgatory and Paradise

Possibilism: Albert Hirschman and Daniel Adelman



Howard Adelman


“Political Economics and Possibilism” (pp. 1-34) by Albert Hirschman in A Bias for Hope: Essays on Development in Latin America (1971) Yale University Press.

In the Focus section of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, John Ibbitson invited five leaders outside Parliament to offer the Conservative Government a bold new vision to be included in its throne speech this week. Readers were asked to weigh in as well. John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister and now President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, suggested raising our vision of population growth from 44 million in 2036 to 50 million by offering citizenship to every foreign student who completes a graduate degree in Canada on the grounds that immigrants create jobs by growing the market for products and goods while at the same time, this proposed youth immigration would do a great deal to re-balance the trend line of an aging population.

David Emerson, a former Liberal and Conservative cabinet minister, senior public servant and business executive,  advocated investing in space in the order of $20 billion over the next two decades as the new railway of the twenty-first century arguing that advanced satellite technology would make it easier to identify potential resources, monitor environmental data, enhance the use of the Arctic trade route and the ability of Canadians to communicate with one another as well as deliver health and education resources to remote communities.

Jaycynthe Coté, CEO of Rio Tinto Alcan, echoing John Manley, advocated doubling the annual intake of foreign students from a quarter to a half million and building on our position as a safe, diverse and welcoming country while offering excellent job prospects. Such an initiative would give us both the immediate benefit of the expenditure of foreign student fees in Canada but also the long term benefits of potential educated citizens or good will ambassadors if those students opt to return home.

Pat Carney, a former Conservative cabinet minister and British Columbian senator proposed an enhanced program on ocean protection with an investment of an additional billion dollars in building on our excellence in ocean observatory technology while developing our ability to ship our natural resources abroad. Preston Manning, former head of the Reform Party and head of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, proposed a charter of consumer obligations to accompany the rumoured forthcoming consumer bill of rights rooted in greater transparency, choice and recourse. Greater transparency would add to the possibility of wiser consumer choices when consumers know the economic costs of what they consume.

All five proposals offered political links between the economy and political decisions that have become central to our political dynamic. Second, all five proposals, though headlined “immodest”, easily fell within the range of the politically possible. In contrast, one of the three “immodest” proposals published from readers’ submissions was by my son, Daniel Adelman (misspelled as “Aderman” in the article), was truly immodest. His proposal fell into the realm of “necessitism” rather than “possibilism”, even though he too echoed the other proposals in linking economics and politics. As an ardent opponent to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, unlike his co-provincial Pat Carney, Daniel who lives on Vancouver Island, advocated a radical shift in thinking by recognizing natural capital as a public good, putting an economic value on natural systems and the services they provide (now considered as a freebie), and emphasizing and prioritizing public benefits over private profits. This is an example of necessitism rather than possibilism, not simply because it lies so far outside the Conservative Party’s field of vision, but because the implicit argument behind this immodest proposal is that such change is imperative for without such radical changes, the planet and our way of life will not survive.

Albert Hirschman wrote on the link between politics and economics as integral to the process of social change. Like the above so-called immodest proposals, whether by illustrious or modest Canadians, he was not so much interested in the unique and permanent economic characteristic or characteristics that makes political organization possible as in many political theories such as those by John Locke and Adam Smith, but in the continuing interplay between the two realms. Daniel’s immodest proposal differed from the others not only in its necessitism but in insisting on the methodological: application of modes of reasoning and analytical tools originally developed in economics to the political process, but going even further, by re-categorizing that which is considered a public good, applying economic value to the given world and not just the world into which we have invested our labour and converted it into property or possessions, and by inverting our value priorities to place the greater emphasis on public goods over private property.

One result of such a transvaluation of values would be, presumably, a very different allocation of scarce resources among competing ends, radically different algorithms of input-output relationships and a very radical revolution in political decision-making by presuming a doomsday certainty unless these types of radical decisions are undertaken. Instead of being concerned with making decisions under uncertainly, politics would be energized by making decisions in the face of an apocalyptic doomsday certainty that will soon be upon us if action is further delayed.

