Divisiveness and Disputation

A Response: Divisiveness and Disputation


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote, “Haley was overtly calling for a change from the politics of divisiveness, to the politics of hope, with which Obama had become so identified. Like Obama, she called for a better politics. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said, ‘A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything…Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of the government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.’ Democracy, he insisted, requires ‘basic bonds of trust between its citizens.’

It was on this issue that Obama admitted failure. Though he vowed to keep trying, he had failed to bridge the divide and overcome the feelings among a wide swath of Americans who felt their voice did not matter and that the system was rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and certain narrow interests. One could manipulate those feelings and feed the politics of distrust and divisiveness, or address them with a politics of civility.”

One reader responded as follows:

It is this second paragraph above where Obama shows he is of two minds — the divisive politician who uses his rhetorical skills to divide the country and demonize his opponents right out of the Saul Alinsky playbook.

I find this part of his speech the most insincere and infuriating.

In fact, only a short time before he reached this point of his speech he had engaged in this type of rank rhetorical partisanship when speaking about his fellow Republican Americans in the room whereas Haley took the high road throughout.

How does that figure into your analysis?


Let me distinguish between divisiveness and disputation, some of which can be very contentious. These are two key terms among an array trying to describe various ways of approaching differences in the positions people take on different issues. A case for one side is divisive if it meets any one of the following criteria:

  • The intention is to get the other angry.
  • The intention is NOT to convince the other of your position, or even to convince observers of the debate, but to separate people into groups and pull them apart rather than assume that they have a common cause and identity beneath their differences.
  • The difference over issues is not what really divides the two sides; rather, a position is taken to forge those differences.
  • Divisiveness among opposing groups is the real source of the opposition and not the different interpretations about an issue, for divisiveness promotes disagreements and divides and separates people.


If the intent is not to anger the other (note Obama’s offer of a hand of cooperation with Ryan), if the argument does not begin by defining the other as Other, if the intention is not to antagonize but to reconcile, then we witness an argument and not divisiveness. Taking different positions on contentious issues, as Haley and Obama did, because they differ and are willing to argue for their respective sides is NOT divisive. Even when the argument becomes contentious and even hot! This distinction is very important to philosophers who collegially engage with one another through disputation. Disputation then becomes an expression of congeniality. Arguments are inherently not divisive. Assertion, declarations, and claims can be if they are used for divisive purposes. One makes a category mistake when one identifies rhetorical partisanship with the politics of divisiveness.


What happens if a divisive personality enters a debate with someone who is interested in engaging in an argument? The divisive person will often win because the one willing and interested in engaging in argument, given a governing premise of assuming a commonality of reason and ultimate purpose, will often be unwilling to pin the tail on the donkey. Further, if he does, if he calls the other out for being divisive, is he not then being divisive? This is but one of the many paradoxes that allows philosophers to keep their jobs.


However, Obama was not confessing of a failure to overcome the divide between a politics of rational argument and a politics of divisiveness, because he long ago learned that this is impossible. He was referring to his failure to overcome the feeling of alienation of a wide swath of Americans, who, because of this alienation, are more easily led by populists who manipulate them through the entertaining performance of divisive politics. One does not demonize opponents who engage in divisiveness. They already perform as demons. Obama merely had to name them, as I do, for what they reveal themselves to be. Haley and Obama are both politicians who agree to disagree, but both would contend that their agreement is much more fundamental than their disagreements.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Barack Obama and Nikki Haley: Part I – The State of the Union

Barack Obama and Nikki Haley: Part I The State of the Union


Howard Adelman

As brilliant as Obama’s State of the Union address was, the highlight of my evening listening to Obama was the response to that address by the Republican South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley.

There were a number of parts to her response; they follow, though not in the order in which they were presented:

  1. Like virtually every American politician, including Obama, but with the possible exception of Bernie Saunders, she pontificated about America as the “last, best hope on earth.”
  2. Like Obama, she offered a vision of hope rather than the politics of fear.
  3. She complimented Obama, though, in part, it was backhanded, for three things: a)eloquence; b) the historical importance of his election; c) his ability to inspire;
  4. She supported immigration
  1. as a daughter of Indian immigrants with a history of tough times, “no one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” though, of course, migrants cannot be permitted to come illegally;
  2. she insisted that we resist the temptation to follow the siren call of the angriest voices and derided the tendency to equate noise with results;
  3. She welcomed properly vetted immigrants regardless of race or religion, calling for respecting differences, and, perhaps on this one issue, paid a glancing reference to the clerk who would not issue a marriage licence, also called for respecting “religious liberty”;
  1. She made reference to the Emmanuel Church killings noting how those gathered in prayer welcomed a stranger with love and asked him to pray with them, only to be greeted an hour later with gunfire, killing nine of the congregants – to which South Carolinans, in the spirit of the Congregants themselves, responded with vigils not violence, hugs rather than riots, a spirit which led the South Carolina government to finally take down a symbol of divisiveness, the Confederate flag.

Haley was at one with Obama when he rejected “any politics that targets people because of race or religion…The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith” and not the voices that urged Americans “to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.”

These were the unanticipated love-in parts that predominated in her speech and proved to be so complementary to Obama’s message of hope. Intermixed were her critiques of Obama’s policies and performance.

  1. She listed her strong disagreements on policy and advocated:
  1. lower taxes;
  2. brakes on runaway spending;
  3. brakes on debt;
  4. encouraging innovation and success;
  5. reform of education to benefit students and parents versus Washington bureaucrats & union bosses;
  6. an end to Obama’s disastrous health program – arguing for lower costs and patients actually being able to keep their doctor;
  7. defended the 2nd and 10th amendment;
  8. international agreements into which the United States entered should be celebrated in Israel rather than in Iran;
  9. strengthening the military so when we fight wars we win them; She then criticized Obama for his alleged failure to match his deeds to his words:
  1. an economy too weak to raise income levels;
  2. the crushing national debt;
  3. a health plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available;
  4. chaotic unrest in many of America’s cities;
  5. the U.S. is facing the most dangerous terrorist threat since 911; She criticized Washington more generally;
  1. because America was frustrated with Washington in general as all talk and no action;
  2. insisted that Democrats were not alone responsible but there was plenty of blame to go around;

She explicitly said:

“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”

Haley was overtly calling for a change from the politics of divisiveness, to the politics of hope, with which Obama had become so identified. Like Obama, she called for a better politics. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything…Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of the government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.” Democracy, he insisted, requires “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

It was on this issue that Obama admitted failure. Though he vowed to keep trying, he had failed to bridge the divide and overcome the feelings among a wide swath of Americans who felt their voice did not matter and that the system was rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and certain narrow interests. One could manipulate those feelings and feed the politics of distrust and divisiveness, or address them with a politics of civility.

For Obama, structural issues lay at the root of the new politics of divisiveness that he called on the American people, and not just the president and/or Congress to address. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around, We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections – and if our existing approach to campaign financing can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.”

Though Haley avoided pointing to any systemic structural issues beneath the politics of divisiveness, she exemplified the politics of civility and called for and refocused on the policies and different views of performance that divided Democrats and Republicans with respect to:

  1. economic policy;
  2. health policy;
  3. training and education policy to encourage innovation;
  4. domestic security and gun control;
  5. national security and foreign policy;
  6. a new approach to cooperation versus divisiveness on policy.

Haley’s response was certainly succinct and packed, especially given the much shorter time she was allocated. So I would urge listening to her message and focus on substance more than style, on the validity of her criticisms of policy and execution rather than her criticisms of Donald Trump and her praise of Barack Obama, both explicitly and by way of imitation. In that way, we too can contribute to restoring to politics the character of civilized disputes on policy issues.

Over the next few days, I will explore those differences in policies and performance between Democrats and Republicans.

With the help of Alex Zisman



Netanyahu and Moses: Parshat Va’era: Exodus: 6:2-9:35

Netanyahu and Moses: Parshat Va’era: Exodus: 6:2-9:35


Howard Adelman

I recognize that argument by analogy is the weakest form of argument if it can even be counted as a legitimate form of rational argument at all. But it is one of the most common forms of commentary used in biblical interpretation. That is not because of the strength of its reasoning, but because of the often brilliant insights provided by great leaps of the imagination which happen to resonate with reality.

This parshat about the escape of the Jews from Egypt and their return to the Promised Land is so well known that it scarce requires any repetition. Instead, I want to tell a contrasting contemporary story about Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, through the lens of the Torah, and ask the question whether his mission is to lead the Jews into the whole land of Israel or whether it is his destiny to lead the Jews, reluctantly of course, out of Eretz Israel altogether.

Like Moses and his brother, Aaron, Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) had a brother, Jonathan (Joni). Aaron was the older brother by three years. In the Biblical text, as Rashi noted, in some places the two are referred to as Aaron and Moshe and, at other places, as Moshe and Aaron. Though Moses is referred to as the greatest Jew in the history of the Jewish people, Rashi says that Aaron and Moshe were two sides of the same coin. Both act in the face of a far greater earthly power. But they play complementary roles. Aaron is the man of words, the orator, the rhetorician, while Moses serves as the political leader. Both rose to the greatest heights in the expression and realization of their God-given skills.

At first glance, one might presume that the comparison is of Bibi to Moses and Joni to Aaron. After all, like Aaron, Joni was the older. But Joni died young. Further, Bibi was the orator. Though Joni was a great commander of his elite strike force in the IDF, he was more akin to Rabin; Joni was not a media star while that is the very route Bibi took to rise to the pinnacle of power in Israel by becoming a minor star in the U.S. media firmament. So I start with comparing Bibi to Aaron and Joni to Moses, for like Moses, no matter what happens in history, Joni will be remembered as one of the great figures in Jewish history who led the attack that freed the captives in Entebbe in Uganda and allowed them to return to Israel, though he himself would only return in a casket. As one of the few Jewish writers to emerge in America after WWII, one who seemed to lack any neurosis and even retained his role as an observant Jew, as one who celebrated rather than begrudged military figures, Herman Wouk wrote of Joni in the following terms:

He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance, a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. On the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War, the unit he led was part of the force that held back a sea of Soviet tanks manned by Syrians, in a celebrated stand; and after Entebbe, “Yoni” became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with somber reverence.

Further, according to what was known of Joni, he was an exemplar of humility. Whatever one can say about Bibi, few if any would say he is humble. On the other hand, we all know that Joni occupies a mythical place among the stars of the redemption of Israel for his martyrdom in the rescue of the Jews captured by Arab terrorists and taken to Entebbe.  But Benjamin Netanyahu was also a man of action and not just of words, for he was a commando in the same elite unit in which Joni served who went on another mission and rescued Jews hijacked on a Sabena flight. It was Bibi who would emerge as both the orator and the political leader. I suggest that we look at Netanyahu as made up of two souls, his own inner being as an orator, as a man of words, as an Aaron, and, as well, as a ghost in the mechanism of his body, the ghost of Joni who could have risen to be a rival to Rabin in the political landscape. In other words, Bibi Netanyahu is both Aaron and Moses in his own mind, but his true self was to be a spokesperson. The political mission fell into his lap inadvertently, though not reluctantly as was the actual case with Moses.

Many if not most of the prophets of Israel were reluctant to assume their roles – Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even the satirical figure, Jonah. Moses asks God to find someone else. He can’t do the job. Even though Moses had been raised as a prince of Egypt, he asked, who am I to assume such a lofty role? He also contended that the people of Israel would not believe him and accept him as their leader; after all, he had not been brought up among them. Further, like the stuttering King George VI of Britain in a time when Britain was threatened with being overrun by Nazi Germany, Moses reluctantly assumed the role of titular leader of his people in spite of his overpowering stutter. Moses too was a stutterer and had uncircumcised lips. Moses’ fourth reason for his reluctance; he had no desire to assume the role. Others were more ambitious and more interested and more capable.

None of these four reasons were Bibi’s problem. He always was convinced not only that he could do the job, but that he was the best person for the job. He also believed, if given the right circumstances for his people to assess him, they too would become convinced that he was the best man for the position. He obviously had the gift of the gab and was a terrific orator. Further, perhaps no one in the history of modern Israel was so convinced that he was destined to become the leader; as many would attest, he had a messianic complex. For his essence was to be an Aaron who took on the role of a political leader rather than a leader with the essential spirit of Moses in his soul. Adopting the mantle of Moses was shapeshifting, assuming the ghost of Joni while underneath lacking those leadership skills. He was convinced of his own abilities, of his own worth, of his own powers of persuasion and, most of all, of his destiny. If he faced any problem, it was the inability and reluctance of the Israeli people to recognize all of that. That was the major, and perhaps only real obstacle that he had to overcome.

