On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

by

Howard Adelman

In the last few blogs, as well as some earlier ones, I wrote about dreamers, individuals who marry personal ambition and self-sacrifice to realize their dreams (La La Land), and those who translate and transform dreamers and dreaming into brilliant works of art (Guillermo del Toro who wrote, produced and directed The Shape of Water). Dreamers belong to a Dionysian world of the imagination, an imagination which insists that reality is complex and not a world of simple and simplistic maxims characteristic of the Apollonian world of reason and Occam’s razor. Reality for the dreamer is about grace rather than gravity.

I repeated the refrain from La La Land about “The Fools Who Dream”:

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

Dreamers are fools – or so they seem. They break hearts and make messes. But Elisa in The Shape of Water mends hearts (and as her gills restored), not only her own, but the hearts of the sensitive souls around her. Further, she does not appear to be a mess-maker. After all, she works as a cleaning woman who may, in her imagination, live in la la land, but this Chaplinesque hapless heroine proves that she can be as conniving and courageous, even more so, than the stick figures that rule over her daytime drudgery.

The longest narrative in Genesis is about a person who is purportedly one of the great dreamers of all time, but not a dreamer like his father Jacob. The latter, when fleeing his brother Esau whose blessing from his father he had stolen (going well beyond his treacherous bargaining for his brother’s birthright when he was younger), had a dream. It is a vertical dream of a ladder that reaches up towards the heavens on the rungs of which angels clamber up and down. (Genesis 28: 10-19)

Jacob’s dream is radically opposed to the dreams in the Joseph story. When Joseph was a teenager, he “prophesied” in a perilous pair of dreams that he would lord it over his brothers, though the meaning of the dreams was so plain that he did not have to interpret or divine their meaning. In total insensitivity to his brothers’ natural reaction, he followed his story of his first dream with another dream with the same interpretation. No wonder his father was annoyed with him. When Joseph later interpreted the dreams of the cook and the butler, Joseph did interpret and foretold their radically opposite futures. The situation was similar, though with far greater global and historical consequences, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams.

Joseph’s horizontal dreams, in contrast to Jacob’s vertical one, stretched into the future rather than towards the heavens. In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, they adumbrated first seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of want. Joseph’s dreams were used for self-elevation and were those of a diviner. Jacob’s dreams were those of one chosen by God. He was guided by predictions delivered by God’s messengers. In contrast, Joseph is the deliverer of the interpretations of messages attributed to God. “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (41:16) But God does not interpret the dreams for Joseph. Joseph’s story belongs to the wisdom literature of diviners rather than the prophetic literature of the Israelites. As Pharaoh says, and he is not corrected by Joseph, “there is none so discerning and as wise as you.” (41:39)

God spoke to Jacob as he did subsequently to Moses and as he had to Abraham. However, as often as Joseph cites God as the author and the authority behind his dreams, Joseph is never addressed by God. God does not speak to Joseph, even to chastise him, as he does Jonah. God does not reprimand Joseph for engaging in malicious gossip about his brothers when he was a teenager or his enigmatic accusations of their being spies and thieves, and, most significantly, his puzzling demand that they return home and come back to Egypt with their brother Benjamin. He continues this mistreatment, but under the guise of charity, at the end of Genesis. And the irony!

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.. Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:19-20; my italics)

The intentions of his brothers do not matter in moral judgments. For Joseph, a good will is not the only good without qualification and a bad will may even be an expression of God’s will. The divinely inspired dream of Jacob is radically different than the divination dreams of Joseph. Jacob’s dream humbles him. Joseph’s dreams, and even more so, his expertise in interpreting dreams, inflate his ego to proportions well-beyond the narcissistic fabulism of his teenage years. That arrogance is best illustrated when Joseph, in a false humility, claims that his dreams of divination are divinely inspired, that they are not his dreams, but dreams that come unbidden and, therefore, are supposedly delivered by God. He makes this assertion, not God.

Look more closely at the contrasts between Jacob’s dream and those of Joseph or the ones of others that he interprets. Jacob, like most prophetic figures in the bible, is his mother Rebecca’s boy; Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob in his flight from his brother Esau travels from west to east, having fled Beersheba for Haran. Joseph is transported from east to west and, not only settles in Egypt, but entices his whole family to leave the Promised Land and resettle alongside himself in Goshen. Jacob’s dream belonged to a certain place and came at a specific time, after he fell asleep at dusk with his head on a rock. Joseph’s dreams are more akin to daydreams and embrace vast territories of space and time rather than having a specific locale at a very specific time. There is no spot that is regarded as holy. There is no encounter with God’s messengers. Jacob’s vision is the guilt dream of a deceiver. Joseph’s dream is that of an achiever, a revealer who never feels a spark of guilt or recognizes his own role in deceiving others and deceiving himself.

Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, Joseph was hated by his ten half-brothers. Esau vowed to kill his brother after their father died; Joseph’s brothers are determined to kill him when Jacob was still very much alive. Joseph is saved at the last minute by Judah who sells him into slavery; Jacob flees towards his dream and purportedly comes to realize his mistakes and their consequences, though he can never accept that his brother loved him and forgave him. Joseph is transported away from his dream; it is his brothers who never cease distrusting him even when Joseph excuses their actions and insists that everything happened according to God’s will. They were not accountable and, by implication, neither was he. We are all mere instruments of divine will, according to Joseph.

The story of Jacob is one of self-transformation. Look at the harsh blessing he gives his sons before he dies compared to those Isaac bestowed on both him and his brother, Esau. The story of Joseph is radically different again. It is a tale of a brilliant administrator who saves the nations under the rule of Pharaoh, but then deprives Egyptians of their autonomy, of their status as freeholders of land. Joseph’s policies reduce them to serfs.

Jacob pursues freedom; Joseph does not, as his dream seemed to foretell, accept his brothers’ offer to become his slaves. But neither does he ever expressly forgive them or hold them accountable for what they did. Instead, he proclaims that there is no autonomy. There is no freedom. We are all instruments of a divine unfolding plan, a plan that made him viceroy over Egypt and the saviour of his family. Joseph claims – God never says it – “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:7, my italics) Joseph sounds like Donald Trump praising his own fabulous contribution, not recognizing that he, Joseph, would be the agent that delivered the Hebrews into years of slavery by a people that resented what Joseph had done to them.

Joseph, unlike Jacob, never hears the words of God, because he is so caught up in his own beauty and brilliance while, at the same time, taking no responsibility for his own actions or assigning responsibility to others for their actions. Joseph is akin to ones who hear the words of the Delphic oracle and can interpret the puzzle, but Joseph cannot hear the words of God that are always direct and straightforward. Further, Joseph always remains totally oblivious of the ironic ultimate meaning of his dream even as he demonstrates the cleverness of a shrewd mind. At the end of Genesis, he claims to understand his dreams as God’s communicating his divine plan to him and, thereby, reveals himself to be a diviner without a prophetic bone in his body.

Jacob goes to sleep at sunset and by sunrise, following his dream, he has moved from distress and angst to the path of deliverance. But in the Joseph story, though there is a deliverance from starvation, there is no moral deliverance. There is no autonomy. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. But most of all, there is no forgiveness. And forgiveness – the ability to give it and to hold it back – is the highest expression of our freedom. Joseph never has to struggle. Jacob, in contrast, struggled with both humans and God. For those struggles, Jacob, meaning trickery and deceit, was renamed Israel, from שרה, “to strive with” and אל (El), God..

בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. Said the Other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said He, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)

Israel henceforth struggled and tried to be open and straight. But Joseph practiced even greater trickery on his brothers and was not straight. Joseph did not struggle even when he was a slave of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s steward). Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to seduce him when he had risen to the status of running the family household and Joseph had been such a blessing to that household. (Joseph would later rise to the status of running the whole of the Pharaonic kingdom.) God was always at Joseph’s side, but God never intervened on his behalf. The text reads:

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:ג וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה. YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. (Genesis 39: 2-5)

Joseph rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, a theme of wisdom rather than prophetic literature. Why? Because, as he claimed, Potiphar has placed his complete trust in Joseph and put everything, except his wife, in his hands. How could Joseph make her husband a cuckold? That would be wicked and a sin before God. (Genesis 39:9) Joseph escapes, but leaves his coat behind. Potiphar’s wife uses it as evidence that Joseph had tried to sleep with her, just as Joseph’s brothers once used his coat of many colours to cover it with blood and claim that animals had probably killed Joseph.

Again, at another disastrous negative turn in his life, God evidently intervenes again. Joseph is delivered and raised up to a higher status. Is that because he declined to do a wicked thing with Potiphar’s wife? But if each turn and twist is about God’s predetermined plan, then he cannot take credit for his good fortune. Nor does he deserve any credit, even without God’s help, for he makes clear that he rejects her offers to sleep with her because he does not want to jeopardize his social and economic status. Jacob betrayed his brother’s and his father’s trust. Joseph, much sharper politically, refused to make that mistake, but is unjustly thrown into jail for his efforts. He repeatedly professes his innocence. At four different points in the overall story, he insists that everything that takes place is a manifestation of the guiding hand of God.

God, not Joseph, brought these events to pass. Joseph insists that he was not responsible for the good that emerged. But then neither could he be held responsible for the bad. And, because of the blindness of his soul, rather than that of his eyes, he will bring about the greatest calamity for the Israelites – their departure from the Promised Land and their eventual enslavement in Egypt, resented as they must have been by the Egyptians who had been reduced from freemen to serfs by Joseph. When Joseph introduces his father to his two sons when Israel’s eyes “were dim with age,” Israel switches the blessing in contrast to the trickery of his own father, he blesses the younger before the older. And he blesses Joseph and is no longer capable of struggling with God. He blesses Joseph and prophesizes, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) But, as it turns out, only to bury his father and then to resettle the Israelites in a foreign land.