The close linkage between politics and economics is the central motif of politics these days whether in the budget crisis and the refusal to raise the debt ceiling in Washington or in the proposal for a consumer bill of rights promising more competition (past promises) or more and better consumer options (presumably the forthcoming throne speech) clearly intended as an effort to lure voters to the Conservative banner. Such initiatives are now undertaken in the standard assumption that just as entrepreneurs are profit maximizers, politicians are voter maximizers.

There are other, more reliable truisms than these misleading analogies. Wealth translates into political influence as indicated in the eulogies of Paul Desmarais of Power Corporation, not in the mundane sense of trying to use positions of wealth to sway a politician, but in earning the respect of politicians who invite the input of a wealthy entrepreneur. Similarly with voters! Increased unemployment, high rates of inflation and other economic phenomena all erode faith in the party in power. These influences are vast but trivial as an observation and need no economics training to grasp. Hirschman stands out by reversing the interplay between the disciplines as he showed that a comparison could be made between those who flee a country when they give up faith in the governing power and when consumers give up on a product like a Blackberry and abandon it for another product.

The effort to import economic ideas into politics that primarily concerned Hirschman, and for which he made his name, took place at what he called “the finer features of the economic landscape”. In the international sphere when economic indifference and transformation curves are applied to international relations in documenting the relationship of trade between small and large countries, Hirschman documented the effect of trade on influence and power relations between large and small trading partners. The resultant trade and transformation curve, dependent on whether there is an import or an export bias by either country, politically implies a level of political dependence. 

Whether the import of economic ideas into the political sphere is useful on the domestic or the international level to any degree, it appears to break down in the arena of public goods on which Daniel focuses. Economists concerned with public goods concern themselves with the free rider problem, that is, individuals or corporations that benefit from resources, goods or services without paying anything or with only paying a fraction of their real value. When the concept of a free rider was applied to the political protests of the sixties, as Hirschman pointed out, the analogy did not work because political participation was not a cost but considered a right in the political sphere. Turning a right into a cost in analyzing politics distorted the basic meaning of a democracy.

One of these observations applied to Canada when Prime Minister Mulroney initiated a free trade regime between Canada and the United States in the late eighties. Hirschman had written that “the political chances of the formation of a (economic) union are the exact obverse of its economic effects; the larger the trade-creating effects, that is, the greater the need to reallocate resources in the wake of tariff abolition, the greater will be the resistance to the union among the producer interests of the potential participating countries.” (p. 8) Seemingly in the face of such a principle, Brian Mulroney in the 1988 election campaign put forth a free trade platform promising to eliminate tariffs between the two countries by 1998. He won, but his support was reduced to only 43% of the popular vote and his majority was reduced; the Liberals and NDP both opposed the free trade agreement and between them won 56% of the vote. Had the Liberals been better prepared to counteract the counterattack of the Tories forged by Alan Gregg in the election, most pundits predicted that the Liberals would have swept back into power. Instead, Brian Mulroney became the first Tory to win two back-to-back elections in the twentieth century, seemingly confounding Hirschman’s observation.

However, many components influence election results and Hirschman’s observation proved true when a great deal of the Canadian recession, its largest and longest since the Great Depression, lasting technically from 1989 to 1992, but in most Canadian experiences to 1994, and other factors led to the subsequent decimation of the Conservatives. In 1993, Jean Chretien and his Liberals swept into power and the Tories were reduced to just two seats.  The highly unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) to replace the manufacturer’s sales tax to enable Canadian manufacturers to compete on a more level playing field in a free trade environment, the fact that the GST was introduced by Mulroney threatening to pack the Senate using Section 26 of the Canadian Constitution (the Deadlock Clause), the successive embarrassing failures of Meech Lake  and the Charlottetown Accord (perhaps because of the unpopularity of the GST), all contributed to that rout. I believe that the misguided effort to maintain a zero inflation target in the face of a severe recession that resulted in sky-high interest rates, massive bankruptcies in the Canadian building development industry and annual budget deficits that soared towards equalling the Canadian GDP, were also key features in the destruction of the grand Tory coalition and the ignominious defeat. The irony, of course, was that free trade proved in the long run to be a success even though the political repercussions, according to Hirschman’s observations that theoretical economic concepts such as gain from trade had hidden negative political implications, proved to be valid to a degree in the short run.

