Part III – Motives Behind Negative Attitudes to Immigration

Perhaps more insight can be gained by returning to the comparison with Canada which has not been roiled by the immigration issue even though a 2017 poll indicated that, as in many European countries, a majority favoured the intake of fewer immigrants and refugees. The reasons are many, and I list some below, more or less in their order of importance:

management – loss of control

employment competition, ironically most acute amongst a previous immigration cohort

blaming new migrants for an increase in crime even though crime rates have fallen and evidence shows that immigration reduced crime rates and immigrants committed far fewer crimes than native-born Canadians

the shortage of housing and its high cost even though research has shown that a good part of the upward pressure on costs has come from laundered money from overseas in cities like Vancouver and Toronto

health and health care costs; on this the evidence is more indirect – rising health costs are mostly attributable to an increase in the age of a country’s population and immigration helps reduce the average age of the population; further, a 2016 study found that immigrants are typically healthier than the native-born population, less prone to suicide and far more resistant to the opioid crisis

educational deterioration; though the higher the percentage of non-native speaking immigrants, the more difficult the class is to teach, evidence suggests that the greater motivation of immigrant children more than compensates for this disadvantage

national identity – cultural conflict is a very important factor for a significant minority of Canadians

environmental concerns; in 2013, Canada’s most famous environmentalist, David Suzuki, declared Canada as “full” and denounced immigration policy, not only for bringing in more pressure on the Canadian environment, but for contributing to the brain drain from poorer countries, but this is a view held by only a small group of radical environmentalists

religious difference – of some importance in Quebec but relatively small impact elsewhere

welfare: a lower percentage of immigrants are on welfare and receive fewer benefits than Canadian-born citizens and complaints over welfare are not a prominent part of the anti-immigration agenda in Canada

ignorance of and isolation from new immigrants are factors in anti-immigration sentiments but are not offered as reasons by those critical of current rates of immigration

What about the benefits which David Frum acknowledges?

  • A tool to fight global poverty by increased income for migrants and increased support for poorer source countries because of remittances sent to family members
  • Returnees take back skills and networks as is the case with Mexicans returning from the U.S.
  • unskilled immigrants fill jobs that native workers do not want; for example, currently there is a shortage of 137,000 jobs in the restaurant industry in Canada
  • skilled immigrants enhance technical, specialized and managerial positions, thereby increasing overall productivity
  • as Frum acknowledges in reference to Nobel prize winners, the multicultural character of Silicon Valley, immigrants enrich the intellectual and scientific output of a country.

The reality is that a stand for or against immigration levels is not determined primarily by a comparative consequentialist calculation of benefits and costs, otherwise rationality would prevail and large majorities would support increased levels of immigration. The Democratic candidates that David Frum chastises for promoting a more open immigration system or a more forgiving one towards illegals already in the U.S., oppose the way immigration is enforced – exclusively against migrants and none against employers. As Frum wrote, “developed and better implemented, and inspections against hiring of irregular workers would have to be more intrusive and widespread.”

Nor is it determined primarily by a contest over rights. David Frum insists that non-felons in the U.S. have no right to stay. But that is an argument about the management and enforcement of the system and not about migration per se. Further, even those who would grant them citizenship do not generally do so as a right but as a preferable system for management rather than mass deportation.

Further, look at the way Frum described the impact of the caravans from Central America that Trump raised to a fever pitch. Frum wrote, “Thousands of people were indeed approaching the U.S. border, many hoping to force their way across by weight of numbers.” That is simply false. It is not true that many hoped to force their way across the border by weight of numbers. They were fleeing violence and did not intend to instigate it.  According to Doctors Without Borders, Central American “citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences. Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and control.” Further, forcing themselves at the border would also be almost impossible. Finally, the vast majority expressed a desire to file a legal refugee claim with an American immigration officer.

However, Frum is not out to attack migration or asylum seekers but to protect democracy from unscrupulous politicians who exploit anti-immigrant sentiments. “Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.” However, the issue is not simply about the positive and negative pull factors but about the push factors behind the increased pressures from migration.

With help from Alex Zisman

To be continued

Part II – Does Immigration Per Se Have Social and Political Costs?

After his section on patterns of immigration, David Frum inserted a bald-faced claim: “large-scale immigration also comes with considerable social and political costs, and those must be accounted for.” He does not qualify the assertion by adding “in the United States of America” or even the USA and European countries. He suggests the reaction to “high” migration levels is universal. He quotes Hilary Clinton making a similar observation about Europe and advising: “‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.” What are those social and political costs?

It is certainly true that in most European countries, that have traditionally not been recipients of large-scale migration, a majority of the population opposes migration at current levels into their country:

France           63%

Germany      58%

Greece         82%

Hungary      72%

Italy             71%

Sweden        52%

However, there are exceptions:

Netherlands 39%

Poland         49%   

Spain           30%

UK               30%

The latter figure may seem odd since much of the commentary on Brexit has stated that a major reason for Britons wanting to exit the EU is the issue of control over immigration. Yet Frum concludes that, “Thanks in great part to their anti-immigration messages, populist parties now govern Italy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.” On 23 October 2017, Frum had written an article in The Atlantic entitled, “The Toxic Politics of Migration in the Czech Republic,” in which he bemoaned that another populist anti-establishment politician had come to power, largely, he claimed, on the back of an anti-immigration backlash. The rose to power of anti-immigrant populists threatened democracy and Frum made it very clear that, to save democracy he was willing to curtail immigration.

Yet Frum made it clear that the reaction in the Czech Republic was much more to the corruption and self-promotion of the former communist elite. Further, that newly-rich elite bought up and controlled the media. Nor was the problem rooted in a collapsing economy. “[T]he Czech Republic has boasted one of the highest growth rates and lowest unemployment rates on the European continent.” Nor was the problem rooted in a rural hinterland or former abandoned industrial areas ignored by a globalist international elite since 1 in 8 Czechs live in Prague and, when Slovakia split away from Czechoslovakia, so were the heavy industrial and mining areas.

Why then? Did the fact that the Czech Republic shifted from a parliamentary democracy towards a presidential system by allowing the president to be elected directly by the voters in 2012 even though initially he was assigned few powers? Was it because the leading politicians buddied up to Vladimir Putin and opposed sanction against Russia for invading the Ukraine? The big change took place in 2017 when the Social Democracy Party was decimated and the authoritarian anti-immigrant party, Civic Democrats, took a significantly increased number of seats. However, Andrew Babis still won because the truly democratic parties of the Czech Republic had failed “to respond to mass migration from Africa and the Middle East.”

According to Frum, the canary in the coal mine was mass migration. In 2015, Babis saved his reputation as corrupt because of the mass influx of migrants into Europe and Angela Merkel’s policy decision to welcome them and the pressure Germany brought on its fellow EU members to share the burden. This was the critical factor that saved Babis in the Czech Republic and Viktor Orban in Hungary and allowed the Law and Justice Party to win in Poland in the 2015 elections – in spite of the fact that Poland stood out as one of the few European countries in which a majority of its citizens did not oppose an increased immigration intake. But fewer Poles are urbanized compared to Czechs and Poland has a decrepit industrial and mining sector. Is it possible that, whereas mass migration may have been a factor, and even an important factor, in stimulating the shift to the Right in the Czech Republic, the feelings of those deserted by the new economy may have been more important than the immigration issue in Poland where anti-immigration may only have been the icing on a cake of grievances.