Immanuel Kant insisted that the categorical imperative to treat others never as means to an end only is the sine qua non without which there can be no moral code. Others must be respected. Others must be recognized for being free men responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental principle without which there can be no moral behaviour. Freedom is the essence of morality, freedom which directs one’s attention to the needs of others rather than one’s own passions and desires. Joseph is oblivious of others’ needs, even though he emerged as a remarkable diviner and administrator.

Forgiveness is both the recognition of the other’s flaws and the error of their ways as well as the recognition of their autonomy and their need to take responsibility for their deeds. Joseph never gives his brothers an opportunity to repent and never offers them forgiveness. Instead, he relies on the old empty maxim that God is responsible for all that is and for all that takes place. None of us are responsible for our own actions. Joseph carries this principle forward to provide a ground for converting the status of free and autonomous Egyptian farmers to serfs and, therefore, indirectly to the recompense to the Hebrews when they are made slaves in Egypt.ut Kant was not a dreamer. For it is reason which provides the foundation for morality. It is reason that provides the foundation for the recognition of beauty. In this way, rather than Apollo being at loggerheads with Dionysius, reason permits scientific knowledge, morality and aesthetics to be complementary and consistent. In Kant’s world of ends and final causes, in his teleological worldview and recognition of judgment as the ultimate arbiter, science and morality can be reconciled. Kant cannot bless the ones who dream, cannot bless those who are foolish, cannot bless those who fall from grace from his lofty perch of his pure practical moral reasoning based on a maxim that is the ultimate expression of Occam’s razor. Kant cannot bless those whose hearts ache for the other, and, ultimately, cannot accept the mess they make.

However, rationalists like Kant are not the only enemies of dreamers. Diviners who pose as dreamers are even greater foes. They deny freedom by viewing the future as pre-determined by a divine hand. They deny freedom by eliminating forgiveness from their vocabulary. They deny freedom by eliminating the principle that each one of us is responsible and accountable for his or her own actions.

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On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

by

Howard Adelman

When is an apple is an apple is an apple, as CNN in its self advertisements insist it always is? In an era when charges of fake news fly about like bats at each twilight, there is a disorienting quality when you cannot recognize what exists that stands right before you. I was reminded of the humiliation and embarrassment of my mild case of prosopagnosia or face blindness, for yesterday I saw someone approaching. He looked like he knew me. As he neared me, he said, “How are you Howard? Bitterly cold, isn’t it?” It was my neighbour. I know him well. He and his wife have been at our cottage. But until he spoke, I had no idea of who he was. He had to have noticed that initially I had not recognized him. And his name did not even pop into my mind until we had passed one another. Had he noticed my bluffing and cover-up in my clichéd response? I felt so em-barr-assed.

Over the years, I have developed a whole system of subterfuges to disguise and hide my disability. My wife helps enormously in dealing with this disability. When we meet others whom she does not know, but I am supposed to, she introduces herself rather than waiting for me to offer an introduction. When I am alone, I look at the floor or appear distracted in thought, which I am often anyway, but often wonder if my being lost in thought has not been a defence mechanism.

However, my failure to recognize is not just a matter of faces. When I was a kid, I could never tell one model of car from another. Among my friends, recognizing different models of cars at the time was a matter of status. I have always insisted ever since that I have little interest in cars and in driving. Where do cover-ups start and interests end?

Yet my difficulties in face recognition, my limitations in object discrimination have never impaired my ability to engage in intellectual analysis or to make decisions. Perhaps those inabilities should have made me wary. Instead, my arrogance about my own intellectual prowess and decisiveness only increased. But I am sure I should have been more chary, more guarded and attentive. This inadequacy, after all, is not simply about the world out there. It affects one’s ability to engage in self-recognition.

We have been watching the TV series, “The Crown,” a Netflix production. In the third episode of season two, called Lisbon, Queen Elizabeth confronts Phillip on the royal yacht and calls on them both to lay “their cards on the table” and examine themselves and their marriage for what it is and has been and, hence, for what it can become. Phillip has been a playboy chafing at the restrictions and daily humiliations, at his behaviour being dictated by the moustachioed watchers of protocol. Elizabeth has been publicly humiliated by the widespread rumours and now evidence of her husband’s infidelities. In this wonderful interweaving of family and national politics, the royal family is presented as far more human with their errors and limitations than the widespread images of the cold queen, her detached spouse and their doltish son, Charles. Beside the political clods and liars, like Prime Ministers Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Harold Macmillan, the members of the royal family come across as simply flawed humans rather than arrogant, pedantic and malevolent graduates of Eton.

“Know thyself.” That was a major dictum of Socrates. But if you cannot even see what is around you, if you cannot even see how others perceive you, how can you know yourself? This is not just about personal relations and mainstream politics. It affects what we see and how we deal with everyday life and even nature. Just this past week, we saw what we believed was a wolf in the backyard. It was not behaving as a dog. With its arched back, with its wary pauses as it dug into a hole where a small critter had its home, capturing and devouring it, we were sure that this was not an Alsatian dog.

It turned out to be a coyote. Coyotes evidently now live among us in the city, not nearly as plentiful as the squirrels and racoons, but no longer a rare sighting. Further, as one of my former students wrote, coyotes and Algonquin wolves have interbred and perhaps a new species of wolf has emerged. My student wrote: “For some time, it has been a matter of dispute whether Algonquin wolves are a population of eastern wolves or a separate species, which is of practical importance because the extent to which they’re protected legally depends on how they’re categorized –  in 2016 the Ontario government reclassified them as a separate species and changed their status from ‘special concern’ to ‘threatened’ (i.e., from two steps away from ‘endangered’ to one step away). But one way or another they are heavily hybridized with coyotes.”

The question of whether an apple is an apple is an apple, whether a rose is a rose is a rose, can be a matter of some significance, especially to the apple or the rose. Was that a peregrine falcon I saw for the first time this fall or a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk? Given my terrible record in object as well as face recognition, I cannot be trusted. However, my wife is extremely discerning. But she too thought that what we observed a few days ago had been a wolf.

So, even the best of us can be fooled. But we are also often foolish as well as fooled. This week the UN General Assembly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by an overwhelming majority of 128-9. Canada abstained though, as some commentators opined, our country might have voted in support of the Americans had Trump been a bit more diplomatic and less confrontational in his approach. After all, every country is free to locate its embassy where it wishes. Every country is free to recognize the capital of another country. No other country is denied recognition of its capital. And the recognition came with a caveat that this did not predetermine in any way the borders of that Jerusalem. Jerusalem, certainly West Jerusalem, is and has been the capital for seventy years and there is almost no likelihood that it will not continue to be so.

In the UN vote that Obama (generally an admirable president in my eyes) failed to veto last December, perhaps in an understandable fit of pique against Netanyahu (who competes with Trump and Erdogan for being a diplomatic fool even as he fails miserably to come close to their stratospheric absurdities), the UN de facto declared Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital and did more to pre-empt the results of peace negotiations, and thereby undermine them, than anything Trump did or say. The vote further carried far more weight – because it was a Security Council vote which carried with it obligations rather than a General Assembly vote which could never be more than a recommendation and a sense of general support. Ostensibly, the motion was a condemnation of continuing Israeli settlement activity. But the vote called allthe territory on which Israel had built Palestinian and not just disputed territory, which was certainly the case of Jerusalem, which had not been allocated to either side. The resolution, in effect, re-wrote the 1947 partition resolution.

Against all my own caution when it comes to initiating steps in international diplomacy that can have incalculable repercussions, counter to my huge antipathy to a lying and narcissistic president such as Trump,  in the aftermath of what has happened since, I am even tempted to cheer Trump for his boldness and for his willingness to call a spade a spade, much as my heart warmed when Queen Elizabeth told Eden to his face that he was a liar and told Macmillan that he was even worse, for Macmillan was a duplicitous liar, denying that he had even supported Eden in the Suez fiasco in 1956 when he clearly did. South Africa may downgrade its embassy in Israel to a “liaison office” as a symbol of support for the Palestinians, but that merely sends a message that the whole international process is not about objective evidence or fair negotiations, but about whose side one is on.

It is through such layers on my lenses that I read the story in this week’s portion of Torah when Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, meets his brothers once again after a long hiatus after they had thrown him into a pit many years ago and they do not recognize him. At the “re-union,” Joseph plays with them, insisting that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back as surety for the food he is giving them, and, when they return, planting a gold goblet among their things when they depart so that, when his men search their packs on the way out of Egypt, they find the royal goblet and the brothers are accused of theft. Then the central confrontation takes place. Judah, who had assured his father Isaac that he would return with Benjamin, comes literally face to face with Joseph and asks that he, Judah, be held as a slave and Benjamin be permitted to return to his father.

Joseph cries, perhaps in response to seeing this brother’s devotion to Benjamin, and, even more, to their father, a devotion absent when he himself had been thrown into a pit, for Judah had urged that he be sold into slavery so the brothers would not have Joseph’s blood on their hands. Perhaps Joseph’s emotional response is because he sees that the brothers have changed and are no longer the young, irresponsible and cruel youth of yesteryear. Perhaps Joseph is simply tired of the ruse, of hiding both his identity and his guile from them. Whatever the reason, Joseph owns up to who he is and rejoices in his reunion with his brothers as Jacob never did with his brother, Esau.