Look at how Bibi went out into the diaspora, not as a shepherd who rashly but out of compassion for his kin who was a slave being beaten by an overseer, killed that very same overseer. Bibi had never been banished to Midian and willingly accepted his role as never-to-be-remembered figure. Each step was taken to advance his ambition.

Further, Moses begs to be excused because he is an initial failure. When he first asks Pharaoh to let my people go, Pharaoh laughs at Moses and makes the Israelite slaves work harder as punishment for the chutzpah of their so-called leader. The Israelites reacted, not by rallying around Moses, but by getting angry and asking him to leave office. Recall that Bibi also was voted out of office when he pissed off Bill Clinton and failed in forging a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“My Lord, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he did evil to this people. But You did not rescue Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-23) But it was not Bibi, the orator, who failed, but Bibi the ghost of Joni. Unlike Moses, instead of asking why God failed both him and the Israelites to free his people, Bibi blamed himself. God promised redemption and redemption did come once again when Barak, in spite of the most generous offer imaginable by an Israeli leader to the Palestinians, also failed, and Bibi once again retuned to leadership of the Jewish people. Unlike Moses, he believed it was his destiny and mission to lead Israel.

But had not Moses been raised in the luxury of America? Had he not mastered the way of the Americans just as Moses had of the Egyptian elite? But so had Joni. Both returned to Israel. Both served in the IDF in illustrious roles. There is a difference however. While Moses could never acclimatize himself to being an Egyptian and always felt uncomfortable even though he had been adopted as an infant and raised in a royal household, Bibi, in fact, was more at home in America than in Israel. If he had stayed in America, though, because he was born abroad, he could possibly have risen to become vizier, a very big man in a very big pond rather than a very big man in a relatively little pond. Bibi never lost that sense of entitlement and lectured both two Democratic presidents as if he was their equal in stature and power. Bibi has always been a would-be president of the United States. Bibi was no Moses.

So when each president would not do his bidding, he subverted first one by slow-walking the peace process and the second one by increasingly confronting Barack Obama, and telling him that he had not learned the lessons of history, that he was naïve and that he had made a bad deal, a bad, bad deal with Iran. Bibi was no withering vine. Bibi was no Moses. Moses was appalled at the hardships of slavery of the Israelites. Bibi was appalled that Jews anywhere did not have absolute power to determine their own destiny, attributing the suffering of the Jewish people to the absence of such power. Moses was sensitive to the fact that his people had incorporated the spirit of bondage in their very being. Bibi was extremely proud that Israelites had presumably and absolutely thrown off the spirit of bondage that afflicted Jews in the diaspora. For Bibi was destined to be the redeemer of the entire land of Israel; for Moses, God always remained the redeemer, not he. This was true even though Moses exhibited such a range of skills, and accomplishments, and in spite of his severe handicap. He was a prince, shepherd, politician, law-giver, teacher, judge and prophet.

Bibi, in contrast, was the child of a very embittered man, in Benzion Netanyahu’s own estimation, forced to live out the best years of his life in exile. When Bibi as an adult himself lived in the diaspora, he was, in contrast, not a humble shepherd, but a media star, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, and, at a very young age, ambassador of Israel to the United Nations. He then became a politician, not through being chosen by God, nor initially by being chosen by the people, but by having mastered the ability of getting ahead politically be accruing wealthy supporters and by forging a network of very ambitious colleagues. He never received any renown as a legislator even though the rule of law is central to the life of the Jewish people. Nor was he ever a teacher, unless a teacher is defined like both he and his father as a pontificator of personal convictions and received opinions rather than as an inquirer into the truth. He was known for his partisanship and his skills as a political broker rather than for any sense of judicious fairness. He saw himself as a prophet even though that very conviction made him blind to the advantages of the Iran nuclear deal, especially for Israel.

I write this as a form of explanation for why Bibi treated Obama as if he was Pharaoh rather than a partner and supporter of the Israel people. For Bibi, Obama was a front man for Evil rather than simply a leader with a different perspective, a different set of obligations, a different approach and a different attitude, hope rather than pessimism. When Moses was called forth to confront Pharaoh and lead the people back to Israel, he was given a staff, a mateh, that turned into a serpent and back into a staff as an instrument, not only to prove God’s magical powers, but as the very tool that would call forth the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptian people.

Now there are many questions to ask about those plagues. For one, why punish the Egyptian people for the evils of their autocratic leader? Most of all, why kill innocent babes in the cause of your own freedom? But I will not deal with any of those issues. Rather, I want to ask what was the staff that would bring water out of rocks, that would divide the sea so that the Israelites could cross, but, most of all, what was the rod that was used to confuse Pharaoh, raise his wrath and bring about one plague after another on the Egyptian people?

The cobra, a god of the Egyptians, as symbolically represented on the headdress of the Pharaoh, was the supposed source of divine power for the Pharaoh. Moses was given the power to grab the snake and turn it into a power for himself, a rigid staff rather than wriggly serpent. Second, the snake represented a reversal of what happened in the Garden of Eden. There Adam had viewed his masculinity as an Other, as something for which he was not responsible. Further, that Other, that erect penis with a mind of its own, abused the skills of language and seduced Eve, or, in my interpretation, responded naturally to a female, but in the process, further encouraged Adam to distance him from his responsibility. Thus, turning the crawling, twisting snake back into a staff was a symbol of recovering one’s masculinity, of reintegrating oneself as en embodied creature willing and courageous enough to mark one’s place in the world. Third, in addition to the mateh symbolizing the seizure of the magical powers of the Other, in addition to the mateh, the staff, representing the reaffirmation of oneself as a courageous embodied creature standing up mano-to-mano, the serpent is also a symbol of man assuming he is God, assuming he is the ultimate in vision, in insight, in the determination of the use of power, in understanding how power works and how history will unfold.

The snake represents the power in the enemy Other, the power already in oneself, and the transcendent other of the Almighty Other. To turn that serpent once again into a stiff staff is to perform all three actions at one and the same time. The problem emerges not when one combines all three, but when one misconstrues the friend, the supporter, the adviser, the provider, not as a perhaps mistaken ally, but as a front for Evil. The problem is not in the snake and the staff, but in he who seizes it and uses it and who it is seen to be used against and who it is actually used against. Because Bibi sees himself as a Moses, but is really an Aaron, because he wears the ghostly cloak of his dead brother, because he projects onto others with whom he disagrees the character of the Devil, Bibi backs himself and Israel into a dark corner, not just a cave, but a black hole where light is sucked in rather than emitted, where, despair squelches all hope, a situation where a man who sees himself as leading the Jewish people to the promise of the whole land of Israel in the end leads them out of Israel because, in contrast to Ben Gurion who absolutely saw the need of a small nation to have a very large nation as a patron, Bibi got caught up in the myth of self-sufficiency.

Pray to God that his false leadership, that his mis-leadership, that, in the final analysis, his non-leadership shall end, the sooner the better. Otherwise I fear the plagues will fall on Israel and not on Israel’s true enemies.


With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part II Obama

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part II Obama


Howard Adelman

Ironically, watching the PBS special provided some insight into why Ronald Reagan was such a popular president. He was a politician of fear with a broad smile who played up the hope card. From a street rather than a patrician perspective, Donald Trump, though his smile is more a smirk and his fears far more narrow, may be a politician attempting to marry the two approaches. But in the PBS documentary, they are very much alive and hard at work combating one another.

This Manichaean view of politics may be distorted. The comments throughout made by experts, authoritative as they may sound, may dissolve upon examination. Both should give us pause when we reflect on the PBS documentary. For example, in Part I of this blog I referred to Martin Indyk, once American ambassador to Israel, as making a number of comments about Netanyahu at Rabin’s funeral. When I saw the headline stories this morning, I thought the remark that might get him in trouble was his contention that when an extremist Jewish terrorist assassinated Rabin, that Netanyahu had told him that his chances of re-election went down the drain. But the one that got him in trouble was his assertion that he and Netanyahu had sat side by side at the funeral. At the time, Netanyahu had told him that now that Rabin had been assassinated, he would go down in Israeli history as a great hero whereas if the election went ahead with the two of them running against one another, Rabin would have gone down in history as a loser.

Indyk’s exact words were: “I remember Netanyahu saying to me: ‘Look, look at this. He’s a hero now, but if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician.” Journalists pounced. When video footage showed that Indyk was nowhere near Netanyahu at the funeral, and Netanyahu insisted the claim Indyk made was an outright lie, Indyk revised his version insisting the incident took place the day before at a special Knesset ceremony on 5 November 1995 prior to the funeral. However, only family members were seated at that event; for everyone else, there was only standing room. Further, in the leaked Wikipedia cables to Washington that day from Indyk, nothing is said about the remark.

The cable was entitled “RABIN ASSASSINATION: NEXT STEPS IN ISRAEL’S POLITICAL SUCCESSION.” In it, Indyk discussed the assassination’s ramifications on the Likud. The Israeli right panicked and feared being routed in the forthcoming elections. “The assassination of Rabin is ‘a disaster for the Jewish people, a disaster of Israel and a disaster for the Right which will be decimated if elections are called soon.'” Other than painting Netanyahu as cold and insensitive, does the difference in historical recollection change anything. No. But the portraiture of Bibi is the heart of the documentary. Failure to check facts undermines the credibility of that portrait.

There are, however, greater issues at stake than even Netanyahu’s reputation and personal portrait. In my interpretation of the PBS documentary, I suggested the second intifada was the key event that set off the slide of the left and of the centre-left, of those sympathetic to peace, to relegation to the margins in Israel’s political world. I was reminded of that when Avi Shavit wrote in Haaretz this morning in an article entitled, “The Defeatism of Israel’s Enlightened Zionists,” that, “We of the center-left must rise from our depression, get out of our seclusion and take responsibility.” Events and the narrative of those events have political consequences. And in that ball game, the odds are stacked against the party of hope. For there are four possible attitudes:

  1. Hope about the prospects of peace;
  2. Pessimism about the prospects of peace based on the politics of fear;
  3. Acting hopeful but stoking the fuel of fear as Reagan did;
  4. Viewing hope and fear as alternative positions rotating in a cycle through history, a perspective largely implicitly adopted by the PBS documentary.

The problem is that positions 2, 3 and 4 all feed the politics of fear; the odds are against the politics of hope. Please keep this in mind while I recount the contents of the rest of the documentary. For when Obama is re-introduced into the documentary, he is painted as the quintessential embodiment of the politics of hope. Further, the documentary goes further and claims that he was the most Jewish of American presidents, not only because,

even in his re-election, he still garnered 69% of the Jewish vote, not only because he had many Jewish backers and close friends, not only because he remained married to an idealized view of Israel, but also because, in the documentary, Jews are characterized culturally as a people of hope rather than a people driven by fear, though the biblical narrative might indicate otherwise. “Jews have this instinct towards making the world better.” As Avi Shavit put it, “The real clash is between two versions of Judaism,” universalist, progressive, liberal versus the under siege fortress Judaism (Netanyahu).

So Obama leads the Jewish party of hope in dealing with the Palestinians while Netanyahu is the spokesperson for the party feeding on fear. As depicted, the fight is not so much between the American president and the leader of Israel, but between two sides of Judaism, one predominant in America and the other, given their experiences and what surrounds them, having emerged as predominant in Israel. If you read Israeli newspapers and listen to Israeli news daily, you cannot help but be aware of the clash and the circumstances that feed cynicism in response to the paradoxes rampant in the Middle East.

Again, to take this morning’s news as an example, the politicians who uphold the belief that Israelis can only, in the end, rely on themselves, and Israel is reliant on its enemy, the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas,  to keep the lid on the recent uprising. At the same time, those Israelis drifting towards this pole, increasingly regard Israeli Arabs as a potential fifth column. One Israeli journalist of an unequivocal liberal persuasion will write that nowhere in the world, even in anti-Semitic France, are Jews subjected to a regime of fear, deprivation and ostracism as the Arabs in Israel. At the same time, Hannan Zoabi, a member of the Israeli Knesset on the Arab List, only received a slap on the wrist after she apologized for her abusive behaviour towards two police officers.

In the larger picture of the whole Middle East, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a minor side-show as much as it may preoccupy me. When Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a loud diplomatic war, when their proxies are fighting a life and death war over Syria which lies astride the centre of these two rivals, when Iraq has been lost to the Shia with the help of President George W. Bush, when both Sunni and Shia have developed their own extremist versions at war with one another, to repeatedly hear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of instability in the Middle East from liberal commentators alienates me from my own allies and pushes me towards some cynicism about the politics of hope.