Frum claimed that, “Anti-refugee feeling prevailed in Austria, where on October 16 [2017] an absolute majority of the population voted for immigration restrictionist parties: 31.6 percent for the People’s Party, and 27.4 percent for the Freedom Party.” This month in Austria, the right-wing head of Austria’s Freedom Party pledged to fight “creeping Islamisation.” Austria’s far-right Freedom Party compared immigrants to rats. The new coalition has been responsible for the most draconian anti-immigration efforts in Europe. But the right-wing coalition collapsed when Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for elections when his far-right deputy vice chancellor and head of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned from both offices in the wake of a corruption video scandal suggesting his willingness to obtain government contracts in return for donations.

Further, surveys by Statistic Austria revealed that the major factor behind the rising and vocal opposition to immigrants has been the question of management and control rather than anti-immigrant sentiment per se. For pro- and anti-sentiments have been more or less balanced for decades. In 2014, 48.6% of Austrians thought integration had been working well. This year, that number slipped to 45% and the skeptical sentiments increased to 55%.  

The problem in 2015 may be rooted in the turbulence of the refugee crisis rather than a majority anti-immigrant sentiment as the immigration debate came to the fore and anti-immigration sentiment was given more salience. As Rita Garstenauer, Director of Austria’s Centre for Migration Research, stated, “If we follow the assumption that approval and disapproval in the population are at a relatively constant ratio of 50:50, then the disapproving half is more articulate nowadays, and also politically more mobilized.”

Frum himself offered a radically different explanation for the right-wing populist backlash rather than anti-immigrant sentiment, “public disgust with politics as usual.” Ironically, the careers of men like Trump and Babis provide the very proof of the claim that the swamp needs to be drained.  Cynicism rather than anti-immigrant sentiment may offer a greater in-depth explanation, a cynicism reinforced by an impression of crumbling governmental management of the immigrant pressure and greater leadership and legitimation of anti-immigrant feeling.

What then are the factors behind the rise in expressed anti-immigrant feeling? First, the needs and rights of the native-born population are not balanced against the needs of migrants and refugees but, arguably, the latter trump the rights of the former but the former ought to trump the rights of the latter. There is resentment against sharing the accumulated wealth of the nation with newcomers. The characterization of those newcomers as threats to the culture reinforces anti-immigration sentiments. So do the claims that these people are security risks, both to rising crime levels and to the state as a whole.

For example, in a hysterical style of reporting for Gatestone, Soeren Kern on 20 May 2019 reported that in Spain, a country relatively tolerant of immigrants:

  • The Madrid city council, run by Mayor Manuela Carmena, in a case study of political correctness run amok, ordered police to keep out of the neighborhood of Lavapiés, one of the most “multicultural” districts of the Spanish capital, to “avoid situations of tension.”
  • In Madrid, an elderly couple returning home from vacation discovered that their apartment had been “occupied” by African migrants. When a camera crew from the Madrid television channel Telecinco went to investigate, the migrants destroyed the camera…. Spain’s notoriously lethargic justice system now rules on who is the apartment’s rightful owner.
  • Six African migrants gang-raped a 12-year-old girl in a small town near Madrid, but Spanish authorities kept information about the crime hidden from the public for more than a year, apparently to avoid fueling anti-immigration sentiments.
  • On March 15, 2018, the 12-year-old girl was playing in a park in Azuqueca de Henares with several other girls when, at around one o’clock in the afternoon, six migrants — five Moroccans and one Nigerian — approached the playground. They carried two of the girls off to a nearby abandoned building, but then let one of them go after discovering that she was a Muslim. The migrants, aged between 15 and 20, grabbed the 12-year-old by her arms and legs and took turns raping her, first anally and then vaginally, for nearly an hour.

The anecdotes above should be enough to turn anyone against immigrants, especially Muslim ones who are the main target of Gatestone. However, a more detached analysis is required.

