God’s Coercive Power

God’s Coercive Power: Va-eira Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

by

Howard Adelman

This is not a segment of the Torah about influence, either the influence of ideas or the influence of material attractions, either of which can impel an action. Nor is it a segment about authority, either the authority of expertise or of a foundational document, a type of authority Donald Trump seems to be dedicated to ignoring, nor the authority of an office or position, that which is often called formal authority. God does not say, let my people go because I am the one true God. Nor does he insist they be let go because their rights were being abused. The authority of the Ten Commandments, yet to come, was not invoked, only the coercive power of the ten plagues.

God does not ask for compliance because he is the Lord on High. This parshat is all about power, not any kind of power, but coercive power. Genesis started with the power of God as a creative being. Exodus gets into the dramatic action with a display of coercive power, power that brings about change through physical intimidation.

Last week, God announced that he was Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), a name never heard before nor since attributed to God. That segment ended with verse 6:1:

  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.  {ס} 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

Because of God’s strong hand, Pharaoh will be forced to let the Israelites go and then they will only be let go with Pharaoh’s armies hot on their tail. This week’s portion is a tale of two sources of coercion battling, not just for a people, but for their allegiance.

This parshat begins with the first two verses of chapter 6 (my italics):

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. 2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, accepted God as the Almighty, but not one of them ever asked for that might to be really demonstrated. And it could not be. How could one prove one was all-powerful? One could only demonstrate that one was more powerful than another, having greater coercive capacity and able and willing to exercise that power. God, who now has a personal name, YHWH, will display that might, that coercive power. God promises: “I will deliver you from their [Egyptian’s] bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” By judgement, God does not mean the edicts of a judge who is the supreme authority in a court of law, but judgment that follows wrath and a display of power. This segment is all about strong hands and outstretched arms.

No longer will obeisance to God be simply a matter of tradition, simply a matter of a habitual response and fealty. It is under the shadow of coercive power that the Israelites will now become God’s people. I will be to you, the Israelites, a God in a very different way, says the Lord. The text makes very clear that this was going to be a very tough task, not because it would be hard to display that mighty power, but because the Israelites had become suspicious, had become cynics, had lost the ability to have faith, to trust. Because of the cruel bondage that they had suffered for years, the people were impatient of spirit” (6:9), מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. They were in anguish. Further, God Himself had admitted that He had forgotten them, forgotten the Israelites, forgotten the covenant to deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had made with their founding fathers. But now he remembered his covenant. (6:5) God was not exactly the paradigm of reliability, but God in Egypt would prove to be a great transformative power.

Moses was instructed to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” But Moses asked querulously, why would the Pharaoh listen to me when I am “of uncircumcised lips” עֲרַל שְׂפָת (6:12 and 6:30). My body may have been transformed through the covenant of circumcision, but not my thoughts, not my words, not the language that springs from my mouth. It is with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand that Moses will be transformed, in good part, to a political leader of a nation that knows and exercises power, from a shepherd of a nation in bondage to a warrior nation with generals in charge, a nation governed by the fundamentals of coercive power – as much as the rule of law to manage that power will be introduced at a later date.

Chapter 7 begins with God reiterating that the Egyptians will learn, not because they respect God, not because they recognize God, but because they will learn to fear God. It is as if God was telling Moses that the only thing the Egyptians understand is force. More importantly, it is through the exercise of that force that the cynical unbelieving and untrusting Israelites will once again come to know and recognize God as their saviour and protector.

The first round is a competition of magicians. When Aaron threw down his rod, it became a serpent. But the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could match that magic act. Thus, Pharaoh was even more disinclined to pay any attention to the words of Moses spoken by his brother Aaron. God had to up the ante and the plagues followed. In the first plague, Aaron lifted his rod and caused the water in the Nile River to turn blood red so that the fish died. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to replicate that act and Pharaoh became even more sceptical of the power behind the threats of Moses and Aaron.

Then the second plague – frogs, swarms of frogs – but once again the magical act was replicated. Nevertheless, this time Pharaoh entreated Moses to ask his God to let up. Pharaoh offered Moses a deal. Let up and I will let the Israelites go. So Moses did let up, withdrawing the frogs from the clothing and the houses, from the courts and from the field, while still letting the streams and rivers team with them. But Pharaoh double-crossed Moses. “(W)hen Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken.” (8:11) At this point, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

God then delivered the third plague. gnats or lice or sand flies. And this time, He did so without forewarning the Egyptians. According to scholars, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) in the 12th century was the first to notice this 2 then 1 pattern of each cluster of three plagues. Further, in the first cluster, it is the last of the plagues that will be delivered by the hand of Aaron. (Bahya ben Asher, 13th century; Don Isaac Abravanel, 15th century.) In the medieval period, structural analysis had come to the fore.  The Egyptian magicians could not replicate the third plague. The pattern included the agent, the response and the mode of communication of the coming of the plague. We are introduced to intellectual rhythmic patterns overruling those of nature.

Why did Pharaoh not recognize God’s power at that point? To understand that, we have to first understand the clustering of the plagues and their significance. We also have to recall that God was not trying to prove that he was all powerful, that He was Almighty, but only that He was more powerful than all the Egyptian gods. This was the character that God had to establish to go with His name. God for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been Shaddai. For Moses, God was now Ehyeh.

Further, the Egyptians, unlike the Israelites later, were not being punished because they had fallen away from their faith in God. The Egyptians were not being hit with an intifada, with terror attacks, with extreme hunger, with a disease like tuberculosis, with defeat by their enemies or with crop failure, let alone wild beasts that devour their children. (Leviticus 26:14-26) These were acts of magic and, at this point, just unbearable nuisances rather than killers.

There is another distinction between the first six plagues of this segment and the final four. The first six could possibly take place and be explained by extreme climate and ecological changes. They were not cosmological in character like hail, locusts and darkness that came from the heavens above even though the first plague was indirectly a product of heavy rains, the observed consequences were earthly. Water changes to blood when the red clay is swept down the Nile after intense and huge rains in the Upper Nile in Ethiopia killing all the fish in waves of mud. The poisoned rotting fish forced the frogs to leave the river en masse and invade the countryside. Their rotting carcasses in turn introduced swarms of flies. The next three plagues were again consequences of the first three, beginning with the death of cattle from the diseases spread by the flies which in turn produced an economic disaster equivalent to when mad cow disease was diagnosed in western Canada. Finally, humans were affected with boils on their skin.

However, the main pattern was not the clustering, nor the differentiation by agent, nor whether there was forewarning, not whether there was resistance or temporary and partial compliance, nor the naturalistic sequence, but the individual target of each plague, the power of one of or more gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The one God of the Israelites had to prove that he was more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods. The target of turning water into a blood red fluid was Hapi.

Hapi was the Egyptian God of the Nile, a water bearer, a source of change, but in the Egyptian experience, change came with a pattern. Change was not a matter of creating something new. Change was cyclical as illustrated by the flooding of the Nile. The first plague introduced a unique event that disrupted the whole pattern of control of Hapi. The significance can be further developed in reference to the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a hieratic papyrus from the chaotic period in Egypt before 2050 BCE or by others ascribed to the period 1850-1450 BC. The papyrus is located in the Dutch National Museum in Leiden. However, what is important is the reference and not the time of composition or the historical events that may have given rise to this composition, or whether or not the poem provides a proof text of the historicity of the Exodus story.

Ipuwer is a poem of a world turned upside-down when the Lord of All was active in destroying his enemies, the noble gods, each responsible for a different aspect of human experience. It is a period of desecration, of chaos, of disrespect for the law. This is a political ethical treatise akin to Machiavelli’s Prince that insists that the first responsibility of a ruler is to maintain order and not sow disorder, even though disorder may be a requisite to establishing a new order. When two mighty powers fight it out, like two roosters fighting to be head of the pecking order, only one can prevail and order be restored. This is even truer when a God of All fights to suborn lesser gods. This is the tale of the first battle against Hapi when, “the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water,” or against Osiris whose bloodstream was the Nile.

God’s second battle is with the Egyptian god, Heket, the wife of the creator of the world, the goddess of childbirth represented as a frog, the symbol of fertility and creation as well as harmony. The frog’s life cycle is characterized by radical transformation in a life form from what appears to be a little fish into a land animal living on the periphery of water and land. In the plagues, that animal is driven from the waters of the Nile into the countryside and once again the whole natural order is disrupted, no longer just the natural order of the seasonal cycle, but the natural order of species transformation. Thus, the issue is not the specific god being undermined – after all, the Egyptian pantheon included about a hundred gods – but the type of order being turned topsy-turvy to demonstrate the power of the One God.

The third plague of lice or sand flies or fleas – from the Hebrew root meaning to dig (under the skin), was the challenge of the One God to the great Egyptian god of the earth, Geb. After the third plague, the One God proved that he could defeat and overturn the order established by the natural cycle of the seasons brought about by water, the god of fertility itself symbolized by the frog, of organic transformation. In the third plague, the One God now was really getting under the skin of the Egyptians and proving that what was taking place was not just a shift in power, but a radical transformation. Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation governing the movement of the Sun and ruling over rebirth, had the head of a fly.

In the fourth plague, the mechanism of the way fertility worked was itself attacked. The fourth plague of “swarms” now made the turmoil and disorder no longer confined to a specific and limited time, but became incessant. In Egypt, Amon-Ra is represented by the head of a beetle, a dung beetle that guarantees that decaying matter with be recycled and provide the mechanism for fertilization. The systematic order of the Egyptian world was being undermined a step at a time.