What is the significance of this self-revelation and subsequent recognition? Why had Joseph been able to recognize his brothers after all those years, but they had not been able to recognize Joseph in all his royal finery and in a totally incredulous political position? The description answers itself – recognition is a matter of both context and expectations. Certainly, Joseph had taken advantage of his brothers’ non-recognition, arrogantly grilling them as if they were potential spies and now confronting their presumed lack of honesty when it was now Joseph who was not being honest with them.

Did this take place, as many moralist interpreters opine, so that Joseph would make his brothers recognize their past mistakes? Were the brothers carrying around with them, not only the sacks of grain that they had purchased in Egypt, not only the goblet Joseph had planted in Benjamin’s sack, but the guilt of their actions, not only against their brother, but, and perhaps more importantly, for their treatment of their father for whom Joseph was the favourite? Had that hidden guilt percolated to the surface now that their father might lose his youngest son, Benjamin, believed by him to be the only surviving offspring of his late beloved wife, Rachel? After all, Judah pleaded with Joseph begging the vizier to take him as his slave rather than Benjamin. Was this out of guilt for his past treatment of Joseph or guilt about the consequences to their father or, perhaps, both? Or was it because he felt honour-bound by the guarantee that he had given his father?

“So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers: for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer”? (44:33-34)

Joseph could not contain himself any longer. He bawled like a baby – right in front of his brothers, right there and then. “I am Joseph – is my father [really] alive?” (45:3) But he had known his father was still alive. His brothers had told him. Had he thought that they were lying? In his arrogance, did he think that his father had really died grieving over the loss of his favourite son?

Maimonides thought that the story was all about repentance – the brothers’ repentance for what they had done to Joseph many years ago, as well as Joseph’s repentance concerning his cruel and possibly vengeful treatment of his brothers, not only currently, but in the past when he told his father malicious tales about his brothers. Maimonides wrote:

“What constitutes complete repentance? He who confronts an identical occurrence in which he previously transgressed, when (at another time) it is within his power to repeat the same wrongdoing, nevertheless restrains himself and does not succumb to temptation because of a wish to repent and not out of fear of authority … this is true penitence.” (Mishneh TorahT‘shuvah 2.1)

I don’t buy it. I do not accept Maimonides’ theory of repentance when an event recurs that reminds one of the original one over which a continuing guilt has remained. Such an effort at interpretation tries to reconcile Hebraic concepts with Aristotelian theory, which was always more concerned with a heroic life in which the virtues are cultivated rather than celebrating a life in which humans follow the covenant and the rule of law. In Hebraic thought, t‘shuva, return, or revisiting an old error, and hence repentance, is a result of recognizing a failure to observe obligations, not a failure to be an exemplar of virtue. For Aristotle, only bad men without virtue feel repentance.

Maimonides tried, and, I believe, failed, to reconcile Aristotelian and Hebraic ethics. Instead on making a mishmash of the two by inverting Aristotle and marrying the inversion to Jewish precepts, why not recognize that the Joseph story is not about repentance at all, but about recognition, recognition about who another really is and recognizing and owning up to one’s own responsibility for what has occurred in the past.

Dena Weiss has written that the issue in this story is not about the repetition in memory of a previous occurrence and, hence, exposing one’s guilt, but about presence and absence, about proximity versus distance. Joseph was viscerally moved because Judah confronted him face-to-face and spoke directly to him. The days of deceit, of misdirection, of distraction, of deception, of distortion, were over. Reconciliation was not a matter of making oneself over into an exemplar of virtue, but of recognizing another and, through that recognition, recognizing oneself and one’s obligations both to oneself and to that other.

The writer of “The Crown” recognized that essential character when Queen Elizabeth confronted her husband about reality and asked where they go from there. The answer comes in Phillip’s speech at their tenth anniversary party when he publicly and openly recognizes Elizabeth for the woman she is, a woman of loyalty, a woman of honesty and directness, a perceptive woman, a woman to whom he is now happy that he married despite all the trammels and troubles of living as a royal couple.

Recognition of who the other is and self-recognition go hand-in-hand.  As Weiss wrote, bodily proximity in recognition is far more important than ethical remorse in a crisis of the superego. The issue is not to beat oneself up and lash oneself on the backside, but to own up, to take responsibility, to be accountable and, thereby, change who we are and our relations with another. T’shuva is the meaning of the good life, not becoming a new person with heroic virtues, but becoming an older and more mature person who recognizes and admits to his or her own shortcomings and recognizes but does not hold over the other a Sword of Damocles for how the other behaved in the past.

“Yehudah came close to him and said, “If it pleases my master, may your servant speak in the ears of my master and do not be furious at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” (48:18)

After all, one of the major themes of the Torah is moving from a culture of shame to a culture of guilt, not guilt from failure to be the best and most virtuous, but failing to be oneself. Israelites move not only physically but from a culture of revenge to a culture of forgiveness. Only then can we overcome stereotypes of the other and blindness about oneself. In the end, this is why sex in a marriage is so important.

“Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’  And they were unable to respond to him because they were overwhelmed by his presence. Yosef said to them, ‘Please, come close to me.’  And they came close.  He said, ‘I am your brother Yosef whom you sold down to Egypt.  Now, don’t be distraught or angry that you sold me here, for God sent me before you for sustenance’.” (45:3-5)

Don’t feel guilt. Don’t feel shame. Just come close. Just be close. Do not promise that you will become who you are not, but be who you are, near and close to others, to your family and friends. Do not betray Eden as Macmillan did so treacherously, do not lie as Eden did to his Queen and to the Americans, do not be mendacious as Trump is, for if Trump had a record of integrity, then recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital might be viewed by others as an act of honesty rather than one of domestic political self-serving. Be close and do not be a manipulator from afar. To be dishonest is to be crooked. The categorical imperative of recognition is: Be straight. Let others know of your handicap. They will forgive you. They will compensate for you. You can depend on others.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Square – a movie review

The Square – a Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, because of vociferous urging by our youngest son, we finally broke the bad habit we had slipped into of not going to the theatre to see movies. We saw the Swedish film, The Square. The film was the first Swedish film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and swept the European Film Awards with six wins in all the categories for which it was nominated – Best European Film, Best Comedy, Best Script, Best Director (Ruben Östland), Best Actor (Claes Bang) and Best Production Design (Josefin Asberg). I thought that it was one of the very best films that I had ever seen.

Yet no other star in the film, such as Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for an award. In the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Critics Choice Awards representing 300 critics, and said to be the best predictor of Academy Award winners, the film received only one nomination, for best foreign film. There were 17 films nominated for more than one award ahead of it, only one of which I had seen, a terrific film directed by Dee Rees called Mudbound. But the latter did not even get one nomination. The Square was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an almost sure thing if it is selected for predicting the winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category.

Given that record, how can I insist that The Square is one of the best, not just foreign films, but one of the best films that I have ever seen? Further, for this year’s nominations in both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, though almost all the films nominated are on my list of must see movies, I have viewed virtually none of the top ranked films. How can I be trusted to rank what is “best” when I have not seen the vast majority of the nominations? That is the cost of getting out of the habit of going to see films in movie theatres. I lose status and credibility as a film commentator. Look at the magnificent list ignoring for the moment possible errors in the compilation:

Film                                                               Nominated

Critics Choice Awards             Golden Globes

The * indicates the films that I have seen.

The Shape of Water                  14                                         7

The Post                                        8                                         6

Three Billboards Outside

         Ebbing, Missouri                 6                                        6

Lady Bird                                       8                                        4

Call Me By Your Name                 8                                        3

The Greatest Showman                                                          3

I Tonya                                            5                                        3

Battle of the Sexes                         2                                        2

Coco                                                 2                                        2

The Disaster Artist                        1                                        2

Ferdinand                                        0                                        2

Get Out                                            5                                         2

Molly’s Game                                  0                                        2

*Mudbound                                     2                                        2

Phantom Thread                            3                                        2

All the Money in the World          0                                        1

*The Florida Project                      1

Churchill                                         0

Darkest Hour                                  1

Dunkirk                                           8

Blade Runner 2049                        7

The Big Sick                                    6

Phantom Thread                            1

*Logan                                             1

Downsizing                                     1

Thelma                                            1

A Fantastic Woman                      1

BPM (Beats Per Minute)              1

There are four other films Submitted for Oscars for Best Foreign Film that I have also not seen: In the Fade (Fatih Akin – Germany), Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia), First They Killed My Father* (Angelina Jolie – Cambodia) and A Fantastic Woman (Sebastíán Lelio – Chile).

Further, if I can throw more distrust your way about my commentary, when it comes to assessing the character and content of the film, I, as you will see, seem also to be off base. The film is advertised as a critique of postmodern art and postmodernism in general. It is that, but only in a minor key. A judge for an award said: “This is an intelligent, subtle and funny film that raises important issues: how to help the poor, how to deal with the media and attract them by creating a shock factor. And I also fell for the lead actor!”

The film is subtle, sometimes uproariously but also mordantly funny, and Claes Bang is both terrific and handsome as the lead actor, but for me it was a horror film. Further, though it dealt with a number of themes, including the tension between art for its own sake and the marketing of that art, it provided no help as a how-to-do-it film about dealing with the poor, the media or, for that matter, minorities, the opposite gender, sexual harassment, and a number of other topical issues. The Square is not a message film. It is a comment certainly on what is bad, but offered no hint about the good, only dilemmas, such as choosing between free speech versus sensitivity to others.

The Cannes jury president, none other than Pedro Almodóvar, described the movie as follows: “The film looks at the dictatorship of political correctness. It offers several examples of this. It is a very funny film, the actors are excellent and we considered giving the lead actor a Best Actor Award.” All of this is true. But none of it touches the greatness of the film. Even Ruben Östland’s comment that he tried to make a movie that tackled serious subjects but was also entertaining goes nowhere near the significance of the movie. Perhaps he was being modest. Perhaps he did not truly recognize the greatness of his art.