In the documentary, this is reinforced when Barack Obama, in his valiant but futile efforts to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, makes mistake after mistake, admitted to in retrospect by those who advised Obama on his efforts in the Middle East. In the documentary, Obama phoned Abbas first before even any other head of state and long before he talked to Netanyahu, ostensibly America’s closest ally in the Middle East. He announced as his first foreign policy objective a recalibration of America’s relations with the Arab world. In the process, he visited Arab states in the region without dropping into Israel. With the break out of the Arab Spring, Obama abandons an old ally, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, only to see the Muslim Brotherhood, not Egyptian liberals, step into the breach. Obama alienated Saudi Arabia, setting that country on its much more independent course, though also fostered by the politics of fear.

American Middle East policy appears to be a shambles. The attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended up with an empty bag in spite of America’s involvement under Obama. The vision caught up most Americans, as Dennis Ross said, with the vision of Obama as a transformative president, just as Justin Trudeau in Canada is regarded today. Obama first assigned George Mitchell to the task of helping bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was an arduous and eventually totally futile effort. As the commentator on the documentary noted, “On the ground, Obama’s hopes did not match the stark reality,” as the extremist group, Hamas, once again took the militant route in dealing with Israel. But the issue for the White House became, not the facts on the ground, but a clash of attitudes and approaches. And a leftover from the Clinton days, Rom Emmanuel, advised Obama not to play Bibi’s game for Bibi would just practice the politics of procrastination, delays and obfuscation.

The problem was that dealing with Netanyahu as an obstacle only upped the ante so that Bibi became a direct rather than indirect antagonist. As Obama and his White House staff sought an end run around Netanyahu, Netanyahu shifted his game from defence to attack mode. This became clear in Netanyahu’s visit with Obama in the White House following his election. The meeting was a disaster according to all observers. Obama focused on the old trope of freezing the construction of settlements on the West Bank instead of asking how America could help Bibi resume negotiations and request a freeze in return. Further, unlike the past, as Chemi Shalev (Haaretz) opined, Obama signalled the change in the American approach by making the freezing of settlements a demand, and, further, making that demand in public.

Netanyahu returned to Israel angry, suspicious and hostile, according to Ari Shavit, and those feelings only grew over the years in which the two leaders dealt with one another. Netanyahu now faced militant adversaries among the Palestinians and in the Muslim world and a political adversary, indeed enemy, in the White House. Indyk predicted the tactic would lose the Israelis, disabling the honest broker strategy before it even got off the ground. Combining a speech demanding the end to settlements and demanding nothing of the Palestinians, visiting Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and not Israel, could not have been worse as Obama’s advisers realized later, except for Ben Rhodes who envisioned no winning formula in dealing with Netanyahu. Most other advisers in retrospect saw it as a major error. It not only alienated the right in Israel but, for the average Israeli, Obama would become a persona non grata. Only 6% of all Israelis considered him pro-Israel.

Obama tried the same tactic on Egypt when the streets arose in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. He not only told Mubarak that he should leave, but announced that request to the rest of the world. Netanyahu proved to be correct. The policy boomeranged, first with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over. This was followed by a much stronger military dictator than Hosni Mubarak. Obama’s subsequent speech proclaiming a historical change in the Middle East – proven so demonstrably false within a year – also included a glance at  the Israeli-Palestinian peace by setting the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps, as the reference point. This was no change at all in American policy, but a change in articulating that policy by officially endorsing the peace fire lines as the de facto border subject to mutually agreed alterations. The failure was not in the policy but in its articulation, mode and context.

The confrontation and dressing down of President Obama in public  by Netanyahu followed the next day. Rhodes insisted the lines were not controversial since that had always been the basis for U.S. policy. But the difference was context, tone and the imperative behind the statement as I suggested above. It was no longer an American preferred position, but a demand placed on Israel. It was now set amidst the larger conflict between rulers and ruled in the Middle East, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at all in the same ballpark or even league. Bibi repeated over and over again to the President, as if the President was a naïve school child, “Its not going to happen. Everyone knows it’s not going to happen.” One has to go back to the Suez crisis to find a comparable falling out between two such close allies.

Rhodes declared that he had never seen a head of state behave that way to the President. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, it now seemed totally hypocritical. It was ok for Obama to lecture Netanyahu in public, but now it was now insulting for Netanyahu to reverse the tables. Rhodes was clearly the point man in this misdirection in policy-making, but the president’s advisors now rallied around, upset at Netanyahu’s discourteous behaviour towards the leader of the greatest power on earth. They were repulsed by Netanyahu’s gall. One could not imagine the situation getting worse between Obama and Netanyahu, but it did. It was not enough that the two leaders had deeply offended one another. The political war now reached into a positive foreign policy initiative of Obama that would be part of his legacy, of course, provided it worked out. That was Iran.

Obama walked away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran became his sole focus, though he relegated John Kerry during his second term to attempt to resurrect the peace process once again. That was futile. But Obama now had a tiger by the tail, or, a better analogy, a Rottweiler chomping at his pant cuffs. And it was not only the Israelis that were unhappy. So were the Palestinians. For all Obama had offered them were words, rhetoric and not action. The Americans would not, and the President probably could not, back the declaration of the settlements as not only illegal. The building of those settlements had to stop with a cut off of funds to the Israeli government and a cut off of charitable donations from right-wing American Jews and evangelical Christians who supported such settlements. This did not and, probably, could not have happened.

Not only was the Israeli-Palestinian peace that Obama was pushing not going to happen, but Israel was determined that Iran could not and would not become a nuclear power because Bibi honestly and deeply believed that that was the one step that truly threatened Israel’s existence. On this issue, Obama was totally on side. The difference was over strategy. Obama believed that diplomacy was worth exploring. Netanyahu believed that it was a waste of time and, even if successful, Iran would subvert any agreement. But the Israeli military advised Netanyahu that Israel did not have the capacity to act alone even as an enormous build-up of Israeli planning and the preliminaries to execution took place in the first half of 2012. However, as Bibi was strongly advised by both Shin Bet and the armed forces of Israel, Israel needed the backing of the U.S. Netanyahu had now so alienated Obama that imagining he could bring Obama around to his perspective was a waste of time. So Netanyahu forged an overt alliance with the Republicans to win the hearts and minds of Americans and of the majority in Congress to his way of comprehending the issue.

Ronen Berger (The Secret War with Iran) described the situation in which Iran would enter the zone of immunity, the place on the timeline when it would be virtually impossible to destroy Iran’s nuclear program when the uranium nuclear enrichment program would move underground and be effectively immune to Israeli firepower. Israel had to act. Israel was unable to act without enormous and questionable risks. Netanyahu had seemingly painted himself into a corner. But he was a fighter and entry into the domestic arena of American politics seemed to be his only option. There seemed to be no balanced analysis by Netanyahu and his close advisers whether or not Obama’s diplomatic initiative might possibly succeed. From Netanyahu’s perspective, it could not because Iran was Moloch, the political embodiment of evil. More importantly, Netanyahu was unwilling to take the risk that if he attacked Iran and a wider war broke out in the Middle East between the Muslim countries and Israel, Obama would come to his aid, though, probably, domestic policies and the reaction of the American public would force the U.S. to join Israel. The U.S. was faced with a Catch-22 situation in which Obama in tackling Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian issue had now put his Iranian policy to some degree  into the hands of Netanyahu.

However, without Israel being willing to play a high risk game and attack Iran unilaterally, Netanyahu had, in turn, placed his Iranian policy totally in the hands of America, something Bibi vowed Israel would and could never do. And Obama was totally unwilling to give Netanyahu an amber light let alone a green one. Israel backed down from the military initiative and went all out on the political front in the USA, far less dangerous than a unilateral attack against Iran, especially given that in the summer and fall of 2012 Obama was fighting re-election with a drastic drop in his approval rating below 50%. If, and it was a big if, Obama could be defeated and a Republican, any Republican, took his place, there would be just enough time to take advantage of the zone of immunity. Just as Obama had lost Bibi’s ear, now Netanyahu lost Obama’s and could only hear his own voice echoing to applause in Congress and on the American media.

Netanyahu had lost on both fronts. His military strategy of attacking Iran was in a shambles because he was never going to get Obama’s support for an attack and might not even get Obama’s support if Iran retaliated with force against Israel. His political strategy was in a shambles since he had defined Obama as the enemy and Obama had been re-elected. Seeing no other option, Netanyahu adopted a strategy of guerrilla political war against the President of the United States of America. We were traveling along a timeline of one unprecedented event after another.

America had proved to be wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. Netanyahu, at least in the short term of the subsequent four years of Obama’s presidency, proved to be dead wrong on the strategy of dealing with Obama and Iran, though we await history’s judgment of who will be proven right over the long term. Just as Clinton had once entered the domestic political fray in Israel to support his Israeli candidate of choice, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu now entered the American political fray with a full frontal assault and virtually total support for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate. It was the political equivalent of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive. Netanyahu saw the stakes as so high that he was willing to burn a number of bridges with American Democrats and with the majority of Jewish liberals who still voted for and supported Obama. But he lost his bid for the Jewish vote in Florida; Obama emerged with a clear majority.

On that front, and even in the aftermath of Obama’s re-election, Netanyahu simply upped the ante when Obama won and went from political guerrilla warfare to open political war. Obama, on the other hand went underground in his secret meetings with Iran in Oman without informing Israel of the progress. Obama was negotiating with Iran, Israel’s worst enemy, behind the backs of their closest ally in the Middle East. Ridiculous, unjustified, immoral pronounced Tzachi Hanegbi, one of Netanyahu’s advisers. What is worse, the negotiations resulted in an interim agreement. Netanyahu pronounced it a very bad deal, but to independent analysts, whatever flaws there were in the deal, and however much Iran would benefit on other fronts in its expansionist foreign policy, the deal seemed to be a reasonably good deal for both sides. Even worse, in 2014 the negotiations resulted in a full agreement that, contrary to expectations, even improved on the interim agreement. And Obama, in spite of strenuous efforts, could not persuade Netanyahu to at least see his point of view, or to even give the deal a chance. Natanyahu now recognized he had failed and felt both betrayed and alarmed.

Netanyahu’s deep belief that Iranians would only respond to the threat of force proved to be overwhelmingly wrong. Obama, contrary to Netanyahu’s insistence, had never taken the military option off the table; he had only placed it on a back burner. But, contrary to all evidence, and all American assurances to the contrary, Bibi insisted that the Americans had done so. Bibi not only terribly misread the American position, but mindblindly misread the agreement itself. In turn, Obama and Netanyahu had burned the bridges between them. Obama was now unwilling to reach out and try to correct misunderstandings between them.

Further, Obama succeeded in his end run around a Republican dominated Congress and effectively sold the deal to the American people. (See my earlier blogs analyzing the Iran nuclear deal.) Of course, the deal was not intended to stop Iran’s march towards tyranny, subjugation and terror. That was not its objective. But as a side benefit, it might have some influence on slowing it down and even reversing it. That would be an unanticipated benefit. Bibi now shifted his position to make the main goal of negotiations, not the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program, but Iran’s expansionist foreign policy and support for terrorism. The deal clearly failed to measure up to those objectives.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015 won him lots of plaudits and numerous rounds of applause in the illustrious Senate chamber, but Netanyahu was now dead in the water in having any influence over, not just Obama, but any president who was a Democrat. There was even the possibility that Hilary Clinton would be worse for Netanyahu than even Obama who had a sincere and deep love for the Jewish people and for Israel.

It remained possible that the deal would fall apart in the implementation phase. That was another matter, but thus far implementation has been going very smoothly. Netanyahu had lost his battle on all fronts and the costs for Israel were far, far greater than the costs to Obama in failing to advance the peace process. Over the long run, it also meant a deepening of the fissure between the majority of liberal Jews in America and the increasing shift of Israelis to the right. At the same time, the third stabbing intifada broke out. Pessimism and despair had been the results of the politics of fear.