One of Hirschman’s most significant insights into these hidden negative political effects emerged in his study of the coffee trade. Because of the nature of the coffee business in which the lag between high prices and the ability to respond with higher production requires five years to plant trees and bring them to maturity, this results in coffee growers forming a powerful political interest group to ensure that prices do not fall when either bumper crops result or when the trees reach maturity and the international market experiences a surplus of coffee beans. Not only does low price elasticity in the short run of coffee bean supplies have this indirect public policy result in the push by the coffee growing cartel to form, it has the even more important push on the state to assume responsibilities and interfere in market forces. Market doctrinaires might be critical of such a result, but one of the indirect effects is that the government powerful role in the economy allows the government to shift resources from the coffee sector, when its development is mature and that sector is producing high profits, to new emerging sectors in significant contrast to the efforts of countries such as Argentina under Juan Peron to shift support from wheat and cattle – two short-cycle agricultural endeavours – to other sectors.

The effects of economics on politics also flow the other way. Hirschman observed that countries with very diverse ethnic groups have a much smaller tolerance for economic disparities than countries with more uniform ethnic constituencies. Without arguing for the merger of the two disciplines in the older model of departments of political economy, Hirschman nevertheless challenged the dominant prevailing model of regarding both realms as endogenous zones in which the primary effects in each sector could be examined as internally produced as in the model of a self-regulating economic market place or self-regulating equilibrium growth models in economic development theory that treat any political interferences as distortions of economic forces. Realms that allow political considerations to intervene simply make pacts with the devil.

This brings me back to my son Daniel and his arguments from necessitism. These are moral superego trips. However valid the argument may be, the imperative is not to wave the moral flag of the coming apocalypse and propose alternative grand economic gestures, but to work out the detailed mutual economic and political repercussions of such changes so that the effects of raising costs by pricing natural resources at higher values have on economic competition and employment, and how they may be counteracted, have to be worked out. Daniel argues that economic forces as presently practiced are destroying our ecological equilibrium. However, it is not sufficient to demand replacing an economic spoiler doctrine with an alternative political spoiler doctrine for the economic backlash will doom such a proposal to utopian thinking, Rather, the detailed work of the interaction of the two realms have to be worked out to develop a strategy and a system of tactics to handle such changes. The historical process of change must be projected by a realistic assessment of both economic and political factors and their interaction that cannot be encompassed in the hundred words of sloganeering that The Globe and Mail invited the utopian public to introduce and propose for a political platform. I applaud Daniel’s passion for his cause and devotion literally to cleaning up environmental messes on the ground, but his political proposals require detailed research on politics and economics as well as the environment. .

Hirschman’s lessons are not only applicable to the larger spheres of the economy and politics but to the intricacies of family life and the relations of a father to a very much loved son and the problem of how to get a lesson across without undermining his son’s passion and zest for a just cause. Necessitism may be correct as an abstraction. Possibilism, however, is the real moral imperative. And I am not just speaking of politics as the art of the possible, but the need to rest the possible not only on environmental science but on both the sciences of politics and economics and their mutual interaction. Recall that the same man who took $225,000 or $300,000 in cash from the German arms trader, Karlheinz Schreiber, in the so-called Airbus affair, was the same politician, Brian Mulroney who negotiated the very successful acid rain treaty with President Ronald Reagan. The lesson is not only that the “devil is in the details” but that even the devil can contribute to the good if we undertake not only environmental science but understand the sciences of economics and politics and their interaction at an even deeper level.