I am not going to write about the acting – which was terrific – nor the long takes and crisp cuts of the cinematography, a superb script capturing both everyday speech and highfalutin nonsense, the brilliant score and alternating background harsh noises, or the major and minor plot lines woven through the film. I will write only about the theme, a bonus since I will not introduce any spoilers.

Except for one. But it takes place in the first minute as an opening prologue to the film. The director comments on how he came to make the film by, with a friend and colleague, imagining that they could create a safe space where people can meet and not only not be harmed, but protected by others. Just as a crosswalk provides a safe place where pedestrians can cross a road and cars will respect (largely) the social contract that allows the space to function for its intended purpose, they envisioned creating a square with an inscription that declares the marked-off square to be a place of trust and caring: people passing would be encouraged to offer protection rather than to be indifferent to someone being victimized or simply in need of help.

This suggests a very large vision, and, as I shall soon indicate, a paradoxical problem at the centre of all the themes raised. In the film, “The Square” is the name of a contemporary art piece installed in front of a famous museum of modern art in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. “The Square is made up of square stone blocks very little different from the rest of the plaza in which it is installed, except it is bounded by a continuous white light band with a bronze plaque defining the nature of the space.

But this is the paradox – a boundaried space that is safe and protective for everyone within that defined square but is extremely dangerous for those outside the boundaries. The Chinese monster film, The Great Wall with Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou makes that point. But the square does more than a wall. For the boundary marks off trust inside and distrust outside, safety inside and high risk outside, caring for one another inside and indifference outside, high civilization inside and barbarism outside. Further, the space is very small relative to the vastness of the occasions for risk, danger, physical harm and social shame.

To make that point, the author dreams up a number of relatively trivial incidents set off by a scam asking for help, but turning into the obverse, victimizing the one offering help then followed like a repeating pistol directly or indirectly set off by the repercussions of the first act. Once civilization is displaced by chaos, it is very difficult to put the genie of chaos back into the bottle. Every effort to atone for the initial failure by owning up only bounces back to victimize the “liberal” bleeding heart once again.

Of course, this is about daily life where on street corners and outside grocery and drug stores we are asked for funds and cannot escape the trap of victimizing the helper of goodwill because of the daily spam messages we receive in our email, with all of the misspelling and grammar errors, reflecting either a poor education in English or a deliberate effort to sound authentic.

“Forgive my indignation if this message comes to you as a surprise and may offend your personality for contacting you without your prior consent and writing through this channel.

“I came across your name and contact on the course of my personal searching when i was searching for a foreign reliable partner. I was assured of your capability and reliability after going true your profile.

“I’m (Miss. Sandra) from Benghazi libya, My father of blessed memory by name late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was shot death by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces on 28th July, 2011 and after two days later my mother with my two brothers was killed one early morning by the rebels as result of civil war that is going on in my country Libya, then after the burial of my parents, my uncles conspired and sold my father’s properties and left nothing for me. On a faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and discover a document which he has deposited ($6.250M USD) in a bank in a Turkish Bank which has a small branch in Canada with my name as the legitimate/next of kin. Meanwhile i have located the bank,and have also discussed the possiblity of transfering the fund. My father left a clause to the bank that i must introduce a trusted foreign partner who would be my trustee to help me invest this fund; hence the need for your assistance,i request that you be my trustee and assist me in e

“You will also be responsible for the investment and management of the fund for me and also you will help me get a good school where i will further my education.
I agreed to give you 40% of the $6.250M once the transfer is done. this is my true life story, I will be glad to receive your respond soonest for more details to enable us start and champion the transfer less than 14 banking days as i was informed by the bank manager.

“Thanks for giving me your attention,

“Yours sincerely,
Miss. Sandra Younes”

Of course, the movie is about postmodernism in general and postmodern art in particular. The most horrific but also most hilarious scene is one of pasty-white Swedes dressed to the nines at a formal luxury dinner of donors to the museum. A performance artist for the delight and the enlightenment of the audience is on offer as a prelude to the dinner. They had clearly not understood the meaning of the boundaries of the square described at the prelude to the movie, for as soon as one strays outside or invites the primitive within, the very thin patina of civilized behaviour is put at grave risk. Is that reality or merely a reflection and projection of their own fears?

The simplicity, the repetitions and variations of the different sketches all loosely tied together by the main plot, are all exaggerated by the cinematography that stresses minimalism and alternates between long shots and close ups – the most horrifying perhaps than even the dinner, the scene of sweaty but emotionless and vacant sex. Order is a chimera. The greater reality is of chaos and the principle that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can send waves that disturb the order in a radically different realm. In this one, the disturbances come from the suburban Swedish equivalents to the Parisian banlieues. Modernism is about order and predictability. In art, Jackson Pollock destroyed the reign even of minimalism’s focus on line and colour and shape and opened the door to performance art and the mounds of earth and gravel piled up like well-ordered rows of pyramids in an art gallery.

As babies disturb conference meetings, as chimpanzees are owned as pets in one’s apartment, as children accompany dad to work, as the boundaries between work and home, between privacy and the public world, between what is liberal that morphs into a strain a fascism, all break down, as the line between the lecture and the press conference, between a detached objectivity in art and an involved and engaged subjectivity, between using words and images for communication and their use for arousal of fundamental passions in order to gain the attention of a very jaundiced audience, all break down, as borders are traversed, crossed and they disintegrate like the continuous strain of sound of demolishing structures in the background sound track, we are all put at risk.

At the base, there is the breakdown of the boundary between art and science, between subjective expression and empathetic involvement, between subjectivity and objectivity. The Swedes are the embodiment on this globe of the latter that percolated into an ethics of engagement and commitment that meant a higher percentage of refugees relative to the existing population than even in Germany were allowed entry through the new humanitarian sieve of aid to refugees. There could be no better place to locate such a movie.

It is expressed in the effusive and tangled apologetics for concept art that itself questions the idea of art framed in a boundaried space and in a boundaried place like an art gallery, that even makes a claim that art itself is the expression of the destruction of boundaries even when the main piece of art on display is a simple boundaried two-dimensional plane of supposed safety and security, but which erupts like a volcano out of nowhere into three-dimensional so-called reality. It may have been science that let chaos out of its cage, but it becomes the duty of art to put it on display in all its wondrous glory. How do you do it without either adopting a modernist stance of portraying it all with a camera detached and at a distance while engaging the audience’s fears and fantasies?

Chaos theory may have been imported in daily life metaphors to emphasize disruption rather than predictability as the norm, to brand outright lies as the only truth and to make the claim that news organizations aiming at objective truth are the foremost purveyors of “false news,” thereby making room for the coverage of lies to dominate the news cycle. For what is important is not what people say about you, but that they talk about you. Chaos theory in science may emphasize the importance of non-linear connectivity as a foundation for understanding complex behaviour, but art is left with the responsibility of making sense of this detritus.

Hence an art movie that is terribly, literally “terribly” entertaining, while, at the same time, both delivering a profound message and laughing at the message itself. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mis-communication all become the “order” of the day in which even the purely scientific idea of chaos theory is turned into garbage as it is translated into so-called art and metaphor and the theory itself is twisted beyond all recognition.

Jean-François Lyotard in chapter 8 of his volume, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, entitled, “Something like: ‘Communication …without communication,” raised the question about communicating to a public a theme that displayed and put on view the atomization of modern society to the point where it became postmodern and it became an absurdity to create art, the subject matter of which was non-communication. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement had stated a basic premise of modernist aesthetic theory. Taste is “the faculty of judging what renders our feeling, proceeding from a given representation, universally communicable without the modulation of a concept.” What if there is no way to determine a “given” representation? What if every representation has been modulated to death by concepts? What if the only thing universal is not understanding and not communicating but misunderstanding and non-communication? How then can an artist portray such a situation without him or herself becoming trapped in the square of safety that has now become a centre of chaos and disruption?

In the movie, the real chaos is set in process when the marketing people take control with the categorical imperative of getting people to pay attention to an effort at communicating the essence of the high priest of ethical modernism which dictates that we are all to treat others as an end and not merely a means. We are all commanded to protect and care for one another. But when the ethical end itself explodes in our face because of the effort to communicate the message widely, the creature of chaos has been let out of its cage and barbarism has been permitted entry into the refined sensibilities of the world of high art.

If in my reading of Hegel, we have been taught that we can never escape the dictatorship of concepts that percolate through all our thoughts like a rat infestation. Then there is no ethics that can grasp grace. There is no art that can escape the conceptual, and all art becomes conceptual art. How do we illustrate and represent Christian, the CEO of this modern art museum who is a Christian at heart, how do we portray, represent and communicate a message of brotherly and sisterly love when Christian morality seems to have no place in the world of art, in representation, in communication, and, therefore, in its logical conclusion, in society at all? Everything turns to dust which can then be ordered into regular pyramids in a gallery, line after line, row after row, only to be disturbed and be remade by the cleaning technology of a modern sweeping machine and its operator.

If there is no beauty left as the touch point of art, if beauty has been destroyed as the necessary a priori condition of all art whatsoever, if there is no universal principle behind art and art has become the display of the absence of such a principle, how can we be made to be present in the face of an absence? Why have museums of modern art, let alone museums of postmodern art which undermine the whole role of museums altogether? How can we pretend to have art that is even about a community of feeling, even in a very symmetrical and relatively very small square in front of our museum? If the message is to communicate the absence of communication, the dissolution of a community of empathy, and the theme that we have permitted the barbarians through the gate that protected art, and beauty and goodness as an aristocratic privilege in society, how can that be represented? The lineal and the figurative are all swept up in the dustbin of history by the cleaning staff and their mechanistic monsters that remake art beyond recognition.