Liel Leibowitz had written, “don’t let the thin grey mist of public television dullness fool you: last night’s prime time offering [the program discussed herein] was every bit as surreal, titillating, maddening, and wonderful as anything the master of pulp fiction has done in years.” Leibowitz is right. The program may not have the broad appeal of “Making a Murderer.” But for professional and amateur observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a must see. The documentary was not perfect. For balance, there needed to be more on the factors that shaped Obama’s views. A meta assessment could have accompanied the cafeteria of observations and critiques. The broad outlines of the development of the Iran deal were reduced to a few sound bites. The cyclical view of alternating hope and despair made the documentary intriguing, but created some distortion. As did serious omissions, such as what had happened to Gaza after Israel left. How much did domestic politics in Iran influence Obama’s initiative? But without a doubt, this documentary is the most compelling and dramatic one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian issue that I have seen in a long time.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part I

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part I Netanyahu


Howard Adelman

On 5 January 2016 on America’s Public Broadcasting Network (PBS) on the program “Frontline,” the station broadcast “Netanyahu at War,” an epic account of the conflict between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) and President Barak Obama of the United States over American Middle East Policy.  Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser produced the documentary.


After watching it, I thought it should have been entitled, “Netanyahu and Obama at War” even though only about half the program focuses on that phase of Netanyahu’s relations with the United States. The program began, as do many dramatic series on television, with a series of very brief clips of strong opinions voiced by many of Middle East observers and specialists dealing with the last decade-and-a-half and subsequently sprinkled throughout the documentary. The range of experts included in the show was very impressive. And they virtually all spoke as frankly as Netanyahu did when he upbraided President Obama in his own White House. The climax of the program took place when Netanyahu visited the United States and in a joint press conference, Netanyahu lectured Obama in public. Netanyahu’s famous address to a joint session of Congress where he received 26 standing ovations emerged as an anti-climax, though it is portrayed at the beginning of the documentary as the pinnacle of the war between the two.

The program began in March 2015 in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s residence when Prime Minister Netanyahu was determined to stop Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran just before he was about to the deliver his famous speech to the American Congress. (Full disclosure. I have written a great deal in support of that deal and have been critical of the stance that Netanyahu took on the deal.) The television program, at least on the surface, tried to take a non-partisan position of detachment.

After all, the show opened with Eyal Arad, part of Netanyahu’s inner circle in the early nineties, but more recently the two have fallen out over accusations that Arad had been the conduit through which Israeli NGOs received foreign funding, a charge Arad found hypocritical since Netanyahu offered him a job once to be paid by foreign donors. Ayad stated that Netanyahu had a messianic notion of himself as a person called to service in a mission to save the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel more particularly. Ayad was followed by Tachi Hanegbi, another close adviser to Netanyahu, who declared that Netanyahu had never before made such an important speech. Bibi believed he had a historic role to play. Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, then appeared and stated that Bibi wants to be the person that stops the evil power of Iran in the same way that Churchill stopped Nazi Germany. Netanyahu was clear. He wanted to make the strongest case possible against the deal so that he could go down in history as the person who warned us all about what is about to happen.

Peter Baker of The New York Times then appeared and stated that it is rare for anyone to come to America and directly tell the President of the United States that he is wrong. In fact, I believe it was unprecedented. Even more audacious, this foreign leader interfered directly in American foreign affairs and told members of Congress that they have a duty to stop Obama, to prevent their own president from going forward with the Iranian nuclear deal with Iran. The risk to Israeli-American relations was enormous as Ronen Bergman (The Secret War with Iran) pronounced subsequently.

Further, it was an enormous gamble. Because, as Chemi Shalev of Haaretz said, Bibi was willing to sacrifice U.S.-Israeli relations to advance his goal. So Bibi addressed the Republican-controlled Congress with many Democrats boycotting the session making it clear that this was a totally partisan affair with a foreign Prime Minister lining up with the official opposition to the President. Unprecedented is too weak a characterization for what was taking place. As Bibi began in traditional Zionist rather than just revisionist political-speak, “The days when Jews were passive in front of genocidal enemies are over.”

The Congressional applause was overwhelming. Bibi then insisted that we always have to remember that the greatest danger facing our world is when there is a marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. But Bibi went further. He lectured Obama, an ex-law professor who used to teach constitutional law, on the meaning of the American constitution and what it demanded of its political leaders. Iran’s founding document promises death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad in opposition to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The two counties, Bibi insisted, were foundationally sworn enemies. Epic indeed. A person with a messianic complex believing that he was at a crossroads in history with a Churchillian mission to stop evil in its tracks!

The documentary then switched to Obama declaring that Obama had never been as furious and that the White House saw Netanyahu’s chutzpah as a usurpation. One commentator inexplicably even described the livid feeling of the White House as feeling that a coup d’état had been attempted. Netanyahu’s position was not simply a disagreement over Obama’s policy, but an outright attack on what Obama regarded as a central achievement for his foreign policy legacy. Sandy Berger, former national security advisor, in fact, introduced the theme that Obama set immediately after his inauguration – to recast America as a close friend of the Islamic world and, to that end, Obama wanted to show that the US was no longer joined at the hip to Israel.

David Remnick of The New Yorker called the whole episode a humiliation for Obama taking place at a very sensitive moment in the negotiations with Iran. Obama, in his follow-up press conference noted that Netanyahu had not offered an alternative scenario. For if there was no deal, Iran would immediately resume pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. Of course, there was an implicit alternative: the United States in concert with Israel using even more coercive pressure on Iran. The problem was not an absence of an alternative strategy, but the efficaciousness of such a strategy in comparison to the diplomatic route. Further, the coercive strategy stood behind the diplomatic channel to suggest to Iran what could happen if no agreement was reached. Of course, for the U.S. (and Israel) the alternative was Iran putting its effort to develop nuclear weapons in high gear without U.S. and Israeli good intelligence access to Iran’s progress.

Aaron David Miller, who had worked in the State Department for 25 years from 1978 to 2003, saw the clash as a train wreck bound to happen given the dysfunction coming from both sides. He was the first commentator in the documentary to suggest the source of the problem had a double root. That provided the segue to allow the documentary to go back in history and trace the historical roots of the conflict in terms of Netanyahu’s personal history:

  • Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was a professor of history at Cornell who saw himself as unable to get tenure at Hebrew University at the time because of his strong revisionist beliefs; Benzion saw the world as fundamentally hostile to the Jewish people, as Miller described him, with the Nazi Holocaust just the latest and worst manifestation of an age-old hostility to the Jewish people
  • As a result, from the age of 7, Bibi grew up in the U.S. where in New York and Philadelphia he learned to speak like an American and to possess a deep love of and admiration for the U.S.
  • Bibi still had to earn his Israeli spurs: Netanyahu when he was in the IDF as a young officer was part of the special Israeli strike force disguised as maintenance crew that stormed a hijacked Sabena plane scheduled to fly from Brussels to Tel Aviv, an operation in which the passengers were all saved and a few Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded, including Netanyahu who injured his hand by friendly fire; two of the three members of Black September were killed and the other was captured along with the Arab women with them
  • So terrorist actions reinforced his view, according to Ari Shavit, that the world was out to get the Jews and, in the bottom line, only Jews could be relied upon to protect themselves from the terrible demonic forces that faced Jews
  • When Israel did not occupy East Jerusalem, did not occupy the West Bank, did not occupy the Golan Heights, did not occupy Gaza, did not occupy Sinai, Arab states amassed to attack Israel with thousands of tanks and a quarter million soldiers; Israel proved its mettle by defeating them all, including the renowned Jordanian forces after the Jordanian king ignored Israel’s plea to stay out of the war
  • Palestinian leaders had promised to slaughter the Jews, to wipe them out, but they did not succeed.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic claimed The Six Day War set in motion a lot of what we are dealing with today. Is that thesis, so common in intellectual circles, accurate, or is the right wing view a better descriptor since the war had been continuous ever since Jews began to return to their ancient land? Certainly, the humanitarian card once more came to the fore, the so-called million homeless and displaced Palestinian refugees, as if they had no national home to which they could go and where they could be protected. For revisionists, there was no parallel with the Jews. Just one loss in a war would mean the loss of any homeland and the prospect of Jews en masse wiped out and not just turned into refugees. But the documentary ignored entirely this perspective and instead insisted that it was the occupation of Palestinian lands that ignited decades of conflict as if there had been no conflict heretofore.

As Dore Gold, another Netanyahu advisor, opined, The Six Day War proved that Israelis had always to be alert, always would need good intelligence, and both a readiness and an ability to respond quickly with military force when threatened. That version of history had been instilled in Bibi since he was born and he skipped his high school graduation in the U.S. to return to Israel and, if possible, fight the Arabs in he Six Day War. The war ended too quickly for him to do anything but dig trenches. But he was present at that crucial turning point in Israeli history.

His views were further reinforced when Israel was attacked in 1973 and then again when his older brother, Jonathan (Joni), who commanded the elite IDF unit, Sayeret Matkal that freed the civilians in Entebbe, was himself killed and became one of the mythical figures of Israeli history. David Remnick of The New Yorker insisted that there is no question that this event imprinted in Bibi even more deeply his sense of mission and purpose. After graduating from MIT, Bibi reinvented himself on the American media as an expert on terrorism. A PLO state would mean more war, more violence in the Middle East. And Bibi in the eighties became an official spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Marvin Kalb of NBC News insisted that this was critical to contemporary politics, mastering the media and selling your country and its narrative to the world, especially in Ronald Reagan’s America where Bibi’s portrait of Good against Evil had a very receptive audience.

At age 34, Benjamin Netanyahu was appointed as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, a position that had been so important in Israeli history since Abba Eban held the position in the birthing days of the young state. The story he sold was that the Security Council condoned Palestinian violence against Israel while condemning Israeli efforts to take counter-measures. In 1988, Bibi resigned to return to Israel and build his right wing political base. What was omitted from the documentary was the historical record of a revisionist Israeli politician, namely Menachem Begin, giving Sinai back to the Egyptians and signing a peace agreement with Egypt. What was also ignored was the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement.

Then the Clinton years, the nineties, when Good versus Evil was no longer fashionable and the push for peace between Israel and Palestinians was now at the front of the American agenda.  After a long protracted and fumbling path, Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat had finally entered into direct negotiations. Dennis Ross, an American Middle East envoy to the Middle East from 1993-2001, witnessed it all and was representative in regarding these negotiations as a historic breakthrough because, for the first time, both sides declared that they were prepared to recognize the other. Was Israel unprepared to recognize Arab control over the West Bank and Gaza before 1967? Oslo was regarded as historic because Palestinians were now negotiating for themselves, but many Israelis suspected that the PLO was not really prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that this was all a diversion to reinforce the Palestinian cause.

President Bill Clinton presided in the White House as Arafat and Rabin not only signed the Oslo Accords, the blueprint for arriving at a final peace agreement, but shook hands in a historic symbolic moment that became an iconic image. Saeb Erekat, the Chief Palestinian peace negotiator, asked in the documentary the crucial question. Would the handshake lead to a shift in cultural views on both sides, to shift to a belief that peace is possible, to shift to a position of live and let live?

While the world, as Martin Indyk, U.S. Ambassador to Israel 1995-1997 opined, celebrated that historic handshake on the White House lawn, angry protests were taking place all across Israel. Netanyahu was building a coalition of the religious and the political right strongly opposed to the Oslo Agreement. According to Marvin Kalb (The Road to War), Netanyahu did not believe in the possibility of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians. As he would later treat the Iran Accord, Netanyahu saw the Oslo Accords as marking a point of peril for Israel, reinforcing his belief that such an agreement could never and would never work. The extreme vitriol, the incitement, led directly to Rabin’s assassination before the elections. “In blood and fire we will expel Rabin.” Netanyahu never tried to dampen the fiery storms and deep seated fears and hatreds on the right. The ground was ready for a Yigal Amir to assassinate Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin.

Bill Clinton said it all. Wearing a kippa and addressing the Israeli public, he said, “Your Prime Minister was a martyr for peace but he was a victim of hate.” If hatred is not combated it grows within oneself as a cancer. Just as Netanyahu would do later in Obama’s second run for office, Clinton went overboard in trying to influence the Israeli election. Netanyahu was by then trailing badly in the polls. Then Hamas assured his victory by blowing up the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem. So, as Ari Shavit said, Rabin’s great heroic act led to a new wave of terror and people dying in the streets of Israel. Over nine days, four suicide bombers, 59 dead, hundreds injured. Hamas had effectively sabotaged Oslo and ensued Netanyahu’s election. “This peace is killing us.” The promise of security had worked, even though the coalition on the right had only the slimmest of majorities.