Hathor was the Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection usually depicted with the head of a cow. The fifth plague was an attack on Hathor. Hathor personified joy, feminine love and motherhood. In the war of the One God against the many, the very foundations of stability and experienced natural order in the family was itself attacked and overturned. Mothers, young children and babies now became the target of this one all-powerful God filled with wrath.

What is a boil, the sixth plague, the plague of shechiyn? The fight for power was no longer just getting under the skin, but bubbling that skin into enormous balloons. The body is the foundation of material pleasure and satisfaction. With an eruption of boils, you can no longer sleep. Discomfort and pain wracks the body. The plague may even have referred to leprosy and the unremitting burning sensation of that then incurable disease. This was a direct attack on Thoth, the ibis-headed god of medical research, the foundations of Egyptian science.

Next week we will return to the celestial plagues and the plague about killing the first born, but this portion of the text clearly establishes a tale about the mightiest political struggle of all time, the one between the One and the Many, the one most powerful God and the many lesser gods. The Israelites were merely the tokens in this war, the symbols of whether a group of humans would be in bondage to a system in which there were a multitude of sources of power versus one in which power could be traced to a single source. It is a struggle between established and repetitive order to a new transformational order governed by God named Ehyeh, one who transforms “I am that I am” into “I shall be he who I shall be.” It is a war to make orderly change rather than orderly stability the ruling ethos of the world.

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Terror in America: Obama and Trump

Terror in America: Obama and Trump

by

Howard Adelman

I wrote this blog – or most of it – two days ago. But I didn’t, I couldn’t send it out. I did not like my conclusions. More importantly, the argument and evidence offered were only sketched rather than fully developed and properly supported. But, after all, this is only a blog and not an academic paper. So I invite readers to tell me I am wrong, to show me where I am wrong.

Clearly and unequivocally, Barack Obama’s greatest failure as president was in creating conditions which allowed Donald Trump to succeed him. Or is this assertion not so clear and unequivocal? Was Donald Trump elected through a confluence of external factors that had nothing to do with Obama – the FBI Director intervening in the election eleven days before most ballots would be cast with information that the FBI was investigating an additional trove of material that might (it never did) throw further light on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and unprotected server. Russian hacking into the Democratic Party communications and releasing the information to Wikileaks may have done the critical damage. After all, Trump won Wisconsin by only 22,000 votes, Michigan by only 10,700 votes of 4.8 million cast, .002%, two-tenths of one percentage point, of the ballots cast in that state. Trump won Pennsylvania by 49,000 votes out of 6 million, .008 or 8/10ths of one percentage point. Poor Democratic party organization in those competitive states may have cost the election. Bur perhaps the loss also occurred because Obama had forged a role for himself right from the beginning as a president above the fray. Though he tried at the end, he clearly had difficulty in parting from his self-created image to pin the tail on the donkey. Perhaps this was because he was still blindfolded.

Look again at Obama’s farewell speech. What were the threats he pointed to as dangers to America? “A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism — these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well.” But how does a shrinking world or demographic change threaten democracy? And why are they put on the same level as growing inequality and terrorism? And to what extent was terror a real threat? Further, if, under Obama, the trend to increased inequality had been reversed, why not point to that rather than “growing inequality?” “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” Rather abstract and indirect if Obama was referring to Trump as a fear-monger indifferent to core values Americans hold dear.

But look when he pivoted to specific types of examples in the next paragraph – put the fight against terrorism on a “firmer legal footing,” end torture, close Gitmo, reform laws governing surveillance, and protect privacy and civil liberties.  These are all pretty remote from the concerns of most citizens. Does anyone believe that even one of these issues, let alone all five, mattered to a single one of Trump’s supporters? If Trump voters were afraid, it could possibly be from terrorists, but I will try to show that it was not and could not be. Nor was it a failure in due process or protecting terrorists from being tortured. Trump supporters could not care one whit about Gitmo, except perhaps what it costs to keep the few imprisoned there, if they only knew the actual costs. (In 2015, it was $445 million for the 41 prisoners still there, almost $11 million per prisoner.) In the election, they seemed more interested in their own fellow citizens being careless with information under their control than others looking at that information, including either their own government or a rival foreign power.

This is written with no criticisms of whether the goals Obama named are laudable. They clearly are for any small “l” liberal. But the implication of the remark is that Trump supporters were allowing their heroic leader to stir up fears that then trumped their concerns for individual liberty, freedom and respect for law. However, they were not primarily concerned with individual liberty, freedom and respect for law. And rather than terrorism being a major threat, it was not and was not even perceived to be a major threat. If it were, they could pay far more attention to home-grown terrorists, and, as we shall see, they were fully justified in largely ignoring that magnified threat.

Much more importantly and justifiably, they would be concerned with the scourge of gun violence that killed far more Americans than all the foreign wars in which America has been involved over the past eight years. From 2001 to 2014, over 440,000 people died from domestic gun violence in the U.S.A., almost 34,000 on average per year. In contrast, in the Afghanistan War, America lost 2,734 military personnel between 2008 and 2016, about 342 per year, or about 1% of those who died from gun violence in the U.S. In the Iraq War, there were only 591 deaths in those same 8 years, for Obama began withdrawing most American troops from there shortly after he took office. The death toll averaged 74 per year, or two-tenths of one percent who died from guns on American soil. In both operations, the death total has fallen dramatically during Obama’s second term.

I received the following feedback from my initial draft from a regular reader. “Again, those Americans for whom owning a weapon is sacrosanct do not look at deaths resulting from gun violence in an abstract way.  If they are the ones shooting the bastard who dared to look at them the wrong way, then that is justice served, their way: the customary method of settling disputes.  This is fierce individualism, protective macho gesture taking things in your own hand.  You do not need no namby-pamby principles, just a secure hand and a functioning gun.  They do not advocate for the right to bear firearms as a principle, but as a licence to take care of business, without the interference of government authority.  Of course, sometimes they are the ones who get shot: then all hell breaks loose: individual particular self-interest, not universal principles guide the actions.”

I will come back to the figures above in a blog on foreign terrorism, but note who died. In 2015-2016, three Americans died assisting Iraqi domestic military forces in the fight against ISIL terrorism – 31-year-old Navy Seal Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Keating, 27-year-old Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin on his fourth deployment overseas, and 39-year-old Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, who left four children fatherless; he was also on his fourth deployment and had earned 11 bronze stars. The cost in the lives of American military personnel overseas fighting terrorism has been relatively very small, but the sense of who they were has been very large.

In this blog, I will focus on the alleged threat of terrorism within the United States to democracy. Examine the list of major violent attacks within the United States when Obama was president:

  1. Binghamton, New York, 3 April 2009 on an immigration centre; 14 killed, 4 injured
  2. Fort Hood, Texas, 5 November 2009; attack on the Soldier Readiness Center there; thirteen were killed and 44 injured
  3. Tucson, Arizona, 8 January 2011. At a supermarket political meeting, Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others were severely injured and U.S. District Judge John Roll as well as five others were killed
  4. Aurora, Colorado, 20 July 2012; 12 killed and 58 injured in shooting attack at a movie theatre
  5. Newtown, Connecticut, 14 December 2012; elementary school shooting attack
  6. Boston Marathon, 15 April 2013; 3 killed and 264 injured by two bombs, and later, 1 police officer killed and 1 injured in the capture of the bomber
  7. Washington, D.C., 16 September 2013; at the Navy Yard – 13 killed & 3 injured
  8. Fort Hood again, 2 April 2014; 3 killed and 16 injured
  9. Las Vegas, Nevada 8 June 2014; 2 police and 1 civilian killed in shoot-out
  10. Chattanooga, Tennessee, 16 July 2015; 4 marines, 1 sailor, 1 policeman killed
  11. Roseburg, Oregon Community College, 1 October 2015; 9 killed & 9 injured
  12. San Bernardino, California, 2 December 2015; 14 killed and 21 injured
  13. Orlando, Florida, 12 June 2016; nightclub killing of 50 and 53 wounded
  14. Dallas, Texas, 7 July 2016; 5 police killed & 8 injured by a sniper
  15. Baton, Rouge, Louisiana, 17 July 2016; 3 police killed and 3 injured
  16. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 8 January 2017; 5 killed, 6 injured.

These sixteen were major attacks classified as criminal, terrorist-Islamic, terrorist-right, or terrorist-left; 5 of the 16 fell into the classification, terrorist-Islam. But a closer examination of each of those cases raises serious doubts about the classification for at least one and probably three of them. In the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas attack on the Soldier Readiness Center, the perpetrator was Nidal Malik Hasan, a military psychiatrist identified over the previous decade as having serious psychological problems. In the last few years, he identified as a religious Muslim, but there was no connection ever discovered with radical Islamicist terrorism. Any reasonably objective analysis would conclude that this was a case of a criminal act by a deranged perpetrator who rationalized his action in terms of Islam, extremist Islam.

In contrast, the Boston marathon attack in April 2013 was a clear case of Islamic terrorism, though not carried out with any direct links to terrorist organizations, Islamic or otherwise. Dzhokha Tsarnaev was 9-years-old and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was 16-years-old when they immigrated from Eastern Europe to the U.S. They became self-radicalized Islamicist terrorists. In another case, that of the 2015 Chattanooga Tennessee attack and killing of military personnel, Muhammed Youssef Abdulaziz was born in Kuwait and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6. His father was a Palestinian radical of the Hamas variety. Yet he too could be classified as a home-grown Islamicist terrorist without any known links to extremist groups abroad or domestically.