For the ultimate question raised in the film is how and where we can give to one another when we are so bereft of the concept of grace, when grace itself cannot be grasped except as an abstract idea rather than a basic emotion, when Christ has become but a name for a postmodern art curator who is at heart a hapless Charlie Chaplin creation? When the immediacy of attachment has been driven off the surface of our planet, how can there even be mediated attachment? When everything becomes the calculation of the marketer, of public relations entailing neither a public nor any relations, but only manipulation, it won’t matter whether we drive an electric car, try fruitlessly to atone for our mistakes or make meagre efforts to contribute to the well-being of the world. Chaos and barbarism have become all the rage.

When we try to define space and a time for safety and security, but the place is here only in this place and only for the moment that it is on display, the here-and-now are essentially lost and there can be no grace – only representation of it as a vanishing cloud of smoke above an explosion. When there is no reality to reference, everything becomes smoke, but only with mirrors that cannot reflect even the smoke, even as it tries in scene after scene to offer variations on that representation. When the sensible, when the apple is an apple is an apple, has been driven from the screen, so too follow the sensitive and the sensible into the fiery storm of sensation. And there is no sublime – only the ridiculous.

 

Dreaming and Empathy

Dreaming and Empathy

by

Howard Adelman

One of the greatest speeches ever offered Americans, in fact, one of the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric ever, was that of Martin Luther King, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 23 August 1963 over a half century ago. It was titled, “I have a dream.” It was a call to make America great again – not great in power, not great in wealth, but great in making reality match ideal aspirations.

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

It is a dream that speaks to us today because Martin Luther King envisioned that one day the voters of Alabama would elect a man like Doug Jones who, in a deep red state, would beat Roy Moore, a racist, a hater of homosexuals and Muslims alike, a despicable man found guilty twice of flouting the constitution as a judge but never prosecuted for his alleged pursuit of nubile teenagers.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

It was and remains one of the great speeches of history about noble dreams.

In this week’s parshat, the dream being interpreted is not a noble one, but one dreamt by a noble, one dreamt by the great Pharaoh of Egypt himself. In Genesis 41, in fact, he is recorded as having had two dreams.

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

As Joseph uniquely interpreted that dream, it was about the seven fat years to come that would be eaten up by the following seven years of famine and shortages. It was an economic dream about the future. And it was a dream that offered Joseph the opportunity to play on that forecast to construct a national policy of savings and subsequent distribution that would enhance the reputation of Pharaoh far and wide, for the surplus saved would be shared broadly to help even non-Egyptians. A dream by a noble was translated into a noble dream.

In the writings of Cicero, also one of the great rhetoricians of history, in his essay “On the Good Life,” he told the story of Scipio the Younger who had a dream that Scipio the Elder had visited him from the nether or spirit world. The Elder told the Younger of his achievements, of how he had made Rome a great power, of how he had made the people of Carthage submit to Rome. But now the people of Carthage are becoming a noisy mob. Now they are protesting Rome’s rule. Now once again they are raising the conflicts of old, threatening the peace and challenging the imperial power.

Carthage is the city, Scipio the Elder urges, that the Younger must attack, that you must destroy. This is the city the destruction of which will turn you from an ordinary soldier to a great leader who can then use the victory two years later to become consul. Scipio the Elder predicts that this will lead to even greater accomplishments, the conquest and destruction of other cities in revolt and, most importantly, bringing order and discipline back to the rule of Rome itself which, because of Scipio the Elder’s own grandchildren, has become a place of licentiousness, anarchy and disorder.

Scipio the Younger’s dream is a vision of imperial might and power. It is a dream in which the sun is depicted as the ruler of all. There is only one sun and one ruler. And in his dream, Scipio hears the music of the spheres to which most people are deaf. He hears about the harmony promised by the spirit world, for the body is mortal, the flesh is weak, and the true self is the inner self, the spirit inside, the self-recognition that he, Scipio the Younger, is truly a god impelled by an inner and truer spirit, by an immortal soul within a mortal body, born to exercise the rule of the eternal god, rule that demands unquestioning obedience.

Why is Martin Luther’s dream, that is also attuned to the music of the spheres in the eternal spiritual world, about human equality, about freedom, about respecting the dignity of all, whereas Scipio the Younger’s dream is about harmony imposed from above by a powerful imperial ruler that quashes those who would question that power? Plato in the Phaedrus offers an answer. For Scipio the Younger’s dream was of raising earth to heaven while that of Martin Luther King was of bringing heaven down to earth.

Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus, has a striking image, an allegory about the life of the soul, of what Jews call the nefesh. It is a story of a charioteer and who has harnessed and is driving forward as he directs two horses, one an unmanageable steed of passion in the quest for personal satisfaction and the other a horse of courage which, unlike the wild horse to which it is tethered, can listen and be guided by the voice of reason, of logos. The horse of courage is beautiful in shape with the highest moral qualities of virtue. The wild horse is ugly and foul. In the horse of courage, the wings of the angels, of the horse as the messenger of the gods, in particular, of Zeus, grow in strength and lift up the weight of the world to the heavens where the gods live. In the ugly horse of unbridled passion, the wings shrink and disappear. The bad horse will always drag the charioteer back to earth.

What is most notable about the Pharaoh’s dream, in contrast, is that, though it is a dream by a noble, though it is a dream by one who takes himself and is taken to be a sun god, it is such an earthly dream, about cows without wings, not horses, about stalks of wheat and not even animals. In the Socratic world, only intelligence grasped by logos and having no material appearance captures the character of the heavens. However, Martin Luther’s dream takes place in technicolour, for it is not just a vision about black and white lying down together in the same field, but of people of all colours in between, of people symbolized by Joseph’s famous multi-coloured coat.

The irony in Plato is that the advocate of these militaristic virtues of strength and courage and nobility was himself a Harvey Weinstein, said to be “unprepossessing to the point of grotesqueness.” Socrates had a flat nose rather than a bulbous one, protruding eyes and walked very awkwardly, a complete contrast to Joseph who was a man of beautiful shape, though having a foul mouth full of malicious gossip, especially about his brothers. Joseph was not only a tattle tale; he maligned his brothers and told of their so-called dirty deeds.

If Socrates had an “inner voice” that told him what was true and what was not, Pharaoh had a vision of the outer world that told him about how the world, how the future, would unfold. However, he could not interpret nor execute the message of his own dreams. Whereas the main concern of Socrates was the soul’s immortality, Joseph’s mission becomes serving the mortality of the body and ensuring that there is enough to eat and drink for all. Through logos, in the worship of Socratic reasoning, wisdom comes through purification of thoughts, through clarification of words and their meanings. Joseph’s wisdom comes from hermeneutics, the ability to interpret visions and dreams. For Socrates, in the last hours of his life in the Phaedrus, is more than ever preoccupied with the soul’s immortality and a framework whereby man is but a chattel of the gods destined if he is great to be enslaved to a divine vision.

The parallels and differences are striking. Socrates’ final days are spent in prison in dialogue with his fellow philosophers. Joseph had been cast into a pit, sold into slavery and ended up in prison on false charges only to be rescued because of his abilities to interpret dreams. He rises to the highest office in the land, the effective vizier of the sun-god, the Pharaoh. My colleague at York, the estimable specialist in Greek philosophy, Gerald Naddaf, translated a book by Luc Brisson called, Plato the Myth Maker. Myth and narrative was, for Plato, not up to the standards of logos, in which conclusions are derived by reason and defended by argument. The “truths” of myths, on the other hand, were not falsifiable before the high judge of reason. But Joseph’s visions were verified by the course of human history, as were Martin Luther King’s.

A myth, a dream, is not false news. Mythos, the term in Greek, is a word that takes the form of advice and is something one says rather than something one writes. It is neither true nor false, real or fake. From Xenophanes on, the purpose of Greek philosophy, of using logos, was to denounce the myths of Homer and Hesiod of having any validity. Plato brought mythos back into philosophy as a useful illustrative device. However, in the Torah, narrative, myth, dreams – the whole paraphernalia of the text – cries out; narrative is superior in allowing one to listen to the harmony of the spheres. But what is that harmony? Is it that of the war lover, that of the insistence on a unified and imperial command structure, or that of disorder, of disharmony in the family and in political life altogether?

In the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, we see that truth can be envisioned and not simply argued about and verified. But that truth needs an interpreter. However, what is more important is to attend to, not the skills of Joseph as an interpreter, but the wisdom of Pharaoh in using Joseph, not only as his interpreter, but as his vizier to carry out that vision. And it is not the vision of a sun god, of an imperial ruler, but the dream of a man who sees the world, not as it is, but as it is becoming, who sees his role as protecting and feeding his subjects and not of using them, like Scipio, both father and son, to achieve immortal glory. Mythos for both the Pharaoh and Joseph has both credulity and historical value that the monochromatic world of logos lacks. Memory and recollection of dreams and their interpretation offers the route to a better future. Instead of logos divorced from the oral tradition, a text that is wedded to oral memory is more significant, for it passes on the wisdom of the ages from generation to generation, from dor to dor, מדור לדור.

If he had been a man of prejudice, Pharaoh could have dismissed a dandy and possibly a gay man serving as his dream interpreter. Certainly, if he had been a Roman statesman, he might have freed his slave and even done business with him, but it highly unlikely that he would have appointed a former slave, his vizier. Finally, Pharaoh would not have authorized a program of economic distribution to protect the lives of all. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian Pharaoh criticizes the God, Theuth, the inventor of writing, by arguing that, “writing is not a recipe for memory and wisdom” but for forgetfulness and the appearance of wisdom. With computers, we do not need to learn to spell even. With cell phones, we no longer need to remember phone numbers. Thought and discourse become separated from memory.