On Immigration; Part I – Patterns of American versus Canadian Immigration

In the recent EU election, anti-immigration was a central vote catcher for the energized Right. This blog, however, was set in motion before then by an inquiry from one of my readers who asked what I thought of Davis Frum’s recent articles in The Atlantic (April 2019 issue):
“If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will:
We need to make hard decision now about what will truly benefit current and future Americans.”
I begin by stating that immigration as an issue is close to the heart of Canadians as well as Americans and closer to the heart of policy issues in most countries around the world. For example. Malaysia is inundated with Bangladeshis, particularly to fill the labour shortage in the booming construction industry, but also in the manufacturing and the service sector. But not only Bangladeshis – immigrants from Nepal, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Pakistan. Malaysia is challenged both by legal and illegal immigration. Further, like the U.S., Malaysia does not have a coherent immigration policy.
Many of the reasons for this failure are the same:The clash between economic self-interest versus social and cultural conflicts;The conflict between foreign policy and security issues which are only very tangential in the Frum analysis;The clash between the human rights of migrants and the exploitation of migrants not only by unscrupulous middle men on the economic side, but unscrupulous politicians like Donald Trump;The history of conflicts within the country and between the home country and neighboursFirst, it may perhaps be helpful if we have some background on David Frum. David is the oldest child of a very famous Canadian Journalist, Barbara Frum: she worked for the CBC before her untimely death, Barbara could best be described as liberal-left. His father, Murray Frum, who died in 2013 and had a profound influence on David, was a dentist who became both a successful property developer in Toronto and a collector of African masks that he donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario. David’s sister, Linda Frum, is a Canadian Conservative Senator.
David was a brilliant student. At his Bar Mitzvah, he virtually ran the whole service. Before he went off to college in the United States, he was singularly responsible for organizing the most private sponsorships of Indochinese refugees in 1979 by his synagogue than were sponsored by any other religious institution. He then went off to Yale and then earned a JD from the Harvard Law School. He was a leading neo-con, joined the Bush administration as a speechwriter and became famous for the phrase, “Axis of Evil” that George W. Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union address. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which he would later regret, though in 2004, with Richard Perle, he co-authored An End of Evil which put forth the neo-conservative agenda and defended the Iraq War. He was a founder of a blog that evolved into The Daily Beast and in 2014 became a senior editor at The Atlantic. Like most Canadians who immigrate to the U.S., he took a long time after he became a permanent resident to become naturalized – 2007.
He has authored many books since his first in 1994 (Dead Right), a conservative critique of the Right. They include: What’s Right (1996); How We Got Here (2000), The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (2003); Comeback Conservatism That Can Win Again (2008); Why Romney Lost (2012); and Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (2018) which I reviewed in detail in this blog. Frum has earned his conservative spurs and is a thinking man’s right-winger. He is a Republican but also a Republican apostate. Therefore, one can expect a detached but critical analysis of immigration from a conservative perspective.
I will take up the issues in the order in which David Frum raises them. The first is the relative number of immigrants who came to America between 1915 and 1975 in contrast to the numbers before and after that period. “In the 60 years from 1915 until 1975, nearly a human lifetime, the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.” In Canada, record numbers of immigrants were admitted in the early 1900s when Canada was promoting agricultural settlement in Western Canada so that in 1913, more than 400,000 immigrants arrived in Canada, more than arrived a century later when Canada was four times the size and better able economically to absorb immigrants. However, in a pattern very similar to the U.S., 5.1 million immigrants arrived between 1980 and 2019, 1.3 million in the 1980’s (133,000 per year), and about 2.2 million in the 1990’s, an average of 220,000 per year. In 1992, numbers once again began to rival the intakes before 1913. That average has continued to grow.
Even at those lower average levels before 1981, there were peaks that rivalled the intake in the 1990’s. They corresponded to Canada’s intake of large groups of refugees:                                         Canada                  U.S.         1956-7: Hungary                     37,500                  38,0001968-9: Czechoslovakia          11,000     1961-70:  3,2731972-73: Ugandan Asians          6,000                           0*1973: Chileans                            7,000                          0**1979-80: Indochinese.              60,000                 265,000***2015-17: Syrian                        40,000    2011-17: 18,000 *A number of Ugandan Asians went to the U.S. as immigrants. For example, Daulat Sthanki settled in Louisiana and went on to start a multi-million-dollar business.
**President Nixon supported the Pinochet coup that resulted in the murder of President Allende and the flight of Chilean refugees.
***Canada resettled only 5,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, but when Canada viewed the refugee outflow to be a product of Vietnamese government policy in 1978, Canada moved beyond tokenism to take in a total of 202,000 Indochinese between 1975 and 1997. In the same period, the U.S. took in almost 1,300,000. Americans took in overall 6.5 refugees for every 1 Canada took as in 1979 when America admitted 205,000.
****With respect to the Syrian refugees, America admitted those it considered most vulnerable while “upholding the safety and security of the American people.” 68% of refugees from Syria were Christian and many others were Yazidis. In Canada, security concerns of Canadians, though slightly enhanced, were not a major factor in those selected for intake into Canada. Security for the refugees was; as a result, Yazidis took up a larger portion of the intake than their percentage of the Syrian population warranted; in 2018. The U.S. admitted only 18 Syrian refugees.
Overall, American fluctuations have been more extreme than Canadian ones, except at times when Canada took in a disproportionate number of refugees from refugee-producing countries. A second major difference can be noted in this pattern. In periods of large turmoil within the U.S., the immigration intake has increased. Though we do not have statistics from the American Civil War, we do have figures from the Vietnam War. In that period, the U.S. provided the second largest source of immigrants for Canada after the United Kingdom and accounted for 20% of our intake. 400,000 Americans came to Canada between 1968 and 1978. In 1971-2, when Canada initiated an “underground railway” to assist both draft dodgers and deserters (Barbara Frum played a role), 50,000 Americans moved to Canada in each of those years.
What also shifts over time in both the U.S. and Canada is the number of foreign-born as a percentage of the native-born population. In 1871, the foreign-born constituted 16.1% of the population of Canada. When the Great Depression emerged in Canada, the percentage of foreign-born had risen to 22.2% and then began to drop precipitously, but began to rise again after 1948. Since 2011, when the percentage of foreign born reached 20.6%, since then it has reached its highest percentage in Canadian history equivalent to the period between the early 1900’s and the beginning of the Great Depression. In contrast, in the U.S. on 1 Jul 2018, between 2013-2017, foreign-born persons constituted only 13.4% of the American population, a percent equivalent to Canada’s 13% at the lowest point in Canadian history at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Frum wrote: “By 2027, the foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is projected to equal its previous all-time peak, in 1890: 14.8 percent. Under present policy, that percentage will keep rising to new records thereafter.” But by the same date, that is expected to be half of the Canadian numbers. The Pew Research Centre, usually an impeccable source on data, in a survey on opposition to immigration ( misleadingly stated that, “The U.S., with 44.5 million immigrants in 2017, has the largest foreign-born population in the world.” That is true, but it has about half the number of Canada when calculating foreign-born as a percentage of the native population instead of using absolute figures. Surprisingly, Sweden has a higher percentage of foreign-born that America and Germany, the UK and Spain approximately the same percentage. The numbers are even higher in Australia.

As if in support of David Frum’s thesis, in the very recent election in Australia, the center-rightLiberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison retained control in spite of poll predictions to the contrary. Morrison, like Trump, claimed he would protect jobs in the coal industry and ran a tough line against immigration as he confined asylum seekers to pacific island camps in contrast to the call for less-stringent migrant policies by Labor leader, Bill Shorten.
Over the period of 120 years, there has also been a shift in source countries for Canada, first from Great Britain and some from the U.S. to those from Eastern Europe in the first great wave just before and after the beginning of the twentieth century, then Western and Southern European settlers in the period between the two world wars up until 1978 when the discriminatory features of Canadian immigration were removed from Canadian legislation.
How does this pattern compare to the American one? American fluctuations have been more extreme. For example, large numbers of Cuban refugees went to the U.S. and, though some Cubans immigrated to Canada, there was no equivalent movement compared to the U.S. This has also been the case with Venezuelan immigrants and refugees. Further, Mexico and Central America have been very important sources for migrants to the U.S. Last year, in spite of all the restrictions imposed by Donald Trump, the number of Mexicans and Latin Americans entering the U.S. legally was 20 times the number in 1979. On the other hand, as America under Trump tried to stem the flow of Central Americans and Mexicans into the U.S. (the latter had already been in steep decline), the U.S, was sending Americans in the opposite direction. The U.S.-born population officially living in Mexico has reached 800,000 (children of Mexican-Americans and retirees – 100,000 of San Miguel’s residents are Americans) while the unofficial figure is estimated to be almost twice that number. More Americans now move to Mexico than the other way around.
Mexicans and Central Americans supplied a high percentage of low-skilled labour for agriculture and the service industry. Increasing numbers were illegal since America’s guest worker program ended fifty years earlier. At the other end of the spectrum, Canada has limited family migration to favour selecting immigrants based on their skill levels, a policy that Donald Trump tried to imitate in his 2019 proposed immigration changes sent to Congress.
What becomes clear in comparing patterns of immigration to the U.S. versus Canada is that, while the overall pattern is similar, the two countries patterns vary according to:Proximity of source countriesPrevailing policies (capital investment, family reunification and preferential intake of skilled and highly-educated migrant programs)Nativist resistance to immigrantsU.S. internal conflicts;U.S. foreign overseas policiesHowever, the greatest variable is that Immigration is a far more tumultuous issue in the U.S. even though, contrary to popular imagery, it plays a much smaller role than in Canada. The question is, why?
To Be Continued
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Niccolò Machiavelli: Part III – Moses and the Art of Persuasion

(For a much more detailed and slightly different perspective on Machiavelli’s view of Moses, see John H. Geerken (1999) Journal of the History of Ideas 60:4, October, (579-595)

Reviewing the story of Moses is helpful because Machiavelli repeatedly refers to him while, at the same time, insisting that he need not be discussed, necessary advice if one wants to distract the God-believing anti-Judaizers. That in itself is a lesson in how to dodge the censorious while still communicating. However, it is quite clear in reading Machiavelli that he held Moses in the highest esteem and used the life of Moses and his experience in politics to distill many of the principles he believed were key to determining good governance.