Albert Hirschman and Alice Monroe

Albert Hirschman and Alice Munro


Howard Adelman

My son, Jeremy Adelman’s new book, an edited collection of essays by Albert Hirschman, (The Essential Hirschman) has just appeared (Princeton University Press). Alice Munro just won the Nobel prize for literature. The two writers have a great deal in common even though Hirschman’s beat was the marketplace and civic and political life writ large while Munro’s habitus was the small town and the intricacies of lives writ small.

Both found what Jeremy described in his introduction as “beauty in the diminutive”, but also tension and pain, acts of cowardice and courage. Both revered the imagination, Alice Munro the literary imagination and Albert Hirschman the intellectual imagination, as the portal for “finding seams in the most impregnable structures”. My daughter, Rachel, in her biblical writings, calls these interstices, the gaps that open up new possibilities in the operation of moral, legal and social norms and allow established certainties to be challenged. Just as Tamar in Genesis disguises herself as a whore at a crossroads where she seduces her father-in-law, Judah, and bears him two children, such normally unimaginable actions and deeds use these gaps to allow the cunning of reason to emerge both in our personal lives and our lives on the world stage.

Both writers have always been concerned with the complexity of the human condition and both bring those complexities out by looking at the world when crossing points, gates and junctions are traversed whether in political, economic and emotional lives or the intricacies of our personal lives. The transformation is made possible by the enchantment and the art of writing, mainly essays by Albert Hirschman and short stories by Alice Munro that combine penetrating wit, unforgettable metaphors, an elegance and economy of style and brilliant insights and analyses to create unique voices. Experience and acute observation were the tools of their trade. They are world masters of underappreciated literary forms using brevity itself to pull back the veil of the personal and write parables of horror and hope.

Munro, the artist committed to the small canvas, did not so much paint with words as John Updike did or allow us to hear as Philip Roth did, but went further and allowed us to feel and smell the paint and hear the music in the sounds of words as the world of senses became palpable in a way that went beyond the visual and the oral to create a subversive elusive beauty that always undermined repressive self-denial and stoical determination. As in Hirschman, the writing is always informed by a profound compassion so it is no surprise to read (or hear) that Gladwell (as well as many others) cried when he finished reading Jeremy’s biography of Hirschman.

Both Hirschman and Munro have been modest people and modest writers who avoided bombast and pomposity, grand theories and grandiose epics. This does not mean they lacked opponents. Hirschmann was out to slay the grand dragons of both communist and liberal theory with their overarching visions of how to propel change. Alice Munro, though pigeonholed by Margaret Atwood and Graham Gibson as one of the representatives of the school of Southern Ontario Gothic along with such different writers as Timothy Findley, James Reaney, Robertson Davies, Jane Urquhart and Marian Engel, in fact always managed to escape the confines of categorization. Both writers wrote from a position that was always somewhat off kilter, from an angular vision that avoided an Aristotelian balanced approach to truth. Both wrote in a seemingly effortless straightforwardness manner where a deeper complexity always remained to be encountered on re-reading. Both communicated a powerful intensity arising from the mundane and the ordinary.

Both used words with great economy, Munro to share the intimate knowledge of her brilliantly realized strangely compelling characters, Hirschman to gain insight into vast economic, social and political changes underway. Both transform the mundane into the marvellous, converting strange but brutal worlds that are so common and recognizable into the realm of wonder and possibilities. Events take surprising turns, but instead of being thrown off balance by those twists, each exhibits supreme poise and confidence. Mysteries are dealt with using understatement that hides the magic of the creativity.