The Torah always keeps the two married. Memories of dreams in particular provide an inestimable source of wisdom. It is not as if material wealth frees one up to have time to dream, but that dreams reveal the necessity of husbanding one’s wealth and then redistributing it for the benefit of all others, for the common good rather than for the glory of the ruler and conqueror.

This suggests that there is an even deeper meaning to the story. The Pharaoh not only employs a lowly Hebrew and former slave to interpret his dreams, he turns him into the manager of the rule of the people and the land. He makes him his economic czar. The Pharaoh recognizes each person for their merit and does not pre-judge them based on class or ethnic origin. He does so based on what the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment – Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith – called a philosophy of sentiment, not a sentimental philosophy, a philosophy of sympathy and empathy for the other. In the very first sentence of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, sympathy is defined as follows:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

Even Donald Trump is evidently not entirely bereft of an ounce of moral sympathy. It is that sixth sense, that the Pharaoh had in spades, that provides for the recognition of the virtues and merits of all others, for the opportunities of the many and for the protection of all who are in need. Donald Trump must have that ounce, because that is a premise of sentiment, but he sure does his best to hide it and prove he is bankrupt when it comes to morality.

The Pharaoh is the hero of the story for he exemplifies the nature of sentiment and the manifestations of altruism. Sympathy is innate in us all. The Scipios of this world do their best to repress that sentiment within themselves as they repress others and try to establish a rule of order and harmony through military oppression based on their personal vision rather than on what unites all of humanity. For sympathy to express itself, a change in our way of life may arise to challenge us – an environment challenge for example. With sympathy we rise to empathy and enter into an ability to re-enact and understand the suffering of others, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was Pharaoh who had the dream, who translated Joseph’s interpretation into a vision of practical morality and hired Joseph to implement it, a man who thus far, whatever his external virtues, had not hereto exhibited much empathy for others.

May the song of humanity be with us.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Part V: An Assessment of Trump’s Disruptive Diplomacy using Jerusalem

Part V: An Assessment of Trump’s Disruptive Diplomacy using Jerusalem

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

 

The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leaving the borders to be defined through mutual negotiations, is likely neither to serve as a stimulus to put the negotiations back on track nor lead to widespread violence and the breakout of a Third Intifada. Why? Because there is no real peace process to disrupt. The recognition is symbolic and changes virtually nothing on the ground. It may bury the false idea that America has been neutral, but since the prospect for a two-state solution at this time has been highly unlikely, what had been squandered by Trump’s pronouncement?

Only noble purposes and noble intentions.

 

How do I explain and evaluate the Trump initiative? I believe rationalism, whether in a realist or a constructivist format, provides the foundation for the structure and wording of the initiative that was fundamentally irrational, founded on both the madness and stupidity of the individual making the announcement while being masked by sentiment and a patina of rationality.

Because of the lack of specificity, many ordinary Palestinians are sure to interpret the U.S. announcement as dismissing their historical, political, and cultural ties to Jerusalem and disputing their right to independence and self-determination. In their eyes, it condones Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and implies that the city is solely Israeli.

“Palestinians, especially of the younger generation, have been questioning the feasibility of a two-state solution for some time. This is a generation that came of age during the second intifada and watched its land swallowed up by settlements and the separation wall as the years slipped by. Young men and women witnessed their own policemen arrest fellow countrymen at the behest of their occupier, while leaders placated them with empty words and slogans. They’re done playing this game.” But will they rise up or become more resigned to their fate or respond with a mixture of both?

“If there is a silver lining to Trump’s announcement, it does provide clarity and a unifying objective for Palestinians. Last summer, a wave of civil disobedience by Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line forced Israel to give up on its unilateral measures regarding Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif compound (also known as the Temple Mount), which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque. The PA had no say in the matter; religious leaders took their cues from ordinary Palestinians when they rallied for support. These events showed ordinary Palestinians that they have some power to change what’s happening on the ground: they can rally, strategize, and mobilize. And with a vision for a one-state solution unimpeded by a sham peace process, that goal may finally gain traction to make a new reality seems possible.”

However, will that even be a greater illusion than fixating on the corpse of a dead peace process? One of the effects of disruptive diplomacy, whatever the interpretation of the underlying motives, is that it fosters other illusions. Anything seems possible – unification of the land of Israel under Israeli hegemony or driving the Jews into the sea and establishing a Palestinian state that excludes Jews.

Given the differences in explaining and justifying disruptive diplomacy, different and opposite outcomes are envisioned. I, on the other hand, am a terrible prophet. I sometimes slip into prognosticating about the future, but I am usually more wrong than I am right. Disruptive diplomacy makes prediction even more difficult. I do not know what the short term or eventual outcome will be. I have neither a crystal ball nor is my ear tuned to God’s will. I can only offer analysis that perhaps confuses as much as it clarifies.

Let me summarize that analysis. Supporters of realist diplomacy, constructivist diplomacy or some combination thereof have been mildly supportive or mildly critical and hoped to shape Trump’s disruptive diplomacy into a realistic form. This began with the creative nuancing of the announcement, but one which readily revealed its contradictions and inadequacies.

There are a number of givens:

  1. When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and initiated the process of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he severed seven decades of American policy.
  2. On the other hand, he recognized a reality – that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, a recognition of a capital denied no other country, a recognition that destroyed a long-held fiction that the city might not be Israel’s capital even though the Knesset, the Supreme Court, government ministries, including the foreign ministry, were all located in that capital.
  3. However, in refusing to define the borders of the city that Trump recognized as that capital, in the name of absolute clarity he left open the possibility that those borders were subject to negotiation just as he seemed to foreclose the possibility of the U.S. acting as a neutral mediator in such negotiations, signaled by omitting to reference any Palestinian claims to the city.
  4. While Trump claimed that the initiative reflected “the best interests of the United States of America,” this seemed to be part of the camouflage imposed by his realist sycophants but lacked any substance since there was no evident national interest served in giving that recognition at this time; at the same time, the move alienated virtually all of America’s allies and partners, and sent America’s enemies on a chest-pounding victory dance since the pronouncement demonstrably omitted any reference to Palestinian claims and revealed gross incompetence.

“Populism thrives when politics become about symbols rather than substance.” Ivan Krastev

  1. When the domestic political interests were so apparent behind the initiative – offering a quid quo pro to wealthy Jewish supporters of a right persuasion, catering to his evangelical Christian base, fulfilling a promise, seeking an initiative with a built-in legacy, providing a distraction from the Mueller inquiry and counterbalancing Obama’s failure to veto a UN resolution which provided a new, retrograde and realistically irrelevant reference point for negotiations – the disconnect and incongruence between realism in international affairs and catering to a political domestic constituency has never been more apparent.
  2. Though Trump used the rhetoric that the initiative would “advance the peace process,” those were now empty words which simply drove a stake into an already dead or, at the very least, comatose peace effort while significantly widening the chasm between the initiative and the supposed goal of giving new momentum to the peace process.
  3. If the dispute was merely up to the parties involved, why was Trump acting as a pyromaniac at this time?
  4. The move was symbolic only, and this was both its great importance as well as revealing its inability to affect facts on the ground, except possibly to encourage Israel to create more facts on the ground given the gross disparity in power between the contending parties.

The potential impact of this disruptive diplomacy could portend radical change, but the change could add to the chaos, for disruptive diplomacy radically breaks with a tradition of predictability. Only one thing is clear to me – there is now a widespread recognition that the two-state solution needs to be buried while we wait, holding our breath, to watch what alternative will emerge from the ashes of that burnt offering, even while traditional realists continue to worship the conception as a living, viable option that for them is too important to cast aside though it no longer has any potency. Which is better – that idolatry or Trump’s smashing of idols?

Varieties of Disruptive Diplomacy – Part IV Responses to Trump

Varieties of Disruptive Diplomacy – Part IV Responses to Trump

by

Howard Adelman

I have considered both critical and defensive analytical reactions to Trump’s initiative in previous blogs. The gist of the latter was that the initiative was a realistic but disruptive move to shake up the peace process. Trump’s disposition, motivated by domestic reasons, had been shaped into a well-crafted and plausible move, with the possible scenario that it could free up the sclerotic process and remove the clots preventing any movement. Now I want to consider other explanatory accounts.

Did the initiative express a preference for disruption and thereby risk all as American diplomacy in the Middle East and the rest of the world – Iraq, Syria, Somalia and North Korea – may appear to indicate?

In the end, was the pronouncement an expression of irrationality, the mad impulsive move of a narcissistic and unthinking leader, or was it based simply on stupidity? A third irrational foundation might be sentiment, namely the 18th century belief that all beliefs, if they can be ascribed any moral value, serve to enhance a harmonious cosmic order even as they appear to be disruptive. Or the resort to disruptive diplomacy, perhaps an oxymoron, may be an amalgam of all three. Certainly, both the rational comprehensive constructivist as well as realist approaches to international relations have been questionable since George W. Bush instigated an absolutely dumb war in Iraq and Barack Obama began the American retreat from global involvement leaving vacuums in its wake.