Moses starts out as an absolutely politically naïve individual. Without Israelite and certainly not Pharaoh’s backing, he rebels against the autocratic system of the Pharaoh that adopted him. He kills a slave overlord who was beating an Israelite. The next day, he interferes in a fight between two Israelites who then turn on him, asking who is he to rebuke them. They then threaten to let Pharaoh know that he is a murderer. Moses flees.

Though Moses lacks the attributes yet of a good ruler, he has the advantage of being impetuous, though this is a disadvantage when not guided by prudence. Moses demonstrates, and Machiavelli concurs, (see the final paragraph of The Prince) that, in general, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious,” for victory belongs to the bold rather than the cold calculator.

Moses became a shepherd and it is difficult to know how that might teach him how to lead men who were never and would never be sheep. However, that was his escape. It is when he is drawn back towards the Israelites that he begins to learn the lessons of good governance. That lesson starts when God tries to kill Moses for not circumcising his son that he had with the Midianite, Zipporah. As is often the case in the Bible, women save the day. Zipporah performs the circumcision for Moses. Not a very auspicious start, perhaps for a leader. But Moses did learn a major lesson, the importance of women in helping a hero get out of a bind.

Moses, in spite of his initial flaws, and without any lessons from the patriarchs of the nation, becomes the founder of a unique political, legal and ethical system in which a people is governed by the rule of law. He starts off as a rash man prone to rely on his strength and superior fighting skills, having been trained in the royal court. But given his rash and impetuous character, the result is flight rather than fight. It will take years, even decades, for him to master the art of ruling. And the first lesson is that only God can command. Humans cannot build a secure and solid political system by simply commanding others. They have to use persuasion.

This means that Moses sets a new tone for prophets – not as masters of the universe, but as servants, inadequate and unworthy servants initially reluctant to don the mantle of leadership. However, Moses learns step by step. Like his God who announces to him that, “I shall be who I shall be,” Moses also is an open book whose character will be filled in by his experiences, his challenges and his responses.

One key challenge for leaders is the need to persuade others to follow. This is very difficult for Moses because the one Moses implores his people to follow is God, an impetuous, jealous, demanding and commanding authoritative figure who all too frequently changes His mind. Further, persuasion will be doubly difficult because Moses is NOT a man of the people, but an outsider raised in privilege in the royal court even though born a Hebrew. And he also lacks a command of rhetoric; he stutters.

However, his outsider status also taught him some important lessons. First and foremost, at the burning bush, Moses learned how to get others to believe as you do when they have neither the same experiences nor the same source of elite advice. Persuasion begins by initially convincing yourself. It also begins with modesty, with doubt about whether your own convictions are valid and, even if they are, whether you are worthy enough to transmit the ideas as they are revealed. Thirdly, the ability to persuade begins by defining oneself as a go-between, as a mediator much more than a strong leader. Such a leader is, in the end, an interpreter of God’s will, of what history intends for the Israelites.

Finally, magic helps. The burning bush is a symbol of magic. Magic is simply the use of a tool, any tool, that allows one to gain the confidence of others sufficiently so that they will listen to you. In my class, I offered the example of the use of a TV when I was the host and producer of a TV show. Holding that large TV camera gained us entry into the most difficult places in Israel without any trouble.

Moses as a leader is successful, not primarily because he is given formal authority, not because he is vested with coercive power, but because he relies on influence, on an ability to persuade. And that reliance does not depend on his being a great orator who can arouse the masses. Moses has to learn to adopt different stances and different voices depending on his audience. Sometimes the audience is both his enemy and his adopted grandfather – the Pharaoh. There he learns that he cannot persuade the Pharaoh who regards him as a foreign upstart.

Moses cannot succeed by words alone but, at times, has to fall back on using coercive force. He has to persuade coercively while suffering a severe handicap with respect to military forces at his command. That in itself takes a great leader, one who can start with virtually nothing to lead an insurrection. But sometimes he also has to use coercive force to suppress an insurrection. The it is very helpful if it is an Other, a higher and more authoritative figure, who orders the use of force.

However, he has to lead a variety of others with different skill sets, material benefits and dispositions. Some seek glory. Others seek riches. Still others are circumspect while their opposites are impetuous. Some rely on intimidation, others on cunning. And Moses will encounter each of these types. Most of all, Moses is adaptable, even with all his shortcomings. He responds to what the time and circumstances allow instead of adopting a fixed and rigid posture. Moses’ leadership is not only constantly in question, but he constantly questions himself about whether he is up to the task at hand.

Given the option of between being impetuous and cautious, Moses begins his political career by amply demonstrating he is impetuous and spontaneous and fits the profile Machiavelli lays out for a leader. But that is clearly insufficient. The populist, Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly rhetorically lead the rebellion against the aristocrats of Florence and also claimed that he had a direct line to God, in the end failed, not because Savonarola lacked sufficient militia strength, but because, in the end, he was a narcissist whom his followers saw through and from whom they withdrew their support. Savonarola depended on his popularity with his base, but lost their support when he failed to inspire them with confidence in spite of his overwhelming confidence in himself.

The incident of the golden calf, a tale told in Exodus 32, is very instructive about leadership. But to understand that tale we have to go back to Exodus 20. God in 20:20 commands that, “you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” In contrast, the Israelite God required an altar made just from earth, one not raised on a dais nor made of hewn stones. ‘I am your God who lives among his people and not above you.’ Later, God will instruct His people on how to build an ornate portable mishkan, but it is to hold the commandments, and, eventually, the Torah, out of which God will speak.

But Moses had to travel to the top of a mountain to obtain the basic covenantal laws for his nation-in-the-making. When Moses was away for a while, the people became restless and discontented, not unusual for them. Aaron, the brother of Moses, initiated an unusual response. He requested the gold jewelry of everyone. He melted it all down to make a golden calf to worship and credit with having brought them out of the land of Egypt.

In my assessment, the golden calf was a preference for a “native” state rather than a nation in the making. The Israelites and the Golden Calf did not share any memories; no covenant bound them together. The Golden Calf was inert and did not react to or relate with other substances. It was stable, constant and balanced, and symbolized an emphasis on the natural, the earth-bound as the driving force. In contrast, relations with God stress hope and promise, ethical principles and laws, but a relationship that is very tumultuous. There is no relating to a Golden Calf. God, on the other hand, is defined by His relationships.

Where God is made sensible through voice, the Golden Calf is made sensible only through vision. As stated above, the calf is earth-bound and spends most of its time with his head down. In the mishkan still to be built, cherubim have wings and can fly. “Their wings are spread like a protective bower, not to obscure a vision of the Divine Presence, but to frame the empty space where God’s presence is made sensible as voice.God speaks from a space (tokh) between the two-winged figurines.