In the Chattanooga attack on military personnel in 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez had substance abuse (sleeping pills, opioids, and painkillers) and alcohol problems. He was also suffering from depression and under his parent’s health insurance plan, was ineligible for treatment in a rehabilitation centre. He may also have been suffering from bipolar disorder. This was another case of an act of violence that took place under the banner of Islamicist terrorism that would be better classified as a criminal case of murder resulting from a deranged person.

The second deadliest attack during Barack Obama’s term took place in San Bernardino in 2015. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, were the perpetrators. This was also a case of home-grown, self-radicalized Islamicist extremist terrorism, though inspired by foreign Islamicist terrorism, more specifically, ISIL which claimed them as “soldiers of the caliphate.”

The deadliest attack took place in Orlando, Florida on 12 June 2016. The devastation in that nightclub killing in which 49 were killed and another 53 injured, was caused by 29-year-old Omar Mateen. He was clearly a disturbed individual. He failed to become a state trooper and a prison guard and was working as a security guard. The psychologist who signed his papers permitting him to own a gun had never interviewed him directly and was fined for this lapse. Though his action, in his own words, was instigated by American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, his history included a record of a number of threats to kill people that had nothing to do with religion.

In sum, only 2 of the 5 alleged Islamicist terror attacks and 2 of 16 terror attacks in general within the United States could be clearly and unequivocally classified as Islamicist terror actions. The three other cases were carried out by Muslims who claimed to be inspired by Islamic extremism, but were almost certainly cases more of mental derangement rather than religious ideology.

What are we to make of this analysis – that domestic Islamicist terror is not a real threat? Not at all. After all, none of the citations above refer to the number of alleged planned Islamicist terror attacks that were disrupted and prevented by the police and intelligence services or to those attacks in which there were only 1 or 2 casualties. However, even if account were taken of all those, the threat of domestic Islamic terror is not a significantly large problem. After all, two of the sixteen terror attacks were perpetrated allegedly by left wing terrorists and two by right wing terrorists, as many as the clearly and unequivocal Islamicist variety.

Domestic terror is not a serious threat within the United States. It does not compare in quantity to criminal terrorist incidents usually committed by people with serious psychological problems and certainly not anywhere comparable to the unique situation in America of thousands killed per year by gun violence having nothing to do with terrorism. Investing money in mental health facilities or monitoring of individuals buying guns would give far better safety and security results that the huge amounts invested in combating domestic Islamicist terrorism.

In any case, Donald Trump did not appeal to the fears of terrorism of his supporters, but to their hatred of terrorism and the religion that they felt deep-down endorsed or otherwise abetted that terrorism. Trump explicitly and repeatedly promised to “eradicate Islamic terrorism completely from the face of the earth.” Not Islamicist terrorism but Islamic terrorism! This is not an appeal to fear, but rather an appeal to the genocidal instincts we all harbour and, with the help of laws and institutions hopefully quell – to define a group as Other, as wholly other, as a threat, as a mortal threat, as a threat that the only way it can be dealt with is by extermination.

When Barack Obama reiterated that he was a liberal leader who defended liberal values, this only indicated how out of touch he was, how unsupportive the evidence was, of his position and the real danger. Packaging the threat in the language of threats to individual liberty is but a confession of the powerful forces of ultra blood and soil ethnic and religious nationalism, of demagogic populism, of a stress on strength and order rather than law and order. It is not as if Barack Obama does not know, did not know this, but that he was too circumspect in naming it and, in effect, talked beside the point. Barack Obama was perhaps not only personally guilty of mis-diagnosing the real problem in the hearts and minds of those in the street, but shared in the innocence and ignorance of those around the world who fought for liberal values in the Arab Spring, or marched in Iran, Turkey and Russia against militant dictatorships, and the women and men who filled the Washington Mall and streets around the world calling out for the protection of liberal values.

This is a war, a war being fought around the world, a war between liberalism and anti-liberalism. And the proponents of anti-liberalism are not afraid, are no longer intimidated, from defining themselves as non-liberal, as at war with liberalism and, therefore, at war with any other nation or religion that challenges their own sense of self-superiority. (Same reader commenting: “It is not so much that they are anti-liberal, but that they do not see any benefit from having liberal leaders, if they have no jobs. The liberals talk big, but the lives of the rustbelt denizens ain’t getting no better from that.  Screw the principles and the slogans and give bread. And I do not think these people truly believe they are superior: they are painfully aware of their disenfranchised status amidst the grand speeches about equality.  This much they understand: slogans do not feed hungry mouths.  And anyhow, anyone who acts superior is in fact troubled by a whole lot of inferiority complexes.  The aggression is just a protective mask.”) But until the stage of inter-nation war is reached, it is liberal values that must be struck down. Asserting that these fears are being stirred up and defending liberal values against that threat just misses the point totally. And if the women and men marching in Washington, marching in Los Angeles, marching in Toronto and marching in sixty or six hundred other cities around the world do not recognize their real enemy, then those liberals will be swept into the dustbin of history along with the defenders of a new liberal order in the Arab world, in Turkey, in Russia and in Iran.

The real threat is far, far greater than a threat to women’s rights and civil rights. The point is not to guard the values that make us who we are, but to go to war against the values who would make us something other than who we should aspire to be. An aggressive, not a defensive war was and is called for. And Obama still did not recognize this fact, or openly articulate it, when he left office. Defensive Maginot lines are one way to do battle, but such lines can always be breached by surprise and a blitzkrieg. The issue is not withdrawing from expanding democracy, defending human, women’s and LGBT rights, but fighting an aggressive war against ALL those who threaten the rights we already have won, terrorists of the left, right or Islamicist variety among them, but far more the citizens of America who do not fundamentally believe in democracy, do not fundamentally believe in rights, who believe in nation, who believe in strength and order rather than law and order, who believe a demogogic leader who will take them to the promised land where they supposedly once dwelt.

The fight against “extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism” may indeed be of a “piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalism,” but if you focus your guns and your ammunition primarily on those who would assault human liberties, then the main threat is given a wide-open birth. Trump does not just represent an alternative policy option in a pluralistic system of competing positions. Trump represents the enemy that sometimes comes in the guise of Islamicist terror, but far more dangerously under the banner of free speech and democratic liberties. This is the real fifth column. This is the real danger from within. And if we are too timid to brand that threat, to name it, to diagnose it and simply rise on our pillars of righteousness to defend civil liberties, we will have surrendered the field of battle to the enemy. And make no mistake – these are enemies. Aggressive war, not a defence of old standards, is required.

Barack Obama’s failure in this area is our failure. He articulates that failure best in his eloquent and inspiring words. They appeal to his allies because we share those same values and have become timid in warring on their behalf, if for the simple reason that wars so-called in defence of those values have been fought for quite different reasons inspired by radically different motives.

Obama was no Eisenhower leading the fight for democracy. Obama was not even a Harry S. Truman capable of firing General Douglas MacArthur. We needed a tough street fighter (and former haberdasher) more than a community organizer to do battle with the real enemy within that has now taken over the White House.

With the help of Alex Zisman

One reader wrote the following:

The media is simply not trustworthy. Most read no newspapers in America. If they did use media and relied on CNN, conservatives called them the Clinton News Network. Their bias was and still is outrageous. No problem for the conservatives. FOX feeds their own bias and outrates CNN three to one. Radio is a non-existent news source. CBC here was and still is horrendously over-the-top anti-Trump. Only one Canadian pundit of note, Conrad Black, had the timbre to go against the tide. Need I remind you of the so-called pollster blunders? It was the liberal media that created these misleading reports. Did they do it deliberately? How did they get it so wrong?… Many Americans see daily carnage in Syria and watch the horror of beheadings and mass suicide bombing and wonder when it will take place in their already troubled existence. Their own USA local news deals with the 15 minutes of overnight deaths by violence of their fellow citizens. Howard, in case you missed it, so does CBC News! Their lead morning reports deal with overnight deaths by stabbing and guns, every day! Our youth wonder if the music rave events they attend will see nightclub slaughters like those of France and Florida. You, like Obama now wish to downplay the fact that radical Islam is even a problem and rationalize such efforts by telling us more people die from domestic gun violence than from terrorism. That is simply two wrongs and no rights.

Donald Trump’s America

Donald Trump’s America

by

Howard Adelman

There is an extreme irony in watching Barack Obama leave power and be succeeded by The Donald, who has graduated from being Trump Two Two to being Trump Three Three Three. His self-deceit is so great that he must now reassure himself by repeating his messages no longer just twice, but three times. Trump won the presidency in good part by appealing to identity politics, not the identity politics of minorities who feel discriminated against, but the identity politics of a majority at the cusp of becoming a minority at the same time as their sense of personal identity and identification with the major direction of their nation dissolved before their very eyes. Trump did produce a revolution. He turned the heads of those who were drowning in nostalgia from looking at the receding past to looking for a chimera in the future. At the same time, he made those who strived to bring about a new future, in the words of Michael Brenner, look backwards for comfort and consolation. In terms of nostalgia, the positions of the regressives and the progressives have been inverted.

After Election Day, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that once Donald Trump became President, he would moderate his behaviour. Hope can curse one with mindblindness. But Trump proves again and again that he is deeply ethically challenged with an, as yet, inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. A New Yorker columnist quipped that the Donald was an advocate of “Peronism on the Potomac” as well as being a “xenophobic populist.” He has appointed cabinet members demonstrably unqualified for their positions – Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a critic of public education and an ignorant one at that; Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier charged with running the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, one of five Goldman Sachs alumni appointed by Trump to the government coming from a company he once pointed to as a major source of the swamp in Washington. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is inexperienced, irrational, unstable, thin skinned, but with a deep conviction that he knows something better than anyone else, yet he shows little interest in reading or in the process of policy formation. And he often appears unhinged, as when he appeared before the American intelligence community yesterday. More and more, he presents himself as a clear and present danger to democratic government. ­

In yesterday’s Torah study group, as the rabbi pointed out, we had a rare confluence when the text being studied directly spoke to the contemporary situation, so I have an opportunity to marry biblical commentary to contemporary politics. The verse reads as follows:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

When the text reads, “a new king,” does it mean just a new person taking the throne of Egypt (Trump as a democratically elected monarch) or does it mean a king at the beginning of a new line of succession, neither Democrat or Republican at heart? Or perhaps it means a new kind of king. Or all three! In the biblical text, a new line of succession is at least suggested because of the omission of any reference to forebears. After all, a king’s legitimacy depended in good part on a long inheritance line. Most commentators suggest that what took place was a dynastic change, and, further, and even more importantly, a change that discarded old patterns of behaviour and initiated new and even revolutionary ones.

This is also suggested by the way the new Egyptian king took power. He arose over Egypt – עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם. It is one thing to rule over Egypt. It is quite another to rise to power “over” Egypt, which suggests a palace coup or a revolt. Third, one manifestation of this generic change is what the king does with his power. How does he spend the government treasury – on pyramids? Or on public works or on the military? This new king spent the Egyptian treasury on the military and used the Hebrews as slaves to build new cities for stores or supplies, miskenoth –מִסְכְּנוֹת֙.

וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־ רַעַמְסֵֽס: And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. (Exodus 1:11)

See also 1 Kings 9:19; 2 Chronicles 8:4, 8:6, 16:4 and 17:12. The last makes clear that a store “city” is a fortress.

There is a fourth factor defining the new character of a ruler – who the ruler points to as the enemies of the state. In this case, the text is explicitly clear. It is the Israelites who are defined not only as the Other, but the proliferating Other, the threatening Other, the Other which can act as a Fifth Column for Egypt’s external enemies. However, the major emphasis is a fifth factor. This king “knew not Joseph.” It could simply mean that the new king had not been acquainted with Egyptian history and with Joseph’s role in that history. Not a very plausible conclusion since the generation of Joseph had just died off.

There is a much more plausible account that can connect the different strands of legitimization together. Joseph was not only a Vizier who saved Egypt through a period of famine by developing a system for collecting and storing food in the good times and then a system for distributing that food in the bad times. But he did something else as well. First, he operated a welfare state collecting the wealth of society so that all could be fed. He then exchanged bread for the livestock of the inhabitants. (Genesis :47:17) The people lost their flocks and their herds. Then when the people ran out of animals, they exchanged their land for food. (47:19) Further, they then worked the land in return for a percentage of the produce giving Pharaoh a fifth of everything they produced. 20% of gross sales, not just 20% of profits went to Pharaoh. Joseph had either converted a country of freeholders into a feudal state or converted a decentralized feudal country into a centralized collectivist economy. Further, he moved the people into cities and lauded old Jewish values which gave priority to the city, to civilization, but, in the process, probably created a mass of discontented Egyptians who likely lived just above the poverty line in an alien environment they detested. They longed for the old Egypt rooted in the banks of the Nile where rituals were attuned with the annual floods.

It is hard to believe that the new king would not know what Joseph had done. It is far more likely that the new pharaoh (initially just a king) knew precisely what Joseph had done and had rallied the ex-Egyptian herders and shepherds and landowners to overthrow the old dynasty precisely because of resentment over their new status as serfs or urbanized poor. What then could “he knew not Joseph” mean? At the very least, it meant that the new king of Egypt created a competing narrative to the one in which Joseph saved Egypt, saved the state, saved the establishment in power, but, in the new version, did so for the benefit of those in power and at the cost of the traditional way of life of the Egyptians. In the new version, Joseph and his tribe could be blamed for destroying the old social order. Since they were foreigners, they were doubly suspect.

With the background of the biblical text, look more closely at Trump’s inaugural speech. Instead of a record and narrative of survival from the threat of drought, (from the Great Recession of 2008), Trump describes a state of carnage. Not in 2007, but in 2017, ten years later. And he began, not by acknowledging traditions, not by acknowledging past accomplishments, not even by pointing to the constitution of the United States as the source of legitimation for a new ruler. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” not to the constitution or even the flag.

The expression, “We the people,” is taken to its populist extreme. “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” That promise was betrayed, not just by the previous Democratic regime, but by Republicans as well. These Washington politicians all betrayed their country and allowed it to fall into decay, into crime, into impoverishment of a whole swath of Americans. The promise, the covenant with the people of America, had been broken. It is time to restore power to the people preached Donald Trump.

As Trump said, inauguration day did not just mean the peaceful transition from one governing group to another. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Can you not just hear the new king of Egypt standing on the balcony of his palace and asserting that for too long, a small group in Thebes reaped the rewards while the people bore the costs, bore the burdens. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” The jobs left and the factories closed. The animal herds disappeared and you the people were forced to work the land, no longer for yourselves, but to enrich those in power with the taxes imposed upon you.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” Trump pronounced a new beginning. “All change starts right here and right now.” This is not 2017 of the Common Era, but year 1 of the Trump Era, “the likes of which the world has never seen before.” “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (my italics) That is Trump Two Two speaking in his inaugural address. When he says only America, he means only me, for he sees himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. Unfortunately, in the history of politics, the phenomenon of demagoguery has been seen too often before. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This is precisely the definition of a demagogue, “a leader championing the cause of the common people,” and doing so by distortions and outright lies, using false claims and even falser promises. One does not have to refer to Adolph Hitler and his promise to make Germany a great world power or Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to the great and glorious days of the Roman Empire. Demagoguery is as much part of American tradition as the American constitution. Think of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, Theodore Bilbo, twice Governor of Mississippi and later a U.S. Senator (“Listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me, I’ll give you a lesson in history” – a camp song I learned as a kid), Father Coughlin with his radio sermons in the dirty thirties, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. The bogey men may shift, but the elites are usually controlled by and/or in service to an unworthy and threatening group –  Blacks, Jews, Reds. The enemy shifts and may be Mexicans and Muslims, but the construction of an enemy alien never does. James Fenimore Cooper, in his 1838 essay “On Demagogues,” recognized the danger rooted in the deep populist strain of American politics. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting (my italics) a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”

The elements are always the same. The enemy is an elite and the demagogue opposes the elite in the name of the people with whom he establishes a visceral rather than cognitive connection rooted in agreements over policies. A demagogue connects to the people by appealing to their fears and hatreds and by pointing to the dreams and hopes that they once had and claims that they had been dashed by a powerful cabal. The new deliverer is ostensibly opposed both to that elite and the collectivities it serves. But the motivation is always the same – the narcissistic urges of all demagogues, their own inflated sense of self, their own gargantuan ambitions, and their disrespect for the norms of truth, the norms of decency, the norms of conduct and, in the end, the norms established by the rule of law.  Donald Trump is a demagogue, not only because he is the best expression of all these characteristics, but because he even disdains his own party as an institution through which he connects with the people. His connection is direct. “What truly matters is not which party controls government, but whether the government is controlled by the people.”

It is one thing in a democracy to assert that a government must be responsible to and for the people and be accountable to them. It is quite another to (falsely) claim that government is controlled by the people. It is not. It never has been. It never will be. And demagogues are the only ones who utter such a blatant lie. Plato declared that any demagogue once he gains power cannot help but drift towards tyranny. Aristotle insisted that the most dangerous form of government was one in which the people and not the law have supreme power, a false claim always made by demagogues to seize power.

The trajectory is horrific to watch. Traditions and norms that took centuries to build are destroyed in only a few years. As the opposition takes to the streets in larger and larger numbers, the new “leader” insists that order demands a sacrifice of a degree of freedom. Rule can only be exercised with a strong hand. And Trump has openly stated that he admires “order and strength” – and military parades. But, as Polybius once pointed out, the decay had set in much earlier, for without that decay, a demagogue could not have achieved power in the first place. But whatever the preparation, the demagogic storm seems to come out of the blue.  Like Cleon, who brought Athenian democracy to its knees, Donald Trump has entered the fray as a political tsunami. And what he says means precisely the opposite.

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Translation – I am the only one that can take you to the promised land. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And attendees at the inaugural time and again applauded these words of pure demagoguery.

But the proof text came in one sentence, not the plethora of lies that rewrote history and misrepresented America’s past accomplishments and current success, though these seemed to be the preoccupation of most of the media. Donald Trump said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The Bible says no such thing. It is a tale of divisions. And there are divisions in interpreting those divisions. Take the text with which we started.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The instant response of Jews in both the ancient and the modern world has been to pray for the welfare of the government of whatever country Jews lived in, even when the leadership of that country would turn out to be bad for the Jews as well as everyone else. In every prayer book of whatever denomination and whatever country, the Jews express loyalty to the country in which they live through a prayer, most often not in Hebrew, but in the language of that country.

When the new king arose over Egypt, one can imagine the Israelites praying for the new government, asking everyone to give him a chance and let him prove himself. But how they said it, what they said and why they said it varied. Jeremiah (29:4-7), who offered perhaps the first advice to pray for the welfare of the existing government, advised, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But the advice was strictly qualified. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie.”

Rabbi Chanina bar Chama of Babylon, one of the great Talmudic sages and interpreters of the Mishna who also, with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, went in person to pledge loyalty to the Roman government in Caesarea, in his version of the prayer for the welfare of the government, included a Hobbesian reason: “if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.” Without government, all would be anarchy and daily life would be a tooth-and-claw existence. This was the complement to the false prophet warning, the fear of the mob, of the populace, for without government (good or bad) and order, all would be chaos.

If Jeremiah feared false prophets as leaders, if he feared demagogues, and Chanina feared the irrationality of the masses, other prayers were far more circumspect, perhaps because they feared the wrath of the government turning against them. The fears are not explicitly expressed, but quotes are lifted from psalms which seem benign enough until you read the quote in the full context of the whole psalm. The allusion to the fears is located in those psalms rather than in the prayers themselves.

Many contemporary prayers for the welfare of the state leave out explicitly or even by implication any reference to fears. I would guess that just before the Inquisition, Jews did so as well. The prayer for the welfare of the government is unabashed. This is true of our prayer book in our synagogue which was our rabbi’s tweak of the older prayer in the siddur, The Gates of Prayer (1975). In Siddur Pirchei Kodesh (2011), our current Holy Blossom Temple Reform prayer book (in the U.S. Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, 2007), the prayer for the welfare of the country is offered without either an allusion to or certainly any expression and recognition of a danger. Like most American prayers (our rabbi is from Chicago), the prayer is usually of the flavour that asks God to make those leaders the best that they can be. There is no expression that they may turn out to be the worst possible.

Should we pray for Donald Trump and his government, pray that God make him and his government the best that it can be? Or do we recognize the real dangers and pray for the collapse of that government sooner rather than later given its obvious inherent dangers?

I think readers know where I stand.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Magic of Names

The Magic of Names

by

Howard Adelman

Shemot or Sh’mot at the beginning of Exodus (I.1-6.1) is probably the best-known part of the Torah, even better known than the Garden of Eden story. It tells the tale of the descent into oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt under a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” Pharaoh’s fear of the demographic threat of these “foreigners” and his extreme orders to kill the first-born male children of Hebrew mothers. This is said without getting into the logical paradox of no terminus for such an order, for as you kill the first-born when they are born, then the next-born becomes the eldest and, in some interpretations, eligible to be killed.

The core of the story revolves around the salvation of Moses from this edict as he is floated down the Nile River in his wicker basket made waterproof with bitumen, his being adopted by a princess of the realm and included in the royal household as an adult. As my colleague, Carl Ehrlich, sums up the tale, “A baby boy is born. Owing to a threat to his life, his parents must hide him. Providentially, the baby is rescued and grows to adulthood, when he will perform great deeds and lead his people to glory.”

The narrative shares an uncanny similarity with legends in other cultures, Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus of Thebes, Cyrus of Persia and, the best known of all, Jesus of Nazareth. Given the extreme sparsity of any evidence supporting the historicity of the tale, it seems more akin to a heroic tale of the birth of a nation than a historical chronicle. But that may be its magic, its power, rather than a weakness, rooted in cultural history, in what Ehrlich calls mnemohistory, the way history is constructed and remembered versus what actually took place in the past. The meanings given to names are crucial to these constructions.

Moses kills a particularly vicious taskmaster who was whipping a Hebrew slave-worker, flees, intermarries with the daughter Zipporah, of a Midian priest, Jethro, who will later become his consigliere. Moses is then ordered by God to return to Egypt and preach the message to Pharaoh, “Let My People Go.” In the Black Gospel spiritual, the task is best captured and summarized in in the first two of four verses of the song, “Go Down Moses.”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh
“Let my people go.”

There is a lesser known sub-plot within the larger narrative, the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives ordered by Pharaoh to kill the male children of Hebrew mothers. The section (Exodus 1:15-21) is relatively short and succinct.

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (15)

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃

. .saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (16)

וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (17)

וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” (18)This raises all sorts of questions.

וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (19)

וַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃

And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. (20)

וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃

And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (21)

The traditional Talmudic interpretation, reflected in the English translation of לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת, is that these two midwives were themselves Hebrews. The phrase could be translated as “midwives to the Hebrews,” but is generally not. As Ana Bonnheim suggested in her commentary, the text could read lam’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “[to the] Hebrew midwives,” but as li-m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “the midwives to the Hebrews.” The Masoretic text in adding the vowels could have shifted the meaning of the tale.

This raises all sorts of related questions. Why would Pharaoh order Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies? Why would there be Hebrew midwives at all? After all, Egypt was famous for its advances in medicine while, of the professions assigned to the twelve tribes of Hebrew, and contrary to the dictum that every Jewish mother wants her son to grow up to be a doctor, not one tribe is assigned the task of health care. In ancient Israel, health care was probably not as popular a vocation as it became in our contemporary period. Further, in ancient Egyptian depictions of midwives, they worked in pairs. In Hebrew tales of midwifery (Genesis 35:17; 38:28), they were sole professionals, as when Rachel is depicted in giving birth to Benjamin and even when twins were born – Pharez and Zarah.

But if the midwives were Egyptians, why would they defy Pharaoh? The text suggests they were motivated by fear of God. (1:17) In any case, why would Pharaoh even order the Hebrew boys to be killed. If you want a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, this would be it. For the Hebrews were the physical labourers for the Egyptians. Why sever the source of your labour supply, especially since the fear was an anticipated one rather than a response to any actual revolt?

Some believe it does not matter whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew. It is a great tale of civil disobedience, of telling a lie (the Hebrew mothers are vigorous and give birth before we can arrive to attend to them), even an improbable “big fish” story to explain their failure. They tell the “lie” in service of a higher cause of natural justice. If the two midwives were Egyptian, they would qualify for early rewards as “righteous gentiles.” But the last two millennia of Biblical interpretations have not only preponderantly insisted that the two were Hebrews, in Rashi and other accounts, they are just two alternative names for Miriam (meaning bitterness after the sense of the period) and her mother, even though Miriam saved her brother when she was evidently only five-years-old and that story of the salvation of Moses comes after this one. Talk about ethno-centric revisionism!

There is an older tradition that said the two were Egyptians. Josephus overtly said they were. Other dissidents from the medieval view asked why Pharaoh would trust Hebrew women with the task, and, if he did, surely their behaviour would be something expected rather than a case of heroic behaviour worthy of recording in a sacred text. Bonnheim points to “an incredible fragment of a text from the Cairo Geniza (a collection of manuscripts found in a Cairo synagogue, some dating back as far as 870 C.E.) that recognizes Shiphrah and Puah as Egyptians” among a list of righteous gentiles. And we do know that among commentators, such as Rashi who experienced pogroms, there existed a strong propensity to circle the wagons. Suspecting rather than acknowledging gentiles, excluding rather than including them, became de rigueur, so how could such heroic women be Egyptian?

But the Torah is replete with heroic women, with women of valour, who join the tribes of Israelites, women who were not originally Hebrews – Ruth comes to the fore, but she is not the only one. The Egyptian princess in this story is another one, daring to defy the Pharaoh for she knew Moses was a Hebrew child. Further, an underlying, but fairly explicit motif of the whole text, is that it is really women who are the foundation for forging the Jewish nation. Prior to the compact between Leah and her sister Rachel, Jewish brothers had a propensity to fall out and separate. It is the women that were responsible, not only for the birth of Hebrew children, but for the birth of the nation. And this is a predominant theme in this story – the extraordinary role of women, and women who were both Hebrews and non-Hebrews, who came to love the Hebrew God with whom they were in awe. Further, medieval commentators betray not only an extreme suspicion of non-Jews, but they are paragons of male chauvinism who reinforce an emphasis on the role of male, as well as excluding gentiles from the class of the virtuous.

Once we begin to suspect the bias of traditional interpretation, especially of taking Shiphrah to be Miriam and Puah to be an alternative name for Jochebed, a myriad of other questions arise. Why would Pharaoh say to those midwives “when you deliver Hebrew women” if the midwives were not Egyptian. The sense of the text clearly implies they were. If they were Hebrews, who else in this tyrannical age would be helping in Hebrew childbirth? Hebrew women would be expected to be in awe of God, but, in the case of Egyptian women, this would be well worth mentioning and emphasizing.

What about their names? Do not their names pose an insurmountable problem for saying the women were Hebrews? For Rashi, the root source for Shiphrah in Hebrew means “the capacity to make something better, or to improve its quality.” The root source of Puah is a gift of speech, from which Rashi derives the idea that Puah meant a capacity to soothe babies with her words and voice. When the capacity for amelioration is combined with a skill in keeping babies quiet and not revealing their presence, we find the source motif for why Hebrew male children were saved.  One cannot help but admire Rashi’s inventiveness and ingenuity when he characterizes them as good-hearted equivalents to Judah, able to master the mechanisms of survival. His acolytes even expanded on the tale and insisted that the two were so ingenious that they convinced Pharaoh to allow them to continue their work otherwise, if they killed the babies after they were born rather than allowing the infants to die in childbirth, the mothers would no longer tell them their due dates so they would never ever be able to be present during childbirth.

Is this not the definitive argument that the two midwives were Hebrews and not Egyptians because their names were Hebrew? After all, Jews do not assign Hebrew names to gentiles when referencing them. Take a closer look at the names and their meanings. We already have Rashi’s – Shiphrah, the do-gooder, and Puah, the instrument for succeeding in those good works by keeping the babies quiet. There are a plethora of other meanings given to their names.

Shiphrah: brightness (Jeremiah 43:10); beautiful (Genesis 49:21 and Psalm 16:16); fairness (Job 26:13); pleasing (Jeremiah from the root שפר shapar), meaning to be pleasing and related to the shofar, the horn blown on Yom Kippur; from the Indian, Sifra, daughter of God as used in Christianity; Shiphrah can be said to mean the horn blown at childbirth by a midwife who brings clarity as well as charity, calm and care at a very stressful time.  Shiphrah is also represented as an anagram pulling together all the qualities needed for a calm and relaxing childbirth:

S   serene

H  heavenly

I    idealistic

P   patient

H  hospitable

R   radiant

A   amenable or easy-going

Puah:     splendid; gift of speech; a human equivalent to a horse whisperer; mouth, but used as a name for a male as in the father of Tula תּוֹלָע בֶּן-פּוּאָה from the tribe of and the second son of Isssachar, a judge (Genesis 46:13; Numbers 26:23; Judges 10:1; Chronicles 7:1)

The name of a person is intended to express the quality of the being represented by and identified with the name, to reflect an individual’s personality and to offer a pointer to what that person should become. Names are not then simply conventions for designation, an arbitrary sign, but have an intrinsic connection with the character, especially one who will become an agent in history. Or, at least in mnemohistory, the history that has the power to direct and guide a nation through millennia.

And that, of course, is why they must have Hebrew names even if they happened to be Egyptian. For they became Israelites; they learned to live in awe of God. Their names conveyed the power and mode of salvation.

There are three other names of individuals in this specific narrative whose name gives them magical qualities even more than their deeds. Pharaoh’s daughter gives “Moshe” an Egyptian name, explaining, as she does, “I drew him out of the water,” (Exodus 2:10) – water, the symbol of change, of transformation, of the conversion of a people with a slave mentality to a nation that carried the torch of freedom. When Moses first encountered God, he hid his face “for he was afraid to look at God.” The princess knew that Moses would become a famous transformative agent.

Moses, when he married Zipporah, had a son whom he named Gershom for, he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land,” (Exodus 1:22), a sojourner, one who does not belong in that place but in another, an adumbration that even Egypt was not a “natural” place for Moses.” Ironically, if Moses is the name for his future and his son’s name is the term characterizing a past he must escape, the third name is about a presence, an ever presence, and, therefore, is not about a man at all, but about God.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ יְהוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר׃

And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all eternity. (Exodus 2:14-15)

First, God now has an all-encompassing name that goes beyond all the names that attribute personal characteristics to God.  He also has a very personal, not a generic, name – YHWH. That name is considered so powerful that the person who invokes it, acquires tremendous power, That is why it is taboo to use it; it is too dangerous. (For a much longer, more scholarly and nuanced analysis, see Rabbi Farber’s commentary: TheTorah.com <TheTorah.com@mail.vresp.com> This is the reason that the stranger/God wrestling with Jacob would not reveal His name to Jacob. But Jacob himself received a new name and became the father of the nation of Israel.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that two Egyptian midwives were given Hebrew names when they expressed their unity with the Israelites, their awe for the God of the Hebrews and, in their personalities, demonstrated the very characteristics those names embodied.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

Barack Obama’s Farewell

Barack Obama’s Farewell

by

Howard Adelman

Nine days ago, Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech as President of the United States, not just to Americans, but to the world. But he began local. “Hello Chicago.” And then shifted to, “My Fellow Americans” after cracking a joke about how the unruly audience was proof that he was a lame duck. He then immediately pivoted to a populist beginning. Conversations [in contrast to public rallies or even town hall meetings] kept him honest, kept him inspired and kept him going. A conversation is an exchange of thoughts, not by writing essays and critiquing other ones. It is an oral exercise. And conversations only really work if you try to listen even more than you speak. The American people in the diners and farms, in the factories and fortresses abroad were, he claimed, his teachers. They gave him his energy to wake up every morning. They were also the instruments of change – “when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”

This is a specific kind of populism. It is not the populism driven by economic insecurity and resentment of the rich à la Bernie Sanders that played its way in one town hall meeting after another across America last year. For that type of populism depended on a shared ideology and a shared and identified and identifiable enemy – the richest 1%. The latter populism participated in a common worldview, in ideas and ideals that were the foundation stones of their activity. It thrives when economic insecurity is pervasive in a fast-changing world in which the jobs and positions people held for years are under threat as they seem to be in our emerging post-industrial communications economy. Obama’s populism was of the more intimate kind, one in which differences were discussed rather than common passions and hatreds articulated. It is bottom-up as distinct from lateral populism, and it depends on a set of shared rules for discourse – a logic for exchanging ideas.

Nor was Obama’s logical populism of the top-down variety dependent on mass rallies and sloganeering rather than conversations or shared ideas and ideals. In this latter idiological rather than ideological populism, shared thoughts are not the basis for political action and certainly not conversations that require listening and coherence. The forces driving the idiological populist upsurge are NOT primarily economic, though that may be present, but cultural. That populism is driven by people who once saw themselves as the heart and paradigm of the polity, but now see themselves as looked down upon by a condescending elite – intellectual, professional, wealthy – reinforced when that same elite ignores rather than openly disdains them.

Idiological populism rests on the politics of resentment rather than articulating a political direction. It is the politics of anger driven by radical shifts in value far more than even economic challenges. It should be no surprise to learn that the average family income of a Trump supporter was evidently $70,000. It is this latter populism that was primarily the force behind the Arab Spring. It is the driving force of the populism sweeping across Europe. And it is this populism, not that of Bernie or Barack, that captured the White House when the opposing candidate lacked any instinct for any variety of populism whatsoever. Cultural much more than economic insecurity is its driving force.

Where Bernie saw pain, suffering and deprivation, where Donald saw unfulfilled dreams and fantasies, Barack saw, “the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.” As Michelle put it so succinctly, “When others go low, we go high,” and Hillary could only mimic those words without any deep faith behind them. Obama claimed that his view represented “the beating heart of our American idea.” If that is the beating heart, then it is suffering from both atrial fibrillation and, even more dangerously, ventricular premature contractions. The heart of America is in a profound state of double arrhythmia.

Of the three populists, Barack Obama was clearly and by far the most conservative. For he articulated the liberal idea of self-government in which all citizens are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Bernie was far more concerned with economic inequalities and the failure to live up to that ideal in economic terms than with primordial and abstract ideals of egalitarianism. Trump despised egalitarianism of any kind as he fed off the energy of the people at his rallies to insult Mexicans and women, the handicapped and everyone of his competitors. No political correctness for him in the face of what he called a rigged system that allowed each individual in a mass rally to fill in the balloon above the cartoon caricature with whatever bothered that man or woman.

What did Obama have to offer in contrast but the most “radical idea”? A great gift that our Founders gave to us: the freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, “to achieve a common good, a greater good.” Did Trump ever once cite the fundamental principles behind American democratic ideals? He never appealed to ideals at all, just fantasies to “make America great again,” whereas Barack insisted that America had been founded on the greatest and most radical premise ever. Greatness did not depend on abandoning that belief, but holding it even closer to one’s heart and mind. There was no common good, only an uncommon and ghostly bad that haunted the land.

If Barack saw his fellow Americans as citizens and Bernie saw them as subjects exploited by the economic power of the wealthy, Donald saw them as idolaters intensely enthralled by an entity that would be otherwise considered unworthy of worship. In fact, it was the unworthiness that was the attraction. And the fact that the unworthy displayed his wealth with garish and ostentatious enthusiasm, the fact that the calf was all glitter and gold, only added to its attraction. Trump offered the populace the fantasy of a new gold rush. Not hard work, not blood, sweat and tears, but a new beginning sui generis based on getting rid of the elites who traded American jobs for foreign deals, who created a porous border that allowed others to flow through the sieve and that lacked a defensive wall and a moat around the American castle. Mexicans, migrants, movers and shakers were all grist for his mill of grinding resentment.

Obama believed in the great God of progress, in two steps forward and one step back. Bernie believed in peaceful revolution, in up-ending the economic order and using politics to redistribute the enormous wealth accumulated by the few. If Obama believed in a zig-zag line than nevertheless always tended to move forward and up, and Bernie saw the line moving downwards and needing to be reversed, for The Donald, there was no line at all, only a direction of moving into the future by restoring an idealized pristine past created by the Hollywood films he saw in the late fifties when he was moving towards becoming his father’s son.

Obama offered evidence to back up his belief in progress. Under his watch, had not America reversed the great recession? Had it not rebooted the auto industry that was on its knees? Had it not unleashed the longest and largest job creation record in American history? Had it not reconciled America with Cuba with which the U.S. had been alienated for almost sixty tears with its music, with its rhythms, with its lust for happiness and joy? Reconciling America and Cuba was the icing on the cake of the American dream, more important for America’s dream life that the U.S. was for Cuba’s drab and deprived ordinary life. Had not the shadow of nuclear weapons now been dissipated once again in the nuclear deal with Iran as the proper follow-up to Ronald Reagan’s Reykjavik concord with Mikhail Gorbachev, and, once again, “without firing a shot”? Had Obama not taken out Bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in the modern world until displaced by the even greater evil of ISIL? Had not Obama allowed America to begin to catch up with the rest of the Western world by providing health insurance to twenty million more Americans?

We can. We should. And we did. This was Obama’s claimed record. We. Not I. In fact, not even we. But you. That is what you did. Obama never claimed that he made America great again, but that we together accomplished that task. Donald Trump boasted that he and he alone could make America great again. And Bernie promised not greatness but greater equality. Barack only held the tiller steady of the ship of state. The power driving the ship through the high seas belonged to the people.

And then the arrow that shattered that beam of shining light – the beauty of American democracy had been proven by the election and peaceful transition of power to a man like Donald Trump. Was it any surprise that his audience booed, that these citizens of Chicago whined “Noooo?” Barack Obama promised to be true to the highest and strongest premise of American democracy – the peaceful transfer of power to an incumbent who won in the Electoral College, though he lost by the greatest margin ever in the popular vote. Who could have ever imagined that the Electoral College, that had been designed in good part to protect America from the whims of the populace, would be the institution that put the gold seal of the republic on that whim! Had states surrendered to populism by surrendering to a popular vote the power state governments had to choose the electors of the Electoral College? That question was now moot. The very institution designed to prevent that outcome had become the vehicle to ensure it.

Trump had campaigned on the slogan of, “Make America Great Again.” Obama insisted that America remained “the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth,” even as its wealth was more maldistributed than almost anytime in its history, even as its power in the world was shrinking and even as respect for America had been on the decline ever since the Vietnam War. Sweden, Norway and Canada were each far more respected around the world than America even as everyone stood in awe of the power and creativity and accomplishments of the U.S. But a society that spent almost double its much higher Gross National Product to deliver health care that for a large minority rivalled Third World health systems did not earn or deserve respect in those areas. A country with the best and greatest universities, in most of them still reserved more spaces for the children of the 1% than the children of the bottom 20%. This was not a country to be respected, unless the obeisance given to an imperium is considered respect.

Barack Obama could say loudly and clearly that “for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one,” but the reining economic orthodoxy belied that claim for it celebrated an ethos of each man and woman for himself. When Obama helped pull the country in the great recession back from the brink of disaster, the economic power houses and banks and huge companies were restored to their place in the sun while millions lost their homes and little if anything was done to help them.

Barack recognized that growing inequality, but he was not a Bernie Sanders. His approach would be gradual and by the end of his term middle class incomes were finally showing real gains. He recognized the specter of terrorism and became the ghoulish controller who directed the drones that decapitated the leadership of ISIL, one or a few at a time. Only Donald Trump would promise their immediate incineration. Whereas Bernie preached greater economic equality, Barack preached greater economic opportunity. Whereas Barack saw all ships rising even as the luxury yachts rose even higher and faster than any of the other ships at sea, Bernie only saw those yachts becoming longer and more luxurious and more concerned with ostentatious display. Whereas Barack celebrated a stock market that was breaking all records, Bernie scowled at the billions more pouring into the pockets of the already super-rich. Whereas Barack pointed to unemployment at an all-time post WWII low, Bernie pointed out the low minimal wages, that were, in effect, half of what they were in 1970, the insecurity of jobs and the increased use of part time and independent members of the work force lacking both security and benefits.

Barack could promise that, “if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.” But, of course, a single payer universal health insurance plan would certainly do that. However, in the U.S. this was a non-starter so in that sense, Barack Obama was telling the absolute truth, though it would have been clearer if he inserted the phrase “politically feasible” alternative plan.

All three populists agreed that stark inequality is a bad thing, but they located the source of that distortion in very different locations and attributed the responsibility to very different agents. All three agreed that too many families in inner cities in the rust belt and in rural areas have been left behind. But Donald Trump, while glancing at this reality, really focused on how the values of the once great white middle class had been left in the dust as Barack Obama and his ilk pursued the god of progress. All three populists railed against government only serving the interests of the powerful and who would know that better than someone who had spent his life gaming the system and accumulating wealth while paying little if any taxes?

While Barack preached the need for a new social compact and Bernie preached the need for a radically improved contract between the middle class and those who held the levers of economic power, Donald did not even offer a glance towards either a compact or a contract, but only insisted that he and he alone could make a better deal. Deals were made piecemeal. Compacts and contracts undergird deals. But in the Trump world, they only get in the way; nothing could or should stand in the way of a deal, including the basic principles of American democracy.

Was Barack willing to put a bell on the cat? Was Barack at that point willing to confront the ideological heresy confronting Americans? No. In the name of respect for American democracy and the peaceful transition of power, his remarks could only offer subtle reminders of what was at stake. Though he celebrated the vision of a post-racial America, he pointed to the reality of an America that remained deeply racist without stating boldly that this was one of the lost values to which Trump was appealing, a time when the American white middle class lived in security in their suburbs. Barack might insist on upholding laws against discrimination, but given his marriage to civil discourse, he would not point out that the Donald had been a serial abuser of these laws when he managed his father’s apartment complexes in the Borough of Queens.

Barack could preach that we begin with the premise, “that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do,” he would not point out that different Americans have very different conceptions of the country they love. The myth of a basic true faith for America was as much a chimera as Trump’s whimsical fantasies and Sander’s dreams of a better world in the face of a neo-liberal America. Blunt confrontation and dissing were political sport for Donald Trump that broke the laws of civility that Barack Obama insisted Americans must live by. Barack Obama could complain about citizens creeping into their own bubbles, but he lived in an intellectual bubble common to many if not most educated North Americans, for our beliefs about secular society go as deep as any religious belief and are as immune to falsification as any of them. One must always remember that Barack Obama was a community organizer and not a street brawler.

Is Obama’s secular faith based on evidence as he contends or is it replete with beliefs immune to falsification? Is his belief that politics is “a battle of ideas” rather that of competing forces, as in Bernie’s world or of irresistible force, rather than Trump’s world which eschews ideas in favour of opinions and prejudices? While Barack favours “healthy debate,” his successor disregards the rules of debate altogether as he lurked and shadowed and interrupted and insulted Hillary when he was on a debating platform with her. The fact that Trump lost all three debates, but went on to win, could possibly throw some doubt on Obama’s contention that debate is the rock-solid foundation of American democracy. Is not Barack Obama guilty of the very self-selection he accuses others of, and in a more self-damning way precisely because Obama believes in evidence-based conclusions?

For Trump, selective sorting of facts is the least of his intellectual crimes. He could not care less about facts in the first place. What is real is what he believes in his own mind and he does not even trust that reality, a distrust that allows him to engage in intellectual shape-shifting all the time. Obama is not guilty of that sin, but he has his own mindblindness – ignoring, for example, the role of private capital fostering renewable energy even in the context of a polity like Texas led by two successive climate change deniers. Perhaps Trump in ignoring reality with respect to climate change might also avoid the constraints and heavy bureaucratic burden that states, so sensitive to climate change as California, have burdened those struggling to innovate.

Obama may cite his faith in the spirit of innovation displayed with Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, American faith in reason and the primacy of right over might, but the winner of the last presidential election is a bully with no respect for reason at all but with an uncanny ability to innovate in what was considered a settled political order. When Trump brought the tools of entrepreneurship to the political process and first upended the Republican Party and ran a hostile takeover, and then the political process in America altogether, that is the spirit of innovation, that is the spirit of entrepreneurship, and that is what should make anyone wary about turning the polity over to the get-rich-quick boys.

You may not think, after these comments, that I do not hold Obama’s farewell speech in high esteem. In my mind, it was the greatest and best crafted political speech that I have ever heard. And it makes abundantly clear, in spite of the brilliant oratory and the rhetorical skills, how thoughtful Obama is. But he is far from perfect. And his political position has many shortcomings about which I have only hinted. In the next political blog, I will turn to the strengths and weakness of his past practices and claimed successes.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Global Consequences of UNSC Resolution 2344

The Global Consequences of UNSC Resolution 2344

by

Howard Adelman

UNSC Resolution 2334 did not pass by a vote of 14-0 with the American’s abstaining in a vacuum. Context is crucial. So are military troops on the ground. The Resolution may have endorsed once again the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, but as I have shown with respect to other areas – Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Turkey in Cyprus, Morocco in the Western Sahara, North Vietnam in South Vietnam – the list is long with respect to the non-application of the principle. There were some exceptions – Kuwait and East Timor – but the general disposition has been to look the other way or pay only superficial and short-term attention when territory is acquired by force. In most cases, and contrary to the Israeli position, the conqueror had little justification for any territorial claims.

In Iraq and Syria, satraps were used to acquire control over the territory. In Iraq, the Obama doctrine entailed following the path forged by Henry Kissinger in Vietnam – declare victory while withdrawing from the field. But the Obama administration never managed to pull it off. It was too half-hearted. America did not pursue that goal with persistence and clarity. Declarations may require equivocation. Actions may demand a feint. But intent must be unfailing. Barack Obama, with his many great virtues, was too often a fence-sitter. Not counting “military contractors” involved in the privatization and transference of military responsibilities to mercenaries, the U.S. still has over 10,000 troops and personnel in Iraq.

It is not as if the U.S. did not want to get out of Iraq. America clearly did. But the U.S. also wanted to protect its vision of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state (really, a multi-Islamic religious state). When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched its offensive in mid-2014 in Iraq, it made quick gains that are only now being completely nullified. Barack Obama sent in American troops and supplied the Kurdish Peshmerga with both military and humanitarian aid when the Kurds were directly attacked by ISIL. By 2015, the direction of the war was reversed and the final steps to clean out ISIL forces are well underway. With the end of open warfare imminent, will the U.S. leave in the face of greater need when ISIL reverts to insurgency warfare?

At the same time, Russia accomplished the same feat in Syria, only this also entailed defeating anti-Assad rebels who had been supported by the Americans. Further, the war was fought at a far greater cost in lives, a vastly greater destruction of property and an unprecedented number of refugees and internally displaced that even made the Indochinese exodus in the late 1970s and 1980s look relatively small. Yet the Americans still have 500 mainly special operations forces in Syria serving as advisers and explosive ordinance disposal experts. With the U.S. as a silent partner to Russia, a partnership which Donald Trump wants to declare openly, where once Syria had been under French tutelage, it has now become a Russian protectorate. Where once Iraq was under British protection, a century later it has become a protectorate of the U.S.

General James (Mad Dog) Mattis, Trump’s new Defense Secretary, is thoroughly familiar with these two theatres of war, and Afghanistan as well, where large numbers of American troops are also deployed. But he left the theatre and retired in 2013 before the geography of war in the region changed. He understands the principle of holding and controlling territory by force. However, Mattis is completely unsympathetic to the Zionist enterprise. After his retirement, he said, “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that meant all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us…they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.” Like John Kerry, he has argued that the Israeli settlements will lead to apartheid, not exactly the message coming from Donald Trump.

On the other hand, Mattis shares Israel’s belief that not only is Iran a mortal and existential threat to Israel, but is the main destabilizing force in the Middle East. But he also shares the traditional view of both the old State Department and a good part of the military establishment that America’s main allies in the region are Arab and they must be appeased. That includes, most specifically, Saudi Arabia. Mattis supports America’s backing of the Saudis with military equipment as that government continues its ruthless assault on the Houthi population of Yemen. Whether in Yemen or in Iraq, Mattis insists on clear policy objectives and a military fully resourced to achieve those objectives. He believes in being ruthless in the will to sustain the battle based on a sound strategy. He is totally dismissive of half measures.

The real question is how the American imperium will deport itself in the Middle East. Though superficially like Trump in his bluntness, Mattis is unlike The Donald in so many other ways. He is consistent and a hard-nosed realist who recognizes the value of allies. Mattis steeps his strategy in hard data rather than in the subconscious outflows of rhetoric of an unstable mind. Mattis reads books; Trump reads twitter feeds. Mattis believes in “continuing American engagement” in the world. Trump wants to complete Obama’s half-measures of withdrawal and press ahead at full speed – but with exceptions. The question is on what side of those exceptions will Israel fall?

That is the central question – where will Israel stand in the revised American imperium? UN Resolution 2334 would relegate Israel to a pariah status as long as it not only continues its settlement activities, but even as long as it maintains those settlements. Resolution 2334 raised the stakes by making the armistice lines of 1949 the reference border as well as declaring that all lands on the other side of the Green Line were Palestinian. It was as if Jews never lived in Hebron or the Old City. The UN was now competing with other regimes in the Middle East to eradicate ancient cultures and ethnic groups and their rights. The statement did not say “residents of Palestine,” for Jews had once been Palestinian in that sense. The reference was to Palestinians as a political group.

However, the innovations have not only been in principles but in practices to realize those principles. Lawfare has been raised to a central ingredient of international diplomacy. With the passage of Res. 2334, recourse to the The Hague Court will become de rigueur. Any Israeli – civilian, politician, military officer or settler – is now subject to being charged under the Geneva Convention – a long term goal of those opposed to any Israeli settlements. Fatou Bensouda, the The Hague prosecutor, has finally been given a license to correlate settlement activity of any kind with war crimes.

In spite of his antipathy to Israel as a threat to American-Arab relations, General Mattis is the last to uphold the Geneva Convention. In the Bush II Iraq War that toppled Saddam Husseini, Mattis, as commander of the First Marine Division, engaged in mass slaughter, arbitrary arrests and rough treatment of civilians to extract information he needed in the prosecution of a war he later labeled a major mistake. He would deny access to humanitarian aid – in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention – to the civilian population to make them comply with his fulfilling his strategic objectives. Just look at his leadership in the battle for Fallujah in 2003. His modus operandi in Iraq makes the Israeli military look like gentleman soldiers, especially since they are so constrained by Israeli law itself.

For Mattis, in global strategic terms, Israel is an outlier and an unnecessary burden. If Israel is torn between an adherence to the rule of law, including international law, and its own security needs, Mattis has no similar compunctions or restraints. Further, he agrees with Israel about Iran. Like the Republican hawks and unlike The Donald, he has no use for Putin. One can predict Mattis and Trump will be at loggerheads, but it will be difficult to see how Israel will emerge from the battle. Given that both Trump and Mattis far outflank Netanyahu and his right-wing government’s disdain for international law and sometimes even domestic law governing war and humanitarianism, Israel can count on the new Trump administration, when it engages in war against the UN, to undermine the use of international humanitarian law and the efforts to use courts to reinforce one side of a political struggle.

Resolution 2334 not only greatly enhances the role of lawfare in the field of international conflict, but the long arm of international law will creep into such relatively esoteric areas as sports and culture. Res. 2334 provides FIFA, the international governing body for soccer (THE major international sport), authority to intervene in a dispute with six Israeli soccer clubs. If the territories on the other side of the 1949 Armistice Line are designated as Palestinian territory by the UNSC, Israeli teams as part of the Israeli soccer league playing at the settlement clubs now become likely violators of international law. The monitoring team on this spat, led by Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa, which had been dithering on the issue, is now in motion, guided by a directive along these lines from Wilfried Lemke, the special advisor on sport to the UN Secretary-General.

Culture is another field that will be affected by the new level of lawfare. Ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls is set to become another issue that will be tested given UN Res. 2334. For the scrolls were found on Palestinian territory, at least according to the UNSC authoritative pronouncement and the change from Res. 242 and 338. The scrolls were found in caves near Qumram in the West Bank. Even if purchased from Bedouin, the question was whether the Bedouin had any legal right to even sell the documents. You can count on a suit coming from the Palestinians on this issue, perhaps using a European country as its front to protect the PA from economic reprisals from Israel.

The major internationalization of the conflict will take place on the economic level. BDS, which had been battling and losing in the trenches, just won a major victory in the UNSC. The UN has been given a clear sanction to develop the administrative mechanisms for an organized boycott of Israeli goods and services. Those boycotts may not significantly undermine Israel as a modern economic miracle, but they will cause some distress and even broader annoyances. What they will not do is bring Israel kicking and screaming to the negotiating table. For Israel has expressed a continuing willingness to do so without any pressures, but also without any preconditions. Israel will no longer freeze settlement activity as a precondition of peace talks.

Many are predicting an increase in violence as a result of Resolution 2334. I doubt it – at least on any significant level. Based on this enormous diplomatic coup by Abbas with both the passage of Resolution 2334 and even the Paris Summit, and, further and perhaps even more importantly based on the current weakness of Hamas under threat from the population of Gaza dissatisfied with Hamas rule, Abbas (Abu Mazen) was able to forge a unified government with Hamas. Abbas will boast that he can now exercise with even greater authority restrictions to the resort to violence of Hamas. However, at the same time, the Palestinians will continue to celebrate their “martyrs” who are killed in violent attacks against Israelis. The week before the Paris Peace talks, 4 Israelis were killed and many more wounded, a few quite seriously. Abbas refused to even condemn the terror attack. The PA government, subsidized to a great extent by Europe, will pay the “martyr’s wife 2900 NIS per month (about $CAN1,000) for the rest of her life.

On the diplomatic front, positions are hardening on both sides, though for very different reasons. The passage of the Resolution may have made it very self-satisfying for those who support the Palestinian cause without qualification, but it will not advance that cause one iota. The conflict will only become more contentious, spread into more international arenas, but highly unlikely to bring both parties to the negotiating table.

What about initiatives by Donald Trump who stands unequivocally against Resolution 2334? Trump’s son-in-law, 34-year-old Jared Kushner, has been named the point person on this effort? According to the Donald, “You know what? Jared is such a good lad, he will secure an Israel deal which no one else has managed to get. You know, he’s a natural talent, he is the top, he is a natural talent. You know what I’m talking about – a natural talent. He has an innate ability to make deals, everyone likes him.” Ignoring Jared’s lack of diplomatic experience, given such an endorsement, would you have any optimism about the possibilities of negotiations?

In fact, based on either the European initiatives or the Trump initiatives from a radically different angle, would you expect any successes on either front? When Saeb Erekat after the Paris Peace Summit issued the following statement urging France to, “immediately recognize the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” and when Netanyahu’s increasingly defiant government, at the other extreme, promotes the expansion of settlements, attempts in its “formalization law” to retroactively legalize over 100 outposts built on privately-owned Palestinian land and deemed illegal according to Israeli law, and when his government even flirts with the idea that the two-State solution has had its day, neither international diplomacy, nor lawfare nor economic pressure are going to bring the disputants to the negotiating table.

The Palestinians grow bolder. The right in Israel grows more recalcitrant and more inclined to ignore the international community. And some believe that the results of Resolution 2334 are beneficial as a move towards peace!

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Arch of Justice

The Arch of Justice

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.

Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?

Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.

The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.

It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.

The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.

If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.

First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.

Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.

Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.

How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.

That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.

When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.

Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.

Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.

That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”

Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.

One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.

As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.

However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.