Both were concerned with the theme of escape or what Hirschman called “exit”. That exit or escape was made necessary by unleashed passions, coming from the larger political processes of ideology and movements in Hirschman’s world and from the inner desires of Munro’s mesmerizing female characters. In each case, the desire is ungovernable and wrecks havoc on the world. However, in Hirschman’s world, there may be unintended consequences even though the results are overwhelmingly destructive. In the case of Alice Munro, a gleam, a promise and a liberating freedom is often left as a residue. Both writers were always wedded to both imagining (and bringing about) new possibilities. As Jeremy put it, “what appears as immutable, stubborn, and impervious to change could become a source of options”.

I will resume my writing on Hirschman by focusing on an essay each day from Jeremy’s new book interwoven with one of Hirschman’s larger books and comments on another chapter of Jeremy’s biography of Hirschman.

Circumcision and Nobel Prizes

Parashat Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27


Howard Adelman

When God instructs Abram and Sarai to go to a new land that God will show them and promises them that they will give birth to a great nation which will be aggrandized, note that “aggrandized’ has two very different meanings: 1) an increase in power, wealth or authority, and 2) an enhanced reputation incongruent with empirical reality. The first has sometimes been true for small golden ages of Jewish history. The latter, in contrast, has been a constant of that same history.

This week, two of the three Nobel prize winners for medicine were Jews, one of the two winners of the Nobel prize for physics was Jewish, three of the three Nobel prize winners for chemistry were Jewish (two were Israelis). (The literature Nobel prize went to a marvellous Canadian writer, Alice Monroe. The previous writer to win, ostensibly from Canada, was a Canadian-born Jewish American, Saul Bellow in 1976.) Jews, constituting, not 2%, but .2%, of the world’s population have clearly won a very disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. The number of awards and the numbers in that population are just so out of whack that Jews can be considered aggrandized in the second sense above. But from this aggrandizement, all the families of the earth are blessed by all those who win Nobel prizes.

However, how Jews got from the original promise to the here and now has been very twisted. Abram and Sarai take their nephew, Lot, along to travel to the promised land. The promised land, when they get there, is not so promising; there is a famine, So they go onto Egypt. A very strange thing happens. Abram anticipates Egyptians coveting his wife because she is a very attractive woman. So he tells Sarai to say she is his sister. Why this will protect her any better is not clear. What is clear is that Abram does not have her protection foremost in mind but his own. For if Sarai is his wife, Egyptians will feel the need to kill him in order to take Sarai as a bondswoman. If Abram is her brother, then they will spare Abram in order to bargain for the favours of Sarai. Quite an ignominious beginning to a nation that will be aggrandized! For when Sarai finds favour in the Pharoah’s eyes, Abram’s life is not only spared, but he is rewarded with herds of animals and lots of servants. The nation begins with Abram pimping for his supposed sister who is really his wife.

When Egypt suffers a host of plagues, the Pharaoh somehow learns that the woman Abram gave for his favour was his wife, not his sister. To get rid of the plagues, he orders Abram to take Sarai, whom Pharaoh had married, and leave Egypt with all his flocks and servants. Lot, who has also grown wealthy alongside his uncle, also leaves. When they return to Canaan, Abram and his nephew are no longer getting along. They part ways. Lot chooses to go to Jordan, making his base in Sodom, an evil and licentious city, while Abram settled in Canaan. God reiterates his promise that Abram will father a great nation and this land of Canaan will belong to Abram and his descendents.

Then chapter 14 tells of an interval of politics and warfare whereby one alliance of kings conquers the land and cities where Lot lived and took Lot captive. Then Abram with 318 of his men conquered the conquerors, freed Lot and allowed the kings who survived to resume their rule. The King of Sodom offered to reward him. While Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre were allowed to take their share, Abram replied: “Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, ‘I have made Abram wealthy.'”  Abram did not seem to have the same inhibitions when dealing with Pharaoh.

However, Abram and Sarai remained childless and Abram wanted an heir. God swore to him that he would not only have an heir, but his offspring would be like the stars in heaven. Abram makes a sacrifice as surety for the promise and then, exhausted, falls asleep. God appears in his dream and very tersely foretells the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” God then goes beyond just a promise and makes the famous covenant with Abram.