However, constructivist realism, combining moral goals with realist policies, has been under stress everywhere in the world. Have the UN and UNESCO, as well as peace operations, such as UNIFIL, verified John Mearsheimer’s 1995 thesis on the “False Promise of International Institutions,” the bankruptcy of liberal institutionalism intended to deter destructiveness and protect victims? Has the inability of peacekeeping to deal with such complex conflicts as the Rwandan-Congo security impasse put a nail in the coffin of traditional methods? Has the rise of the internet and the prominent role of social movements totally altered the international landscape and introduced populism to international relations as well as domestic national politics? Has Robert D. Kaplan’s prognostications in his 1994 thesis on “The Coming Anarchy” reinforced a conviction that the continuing destruction of our environment, tribalism, the emergence of new diseases, the official endorsement of white crime and the theft by the rich of a grossly disproportionate share of surpluses produced by innovation, simply worked together to destroy the social and institutional fabric of the planet, creating room for disruptive efforts in the international arena? Have international power politics married to our contemporary political culture not only failed to prevent the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power, but enhanced that outcome in defiance of conventional wisdom?

Before exploring disruptive diplomacy based on various types of irrationality, I want to reiterate the positive case for rational disruptive diplomacy in the context of a reduced respect for law and traditional rational diplomacy. According to that thesis, President Donald Trump’s declaration last week that the United States will officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is good news. Partially, this is because it recognizes the long-evident facts on the ground: Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the people of Israel for thousands of years, has finally been declared capital of the modern state of Israel, though this has been the actual case for seventy years. It is undeniable that some configuration of the city will remain so forever regardless of future negotiations concerning the city’s eastern side. There’s no serious question of that, except in the minds of fanatics who truly believe the population of a (putatively) nuclear-armed state will one day be driven into the sea.

Yet the world’s political and diplomatic elites have indulged in the delusion that Palestinian leaders mean to be equal partners in pursuit of a better, more peaceful life, and that a deal was always tantalizingly close at hand. Surely no one genuinely believes that any longer. But that fiction was, at least for mandarins and diplomats, for political scientists and philosophers, too polite and convenient to abandon. The illusion that there is some progressing peace process in the Middle East has itself ironically become the latest impediment to peace. Smashing that illusion carries risks. But, as the last five decades of violence between Palestinians and Israel make clear, so does indulging that belief.

According to this thesis, the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an inspired move; the Canadian government’s decision to respond judiciously is also considered to be very commendable. Nothing useful in the Middle East peace process has occurred since Rabin’s assassination, but the correlation of forces in the region and the ambitions of the Arab powers have evolved. For decades, Israel’s most fanatical enemies were Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The first two countries disintegrated. Not so secretly, Saudi Arabia is now an Israeli ally with Egypt against Iran.

Yet columnists, such as Doug Sanders in The Globe and Mail, echoed Tom Friedman and insisted that Trump threw away Israel’s last hope for peace when the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In contrast, Conrad Black in an 8 December op-ed in The National Post argued that the goal of reducing violence would be brought about by means of four other r’s of realistic rational international diplomacy:

  1. Reiteration
  2. Reassurance
  3. Responding Proportionately and in a Timely Fashion (sequencing)
  4. Restoring the Use of Quiet Diplomacy

Before I review that thesis, I want to examine three versions offering a non-rational basis for disruption as the new foundation for international diplomacy – madness, stupidity and sentiment.

The madness thesis seems to be the most prevalent one. It is certainly widespread. Elizabeth Drew made this point in an article entitled, “The Madness of King Donald” for the Project Syndicate (4 December 2017) where she opined that Trump’s increasingly bizarre behaviour in various spheres as well as the Israeli-Palestinian case had been evident, such as at the ceremony honouring the Native American heroes of World War II where he once again used the racist term “Pocahontas” to describe a Democratic Congresswoman, his re-tweets of a British neo-fascist’s anti-Muslim rant, his revival of the calumny re Barack Obama’s birthplace, and his sudden denial that the tape record of his grabbing women by their genitals was fake even though he had admitted making the remark and apologized for it. All those provided a portrait of Donald Trump as a president detached from reality and a great danger when it came to North Korea and the Middle East.

There is also the stupidity thesis. This was articulated by Leil Leibowitz in Tablet (“Trump’s Embassy Statement”). “Instead of his [Trump’s] statement the other day, he could’ve simply refused to sign the waiver that delays the embassy’s mandated move to Jerusalem, in accordance with the 1995 law. He didn’t do that. Nor did he gut Obama’s disastrous Iran deal, another one of his campaign’s promises. Instead, he left untouched a Middle East in which Teheran continues its march towards regional hegemony, gleefully threatening to wipe Israel off the map, failing to prevent Iran from establishing bases inside Syria and completing its takeover of Lebanon while shamefully continuing to fund the Lebanese army, which Iran and its proxies now control. He has also failed to take any significant action to protect the Kurds or to provide Israel with anything more substantial than loud proclamations.” In sum, Trump was all rhetorical excess with little policy depth.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to Trump’s move on Israel and echoed the assessment of stupidity, but for very different reasons. “Their announcement of Quds [Jerusalem] as the capital of Occupied Palestine [Israel] proves the incompetence and failure [of the U.S.]. In regard to Palestine, they are helpless and unable to achieve their goals. Victory is for the Islamic nation. Palestine will be free, and the Palestinian people will be victorious.” Hannah Ashrawi echoed this sentiment, though with far less aggressive threats. “This decision will be interpreted by Palestinians, Arabs and the rest of the world as a major provocation. It will cause irreparable harm to Mr. Trump’s own plans to make peace in the Middle East, and to any future administration’s efforts as well. It will also undermine the United States’ own national security.” Why? Because the recognition was not just symbolic but sent a signal that the U.S. would no longer set up roadblocks over Israel’s efforts to cement its control over the whole city. Trump had legitimized Israeli actions and its policy of creeping annexation.

Then there is the sentimental thesis that has its modern roots in the Scottish leaders of the Enlightenment, David Hume, Adam Smith (the author of The Wealth of Nations), Francis Hutcheson and Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury). The sentimental thesis is based on a teleological belief that all events serve to enhance a harmonious cosmic order even as they appear to be disruptive. That is because, in the end, all human behaviour, if it is moral at all, is rooted in a universal moral sensibility. Human behaviour is not governed by self-interest, with the possible exception of the pursuit of material goods. Correct moral judgments are always based on sentiment.

Less concerned with either the motivation, the rationale or the geopolitical significance, Rabbi Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, is an example of someone who praised the Trump initiative and greeted the pronouncement as a song to Jewish hearts. He articulated what the historic recognition meant for Jews for whom Jerusalem had been at the centre of their prayers for two thousand years. He also believed that the message sent to the rest of the world was a message of peace, for Jerusalem was the city of peace, of shalom, even though it had been ravaged by wars over the centuries. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a manifestation of divine design as well as of virtue.

While the madness and the stupidity theses accounts of disruption predict disaster and chaos, the rational and sentimental justifications envision an emerging harmony.

Tony Berman in the Toronto Star argued that the “unilateral decision by the Trump administration to favour Israel, defy the world and recognize the fiercely divided city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” sabotaged any lingering hope of peace and that the conflict can be resolved through negotiating a two-state solution setting a dangerous new stage for the conflict. Like the PA, Berman predicted that the result would be a one-state solution with Israel put at risk in the process. Whatever the possibility of that outcome, it was not based on the destruction of a peace process which has been in a state of rigor mortis for years.

Hezbollah’s Nasrallah called on the world to support a new Palestinian intifada, and stories of violence in response to the announcement seemed to initially verify the prognostication that this would be the result: riots in the West Bank and Gaza, a Molotov cocktail thrown at a synagogue in Goteborg, the demonstration in front of the American embassy in Lebanon breaking out into violence, an Israeli citizen killed in a stabbing attack, a 9-year-old girl slightly injured by a Palestinian rock thrower, two Palestinians killed as police attempt to control protesters. However, journalists had also been interviewed who had been called to witness staged events with “more journalists than protesters.”

 

Even in the protests at Rachel’s tomb, only 450 protesters appeared. Whether these were the exception, the general consensus was that the three days of rage were relatively mild and would not be a portent of a Third Intifada. The best clue was the speed with which the story had been relegated to the inside pages of newspapers. The violence and protests seemed far less than predicted, though, as could be expected, Turkey’s foreign ministry accused Israel of responding excessively at the Damascus Gate but has not, as yet, broken off relations with Israel as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had promised.

While civil war has raged in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, while the relations between Hezbollah and the Sunnis in Lebanon remain tense, while Hamas throws a few rockets at Israel and Israel responds with bombs, Joshua Sharf asked why, after recognizing a three thousand-year-old truth, was Trump going to set the region aflame?

 

Tomorrow in Part V My own summary and assessment.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Trump as a Disrupter: Part III Responses to his Jerusalem Pronouncement

Trump as a Disrupter: Part III Responses to the his Jerusalem Pronouncement

by

Howard Adelman

Obviously, if the “deep” international diplomatic strategy outlined in the last blog lay behind the move, the U.S. was signalling that the Israelis were being given the benefit of the doubt rather than the Palestinians. The Palestinians were being considered the more intransigent side with less ability to back up that intransigence with actual force and now with an obvious threat that their situation would deteriorate even further in the future. America was clearly signalling, even if only symbolically at the present, that it had greater confidence in Israel in protecting the accessibility of all three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – than the Palestinian regime, especially given what had happened when Hamas came to power in Gaza.

The U.S. was, at the same time, signalling to the rest of the world that hypocrisy and the huge gulf between real power on the ground and policy would no longer prevail. The move had global ramifications, even though at this time it was largely symbolic. The Palestinians had been sent a clear message – come to the negotiation table, but without an intractable position that made progress impossible. Come with no preconditions.