Whereas the Golden Calf stands front and centre before the Israelites, God lives in the midst of the Israelites. Temples in the ancient Near East were furnished with the statue of a god at its centre…to satisfy the need to have a golden image of the deity at the Temple’s centre. In contrast, for the Israelites, God is in between. God is among. God is a connector not an occupier. “The cherubim frame an elusive presence that cannot be fixed and are themselves rarely if ever seen.”

God belongs in this world. But the world is not God’s place. That is the paradox. שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו. God is an in-dweller. But God is the ultimate outsider and dwells among the Israelites as a stranger, as a refugee from somewhere else. And this is the most profound part.

The puzzle of the whole incident is not its meaning, but that Aaron, the High Priest, never admits his error. There is no atonement, no confession, no accountability by Aaron that he did anything wrong in making the Golden Calf. Except indirectly. His two sons die for making a very slight error in managing the holy fire. Aaron is a foil for Moses. More importantly, Aaron is a foil for God who differs from both Aaron and Moses.

Unlike Moses, God does not persuade. He orders. He commands. He even terrorizes them into compliance. If Moses is intemperate, he is no competitor to God. The latter forgets His Covenants with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, forgets His historical objectives with this “Chosen People.” When the Israelites turn to worshipping the Golden Calf, God, in an apparent fury, proposed to exterminate His people. Moses had to rescue God from a catastrophic error of judgment. If we accept the story as written, God seems to need both complete submission from His human chattels, but also the advice from Moses, as one author put it, his “consigliore,” who possesses a clearer head in a crisis. That is what it takes to be a leader.

After all, “the Israelites are corrupt, petty, mean-spirited, fickle, cowardly, disloyal, thoughtless, dishonorable, and stubborn. How can it be that Jews, notable for venerating the past, would fill their Scriptures with such a demeaning portrait of their forebears? Why would God choose such a rabble?” After all God means for them to become a holy nation and a witness for all other nations. 

God is not jealous in the sense of feeling resentment and rivalry because of the success of the other, but is jealous in fear of the disloyalty of one’s betrothed. God is not governed by the politics of resentment, but by an absolute intolerance of unfaithfulness, not of a rival, but of a partner. And God has good cause given the propensity of the Israelites to desert the cause of change for a quest for stability that finds security in the reification of things, in idolatry. God is jealous in guarding the freedom that He has bestowed upon humanity when those in whom he has entrusted that gift so often betray it and opt for the security of dogma, of givens, of a fixed order.

However, Machiavelli is much more concerned with the portrait of Moses, one of the greatest political leaders of all time. God is just a terrifying backdrop, akin to a Medici. What does Machiavelli make of Moses initiating a civil war and massacring 3,000 Israelites? Why does Moses believe that he has to employ his virtù to use violence and lies to achieve presumably lawful goals?

Recall that God wanted to wipe out all the Israelites, but he is persuaded to leave the problem with Moses. However, Moses lies to his people and insists that God commanded him to execute his disloyal kinsmen. Presumably, both lying and murder are sometimes necessary to assert leadership as much as such incidents turn my stomach. However, that is more proof that I could never be a political leader. For, according to Machiavelli, to be a true leader, one must sometimes rise to the challenge of using both deceit and putting down an insurrection by executing your fellow nationals.

And Aaron, who did not simply permit the rebels to take over, but initiated the move and then blamed the people for asking him to make gods who shall go before us? Absolutely nothing happens, at least nothing directly linked to this behaviour. But leadership is also a matter of indirection and public relations. Moses needed Aaron’s voice, needed Aaron’s role as a mediator. For a morally sensitive soul, that is the most scandalous.

But Machiavelli makes very clear that bleeding hearts have no place in the executive offices of a nation. For Machiavelli, moral posturing and empathetic identification are serious weaknesses. That does not mean that you fail to recognize suffering. Rather, it is precisely by recognizing suffering and its sources that you learn how important good governance is. “If any reading is useful to citizens who govern republics, it is that which shows the causes of hatreds and factional struggles within the city, in order that such citizens, having grown wise through the suffering of others, can keep themselves united.”

Idols and Shabbat

Idols and Shabbat


Howard Adelman

א  לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם אֱלִילִם, וּפֶסֶל וּמַצֵּבָה לֹא-תָקִימוּ לָכֶם, וְאֶבֶן מַשְׂכִּית לֹא תִתְּנוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶם, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת עָלֶיהָ:  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 1 Ye shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear you up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down unto it; for I am the LORD your God.
ב  אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.  {פ} 2 Ye shall keep My sabbaths, and reverence My sanctuary: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 26:1-2

A graven image, an English phrase dating back to the fourteenth century, is defined as a carving used as an idol. The injunction instructs the Israelites neither to make idols nor to raise up such an idol, or, for that matter, any pillar or any “figured stone,” that is, a statue, in your land. At least, do not do any of these activities in order to bow down to it. In other words, do not bend your upper body forward as a sign of respect to a carved stone or statue or idol.

Why not? Because an idol, a graven image in the midst of a community or a carved statue, should not be viewed as a source of commands, that is, as a person who tells you what to do. The people can only bow down before their Lord, their God, that which has neither a visible presence nor any fixed place of abode or, for that matter, any fixed character.

The answer to “Why not?’ seems counter-intuitive. Not the description of that which you can bow down before, but that the Lord, the Israelite God, is defined as opposite to an idol or a carved statue without a visible presence or fixed abode or fixed character. Is that correct? Look at the contrast between the divine voice and the golden calf, a clear example of a graven image.

Graven Image The God of the Israelites
Raised above the people Lives among the people
Image Voice
Carved image of the Natural Super-natural that cannot be imaged
Once completed, it is I shall be whom I shall be
In the beginning or a point in time In the beginning of God’s creating
Fixed in time Time in a process of change
Being and Fixity Becoming
Inert Shape shifting without a shape
Above relationships Defined in relationships
No shared memories A shared narrative
No covenant Bound by a covenant
Stable Dynamic & tumultuous
Constant Inconstant
Balanced Tempestuous
Earth-bound Heavenly directed – take flight
Fate Hope
Determined Freedom
Rule of Men Rule of Law
Prioritizes the insider Prioritizes the outsider
Indigenous God as a refugee from elsewhere
Agreement Disputation
Emphasis on Is Emphasis on Ought
Questions of fact & empirical proof Questions of significance & justice
Uniformity Diversity
Homogenized Pluralism
Regimented Clashing interests
Prioritize habits Prioritize innovation
Prioritize the collective Prioritize the individual
Communitarian Liberal
Thick – shared values Thin – rules and regulations
The good Rights based

By far the majority of polities revere stability and desire a fixed and stable system of governance, while the Torah describes a polity in the process of creation. The contrast is startling but it is not severe. One cannot imagine a dynamic history-bound society without some core reverence for stability. Nor, on the other hand, can one imagine a relatively very stable society like ancient Egypt that lacks dynamism and change. The issue is whether the right or the left column is given priority. Which is regarded as aspirational?

Thus, Aristotle in his book on Rhetoric, includes the four elements in the last row, but the two in the left-hand column, fact and empirical proof, always precede issues of significance and justice. Similarly, in his Politics, stasis only refers to the exclusion of sedition and civil war in order to ensure room for disputes and political rivalry. Thus, although stasis is always temporally prior, the dynamic elements of a society are logically prior.  

A common categorization of different postures in ethics is the following:

  Means Ends
Ideals Intention & deontology Virtue & the good life
Actuality Situational Ethics Consequentialism

Mapping this onto the stability/dynamism or being/becoming dualism in the first table above creates a seemingly perverse picture. Ethics defined in terms of ends, in the second column above, has more to do with the first column in the representation of the dualism in polities in the first table. In turn, the emphasis on means has more to do with the second column in the two political sides of a society. There is a second seeming anomaly. If a contrast is drawn between a Jewish ethos and a non-Jewish one, in the quadrants of ethical positions, a Jewish society seems more focused on actions and results than on intentions and utopian ideals, that is, on the lower rather than the upper row.  

The criss-crossing is even more complicated. The initial categories depicting a society in the first table on the right-hand column are very clearly identifiable with the classical Israelite society. However, as one descends the column, the descriptors seem to characterize Jewish society less and less and there is an inclination to shift to the left column as one descends to capture the character of Jewish life. Rather than helping, the dualisms and contrasts seem to begin to get in the way of an accurate representation.

Moving to the second verse and the commandment to keep shabbat, to keep it as a day that forbids work and brackets creativity, the command extolls rest and reverence. We find a contrast between the six days of the week and the seventh day. It is shabbat that is identified with stasis, with stability, with repetition, while the other six days embody dynamic creativity. Was shabbat created in order to give creativity 6/7ths of the apportioned time while stasis was restricted to 1/7th of a time period? The reverence for shabbat can be read as a mechanism for restricting the emphases in the left-hand column of descriptors to ensure that creativity dominates the other six days of the week.

Take that notion a step further. Hegel introduced the notion of aufheben. It meant three things, preservation, raising up and putting away. Elements in a polity that had outgrown their utility or relevance, like the Cohanim, descendants of the priestly class, are revered, given special honours and highly respected roles, but in terms of the functioning of a society and the dynamic issues of authority and power, they have been retired and put away on an upper shelf to be remembered in ritual but removed from the dynamic drama of the politics of everyday life.  

Further, the more reverent one becomes, the more shabbat will creep in and take up time in the balance of the week and allow the atemporal to rule over history. Thus, the more ultra-orthodox a Jew is, the less in common that Jew has with the priorities of ancient Israel with its emphasis on dynamism and creativity. The ultra-orthodox with their rigidity, with their obsessive-compulsive reverence for preservation, would seem to possess the qualities opposite to those stressed in the narrative of the Torah. Instead of God’s voice coming from the empty space between the two birds of flight in the portable mishkan, more and more emphasis is placed on stabilizing that voice by vesting that it in the throat of a spiritual leader.

The interesting element is that Moses lacked such a voice and instead Aaron was delegated to articulate the position of stasis. Aaron became the high priest. But it was also Aaron who came up with the idea of the golden calf and went through the process of collecting the gold, melting it down and giving shape to the idol. Moses was left with the task of reversing this shift and re-emphasizing the task of creating a national polity, fighting off enemies and ensuring that Israel remained and enhanced its character as a dynamic society creating itself.

The irony is that such a reading is and must remain problematic, must remain challengeable and re-interpreted. The paradox is that any emphasis on becoming and dynamism must itself give rise to the query whether that stress, that priority, is, in fact, the core emphasis of what being Jewish means.

Thus, in the end, it is you the reader that will have to do the interpreting.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Niccolò Machiavelli: Part II – The Prince Chapter VI

The opening line of Machiavelli’s Chapter VI of The Prince “Concerning New Principalities which are Acquired by one’s own Arms and Ability,” asks us not to be surprised at speaking about “new principalities.” The best way to learn is to follow the example of great men, and the greatest of political leaders create new polities rather than simply manage given ones. Hence Romulus who founded Rome. Hence Theseus who founded Athens. Hence Cyrus who founded the greatest empire, the Persian Empire of the ancient world. Hence Moses. Unlike Romulus and Theseus, Moses was not a mythological figure but a real historical leader. Unlike Cyrus who was an imperialist and ruled over states with a combination of tolerance and skill, coercion and diplomacy, Moses forged a nation and founded a new state.

Machiavelli then advised that the best way to follow is to aim even higher, for only then can an arrow hit its target. Don’t be direct is one lesson. But is there a second? After all, who is higher than Moses? Is God the real role model of his example of an ideal political leader from whom one should learn? If you believe that creating the natural world was a challenge, what about creating a polity for your chosen people? Like Moses, God had no mentor.

In the second paragraph, Machiavelli suggests two routes to acquiring power, luck or ability echoing the theme I introduced in the last blog. The one who relies least on fortune will be the stronger and better ruler. Further, one’s successful rule is facilitated if one lives in the polis that one rules and does not try to be an imperial ruler exercising power from elsewhere. How then can Rome be his ideal model if Machiavelli envisions a new principality and a new ruler that is a resident of that community? Medici was a Florentine, but he was a resident autocrat who did not live among the people.

In the third paragraph of Chapter VI of The Prince, in addition to Romulus as the founder of Rome, the first real leader in his list as an excellent example of a successful ruler is Moses. Moses provides the measure. He states that the others “will not be found inferior to Moses.” In Machiavelli’s often indirect style of writing, that means that none of those other rulers will be found to be superior to Moses. Further, hiding Moses amongst a larger group provided a protective cover against the anti-Judaizers who remained a powerful political force at the time.

What is most interesting is that Moses stands out, not so much for the quality of his rule, as for the fact that he did not have a model. He did not have a preceptor in establishing a covenantal community rather than a community of fate or fortune. To repeat a theme introduced in the previous blog, fortune only brings chances; it does not deliver results.

But why a tale of delivering a people from bondage to freedom, from oppression to self-determination? Machiavelli’s apparent answer – they would be disposed to follow Moses given their circumstances. But the Torah makes clear that, as they were stuck against the shore of the Sea of Reeds, they turned on Moses, rebuked him for selling them a false bill of goods, considered returning to slavery better than being destroyed by the multitude of chariots bearing down on them and even engaged in black humour and cracked Jewish jokes – “What’s the matter, don’t the Egyptians have enough graves?”

The reality was that they followed Moses because of their discontent and they blamed Moses because of their discontent. Desperation and critique were twins, both rooted in discontent. The Israelites were not only a stiff-necked people, they were a complaining bunch. But the discontent meant a rejection of slavish obedience. The latter was the bête noir, not disobedience. Further, if you can rule such a discontented lot, presumably you can rule anyone.

The first generalization about government in this chapter states: “Those who by valorous ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease.” Their difficulties emerge because they have to invent the forms of government as they go along. Moses had to learn to delegate the priestly ritualistic functions to his older brother. From his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro, he had to learn to delegate the judicial functions of government to a different branch. He had to create a legal system from scratch. And, most important of all, he had both to learn how to secure his nation in a hostile environment, but also to rely on generals like Joshua to carry out the task while this source for coercive force never was used to undermine the task of good governance.

Further, every innovative ruler encounters another common problem, nostalgic sore losers who are very vocal in their criticisms and extreme in their partisanship versus tepid supporters who are content because the new system serves them well, thereby endangering the very system that has served them. The danger not only comes from militant dissidents but from complacent followers. This is a constant for all political systems, but especially democratic and republican ones.

Novice leaders initially start by failing. They learn through experience. Initially, they not only never accomplish anything, but seem to make matters worse. And they cannot rely on God to keep them out of trouble.

Religion, Machiavelli declares, is used only as an instrument of control and inspiration and “to gain long-continued observance for his constitution.” Religion is not a precondition of rule, but an instrument for continuity. Does religion only have a heuristic function? What about Moses’ reliance on God? Was it not God who delivered the slaves out of the hands of the Egyptians? Machiavelli asks, “to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force?” Do they have to rely on a powerful “outsider” or can they, must they be self-reliant?

When they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Self-reliance is the key to a secure state. What then happened in 1492 in Florence and later in 1512? Following the death of the powerful Lorenzo Medici in 1492, his son, Piero, became his heir. But he was weak. External bad misfortune not within one’s control took place for which Florence was unprepared. The Peace of Étaples was signed in northern France between King Charles VIII Valois of France and King Henry VII Tudor of England on 3 November 1492. Henry had landed at Calais, laid siege to Boulogne and emerged victorious. However, in spite of the tribute France had to pay to England, France was now free to reassert its control over its Italian satraps. This was fostered by the death of Lorenzo in 1492 and the succession of his inexperienced son, Piero.

By 1494, under the urging of Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery populist preacher, in the name of making Florence great again, clearing out the swamp of corruption and ending despotic rule, the Florentines rose up and expelled the Medicis and replaced their rule with a “popular” republic. This was made possible because Florence was overwhelmed when France, in 1494, entered Tuscany to retake the throne of the Kingdom of Naples.

The new populist government, virtually brought into existence by the intervention of a foreign power, effectively by “fortune,” lasted until 1497 until the conflict between the puritanical reformer, Savonarola, and the Vatican led to Savonarola’s excommunication, especially for his “bonfire of the vanities.” He was eventually executed and a more orderly republican government came into being. Machiavelli in Chapter VI wrote, “If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

What was wrong with a Savonarola-inspired populist government? It lacked a home-grown militia. Further, unlike Moses who also ruled through persuasion and influence, the Florentines very quickly saw through the fiery preacher as a charlatan. Without coercive power or influence to ensure he kept the faith of his base, Savonarola lacked any real moral authority and was ripe for a takeout by the Vatican.

Some city-states relied on help from abroad and alliances, such as Prato. Florence then built up its citizen army in part based on Machiavelli’s advice to be self-reliant instead of depending on mercenaries.

The answer is straightforward. Machiavelli did not suggest self-reliance was sufficient. A city-state or a country, even a powerful one, needs allies. But a home-grown militia and powerful allies also were insufficient. A polity needs a capable ruler. Although those who struggle to acquire land and power are least likely to lose it, they can lose it if their successors blow it. The implication – do not let a weak heir govern in place of a self-made conqueror. Rule by inheritance is dangerous. Rule by those who rely primarily on strength is also a recipe for disaster.

What then is the recipe for an intelligent and prudential rule?

To be continued

Niccolò Machiavelli: Part I – Background

The Gutenberg Press was invented in 1450. The Renaissance, which began in Florence in the fifteenth century and spread throughout Europe by the seventeenth century, divided the medieval and the modern periods. Realism and humanism, using proto-modernist methods, opposed the Aristotelian scholasticism of the previous centuries. This blog initiates a long, and intermittent, series on non-Jewish views of Jews among a few of the intellectual greats of Europe beginning with Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence, the initiator of modern realist political theory.

In the classical world, Jewish thought (embodied in its practices) differentiated itself from Greek mystery cults, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Christianity. Among the Christians, there were different groups who connected with Jews in different ways. There were the early Christian Ebionites who had been baptized and who followed Mosaic Law; they were almost entirely ethnically Jewish. Second, there were gentile God-fearers who were Judaizers, gentiles with no ethnic connection to Jews; they were generally considered by the larger Christian community to be too Jewish in their practices. Third, there were God-fearers who were not attracted to Judaism per se but included those with a fascination and respect for traditional Judaism. Fourth, the pro-Judaizers included neo-Platonists rooted in Kabbalah and the Zohar, who were attracted to what became Hasidism which had the same roots. Fifth, and most commonly, the leading edge of Christianity, as heirs of Aristotelian scholasticism, was most commonly made up of those critical of Jews and Judaism. Finally, there were non-God-fearing gentiles, like Machiavelli (and Grotius) who admired Jews for their contribution to modernity.

Christians had to ask why did Jews maintained their religious beliefs and practices despite Christianity’s existence? The answer could not be found in the Bible since Christianity was tied to Judaism. Jesus had been Jewish and so were his disciples. Christianity continued to share a key sacred text, most of what Christians call the Old Testament. Therefore, the post-biblical rabbinical Talmud was offered as the reason; it was put on trial. Attacks (physical as well as intellectual) focused on the veracity and morality of the Talmud and centers of Jewish Talmudic thought. Yet the central difference between Judaism and Christianity was elsewhere. In the post-Temple period, the new Temple for Jews was the Torah; for Christians it was accepting Christ as one’s saviour.
As Christianity emerged as the dominant ideological system in late antiquity, so did the standard anti-Judaism of patristic thinkers, like Augustine, or what Ed Simon in Tablet called “the vociferous, teeth-gnashing bigotry of a writer like Marcion.”  However, there were also defenders of the Talmud who belonged to the third group (and the fourth as we shall see) mentioned above, God-fearers who respected traditional Judaism. The German scholar Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), a faithful German Catholic, defended the Talmud against scurrilous accusations leveled by a converted Jew (and convicted criminal – see the denunciations of Erasmus) named Johannes Pfefferkorn who, in his populist appeals as a Christian theologian, insisted that the Talmud be burned. “The causes which hinder the Jews from becoming Christians are… because they honor the Talmud.” And, of course, because they practice usury.
The Dominicans of Cologne agreed and confiscated Jewish books to be burned. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, however, was dubious. He appointed Reuchlin to examine the matter and ascertain the validity of the claims of Pfefferkorn. Maximilian was convinced by Reuchlin that Judaism was worthy of respect and study and made it obligatory for universities to have two professors of Hebrew. Reuchlin would go on to learn much from and contribute a great deal as a result of his studies of Jewish jurisprudence. Paradoxically, in his later career, he fell in love with Kabalah.

Machiavelli went in another direction and took from Jewish lore and practices his distilled political theory rather than jurisprudence. There is no evidence that I know of that Reuchlin and Machiavelli ever met (in contrast to Erasmus who did meet Reuchlin). However, Reuchlin had traveled to Italy with Count Eberhard of Wűrttemberg in 1482 which brought him into contact with academics at the Medicean Academy in Florence. It was on his second visit to Italy in 1490 when he met Pico della Mirandola and imbibed his enthusiasm for the Kabbalah. In his third visit to Rome in 1498, at the time of the revival of the Florentine Republic and the rise of Machiavelli, there is no evidence that Reuchlin came into contact with the latter. Rather, Reuchlin’s influence came from the Hebrew heritage which Reuchlin left in the Medicean Academy.
There were, of course, others who made use of Judaism and its practices, but for non-scholarly purposes. Henry VIII of Britain imported Daniel Bomberg’s printing of the Talmud for his personal library. However, he did so to find rabbinical justification to aid in his annulment from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. In contrast, Machiavelli reflected on the embedded political theory in Judaism. His was not a political theory of opportunism, of self-interest, of power seeking for its own sake. Instead, Machiavelli began with reality, with nature and politics as he found it in man as well as the world, rather than a purported universal legal tradition that for other Renaissance thinkers would lead to the development of international law.
In Jewish thought, a distinction is made between happenstance, chance and fate versus the effort to control chance and to manage challenges in life. As Rabbi Sachs has put it, Jews are a constitutional or covenantal nation rather than a community of fate. Machiavelli also claimed that humans have the capacity to control chance by developing a theoretical understanding of how to manage chance and improve human life, to prevent floods by building dikes and dams as he depicted it.

However, theory on its own was insufficient. One needed judgment. One needed prudence. Later, theorists would argue that one needed a simpler theoretical formula, such as human nature being driven by pain or pleasure. But the covenant was unlike a Jewish one, between a community and its God. Nor was it akin to a Christian one, the city of God governed by the prince of peace. Rather, it is an agreement among individuals. In contrast, the object in Judaism was not simply to help one another, but to build a nation that would be a moral nation that would be a light to all nations. Contrast that with a dedication to enjoying life and ensuring security and predictability, to fostering progress and mobility as the goals of Machiavelli and many contemporary secular societies. The distinctive character of modernity was the effort to dispel the prejudices of the passions of pre-modern life and only then would individuals be able to enjoy security.

But one needed theory, a theory of human nature and not just a history of practical experience.

 Why, if Machiavelli was a modernist, did he take as his exemplar Republican Rome (Discourses) and certainly not Jerusalem? Because Rome was about virtŭ and not virtue, about ingenuity and the astute manipulation of formal authority and coercive power informed and influenced by analysis. Together, they enable a polity to be governed with prudence to establish and perpetuate a republic that is worldly rather than other-worldly. One seeks the common good based on strong arms and good laws, the qualities of a lion with the calculation of a fox.

It should be clear that I do not read Machiavelli simply as an astute cynic out to advance his career by providing a political guidebook on the exercise of power for the Medicis. Nor do I read the book as a textual handbook for an autocrat to retain power by his readiness to abuse it. (See the antisemitic German scholar, Friedrich Meinecke, who gave Machiavellianism its modern sensibility as twisted cleverness, as behaving like Iago in Othello, but, in Meinecke, for reasons of state – raison d’Ėtat). In ordinary language Machiavellianism is indeed associated with using any means whatsoever to retain political power and even a character type that is duplicitous, lacks any moral compass, has no empathy for the other whatsoever and has only a singular focus on personal gain. That, however, is not the Machiavelli that I read even though Machiavelli was not an advocate of empathy as a positive character trait for a ruler.

Machiavelli was born in 1469. Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, the same year as that of the declaration of the full Spanish Inquisition. Machiavelli was 23, but it took a very short rule of Medici’s son followed by a not much longer rule of populist fundamentalism (under Girolamo Savonarola) until Florence was re-established as a republic in 1498 and Machiavelli was named Secretary or Chancellor to the Second Chancery responsible to the “ten” for liberty and peace. He was at once Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of State. He remained a top civil servant for 14 years, until 1512 when he was 43 years of age. Medici rule was restored until the republic was re-established in 1527.

By 1512, Florence had become a weak city-state. Pope Julius had formed the Holy League with Venice and Spain. The Spanish army under Ramón of Cardona, Viceroy of Naples, invaded Tuscany and imposed the Medici restoration on Florence which abolished the Great Council, dismissed the indigenous militia and instituted a system of governance once again under the thumb of the Medicis, though for a short period, Cardinal Giovanni, the Papal ambassador, gave the orders.

What were Machiavelli’s clear accomplishments? First and foremost, establishing a citizen army in place of mercenaries whom he found to be unreliable without a deep dedication to the republic. He favoured republicanism over autocracy (the rule by the Medicis). Machiavelli lost all of his positions with the Medici restoration. After a paper of two conspirators was found in February 1513 with his name on it, he was tortured, put in jail and then put under house arrest. In 1513 he wrote a treatise that became part of The Prince that was not published until 1532 long after Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the book is dedicated, died in 1519. At the end of 1513 he wrote in his famous 10 December letter to his friend, Ambassador Vettori, that, “because Fortune wants to do everything, she wants us to allow her to do it, to remain quiet and not give trouble, and to await the time when she allows men something to do; and then it will be right for you to give more effort, to watch things more, and for me to leave my villa and say, ‘Here I am.’”

I had just claimed that Machiavelli was a believer in controlling chance and not surrendering to it, yet here he appears to be endorsing chance along with opportunism as the determinant of his fate. Most odd is the final phrase, hinani, ‘Here I am’ in Hebrew which each of the patriarchs and Moses offer as a response when God calls. Is Machiavelli cracking his heels together and saying, “Yes sir, when sir, I am at your service sir”? Or is he making fun of obsequious opportunists?

In his letter he continues by contrasting the triviality of his daily life with the noble life when in discourse with the wisdom of the ages. He also discloses that he is writing a book on how polities are acquired, the different forms they take, how they are governed. He also reveals his intent to win the Medicis over, at the very least so that he will not remain in poverty.

What’s up? This is particularly hard to discern since Machiavelli, in order to forestall fate, arrest and imprisonment, says that he hides his truth among lies and is a master of opaque misdirection. The above is one of his lies. It seems clear that he means the reverse, that he writes as an exercise in taking control over fortune and not surrendering to it.

What about, “I am here.” The biblical echo is unmistakable and is a clear indication that he is not an endorser of accepting one’s fate. The phrase suggests that Machiavelli is here, not as a blind obedient servant, but as one prepared to argue with and even teach God as the prophets did. I suggest that his model for writing was indeed the Torah that has different levels of meanings and requires interpretation to extract those meanings. As he says, his book will only be useful to “whomever understands it” and can translate its precepts into practice – that is, for those for whom it is useful.

Like Socrates, like Plato, there is such a thing as a noble lie. Jews often forget that a book like Jonah has to be recognized as a satire of blind obedience not as a call to fall into step. Machiavelli’s endorsement of autocratic rule is lip service. His project is to defend a republican form of government within an authoritarian state that beats and locks up its thinkers. Furthermore, Moses is his greatest politician from antiquity because only Moses relied on persuasion, on influence, at least primarily, to convince the new nation over and over again of their legitimacy, not his. It is they who have to learn to take responsibility into their own hands.