Still no child! So Sarai offers Abram her handmaid, Hagar. Hagar not only gets pregnant, but also evidently gets snooty with Sarai. Sarai beat her and drove her out of the camp. The angel of the Lord appears to Hagar, convinces her to return to camp even though she will be mistreated by Sarai, instructs her to name her son Ishmael and promises that his descendents will be abundant beyond belief. Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old.

Five years later, when Abram is ninety-one, God reiterates and renews his covenant with Abram and renames him Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Circumcision of his offspring on the eighth day will provide the evidence of the children of Abraham to uphold that covenant. “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” God reiterates his promise of a child who shall be called Isaac. Eight years later, Abraham at ninety-nine takes every member of his household, including his young son Ishmael, and they are all circumcised. Ishmael is 13 years old.

My weird question is: does circumcising a child at eight days old have anything to do with winning a Nobel prize? On 25 September, two right wing Members of the Swedish Parliament introduced a motion to ban non-medically related circumcision on young children. The same Parliament awards the Nobel prizes through a series of Nobel prise committees. Surely there can be no connection between Jews being circumcised and winning Nobel prizes in science, or between Sweden awarding such prizes and Sweden being a leading country opposing circumcision. I want to make a circumstantial argument for just such a connection.

First, let me take up the medical opposition to religious circumcision of male children. The opposition is not rooted in science. After all, in 2012, the AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued that the preventive health benefits of newborn circumcision outweighed the risks as long as that circumcision was performed by trained professionals under sterile conditions with appropriate pain management. Medical benefits included prevention of urinary tract infection, genital carcinoma, reduced transmission of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reductions in rates of phimosis, paraphimosis, pseudophimosis, balanistis. Genital carcinoma is the top ranked cancer among Swedish males. Yet Dutch, British as well as Scandinavian pediatricians were not convinced of the benefits of circumcision as a routine practice. Further, in 2002, Sweden introduced restrictive legislation on male circumcision and, subsequently, the Swedish Pediatric Society called for a complete ban on ritual circumcision.

However, I do not want to enter into the fray of the scientific evidence for and against the circumcision of male infants at 8 days old. Instead, though I believe the opposition to ritual circumcision is rooted more in non-science, so, I believe, is the defence. Further, what I claim is the real underlying reason for infant male circumcision, I believe, can be circumstantially related to Jews winning a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. What is that underlying reason?

Let us admit the following. Circumcision is observably painful. Further, there is psychological evidence of long term emotional effects. Circumcision of an infant at eight days old does violate a child. Maimonides (the Rambam) argued that the bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. I agree. Further, he argued that the bodily pain inflicted upon an infant had a moral purpose. Here, I also agree. However, the Rambam also argued that the moral purpose was a weakened sexual satisfaction and lessened lust. I disagree. I have seen no scientific evidence for weakened lust among Jewish males and Philip Roth will one day win a Nobel prize for demonstrating precisely that.

The moral purpose is not some puritanical assault on the passions but teaching Jewish males distrust or scepticism. After all, if your father could do that to you at eight days old, if the father of your people could listen to God and be willing to kill his long-promised son, then a child who grows up has to be very wary about those around him. Faith and trust in others is not a lesson of Judaism, even faith in God. In fact, as the arguments with God over the ages attest, one perhaps has to be most wary of God. Judaism does not teach faith or love – agape – but hesed, faithfulness. You must be faithful to your father and to God, but you do not have to have faith in either one. They may or may not deliver on their promises.

That is the moral lesson that is slit into every Jewish male’s penis. Be wary. Be sceptical. Even those closest to you can harm you. That moral lesson is translated into a general inquisitorial stance that teaches Jews to query everything and not take received wisdom on authority. Even the ultra-orthodox are taught to query and probe the meaning of text.

“My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” It is a valuable lesson and well worth the pain inflicted on an eight day old male baby. After all, someday he might win a Nobel prize.