But Clinton and Netanyahu were doomed to clash. The politics of hope and the politics of fear are very incompatible bedfellows. Oslo was Clinton’s legacy. Oslo was Netanyahu’s nightmare. After lecturing Clinton on the Middle East, Netanyahu bowed to American pressure, at least a little, and agreed to meet with Arafat. He then pulled Israeli troops out of Hebron. Instead of the direct confrontation he later would use against Obama, Bibi seemed determined to slow walk peace to death with his maddening manoeuvres, though, in the end, Arafat would do the job for him. In the meanwhile, an unholy alliance between the left and the right in Israel brought down Prime Minister Netanyahu. The lesson Netanyahu learned: whatever else you do, keep your base intact and do not compromise to satisfy the American president one iota lest your supporters be unforgiving and desert you.

Ehud Barak won the election; Netanyahu suffered an overwhelming defeat. Clinton now gambled all to try to forge a final peace deal. Barak made an offer even dedicated peaceniks thought far reaching. Arafat refused to buy in even though Barak had agreed to cede East Jerusalem. Another intifada broke out. The left in Israel on the side of peace were fundamentally undercut. Most Israelis simply gave up on any belief in peace.

The same thing happened on the Palestinian side. Frustration, disappointment, anger – everything fed the extremists on both sides as the middle wilted away. Diana Buttu, a Palestinian negotiator, however, never blamed Arafat for refusing the deal. There was just no deal to be made even for the red lines on each side. The peace process had proved bankrupt. Netanyahu seemed vindicated once again.

Elliott Abrams (with the American National Security Council 2001-2009) was dead right that in Israel the despair about peace, the distrust of the Palestinians, had now spread to the middle-roaders and to some degree even into the peace camp. On the other hand, terror spread to America itself as the twin towers in New York came crashing down as a result of two hijacked planes flown into them by terrorists on 11 September 2001. Bush was then the president as good was then seen as the enemy of evil once again. By 2008, Netanyahu was re-elected as Prime Minister.

Obama was also re-elected and initiated his policy of opening the U.S. to the Muslims of the world based on mutual interest and mutual respect. On his first day in office, he phoned Mahmoud Abbas. Later in his first television interview, he chose an Arab TV network. Obama had been trained as someone who could use words to bring peace to the streets of Chicago and he believed that the same capacities could bring peace to the Middle East.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V

Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V final instalment


Howard Adelman

By this time, after spending so many words on one film, on a film that my youngest son urged me to watch, a film that both intrigued me, but was one which I definitely did not enjoy, readers may wonder why I have spent so much time on this cinematic work. That is, if I have any readers left. Who wants to read about a movie at such interminable length, especially if the person writing about the movie did not enjoy it? And I did not. I said immediately afterwards that the reason I did not like the film was because I hated roller coaster rides. They make me nauseous. This film made me nauseous. But there were other reasons as well for my disliking such a brilliant work as Holy Motors, which I will get to.

I remember when I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea (La Nausée) when I was an undergraduate intensely trying to catch up on my supreme ignorance of the history of western culture. Sartre was so proud of that novel. It was written in the year I was born (1938) so, in my sick sense of humour, I used to joke that it was written to honour my birth. Further, though I was neither a historian (the protagonist in the novel if I recall correctly) nor a philosopher at the time, I could identify with the main character, not because things and even everything around me and everything that was happening made me feel that they infringed on my very being, that, in a word, made me recognize that I was not God or even a god or even a narcissistic monster because things already existed and had not been created by me.  Rather, to a minor degree, the hero could have been me. At that time in my life, I hated if anyone, or almost anyone, touched me. I had enormous struggles over my sexual proclivities, dressing it up as a form of Puritanism. I now believe that my condition at the time had a minor overlap with a form of autism.

To think that Sartre was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature mostly for this novel alone drives me to distraction. Do not believe Simone de Beauvoir, who extolled its brilliance. She was biased. In spite of her lauded feminism, and her own even greater brilliance, she was really a doormat for Sartre. The thinking in the novel was pedestrian. And the way it was written, at least as translated in English, was pretentious. I have not reread it since, so this may just have been an initial reaction of an ignorant undergraduate. But when I was an undergraduate, it was already a classic of existentialism, and existentialism was all the rage at the time, at least of so-called avant-garde intellectuals. And how could I be anything but avant-garde even if I was unwilling, though also clearly unable, to claim a place in the intellectual pantheon. So I completed reading the novel in spite of my negative reaction to it. Sartre may have been really playing the court jester, but I ended up feeling that I was the fool as he insisted (contrary to Hegel) that the development of self-consciousness had neither order nor structure.

I can give another example to illustrate why I have paid so much attention to this movie other than wanting to offer an explanation of my reaction to my son who loved it. This illustration also comes from my undergraduate years. I wrote an essay on T.S. Eliot for an English course. In my first test in English, I received sixteen out of a hundred. It was a good thing that test did not count for my final mark. It was a test to find out how much I knew at the time about the history of English literature. I had never heard of Chaucer or Dante or Milton and a host of other stars in the pantheon of world literature.

The essay on Eliot was written for my second course in English literature on a poet and a poem on which the professor was an acknowledged expert. In my essay on The Wasteland, I wrote that the poem was brilliantly crafted, but that I not only disliked it, but thought that it did not even meet the standards of poetry that Eliot had set forth in his essays. The fact that Eliot was also anti-Semitic was not incidental to my distaste but, I argued, was integral to my reason for judging the poem the way I did.

I made my assessment based on reading every essay of Elliot’s that I could find. (In my megalomania and extreme ignorance, I thought I had read all of them.) I also read much of his other poetry and offered a meticulous analysis in a very amateurish way of The Wasteland, trying to explain why it did not come near to competing in quality with Prufrock which I had loved. The professor gave me an A++ at a time when being rewarded with an A was a rarity. I have admired the professionalism of true academics ever since because he absolutely loved Eliot’s poetry.

Holy Motors is a brilliant film. I have tried to indicate why this is so. It is so layered and textured, so rich and so intriguing, so expertly crafted and enacted. But it is important to indicate and explicate why I did not like it. And this comes out mostly in the last three appointments which, next to the segment focused on the sewer gnome dressed in green, are possibly, each in its own right, some of the most brilliant parts of the movie.

My critique is not based on the absence of any logic in the movie. Take just one trite example, the scene of the father in the red car driving his daughter home from a party in the fourth appointment of the evening. Yet there are five appointments still to come. And in the second to last one, Céline insists it is very late; it is almost midnight. The time line does not make sense and is not meant to make sense. After all, this is absurdist theatre. One does not expect a Picasso painting to conform to the norms of realistic depictions of objects. Why impose such a restriction on this movie?


But I did not enjoy or even like the film. Why? The answer is simple. There is no redemption in the movie. The film is indisputably brilliant. The acting, the costuming, the writing, the directing are all superb. Now the radical contrast. The Divine Comedy’s third section ends with bliss, with two bodies joined through which one discovers the union of the corporeal and the divine. Dante may have lost Beatrice, the adolescent love of his life, but in Paradise they are reunited. The reunions that take place in the last three appointments of Mr. O are radically other.

The sixth appointment begins with Mr. O greeted by the doorman as Monsieur Vadon. I am not able to interpret the reason for using this name. Mr. O is now dressed in pajamas, slippers and a trench coat leaving the stretch limo to enter a very luxurious hotel and a very luxurious suite in that hotel. In that suite, he goes to the wall to open a door that blends into the decor and reminds the viewer of the secret door in the wallpaper of trees in the opening sequence of the movie. (Scenes in the film now resonate more with earlier scenes in the movie rather than earlier films in the history of cinema.) Through the door is another room that reminds the viewer once again of the opening scene. It is a simple, far less ornate room. Again, a dog is sleeping on the bed, but it is a black dog. And the bed is not one of a twin set but a larger bed. We are not in this earlier room. We are in a room where a man sleeps alone.

Mr. O carefully puffs up his pillow and crawls under the cover to lie on his back. The light on his side table stays on. The room seems to light up. We hear orchestral music. A mysterious woman appears. She is beautiful in a beatific way. She has a club foot and limps. The dialogue is strange.

“I forbid you to lie.”

“You shouldn’t have done it Theo,” presumably referring to the Theo of an earlier segment.

“I have a plan to go mad.”

Mr. O now appears so much older. The woman who comes to his bedside is evidently his niece. She is now in black, having taken off her white dress in which she first appeared and let her hair fall loose. She looks beautiful enough to be Dante’s Beatrice. But this is not Beatrice. Léa, as she is called, is referred to as an angel beside his bed, and this is taken as more than just an expression of endearment of a dying uncle to his heart-broken niece dealing with her uncle’s final hours. Is this Antigone before her uncle was slain? I think not.

“This is not death,” Léa insists. She could be in denial, but she seems so grieved at her uncle’s condition that the viewer is both convinced that her dear uncle really is about to die and that she is grievously stricken. Then the recollections. “We did something once.” “I would die if I had not loved you.” “In life there is love.” So the mourning is not just about an immanent corporeal death, but the loss of what life is really about, the love between two people. Instead of a recovery of love in paradise, the film is a melancholic ode to the death of love. It is also a reference to errors, even sin and punishment. Just as the daughter in the scene with the red car was to be punished, the niece is said to have been punished for her wish.  What was that wish? She wanted her uncle to be happy. She wanted to be near him. By then one is convinced that he was not a real uncle.  A “rich uncle,” to use a euphemism? A sugar daddy.

Léa does not want her uncle to suffer. But that very grievous desire to end his suffering is itself a cause of the suffering. For he is not suffering because he has a physical disease. He is suffering for the loss of his life, his entire wasted life. The tenderness, the touching, the weeping, the sorrow, the sense of regret for a mistake once made – all are conveyed in sensitive detail. Mr. Vador was not only loved but adored. Then once again something strange happens. Mr. O as Mr. Vador gets out of bed. Though tired, he is no longer the dying man on his death bed. He puts on his bathrobe and his slippers and begins to leave the room. He turns back to comfort his so-called niece still crouched beside the bed and weeping into her folded arms.

Mr. O says to her, “Sorry I can’t stay. I have to get to another appointment. I hope we meet again.” Léa introduces herself as Élise and says she too has another appointment. Mr. O leaves with a briskness in his step, but is now regularly coughing, perhaps from smoking so much. He re-enters his limo and confesses to Céline that he is very, very tired. She insists that the next will be his last appointment, but there will, in fact, be two more to come. Mr. O complains that he got a cold killing the banker. He turns on the simulacrum of a fireplace in the back of the limo.

The next scenario is one of the most interesting in the movie, not nearly as emotionally moving as the previous one, but more romantic, more intriguing in a segment packed with every cliché one has ever seen in a romantic film. There is an altercation between two stretch white limos. Céline gets out of her car enraged at the other driver. Mr. O recognizes the lady in the back of the other limo. Mr. O gets out to talk to her. They know each other. She is willing to spend time with him, but has only 30 minutes. Mr. O insists she come with him.

The limos are stopped in front of La Samaritaine, a renowned luxury department store in the First Arrondisement of Paris. In the film, the store has been abandoned and it is to be gutted and reconstructed as a luxury hotel. Reputation, iconic status and classic beauty are of no help in a society which destroys, consumes and feeds on its own heritage. As the two wander hand in hand up the grand central staircase and around the floors surrounding the atrium, broken parts of mannequins are strewn everywhere. Eva says she is now working as an air hostess and says she misses Mr. O. She also tells Mr. O that he was so mean to her and that her partner is due to arrive for a rendezvous in 20 minutes. They have so much to catch up on. As they hold hands, she says, “We may never see each other again.” At one point, Mr. O lifts her up and carries her up the broad staircase as if he is crossing the threshold of their home after having been married.

It is not a tale of unrequited but of lost love. Suddenly, Élise bursts into song. And she sings in English as if either to exaggerate the oddness of the situation or to suggest that she was an English airline stewardess. But her name is unequivocally French! “Strange feeling.” “There was a child.” “We once had a child.” The situation reeks of regret and remorse far more than mere nostalgia. As a full orchestra rises, she sings, “Lovers are turned into monsters.” The story is an archetypal remnant from romance films.

By now the two are on the roof overlooking the beauty and romance of Paris itself. He lights a cigarette. “There’s something you don’t know about us.” “Time is against us.” They are about to part. “He (presumably her current partner) will be here soon.” “Better we don’t…” They wave goodbye. Élise takes off her trench coat. She is wearing the uniform of an airline stewardess. She climbs over the balustrade behind the huge store sign, La Samaritaine. There are no good Samaritans anymore. They are obsolete. No one offers himself for another as an expression of true rather than romantic love. In the meanwhile, Mr. O just manages to dodge her partner who is running up the stairs looking for Élise. He hides behind a post until the partner passes. As he hurries outside and down the street he passes the bleeding corpses of two bodies that have fallen from above.  He re-enters the limo. Céline insists that Mr. O has to eat.

It’s nearly midnight. Mr. O insists that, “We have to laugh before midnight.” They banter back and forth about the long day discussing crime and pain, other lives as they discuss the suffering characteristic of life. Mr. O asks Céline if there were any pictures. Suddenly, a pigeon almost flies into the windshield of the limo and Céline temporarily loses control of the vehicle. When she recovers both her control and composure, they both burst into laughter. After all, a pigeon is a very determined survivor, a creature that will continue to live in an urban mess as long as there is food there. It has survived the whole march of civilization. One of the domesticated animals, like dogs, that live alongside humans, but, unlike a dog, it is not regarded as man’s best friend. Rather it is seen as a pest, as dirty, leaving its droppings everywhere. But it can always find its way home.

It is still before midnight; there is still one more appointment. Maybe we will run into the pigeon’s cousin, the dove, the symbol of peace, of love, of understanding and sensitivity. In reality, if you put two doves in a cage, one will peck the other to death.

The limo resumes its journey. They are now in a suburb of Paris. Mr. O gets out and offers Céline a tender kiss goodbye. Or goodnight. He lights his customary cigarette, the one continuous symbol of death and dying running like a thread through the movie. He would like to live again but that would mean imitating Sisyphus, not Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but reliving the exact same thing. Yet, in spite of it all, by heaven’s leave he would still opt to live again even though he long ago passed the point of no return when he left his childhood behind. We’d like to live. We’d like to love again even though love and life are both a charade.

Oh, to be able to start again. But it cannot be. There is no second chance. There is no salvation from the life lived. There is no resurrection. There is no paradise. This is not Dante’s Divine Comedy. The burlesque we have watched is just a human-all-too-human comedy.

Mr. O as Mr. Suburban enters his town house identical to every other town house on the street and we see through the window an image of domestic bliss as he greets his wife and daughter who are both chimpanzees. The limo ends the film as it, along with a score of other limos, returns through the gates of Holy Motors to be parked. Céline gets out of the limo, takes off her wig, shakes her hair free and leaves the parking garage. That is when the limos, as in a children’s movie, start to talk to one another, their lights flashing as they speak. They fear they are obsolete, that they are used up, that they will end up on the scrap heap of history.

Lights out. Fin.

Purgatory: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part IV

Purgatory: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part IV  


Howard Adelman

Last night I had a dream. A very old and good friend and colleague with whom I was collaborating on a project sent me a large brown envelope. Within the envelope was a smaller brown envelope stuffed with papers relevant to our project. Attached to that envelope by a paper clip was a one-page letter he had written to another mutual friend who was the wife of another colleague. It was a letter expressing his love for her. I cannot recall what it said, but I saw that the letter was unsigned.

Now my friend – call him A1 – was a very happily married man whose wife I knew long before they met and married. Further, he was a person least likely to have an affair. Besides, why did he want me to know about it? Or was he even having an affair? The letter seemed more of an overture or an invitation than one addressed to someone with whom someone was having an affair. Perhaps he wanted me to dissuade him from taking such an initiative. But if so, why did he not talk to me directly about his infatuation?

Perhaps I was meant to discuss it, discretely of course, with his wife who was an even older friend. Suddenly, I realized I could not recall her name. I could not even picture her. Call her A-2. I was totally distressed that her name, her visage had all somehow disappeared from my brain. Try as I might, I could not bring either her face or her name up. The more I tried, the more the face and name of the wife of my other colleague, B2 and B1 respectively, kept coming up. Except they both did not come up. I could not remember the name or picture the face of my other colleague. This was now both preposterous and frightening.

Again, I tried and I tried to remember his name. I made an extraordinary effort to bring up his face in my mind’s eye. No luck. I just could not. Now I began to get worried, not so much any longer about my friend who was having or initiating an affair with the wife of another colleague, but with my own sanity. Perhaps I really was going senile. Perhaps I was developing Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis for my slipping memory that had just been squelched by more rigorous testing. Should I send my neurologist a letter outlining what had happened? Or should I contact my friend, who was also a neighbour, for coffee, tell him the dream and see what his interpretation was? After all, he was a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

Just now, sitting at my desk and writing this, I must have fallen asleep and dreamt that I was having a phone conversation with my brother. I was talking and getting no response. “Are you there?” Silence. I repeated the question. No answer. Should I call him back? I hung up. I went to pick up the phone. I realized suddenly that I had been dreaming. What had this to do with the dream I was writing about?

I tried to recall the names and faces of both couples in my dream at the same time. I could not. I could now only remember the names and faces of A1 and A2. The names and faces of B1 and B2 had totally disappeared from my memory. I started to go through my personal phone directory on my desk. Then I went through my email lists which took a lot longer. I could find nothing. Maybe I imagined them. Maybe I imagined B1 and B2. But I was so sure they existed. Should I write my neurologist? Should I contact my friend the psychotherapist? I woke up and headed for the phone.

I was about to call my friend when I realized it had all been a dream. There was no B1 and B2. They were products of my imagination. But I was equally sure they were real. Just as I had done in my dream, I really went through my personal telephone directory. Then my email list, but not as tediously and extensively as in my dream. B1 and B2 had to be apparitions. Try as I might, I could not bring either to mind. And I tried. For as much as I became convinced that they had been invented by my imagination, I was sure they were real. I determined to phone my friend the psychotherapist later in the morning when I was sure he would be up. Instead, I wrote the dream down for by then I had figured out what it had been about.

I was planning to write about purgatory (and paradise) this morning. Purgatory is about the experience of doppelgängers, seeing doubles and experiencing look-alikes, doubles of living persons. That was what the fifth and sixth appointments had been about. The fourth was about the man driving around with his daughter in his red car and reprimanding her for hiding in the bathroom and not getting involved socially with others. The fifth had been the Chinese gangster mirror killing where the gangster goes to stab his look-alike in the neck and gets stabbed in the neck in turn. The sixth appointment had been about the balaclava assassin who killed a banker and then is killed by the banker’s bodyguards. Between 4 and 5, between the man riding around in the red car with his daughter and the first doppelgänger scenario of the Chinese gangster killing, we see the accordion scene. Between the fifth and sixth appointments, the ones that show two different doppelgänger scenarios, the scene we see is the one where the man with the Port Wine Stain sitting up front turns in the stretch limo to address Mr. O.

I will now elaborate on the fifth and sixth appointments in Holy Rollers. In Dante’s Divine Comedy in the opening of Canto I of the Purgatory segment, after leaving the turbulence of hell, Dante now promises to sing about the second region of purgatory, “In which the human spirit from sinful blot Is purg’d, and for ascent to heaven prepares.” An accordion is a portable calliope, sometimes called an autocalliope. In Greek mythology, Calliope is the beautiful-voiced head of all muses know for exceptional harmony of her voice who presides over eloquence and epic poetry. What is less known is that her lover was the war god, Aries. Further, her son was Orestes whom I wrote about briefly in yesterday’s blog.

So the interlude with the accordion-playing pied piper is intended to lift the “deadly gloom” of hell that now hung over the movie thus far.  And what does Carax then see and project on the screen? Mr. O.

I saw an old man standing by my side
Alone, so worthy of rev’rence in his look,
That ne’er from son to father more was ow’d.
Low down his beard and mix’d with hoary white
Descended, like his locks, which parting fell
Upon his breast in double fold. The beams
Of those four luminaries on his face
So brightly shone, and with such radiance clear
Deck’d it, that I beheld him as the sun.

We will be introduced to the equivalents of the four luminaries soon enough, each a polar reflection of the other when Mr. O once again emerged from the depths of his cave within the white stretch limousine.

To the right hand I turn’d, and fix’d my mind
On the’ other pole attentive, where I saw
Four stars ne’er seen before save by the ken
Of our first parents.

The four stars had come forth from the eternal prison house. What was that prison house from which the wounded and the wounders, the killed and the killers emerged? Again, the main figures are the distraction and the indirection in this world of magic. It is the blackness from which they emerge that counts. But, unlike Dante, there is no grace that can descend and redeem anyone anymore. The quest for liberty is but a chimera. The trip is wasted for there is no redemption.

The glitter in sullen Angèle’s hair, her mouth weighted with metal braces and her innocent and frightened face atop a pre-adolescent reed-like body, seems to offer no sense of a doppelgänger. But listen to how the scene with Angèle in the passenger seat and Mr. O driving her home from the party ends. She asks, “Will I be punished?” Is the reason for expecting punishment that she lied to her father or because she was frightened of growing up? Mr. O replies, “You will be punished; you will have to live with yourself.” The girl who fears gaiety, who hides in the bathroom of a dance party at an apartment in a high rise, who feels she is undesirable and compares herself to her best friend, the popular Sophie, who sincerely believes that boys do not like her, confesses that she would lie again since, “we’d both be happier.”

So there are two Angèles, the girl has the guts to lie to her father, the girl who is unafraid to tell her father that she would enter the realm of pretence once again to protect herself and him from disappointment and enable both to pursue the happiness that only the innocent can enjoy, she the cream puff and the girl whom we know will soon leave the world of the innocent and enter the purgatory of adulthood. Angèle, the pretender, the artificer who tells the truth will have to go home and live with the new emergent Angèle who will only be able to live in a world of artifice made by others. The Dame from heaven, she who descends for on high, from the virtue of the locked clean and tiled bathroom in a high-rise apartment building, can honestly say that,

I have display’d
Before him all the regions of the bad;
And purpose now those spirits to display,
That under thy command are purg’d from sin.

As Dante writes about the cave within the red car,

“This islet all around, there far beneath,
Where the wave beats it, on the oozy bed
Produces store of reeds. No other plant,
Cover’d with leaves, or harden’d in its stalk,
There lives, not bending to the water’s sway.
After, this way return not; but the sun
Will show you, that now rises, where to take
The mountain in its easiest ascent.”

Mr. O drives off and disappears into the darkness to meet up once again with his ever-present guide, Céline, and once again traverse first the empty plain of the streets of Paris and then rejoins the traffic of the night to re-emerge in a cathedral with an accordion to lead a band of other accordionists, a piccolo player and even a guitarist as they march ‘round in circles, ‘round those weighty pillars that still hold up an edifice, though empty, because it no longer offers any salvation. Unlike Dante, we now live in a world of make believe, but one without a mission. Music goes on and on in purgatory, but does not even have the advantage of Sisyphus, who at least can roll his boulder uphill, though down it will come as soon as the top is reached. Here and now, there is only travel in an endless vicious circle playing music into the night without even an audience to lull into a belief that there is even a mountain to climb. Mr. O and his preceptor will not encounter a winged angel shining bright emerging from the darkness of the night and will not bow down.

Mr. O now attends appointment 5 wherein Alex meets up with Théo. Is this doppelgänger played in both roles by Mr. O the American actor, Theo Alexander from the Greek film El Greco and the fantasy TV series, True Blood? Was Carax trying to show the world that he, and he alone, could bring Theo Alexander’s project, Love and Let Die back to life again? For we are now in the world of gangsters, of what I initially thought were Chinese rather than Italian Mafiosi. It may not matter. Both wear the same kind of droopy moustaches.

It is quite clear that Carax’s film is not a remake of the 2010 American movie, Holy Rollers, starring Jesse Eisenberg about Hasidic Jews serving as drug mules. Upon viewing Theo Alexander play the Greek Mafioso, Demetrios Stavros, in Chuck vs the Sausages, I now believe the scene is just a re-imaging of the confrontation in the docks, now set in a warehouse, between two bare-chested Greeks rather than Chinese or Italian Mafiosi. But, again, I doubt it matters.

The scene opens in a loading dock of a warehouse. The one gangster, upon being confronted, insists, “It was an accident.” He is stabbed. Mr. O removes his victim’s glasses, shaves his hair, takes a gold chain necklace identical to the one he is wearing and puts it around the neck of his victim then adds the same scars as he has and even puts his own running shoes on the motionless body. But the body evidently is not dead. It reaches for the knife and stabs his assailant in the neck precisely where he was stabbed and then falls back, presumably dead. Both gangsters lie on their backs bare-chested and clearly revealed as doppelgängers. But Mr. O, or is it Mr. O?, shakes himself and lurches from the warehouse into the rain and, after collapsing, is helped back into the stretch limo by Céline. After all, as in all burlesque, one can only move from place to place through limps and detours, through stumbling and staggering.

Surprised, Mr. O is greeted by a man sitting up front of that cave in the limo. He has a port wine stain almost identical to that of my cousin with whom I went to medical school. “Good evening Oscar; you did a good job tonight,” the man with the port wine stain pronounces. “How are you feeling?” he asks. “A bit tired,” Mr. O replies. The man says, “Some no longer believe in what you are doing.” Are we in the realm of sentimental nostalgia or exploring the ontology of the universe of good and evil? Or does it matter? For people who do not see the security cameras do not believe in them. Mr. O mournfully mutters, “I die every day.” “What makes you continue,” he is asked, but Mr. O’s presumed boss answers, “the beauty of the act is in the eye of the beholder.” But what if there is no beholder?

Paris is beautiful at night. Mr. O calls out to Céline to stop the car. He rifles through a box of guns, grabbing one. He puts on a red balaclava. Bare-chested again, he marches through the streets, confronts a well-dressed group at a table in a café and fires at point blank range into the face of a stranger identified only as a banker. Mr. O has slain his alter ego. He is indeed tired and seemingly cannot go on. The security guards from the rooftop reappear and, all firing at once, kill Mr. O. Céline breaks through the crowd, leans down and helps the bloodied Mr. O to his feet as she explains, “It was a mistake.” It was an accident. But nothing that takes place in this film is arbitrary, including the pronouncements depicting the events as arbitrary.

In purgatory we first have to learn to live with our dual being as we, entering maturity, discover our schizophrenic selves and do our best to kill off one of them, destroying the Other, the murderer, in the process.

Is Céline the bird of God, bringing rebirth after each appointment? But there is no path that will lead to the Mount. Each day I die, with only my devoted niece at my bedside to succour me. The seventh appointment. We are no longer in purgatory. Will it be the stage when action no longer concerns the living but the dead after one has passed through the long sequence of broken and diversified existence and gathered one’s being into one completed embodiment lifted out of the unrest of a life of chance and change into the peaceful realm? Will we be able to reach a level no longer irrational, no longer belonging to nature alone, but be able to do something, to assert ourselves and say who we are? Or are all acts merely the creation of a chimera?

Carax has metamorphosed and risen out of the ashes of his disastrous film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf where he became a pariah as a movie director and no longer the enfant terrible of French cinema, the boy genius who made Boy Meets Girl, and then the widely acclaimed, and declaimed, Pola X.  After an absence of thirteen years, is Holy Motors the latest act of redemption? How can it be if the subject matter is the absence of redemption? Is the pleasure of watching it sufficient? Is the thrill and excitement of a wild roller coaster ride adequate?

As one critic wrote of the love scene in Mauvais Sang (1986), “Falling into a depressive exhaustion Anna (Binoche) mutters ‘nothing’s moving.’ In response Alex arbitrarily turns the radio dial, 1,2,3 and soon Bowie’s song provides the spark that will electrify his body and provide him with the force to kick-start the pulse of the world. What follows is surely one of the most exhilarating scenes in all of cinema. The medium at is most indescribable. A kind of ecstatic self-extinction that is also a race towards death.” After all, we don’t keep silent. It is silence that imprisons us all.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V

Hell: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part III of a movie review

Hell: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part III of a movie review


Howard Adelman

I now want to move onto a deeper analysis of the film. First, superimpose on the structure of the movie the organization of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The year before filming began, Carax’s long time partner, Katerina Golubeya, died. The film, I believe, is not so much a search for personal redemption, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as much as it is a search in the afterlife of shadows and zombies for his lost partner, similar to a modern adaptation of Orpheus’ search for Eurydice, but with Carax using the tools of the actor, costume, makeup and performance instead of the gorgeous music that Orpheus played and that enthralled everyone on his trip through the underworld.  But it is Dante’s experience that is reproduced with a cinematic twenty-first century grammar.

My overall intention is to try to demonstrate that, in spite of the deliberately haphazard and seemingly purposelessness of every sequence and event in the movie, everything is very deliberate and planned in the same detail as the appointments that Mr. Oscar attends. After the opening scene in which Carax leaves his hotel room through a secret door in the wallpapered wall of trees and looks down on the theatre from the balcony upon the innocent and ignored toddler, the frozen emotionless audience and the bull mastiff in the aisle, we are introduced to Mr. Oscar (Mr. O) leaving his luxurious art deco mansion. A young pre-adolescent woman-child looks out a huge porthole window as Mr. O departs leaving behinds a sense of loss and something missing. We are aware of the lovely family of children and toys, with its parking area of expensive cars and with its rooftop security guards. Mr. O travels into Paris in a white stretch limo. In the first major division of the film, Mr. O enacts three very extreme scenes, especially the third one. They are parallel to the Hell section in Dante’s poem. Only afterwards does the movie gradually, and only relatively, become more calm and serene in stark contrast to the frenzy and energy of the first three appointments.

Sequence        Appointment#            My Title

I                                                           Theatre Sequence                    }

II                                                         Banker Leaving Mansion        } Prologue

III                    1.                                 Beggar                                     }

IV                    2.                                 Diode Dance                           } Hell                                             3.                              Green Man and the Model      }


VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car   }

VII                  Musical Interlude        Accordion                               }

VIII                 5.                                 Chinese Gangster Mirror         } Purgatory

Killing                         }

IX                                                        Limo Scene with man with     }

the Port Wine stain     }

X                     6.                                 Balaclava Assassin                  }

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene                      }

XII                  8.                                 Eva and the Air Hostess         }

XIII                 9.                                 Family Man/Chimpanzees       } Paradise

XIV                                                     Chauffeur with the Mask;       }

Limos Going to Sleep         }

Both works offer a vision of the world of the dead, the afterlife for Dante and the world of the living dead that has taken over our daily lives in the here and now in the world according to Carax. In the first section of hell, we see scenes of enormous wealth and extreme poverty, choreographed violence and sex, and then both merged together culminating in the madness raging both below, in our cemeteries and our sewers.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy (DC) (the copy I use in English can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm), we are taken on a trip through three different realms of the dead in a trip that lasts five days; in Holy Motors (HM), the trip takes place in one full day, including the evening. But the two creative works are identical as powerful expressions of poetic imaginations, one cast in verse and the other is cinematic scenes. Both are visionary artistic projects. They are also structured as comedies dealing with very weighty themes, but developed in ordinary verbal and cinematic language respectively. Both avoid lofty, especially pretentious, artistic grammars and modes of expression that such subjects supposedly deserve. Both are expressions of the vulgar emerging from a subterranean world of the imagination onto the streets of Florence and Paris. Both deal with redemption, but in HM we move away from being redeemed back to a realm in which humans are simply animals living in apartments in high rise buildings, whereas the road trip that Dante takes us on leads upwards to the heavens through a process of atonement.

While in the DC, we are guided through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, but through paradise by the object of Dante’s unrequited courtly love, the adolescent Beatrice, in HM, there is only one guide, the elegant and somewhat bemused chauffeur, Céline. In the DC, there are nine circles of hell, 9 rings of Mount Purgatory crowned by the Garden of Eden, and 9 celestial bodies of Paradise. Cross-cutting these is Dante’s moral schematic of the seven deadly sins. The sins are expressed in hell, cleansed in purgatory and purged in paradise.  We will have to see if the three different sections of HM with their interludes might have a similar parallel structure.

Notice the outright parallels. HM begins with the scene of Carax in a hotel room next to an airport with one wall a wallpapered forest. A dog sleeps on the bed. Carax gets up, smokes an ever-present cigarette, dons dark glasses and passes by a mirrored door avoiding both looking at himself or going through the door. The DC begins with Dante at middle age lost in a dark and gloomy wood; he is mired in sin. But while the forest in the DC is wild and savage, filled with rough and robust growth, the forest in HM seems tame, orderly, as if a primal forest had been replanted, and, literally, only paper thin compared to Dante’s jungle. Mr. O possesses a round metal key that he wears on his finger that turns a secret lock and, with much effort, pushes open the secret door.

Dante is threatened first by a swift panther, then a hunger-mad lion and a finally a needy, thin and obviously hungry she-wolf. Carax enters the theatre through a secret door in the woodsy wallpapered wall and is indirectly threatened by a toddler (innocence), the human furthest away from being characterized as swift, a frozen emotionally famished and unresponsive audience akin to a lion waiting to pounce on whatever appears before it but absent any primitive instinct and purpose, and a mastiff, a dog akin to a she-wolf meandering down the aisle, but with any ferocious intent bred out of its genetic lineage.

While Dante stands at the foot of the mountain looking with dread and terror upward, Carax looks down on the theatre of life from a balcony. Dante is rescued by Virgil just as in the next segment Mr. O is now guided around town in a stretch white limo by Céline. Dante steps backwards into a lower space and encounters his first zombie, a dead man not yet buried; Carax has his own repertoire of encounters with the living dead.

Just as Céline will take Mr. O away from his secured domestic life and loving domesticity – bye daddy – and away from the business he conducts on the cell phone with Serge, as Céline guides Mr. O through the faded memories of movie scenes long gone and some buried in our memories, but remaining fearsome nonetheless, Dante first meets the dead Lombardian poet, Virgil, whose muse fixated on the son of Anchises, a cousin of King Priam of Troy. The beautiful Aphrodite fell in love with Anchises and together they had the son, Aeneas, who become the object of fixation of Virgil. From the lessons he learned in life, Virgil tells Dante that the path to redemption requires he go around the obstacles seen for he could not directly revisit that fearsome past even as he is haunted by the shrieks of tormented souls.

If hell is a trip through Christian sin in Dante, then the first three appointments of Mr. O as he proceeds on his deep and woody way are the beggar woman, the dancing violence and sexuality of the diodes and the beastly leprechaun; analogically, they should correspond in some way to the sins Dante encounters in hell. And they do. In Dante’s hell, there are three beasts: self-indulgence, violence and malice. In the beggar woman scene, the sin is not the unkempt ugly beggar woman in the costume that Mr. O assumes, but the sin is in the well and contemporarily-dressed self-possessed burghers who pass the beggar woman by and never drop a penny into her tin cup. After Mr. O appears in his light absorbing costume on a treadmill, then with a machine gun, and finally falls off when its speeds up too much, the dancing duo in their diodes attract and absorb all light in their sensuous acrobatic dance as they finally morph into intertwined serpents with fish tails. They offer an example of violent passion while the scene with the green mad satyr is entirely an exercise in malice without any forethought.

Thus, HM can be seen as a cinematic allegory, but one projected on the screen in the absence of faith. The movie can be viewed and interpreted literally, broadly and extensively in terms of what we see before us. The movie can be interpreted historically in terms of the vast number of references to the past history of cinema associated with each scene. The film can also be interpreted morally in terms of the different key values in contention at each stage. Finally, the movie can be interpreted analogically, a methodology prohibited in any ordinary rational legal system, but occupying the highest plane of interpretation in the realm of the imagination. Is the road trip that Mr. O and Céline take an exercise and a voyage of discovery of love, wisdom and virtue or, instead, is it dominated by opposites, by disgust and hatred, by an absence of intelligence and a total devotion to the aesthetic, and by a display of vice, even evil?  All the time, the words early in the film echo in our imagination: “Nothing makes us so alive as to see others dead.” And always, throughout, the inhaling of killer cigarettes.

We leave the opening scene of luxurious living and domestic bliss, of apprehended menace – in the limo, Mr. O says on his cell phone that his security guards will henceforth have to be armed. In the first appointment as we travel through a Paris imbued with death, we are repelled by the beggar woman’s ugliness, her bent posture, her dishevelled clothing and by the language that spews forth from her mouth as much by the contrast with Mr. O’s previous elegance and obvious wealth as by the figure we view.

“Nobody loves me.

I’m alone anyway.

I am so old.

I am afraid I’ll never die.”

In our imagination, her smell even repels us. In a perfect world, a city, from the perspective of purification, it should decree that none like this person may pass through its streets. What we view is indirection. For what is really and truly repulsive is the well-dressed men and women, the upright and uptight, who avert their eyes and pass by the beggar woman. From a lordly perspective, from the balcony of the theatre, the passer-bys are thrust into the background of our moral compass as we are mesmerized and repelled by the imagined filthy woman wearing rags rather than papal robes. She assails our basic fears. Here, but by the grace of God, could we find ourselves. Propelled by this fear, we, like the burghers governed by the motto, “Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by,” by the burghers who affirm their beliefs with their body language, it is we who avert our eyes, not from the beggar woman, but from the men and women of Paris who act out our fears.

To see the movie, the whole movie and not just the dramatic personae that perform before us, we must look at the whole screen and not be diverted into a myopic vision by the subject before our very eyes. In Paris, in this city of eternal pain and woe, should we seek justice and fairness as we travel among the lost souls that populate its avenues? Or are we travelling at a time when God is dead as well as the humans, at a time when wisdom and primeval love have been cast aside, but, hopefully, recovered in the final frames? To honestly go on this trip, all who travel this way must abandon hope as we pass the multitude of dead, of bodies without souls. Who would have imagined a city renowned for its beauty so wracked and despoiled by the death of so many? For not one has a name. Not one do we recognize.

Instead of the stereotype of a tribe of zombies that inhabit our horror films, we are confronted with well-dressed men and women who never lived at all, who dress up their nakedness in fancy duds, who plaster their cheeks and lips with makeup to disguise the bleeding wounds of the bees, wasps and hornets that  have driven them mad with their stings, as a mixture of blood and tears fall at their feet and dampen the earth of the worms who crawl there. And so Mr. O returns to his white stretch limo, to the cavernous interior converted to a dressing room, and dons his next costume, a rubber black suit with built-in diodes that absorb all light. He leaves the limo, climbs the outside metal fire escape, strides to the top level of an urban industrial plant possibly producing electricity, and enters a studio.

Where is the demonic Charon who mans the raft that will transport us across the River Styx into the theatre of eternal darkness where temperatures will soar to volcanic heights and crash down to icy melting glaciers as we remain unaffected, stirred only to shivers and sweaty brows, not by the weather, but by the fearsome creatures in our sight and what they say about ourselves? Instead we see an acrobat wearing a skin-tight costume implanted with the most primitive of electronic devices to gather electric energy into itself using anode and cathode oppositely charged poles.

And what an exhibition of energy. Mr O, the prim and proper banker, has transformed himself into the most athletic of artistes, stretching, tumbling, flipping, twirling instruments of death, and then mounting a treadmill, not going anywhere, but shooting more and faster at what we know not. It seems not to matter. Killing is all that counts. He can’t keep up to the world of mayhem and massacres and falls off the treadmill. Perhaps he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Seemingly, he cannot continue.

A female partner now appears, but in a red rather than black skin-tight suit with the same diodes. The electric charge is now externalized and driven by the internal energy in each. The dance of sex and death resumes in the most plastic, sinewy, slippery scene of sexuality you will ever see. He presses her breasts, kisses her cunt and the two intertwine in a sensuous transformation of violence into pure sexuality. The figure in red seemed to pronounce:

“Then I his alter’d hue perceiving, thus:
‘How may I speed, if thou yieldest to dread

who still art wont to comfort me in doubt?’”

So, energy renewed, move onward and downward still as they move upward whirling ‘round into heavenly apparitions of intertwining serpents with fishy tails that each other encircle, like new constellations in the darkened heavens above. Is this the sixth circle of hell which we have traversed? In the first circle with the old woman on the edge of the abyss of life, we heard her sighs that made the eternal air tremble, not from torture, but from grief as ordinary men and women, young and old of Paris, blameless all except for the fact that they are human-all-too-human and all suffer that defect. We are they, desire without hope, disbelievers all. We are then exposed to the next five circles of the different phases, the second, the diodic acrobat and then the third in his murderous mode.

The next three circles are formed by the duet of the dancing diodes. First the seduction, then the dance of death and finally the transposition into constellations in the starry sky above, no longer as humans, but as apparitions of a more serpentine and oceanic existence. The historic modes of non-sapient life pass us by as in a flash where all light is silent.

Finally we are transposed and transported by the white stretch limo into another setting where a barefoot green gnome-like leprechaun with a glass eye, a straggly goatee and hair astray as if on an old man who has tried to get his toast out with a butter knife only to have his hair electrified and cast adrift. He lifts a manhole and climbs into a sewer, passes a line of refugees as if on a track with all their belongings packed into baby carriages. The green deformed and apparently demented creature re-emerges from that subterranean world and races through the cobblestoned streets and a pathway in a park, knocks down pedestrians, including a blind man with a white cane. On his way he grabs bouquets of flowers and devours the petals on the run, spitting out what is not to his taste. In this demonic state, he arrives in a cemetery where a photo shoot is taking place of a model in a diaphanous gown posed against a marble marker of death and burial.

The fine, delicate, light, flimsy floating and filmy chiffon and gossamer gown on a feminine creature of extreme beauty is so at odds with the green costume of the cretinous half-wit who will assault her and carry her off. The dwarfed and deformed creature who mumbles and bumbles his indecipherable words also stands in sharp contrast with the nerdy, tall celebrity photographer in white shorts and shirt who, as he snaps his pictures, repeats and repeats, “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” when his attention is brought to the beastly dwarf-like creation that has appeared in this scene of death and glamour.

Surprised, but also delighted, he sends his unwilling assistant, Julie, to request the creature’s cooperation in a new opportunistic photography session of beauty and the beast. As Julie, in fear and trembling, asks for the gnome’s cooperation, the cretin bites her fingers off. With blood flowing out of the sides of his mouth, he licks the armpit of the model, then places her over his shoulders and flees with her unprotesting body as the foolish photographer asks for his ancient vintage camera, continues snapping unconcerned with what has taken place, and now repeats over and over again, “Weird! Weird! Weird!”

The green leprechaun returns to the sewers with his prize captive over his shoulders. In the midst of the detritus of the subterranean cave, she sits passively beside him. But instead of a bestial sexual scene of beauty and the beast, the leprechaun cuts up the model’s diaphanous gown and converts it into a burka, a symbol of purity and untouchability. The Helen of Troy so loved by Paris has been transformed into inaccessibility. Fond desire has been transposed into repressed passion. Grace and the benign have been remodelled so that beauty has metamorphosed into the forbidden converted, not by a gentle heart, but a beastly and cruel force of nature. Gentle admiration has become possession, ownership and the hiding and disguising of that beauty by the hideous and homicidal sewer-troll. He eats the money in her purse as well as flowers as Denis Lavant performs his acts solely for “the beauty of the gesture.”  The repressed anger is, at one and the same time, absurdist and elegiac.

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Purgatory

Who is God? Parshot Shemot: Ch. 1-5 Exodus

Who Is God? Parshot Shemot: Ch. 1-5 of Exodus


Howard Adelman

We are now in a new book, the second book of the five books of the Torah. In Hebrew, its name is “Names,” but in English it is called “Exodus” even thought the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, including the set up of the story, only takes up 15 of 40 chapters. Some think that only the first verse of chapter 1 deals with “Names,” so “Names” is an even less appropriate title for the whole book. I suggest that Sh’mot or Shemot as the name of the second book is appropriate because it is about the Israelite God making a name for Himself in the wider world of politics. What happens within the story may be the redemption (Ramban – Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Gerondi or Nachmanides) of the Israelites in the various meanings of that term, but I will attend to the other side of that redemption, the redeemer who is credited with bringing it about, namely God.

The first verse seems to be merely a repetition of what was told in the previous book, in particular in Parshat Vayidash. But not quite, for this is the story read backwards, not as prophecy but as what takes place after the names of the children of Israel (of Jacob) were long gone and had been aufgehobt (from the German verb aufheben), that is when they had been taken out, put away and raised into the stars of heaven above. The names of the leaders of the twelve tribes have become just memories.

Further, as the Israelites multiplied and flourished in Egypt, as a Pharaoh came to rule over Egypt “who knew not Joseph,” who did not remember what Joseph had done to make not only Egypt prosperous, but the Pharaoh personally rich using the new economic model that saved the farmers from totally losing all their land at the same time as the plan cut Pharaoh in for 20% of their profits. The new positive sum game of macroeconomic policy was now taken for granted and no credit was given to Joseph. There was no longer a memory of why the Israelites had it so good.

So Pharaoh played the anti-Semitic card, pointing out the fact that the Israelites had not merged totally with the Egyptians and remained a distinct people, that they had grown numerous creating a theoretical demographic problem, and that they allegedly could serve as a fifth column. The theoretical prospect of double loyalty and, even more so, triple loyalty, that is where loyalty to a third foreign and enemy power became stronger than the loyalty of the Israelites to Egypt became a possible prospect. There was no evidence for any of these fears, but that is the classic nature of anti-Semitism.

The Pharaoh’s response: subject the Israelites to hard labour and when that proved insufficient, order the midwives to abort their male children, and when that was subverted by the compassion of those same midwives, order the military forces of Egypt to actually murder male Israelite infants.  Suddenly – though it may have taken three-and-a-half centuries – the Israelites had gone from the top of the pile, from a golden age, into a persecuted minority. Would redemption come from a member of the tribe of Judah assigned the task of military and political leadership of the Israelites?

That was not to be at this time. In Chapter 2 we are told the story of the new leader of the Israelites, of Moses, who came not from the loins of Judah, but was a child on both sides of Levite parents. Recall that Levi was the son, who, like Simeon, had demonstrated a total absence of compassion. Yet the messenger of redemption would come from the  House of Levi, but not as an inheritor of his forefather’s beastly and rash and cruel behaviour, but, via the compassion of women, the midwives who would not abort him, his mother, who would not see him dashed to death, a sister who conceived the plot to save him by sending the infant in a woven basket to where the daughters of the Pharaoh were bathing, to the compassion of the Pharaoh’s daughter, and to Miriam’s compassionate plan to have her own mother serve as nursemaid to the adopted son of the princess. The Israelite continuity is once again saved through the guile of Israelite women.

Moses is not born as a warrior. He is not political. He is neither an orator or poet as their forefather had prophesied for the House of Naphtali. Nor is he an observer and upholder of the law as had been prophesied for Judah’s heirs. But he developed into a man of extraordinary compassion at total odds to his forefather. Though his rash action in murdering the Egyptian taskmaster who was mistreating two Israelites seemed similar, that action was not driven by cruelty as had the behaviour of his forefather Levi, but by compassion for those who were being beaten. But there were two Israelite witnesses who did not observe what drove Moses to murder. They only saw the murder and feared the consequences, especially on themselves. They snitched.

Moses was forced to flee to the land of Midian where, again through his compassion, helped the daughter of the Midian priest Jethro, Zipporah, from male harassment. He was given Zipporah’s hand in marriage. They had a son, Gershom, born as a stranger in a strange land. Zipporah too will prove to be both compassionate and courageous, circumcising her son and throwing his foreskin at the feet of thugs who stood in their way when returning to Egypt. The prospect of Moses, raised in a royal household, possessing the rashness of his forefather, but with none of the cruelty, the prospect of this man content seemingly to live out his life as a shepherd living neither among Egyptians nor Israelites, emerging as the instrument to save the Israelite from the oppressive hand of the Pharaoh, seemed remote indeed.

Chapter 3 tells the story of how the turnaround took place, not by the initiative of Moses, but by the God of Israel. God, having forgotten his covenant with the Israelites just as Pharaoh had forgotten about the contributions of the Israelites to the power of the Pharaoh and the economic prosperity of the land, suddenly and inexplicably remembered the covenant he made and appears to this shepherd tending his sheep in Horeb, a holy mountain, and appears via an angel in a burning bush not consumed by fire. When Moses turns aside from the apparition, God announces, “Hineni,” Here am I. I am here for you, as the cantor in synagogue pronounces when he reads the cantor’s prayer. I am fully present. I hear the woes of the people of Israel. God recognizes the suffering of the Israelites and renews his promise to deliver the people to the land of milk and honey though Moses who is to be His messenger.

And that is when God names himself. I AM. Moses as God’s messenger must tell the childen of Israel that, “I AM sent me unto you.” Ch. 3, verse 14 reads:

יד  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם..

God is Aleichem, אֲלֵיכֶם. elohé avotechém sh’lacháni alechém.

The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you

So Moses receives his instructions, how to practice magic before the people turning a rod into a serpent and back again into a rod, how to turn his hand leprous, how to turn water into blood. But magic is insufficient. Moses is tongue-tied. He is neither able to put words together effectively nor communicate those words. So Aaron his brother is appointed as spokesman. (Nothing is said about how Aaron survived the Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the Israelite male children, but Aaron may have been born before Pharaoh issued the decree about getting rid of the male Israelite children.)

Moses now recognizes God and acknowledges the role he has to play. But can he play that role? Only if the people recognize that Moses is speaking on behalf of God. But how can they come to that recognition, especially given that Moses seems to be a poor replica of a warrior king?  But who is this God who is to be recognized? Who is: I AM that I AM”? Well, He is not simply, “I Am.” He is I who shall be he I who I shall be.” God is revelation. God is He who reveals himself over time. He is He who proves to be through his actions, through the fulfilment of His promises. He is not just the God who says hineni, here I am. And what is becoming cannot be depicted as that which is. The proof will be in the pudding. Revelation will come through deeds.