Signals will bounce back to indicate whether a disruptive process might succeed where traditional methods failed. Will the demonstrations of the Palestinians stop short of becoming an all-out intifada? Will other countries travel the same path and reinforce the American signal? Though scotched by the Prime Minister, the President of the Czech Republic signalled a willingness to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Philippines may be ready to do so. In fulfillment of the King of Bahrain’s promise restrictions on his subjects traveling to Israel would be lifted, a Bahraini delegation of 25, though not consisting of government officials but representing all faiths, will still be visiting Israel to discuss peace and coexistence as a step in normalizing relations, despite the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Will the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, signal they are willing to take a new course by restricting any protests to rhetorical ones only? The signal had to be one that, while leaving the door wide open to negotiating anything and everything, also sends the message that if there was no movement, America would be prepared to up the ante to the disadvantage of the Palestinians.

If Trump’s pronouncement had been an expression of the ancient art of international diplomacy, it had to conform to certain general rules. Sun Tzu in The Art of War, published about 2,500 years ago in China, offered the first basic rational foundation for an art of international diplomacy and military strategy. The use of the military was to be a last resort. Before the military was deployed, a long period of military preparation was required based on a combination of deceit and diplomacy to forestall war if possible and seek a peaceful resolution of a conflict. Sun Tzu offered the prototype for “balance of power politics” that formed the foundation of international relations for the previous two centuries in our time. The goal: to minimize the disruption, economic and social costs of increasingly bloody wars. The issue was how to subdue an enemy without fighting at all. Using the manipulation of both allies and enemies, rational international policy was viewed as an effort to end the prospect of war, minimize its effects if avoidance was not possible, and create a stronger foundation for peace following a war.

However, as part of the theory of a balance of power, the formula insisted that it was best first to attack strategies, then alliances and finally armies. But what if the very strategy of a balance of power approach to international diplomacy was itself attacked by disruption as a new means of conducting international relations? After all, disruption of communications has always been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes domestically. Such regimes have extended its use to the international sphere. Putin proved its effectiveness in attacking America during the last election. This was complemented by Trump’s tweets used for domestic distraction.

Part of the context for the re-emergence of disruptive versus so-called rational international diplomacy has been the existence of irresolvable paradoxes in other international crisis areas. To cite one such paradox, after our studies of the Rwanda genocide and our attack on the complacency of bystanders, it became clear that the greater the righteousness with which the problem was approached, the greater the number of casualties. The loftier the rhetoric, the less likely there was to be any action. This was true of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). That Canadian initiative was endorsed unanimously by the United Nations, but the initiative only received that unanimity by gutting its central foundation, the limitation of national power and legislating the right to international intervention in cases of genocide. RtoP gained universal support only by requiring national consent for an intervention. The greater the support, the weaker the application of the principle! Hence the tension between humanitarian intervention and sovereignty re the ethnic cleansing in Darfur as it played itself out clearly in favour of the superior status of sovereignty. (Cf. Alan Seelinger (2009 Does the International Community Have a Legal Responsibility to Protect?  An Analysis of Norms Regarding Humanitarian Intervention in Africa since 1990)

Further, in traditional diplomacy, negotiations were conducted with the perpetrators of the crimes to mitigate the loss of life. When that door was increasingly closed, slaughters became more wanton in places such as Darfur, the DRC and Kenya. When Jan Egeland could not follow through in his negotiations with Joseph Kony for a deal to mitigate the slaughter; the murders continued. One could almost formulate a principle: the greater the degree that righteousness enters into international diplomacy, the less effective that diplomacy will be and the loftier the moral rhetoric will become, accompanied by reduced action rather than increased military intervention.

Thus, an alternative method of dealing with international diplomacy emerged in the face of the hypocrisy and impotence of traditional so-called rational diplomacy. The policy was one of disruption rather than a rational and systematic use of diplomacy to reduce the threat of war and the misuse of children. The gamble was introducing a controlled wildfire rather than continue the stalemate of a growing cold war between enemies, such as the Israelis and the Palestinians. For that was the source of the real danger, not the fulminations of Iran nor the resort to violence of Hamas.

Hamas was on the verge of being domesticated. The risk had to be taken to bring even Hamas under the auspices of the PA back to the negotiation table without Hamas retaining a veto. Advantage had to be taken of the new willingness of Saudi Arabia to use power and not just financial influence to gain traction in its competition with Iran. Advantage had to be taken of the new security needs of Egypt for Israeli support to stop the extremists in the Sinai. Advantage had to be taken of the declining power of Turkey in the region even as the Turkish voice had grown ever louder and shriller in its denunciations of Israel. Advantage had to be taken of the continuing decline of the status of a PA controlled by the PLO rather than the newly-born extremists.

World, get off your butts. The stalemate up to now only promised future disaster. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was indeed a keg waiting to explode. That was all the more reason to light a controlled fire to divert the path of the flames away from such a potential explosion. After an initial controlled fire, after a cooling off period, after secret support and actions now by key Arab countries, after America sent a clear message that the status quo and complacency were no longer tolerable, after the U.S. had once again assumed real leadership on the peace issue and gave up on the illusion that international cooperation was a prerequisite to a breakthrough, the latter stance favouring the Palestinians and disadvantaging the Israelis, and only after the 1947 UN partition resolution decisions had been buried as a reference point, only then could the problem of Jerusalem be settled.

America was indeed signalling that the problem would be resolved in favour of the Israelis even as it reiterated that all parties had to come to the table without preconditions. The context on the ground had changed. Tiny Israel had emerged as a world economic power and as a regional military power. More and more, Israel was being accepted for what it had become. The participation of the IDF in military cooperation in Cyprus was simply an indicator of this change. Traditional diplomatic ambiguity and equivocation, that had always been the order of the day internationally, had to be buried alongside Palestinian dreams that it could and would inherit the Old City. Israeli expansionism had to be stopped, but the international benediction of mythical reversibility had to be buried as well.

Did the Trump initiative offer clarity based on a deep strategy or was it a toss of the dice when rationality has proven to be impotent? In traditional diplomacy, equivocation rather than clarity is highly valued. But equivocation in this situation would mean a clear signal (that the Palestinians could not eventually win the day) could not be sent to the Palestinians, for such a message would likely trigger escalating initiatives in the same direction. However, the gamble also meant that if Palestinian intransigence was deemed counter-productive, this would just reinforce it and thereby create more of a long-term concern for Israel.

Rather than refocusing on the two-state solution, disruption might force the Palestinians, as Saeb Erekat prophesied, to give up on the two-state solution and now push for equal rights for all Palestinians in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By sending the sham of a peace process and the vision of a two-state solution to the ash heap of history, the one-state solution might gain real traction even if the U.S. finally formally adopted the two-state solution as the preferred outcome. Would the game then be worth it if that was a likely or even possible outcome?

However, if Donald Trump’s mode of acting was aberrant, was intentionally non-rational, was driven by instinct rather than a rational and deliberative approach, was a belief resting on years of experience in defying conventional wisdom, then disruption as a mode of diplomacy could become the order of the day. If the Trump administration has deliberately abandoned cautious regional and international diplomacy, is the above then the rationale for the employment of irrationality?

What I believe has occurred is that James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, Mike Pompeo as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, all openly opposed Trump fulfilling his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Jared Kushner himself had urged caution. Tillerson, Mattis and Pompeo privately urged Trump to reconsider recognition of Jerusalem’s capital while Kushner and even Jason Greenblatt asked to delay the embassy move.

But no one can stop Donald Trump when he is on a tear. The use of disruptive international diplomacy had the added advantage of serving as a distraction from the Mueller inquiry. Tillerson, the Director of the CIA, Trump’s Defence Secretary and even his son-in-law went to work to massage an irrational initiative and cover it with a patina of rationality. Hence the well-crafted and nuanced policy statement. Hence the reading from the monitors. The principles behind the rational approach to international diplomacy were married to disruptive methods. What an unholy marriage! How could the two methods work together on the operational level when the premises were so disparate?

Rational Diplomacy                           Disruptive Diplomacy

The Primacy of National Interests    Personal Preferences Prevail

Emphasis on Diplomacy                       Emphasis on Pronouncements from

on High

Foundation in Strategic Analysis         Ignorance and Thoughtlessness

Perceptive                                                 Blind

Equivocation to Disguise Differences Absolute Clarity

Circumspection                                        Indiscretion

The Importance of Credibility             Introduction of the Incredible

Comprehensiveness                               Piecemeal

Confidence-building                               Emphasizing the Unexpected

Caution and Indecision                           High Risk Diplomacy – Recklessness

Indecision                                                  Decisiveness

Predictability                                            Unpredictability

The new disruptive methodology has not been restricted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international area offers a plethora of paradoxes that have not been resolved by rational diplomacy. No one knows how Trump will handle the consensus on dealing with other paradoxes in the international sphere: stopping nuclear proliferation while basing ultimate strategies on nuclear deterrence; an emphasis on economic sanctions that may run counter to national interests. The list goes on. The negotiations on Iran’s nuclear capability may have been the last great victory of rational diplomacy even as Trump pronounced it the worst deal in history. As much as I supported it, in one sense it was a weak deal. For it favoured nuclear deterrence, but allowed Iran to grow as a regional power and expand its use of proxies to engage in ideological warfare. Iran became a more dangerous state when denuded of its nuclear capabilities.

If diplomacy is the art and practice of negotiating to maintain peaceful relations between and among states while reducing animosity through the use of confidence-building measures, quiet diplomacy, and engendering goodwill and mutual trust, Trump has thrown all these practices into the fires raging in southern California and, instead of stressing communication between different parties to reach agreement on issues of fundamental disagreement, he has pronounced. He has announced, all the while paying lip service, but only lip service, to negotiations between the parties.

 

Tomorrow in a subsequent blog I will examine other versions of the disruptive thesis than the unholy alliance between rational and disruptive international diplomacy over the endgame with respect to holy sites.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman