Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part III: The Balfour Declaration

Arab nationalism received a huge burst following the McMahon-Hussein correspondence in 1916 promising an Arab independent state. The Arab revolt against the Ottomans broke out on 16 June 1916 in Mecca. Unequivocally, Arab nationalism was initially fostered by the British Empire in its conflict with the Ottoman Empire, though Khalidi tends to emphasize only Israel as receiving colonialist power support. Though he acknowledged that Zionism was “both a national and a colonial settler movement at one and the same time,” he chose to focus almost exclusively on its colonial ties rather than its nationalist side. Further, with respect to Palestinian nationalism, he argued that all neighbouring territories developed a state nationalism without the instigation of Zionism. Why would Palestine be the exception? Palestinian nationalism emerged independently of Zionism and at about the same time.

As Khalidi tells the story from a Palestinian Arab perspective, large-scale immigration of European Jewish settlers, supported by the British Mandate authorities, set in motion the dismantling of the indigenous Palestinian society. That population had already been decimated by World War I. “Greater Syria, which included Palestine and present day Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, is estimated to have suffered half a million deaths between 1915 and 1918 due to famine alone (which was exacerbated by a plague of locusts).”

“Husayn al-Khalidi, my uncle, who served as a medical officer during the war, recalled similar heartbreaking scenes in Jerusalem where he saw the bodies of dozens of people who had starved to death lying in the streets.” The implication is that the families of those who died for a country should be its heirs. But there could be another implication – indifference to the poor as observed much later by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). In what other countries did so many die of famine and where else would their bodies be allowed to rot in the streets?

The Ottoman Empire also lost 15% of its population due to the appalling casualties in WWI. Army units from Greater Syria (which included Palestine) were disproportionately present in the most bloody battles “on the Ottoman eastern front against Russia, as well as in Gallipoli, Sinai, Palestine and Iraq.”

Would the fear of Jewish immigration been as strong without these traumas? Would that fear have arisen if Arab Jews were at the frontier of return to Palestine? They could easily have formed a majority. The problem seems to have been that the Zionists were European and that they planned on creating a Jewish state. As Europeans, they carried with them the disease of condescension to the local population.

Between 18880 and 1920, because of the flight of Jews to America, the Jewish population there grew from 250,000 to 4 million, Khalidi pointed out. The implication was simple. If the Jews could escape persecution in Eastern Europe by relocating to the United States, why did even 60,000 have to end up in tiny Palestine? Of course, the argument could be reversed. If the United States could absorb 3,750,000, why could underpopulated Palestine not absorb 60,000, especially since it was a return of Jews to their original home two thousand years ago and since the monies and skills they brought would help Palestine modernize?

Khalidi never examines the possibility that the Jewish state could be created side by side a Palestinian one or that a federal state might emerge. When the English came to settle in British North America after the victory over the French and the loss of the American colonies, that settlement did not arrive to “displace” what would become the Québecois. Out of that settlement emerged two nations living side-by-side in a single federal state. Instead, from the very start in Palestine, this was “a colonial war waged against the indigenous population by a variety of parties to force them to relinquish their homeland to another people against their will.” In Khalidi, there is a total absence of self-critical analysis questioning whether the proposition is correct. Rather, it is the fundamental assumption from which all else follows.

“If before World War I many prescient Palestinians had begun to regard the Zionist movement as a threat, the Balfour Declaration introduced a new and fearsome element. In the soft, deceptive language of diplomacy, with its ambiguous phrase approving ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,’ the declaration effectively pledged Britain’s support for Theodor Herzl’s aims of Jewish statehood, sovereignty, and control of immigration in the whole of Palestine.” The wishes of 94% of the population had been ignored. “This overwhelming majority of the population was promised only ‘civil and religious rights,’ not political or national rights.”

“(F)or the inhabitants of Palestine, whose future it ultimately decided, Balfour’s careful, calibrated prose was in effect a gun pointed directly at their heads, a declaration of war by the British Empire on the indigenous population.” Why would Britain do this? Why would this powerful empire initiate a policy that would arouse opposition throughout the Arab world?

“The British government’s intentions and objectives at the time have been amply analyzed over the past century. Among its many motivations were both a romantic, religiously derived philo-Semitic desire to ‘return’ the Hebrews to the land of the Bible, and an anti-Semitic wish to reduce Jewish immigration to Britain, linked to a conviction that ‘world Jewry’ had the power to keep newly revolutionary Russia fighting in the war and bring the United States into it. Beyond those impulses, Britain primarily desired control over Palestine for geopolitical strategic reasons that antedated World War I and that had only been reinforced by wartime events.”

That anti-British perspective should be no surprise since this position was shared across a wide spectrum of Palestinian leaders at the time. However, with respect to Palestinian views of Zionists, towards each end of both the Jewish and Arab spectrum were leaders who believed in symmetry and that the two movements and the two people could co-exist. These were expressed through inter-ethnic dialogue, cooperation and recognition of shared interests. But even these Jewish and Arab leaders did not agree on the basis of that coexistence. At the same time, at the other end of the shades of difference on each side were spokespersons who insisted that active mutual antagonism was unavoidable and, hence, clash was inevitable. The issue across the boards entailed:

  • Economic competition in both labour and commerce
  • Immigration
  • Only a small minority of Zionists advocated adaptation to the dominant Arab language and culture
  • Jews were viewed as having deep pockets and worldwide political connections.

At the outbreak of WWI, Raghib al-Nashashibi ran for parliament in total opposition to Zionism and won. On the other hand, Husayn al-Husayni advocated cooperation with the Zionists, but even he initially advocated limits on land purchases and immigration. Zionists expressed a similar range of views with the mainstream leadership advocating cooperation, but from a condescending perspective, believing as they did that they need not assimilate to Arab culture and that Arabs would welcome Zionists because of the economic benefit they brought with them. But just as the Arabs were united by fears of immigration overwhelming their culture, most Jewish Zionists of all stripes underestimated the strength and degree of opposition to Zionism.

As this opposition increasingly dawned on the Zionists, a small minority at one extreme advocated adopting the Arab culture and language. Others pushed for cooperation between separate movements while supporting the primacy of Jewish labour. Still others thought that not only conflict was inevitable, but expulsion of the Arabs would be prerequisite for Zionism to succeed. Israel Zangwill was widely quoted. “We must be prepared to expel the non-Jewish population from the land by the sword.” Further, “For Zionists, their enterprise was now backed by an indispensable ‘iron wall’ of British military might.” Men like Herzl and Ben Gurion vacillated on the issue of expulsion.

As long as Jews did not attempt to take over the country and even establish a separate state, a forefather of Rashid Khalidi, Nasif Bey al-Khalidi, was prepared to cooperate with the Zionists. Muhamad Ruhi al-Khalidi, who was elected to the new parliament in 1913 alongside al-Nashashibi, did not even oppose Jewish immigration but advocated that Jews resettle throughout the Ottoman Empire and not concentrate on Palestine. However, in his moderation, he strongly opposed a separate Jewish polity.

Given these political shades, is it any wonder that Palestinians, though divided on how to oppose Zionism after the Balfour Declaration, were largely strongly opposed to a document that prioritized Jewish national rights, ignored Arab political rights and restricted the latter to civil and religious rights. Further, the document was not just inspired by sympathy for Zionism, but was seen as advancing Britain’s war needs (in bringing America into the war) and long-term imperial strategic interests relative to Egypt and India. The latter motive pushing a western friendly dependent colony may have been even more important than Christian Zionism. That is the reason Chaim Weizmann claimed that Jews suffered from unrequited love for the British.

Given the imperial context, Faycal Ibn Husayn and Chaim Weizmann  saw that it was in their mutual interests to engage in the closest cooperation in the face of both British and French imperial interests that indicated that Zionism was not simply a vassal of British imperialism. Prior to the Paris Peace Conference that officially ended WWI, they agreed that, “All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible” provided the rights of Arab peasants and tenants were protected. (Article IV) Faysal Ibn Husayn believed that Arab independence would be greatly enhanced and even guaranteed by Jewish economic investment and political clout. Rashid Khalidi does not reference this dissenting vision of cooperation.

This Zionist-Arab alliance against imperialism and for Arab independence might seem to muddy the thesis that Zionism was an instrument of British imperialism, except that Khalidi’s complementary thesis focused on the perfidy and short-sightedness of Arab leadership. In this, Khalidi shared Weizmann’s disdain for the Arab political upper class, though not Ibn Husayn who was completely out of touch with the Arab street. Weizmann’s own breach with Ibn Husayn came when, at the peace conference, he supported a British trusteeship for Palestine thereby reinforcing the thesis that Zionism was primarily in the service of British imperial power.

Rashid Khalidi holds a complementary thesis. The leadership of the Palestinian noble families had been shattered by WWI. “In 1917 my grandfather Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, and my grandmother Amira, known to us all as Um Hasan, together with the other residents of the Jaffa area, received an evacuation order from the Ottoman authorities. To escape the encroaching dangers of war, they left their home at Tal al-Rish near Jaffa…with their four youngest children, my father among them.” In 1918, leading families had been scattered, with sons emigrating to America to escape conscription, others held in POW camps, still others hiding in the hills and some even fighting with the British in the Arab legions engaged in the great revolt. Arab Palestinian leadership had been shattered.

Lacking leadership, disoriented by the rapid change in politics from 400 years of Ottoman rule to governance by Western imperial powers, “It was in the midst of this great trauma, as one era ended and another began, against a grim background of suffering, loss, and deprivation, that Palestinians learned, in a fragmentary fashion, of the Balfour Declaration.” This tale of noble families both emigrating and instructing the local population to follow suit provided Zionism with a competing narrative. This was a precedent for 1948. Ordered evacuations and compliance had been part of Palestinian history.

The 1919 American King-Crane Commission supported a British mandate over Palestine and, although sympathetic to Zionism, saw Jewish and Arab goals as fundamentally incompatible. Since the Zionist political program could not be advanced except at the expense of the Arabs, it recommended that Jewish immigration be restricted. “The majority now faced the prospect of being outnumbered by unlimited Jewish immigration to a country then almost completely Arab in its population and culture.” The British largely ignored the American proposals and the French and British divided up their interests at San Remo.

Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part II Classical Zionism until 1920

If Palestinian nationalism is the national movement of the Palestinian people for self-determination and sovereignty in Palestine, the debate is not whether its exists or emerged, but whether it preexisted Zionism, it emerged in opposition to the Zionist enterprise and/or it first expressed itself as part of Arab nationalism and the drive for Arab self-determination in the aftermath of Zionism. There is no question that a resistance movement to Zionism existed in Palestine in 1920. The question is over its character, its source and its impact. Khalidi argued that “Palestinian identity, much like Zionism, emerged in response to many stimuli, and at almost the same time as did modern political Zionism…this identity included love of country, a desire to improve society, religious attachment to Palestine, and opposition to European control.”

Rashid Khalidi, a historian with an excellent reputation, recognizes that Western residents in Palestine, including the British Consul, were using Palestini to refer to the local population in the last half of the nineteenth century. The term only became self-referential at the beginning of the twentieth century and grew in part as a response to Jewish nationalism. But only in part. For it was also a response in major part in the nationalist movement that grew out of local loyalties versus pan-Arabic ones, with a vision of a Palestinian nation somewhere in between these two opposing tendencies. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, local patriotism, likely the strongest sentiment, could not be depicted as political nation-state nationalism. However, “national sentiment from a love of country and loyalties to family and locale” shifted in the twentieth century to “a thoroughly modern form of nationalism.”

The roots of modern Zionism were different. Instead of a pull between local allegiance and pan-Arab nationalism, modern Jewish nationalism had deep historical roots, reinvigorated by current tribulations, and resting largely in messianic beliefs about the Jewish people. (See Abba Hillel Silver (1927) A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel; hence Theodore Herzl’s novel was called Altneuland.)

  1. The ancient loss of national independence and accompanying deprivations;
  2. The Jewish will to live as a rehabilitated people in a national home; and
  3. A religious faith in an historical covenant and divine justice.

Altneuland, however, should have been called Neuland,for the novel ignored both the deep messianic history of the Jewish people and, therefore, of modern Zionism, but also the rich Arab culture of the educated classes of Arabs in Palestine, such as that of the Khalidi family.

Instead, for Herzl, as well as for others like Mark Twain who spent time traversing the land, Palestine was a desolate place – poverty abounded and “naked children played in the dirty alleys.”. However, instead of turning a desert into an agricultural paradise, in Herzl’s telling the story of what he envisioned, Palestine evolved into a cosmopolitan outpost of Western civilization “freed from filth, noise and vile odors.” But it was also a story of ethnic as well as physical cleansing. Villages disappeared. As in Herzl’s proposed charter between the World Zionist Organization and the Ottoman sultan, as lands were acquired for Jewish resettlement and development, the local inhabitants were also resettled in other Arab lands outside Palestine, except for a small remnant to preserve local colour.

Jewish historical culture was also cleansed. German, not Hebrew, would be the language of the land. The Torah was forgotten in favour of a syllabus of the writings and works of the West. Palestine was a place, not for resettlement of the impoverished Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, but for the unemployed educated class of alienated professionals and intellectuals in Vienna.[1]  

The local Jewish population was very small. At the time that Leon Pinsker became head of the newly formed Hibbat Zion (“lovers of Zion”) in 1882, later the Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon, to promote immigration and create agricultural settlements in Palestine, the Arab Muslim population of Palestine was 450,000, or 530,000 if the 80,000 Arab Christians (13.5%) are included. There were 60,000 Jews; there had been at least ten times that number living in Palestine under Emperor Claudius. With less than 600,000 people, Palestine was, relatively, an empty land. Forty years later when the objectives of Zionism were endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922, the non-Jewish population was 725,000 and the number of Jews, though they had increased to 80,000, still represented only 10% of the population. (Khalidi argues that Jews were only 6% of the population at the time the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed.)

The nineteenth century witnessed a significant migration of both non-Jews and Jews to Palestine to enhance the 280,000 population there at the beginning of the century in 1800 when 7,000 Jews (2.5%) lived in the country:

  • Egyptians because of famine, drought and plagues and to escape forced labour and military conscription
  • More Egyptians settled in Palestine at the end of the Second Egyptian-Ottoman War (1842) when Egyptian soldiers deserted with the defeat of Egypt and settled in Jaffa and 19 villages in the south
  • Arab Berbers moved there from Algeria to Safed in 1860
  • Arabs from what is now Jordan (an estimated 6,000) also arrived in 1860
  • Turks when they finished their service in Palestine settled there
  • Following the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, Bosniaks, not wishing to live under Christian rule, began a migration flow to Palestine.

These migratory movements are not in the book. For the core of the narrative is the continuity of Palestinian Arabs living in Palestine, their intellectual and cultural accomplishments, and their historical foresight. Rashid Khalidi starts his narrative with Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, the child of a very long list of Islamic scholars, his own great-great-great uncle, but one unlike his forbears who obtained a broad and Western education. He became a functionary in the Ottoman Empire and even served briefly in the short-lived Ottoman parliament established in 1876, He earned the enmity of the Sultan for supporting parliamentary prerogatives over executive power. He was multilingual and became an accomplished scholar.

In other words, when the birth rates and death rates were in alignment in the nineteenth century, the population grew mainly by migration, including the population of Jews.[2] However, Khalidi stressed that the modernist revolution in the economy, politics and in the realm of ideas had already shifted, birth/death ratios. The rates of live births were slowly improving; death rates were in decline. On the other hand, famine as a result of WWI, exacerbated by a plague of locusts, devastated the existing population of Greater Syria. Conscription of young men into the Turkish army pushed the population into decline as a half million in Greater Syria died during this period. It is estimated that Palestine’s population declined by 6% during the war.

None of this entailed a population movement that displaced any of the local population or had any intention of replacing the occupants of the land.  Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon was not a movement supported by any imperial power. But neither was Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon a nationalist movement; it was a typical immigration promotional movement. Between 1909 and the outbreak of WWI, tracts of land had been purchased and 40,000 Jews arrived and settled in Palestine. Only 18 of the 52 new colonies were Zionist ones. However, Khalidi is really not interested in how the local Jewish population, the non-Zionist migration and the Zionist one interacted and eventually merged. Instead, he omits the non-Zionist migration, or identifies it as a proto-Zionist one, and argues that this migration provoked friction with the local population, presumably including the relatively large population of indigenous Jews in Jerusalem and Safed. But why did friction exist when most of the movement was of non-Zionist Jews?

With the emergence of political Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century, the character of that settlement changed. The motivations of Jewish migrants shifted, and, more importantly, the motivations of those promoting that resettlement differed. While arguing that Jewish in-migration would benefit the local population, early Zionist writers, including Theodore Herzl, envisioned that much of the local population, those who were poorer, would or would need to be displaced. As Khalidi quotes Herzl, it would be necessary to “spirit the country’s poor population discreetly across the border.” “The poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” As the narrative moves forward, discretion and circumspection drop by the boards, and expulsion and replacement become the inherent aims of Zionism.

That is where Khalidi starts his story of the interaction of Arabs and Jews, with Yusuf Diya’s worldly knowledge, his specific knowledge of early Zionist writings and of the pogroms that Jews suffered from in Europe at the very end of the nineteenth century. There is no story of whether Yusuf Diya interacted with the Jews in Palestine. There is no story of his knowledge of non-Zionist migration. From the narrative told, the tale begins with Yusuf Diya’s encounter with the enemy, with political Zionism. Only Zionists are not caricatured as an enemy by Yusuf Diya. Zionism was in principle “natural, beautiful and just.” “Who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country,” Yusuf Diya wrote Herzl.

Herzl had argued that Jewish immigration would benefit the indigenous population of Palestine even as it was to be dismantled by Zionism. But the argument that this process of resettlement of Palestine land by settlers “would benefit the people of that society” was incompatible with the need to dismantle that same indigenous population. Khalidi reconciles that contradiction by insisting that the claims of beneficence were false fronts to cover the real intent, displacement. Religion was another false face. And Yusuf Diya warned of the danger of implementing the Zionist project of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. The project would sew dissension among Christians, Muslims and Jews. The project would inflame the status and security Jews had purportedly always enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire. “The brutal force of circumstances had to be taken into account,” specifically, that the indigenous population would never accept being superseded.

Go settle somewhere else. Go found your Jewish state in another territory, implying go displace another indigenous population. If the Zionists were, in his own words, returning to the land in which their nation was founded, if any resettlement would displease the local population anywhere if the aim was to create a Jewish sovereign state, does not “the brutal force of circumstances” dictate that Palestine was the only place the effort could and should be made and that the clash between the locals and the settlers was inevitable. But was it? Khalidi argued that Herzl’s claim that Jewish acumen and investments would improve the lot of the locals was a ruse rather than examined as a real possibility. For Khalidi, the conflict was always between colonial settlers and the resistance of a population that refused to be displaced.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky acknowledged and recognized that there would of necessity be resistance by the local population. “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.” For Khalidi, this made Jabotinsky more honest and direct than Herzl or Ben Gurion. But none of these ideas had any effects on the ground until the Balfour Declaration and its adoption by the League of Nations after the war, though in intellectual circles, war between the Jews and the Arabs had already broken out. Najib Nasser was editor of the rabidly anti-Zionist Haifa newspaper, al-Karmil.

The Balfour Declaration then “launched a full-blown colonial conflict, a century long assault on the Palestinian people, aimed at fostering an exclusivist ‘national home’ at their expense. Khalidi’s great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, however, in anticipation of this conflict between two peoples protested that, “Palestine would be turned into a national home for them (Zionists).” “The denial of an authentic, independent Palestinian identity is of a piece with Herzl’s colonialist views on the alleged benefits of Zionism to the indigenous population, and constitutes a crucial element in the erasure of their national rights and peoplehood by the Balfour Declaration and its sequels.”


[1] Rashid’s son, a philosopher who once taught at my university, York, has argued that Altneuland was written to win the support of Christian “Zionists. Cf. “Utopian Zionism or Zionist proselytism? A Reading of Herzl’s Altneuland,” Journal of Palestine Studies XXX:4, Summer 2001.

[2] This does not mean that the gross exaggerations of Joan Peter’s 1984 tome, From Time Immemorial, about the overwhelming settlement of Arabs from other areas, have any merit. Khalidi is correct in dismissing the work as an unsound historical source.

Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part I

This is the first in a series reading Israeli history through the eyes and mind of a Palestinian historian. After this initial installment, I became distracted by the American election. I am reverting to writing the series in a critical vein and am re-posting the first installment, slightly edited, that had already been sent weeks ago.

I have not seen Rashid Khalidi for over two decades. When I saw him recently in a webinar on his book The Hundred Years of War on Palestine run by The Harvard Divinity School, he has aged much less that I have. He looks great. And he is even clearer and more articulate than I remember. He is a first-class scholar and historian and I have always learned a great deal from him.

This book is clearly very different than Khalidi’s numerous scholarly tomes. It is personal, part family memoir, but also has a clear central political thesis. Khalidi has articulated a position that he has held over the years in a way that is more powerful and more emotional precisely because it is so overtly personal.

Khalidi has never gone along with the mantra that the dispute over Palestine has been a conflict between two national groups each with legitimate claims to the same land. Jews, he argues, certainly have an historical link to the land and especially to Jerusalem, but they have no claim rooted in rights. Instead, for Khalidi, the conflict has been a long colonial war of settler colonialism in which one group, the Zionists, has been propped up by one colonial power after another.

The explicit Zionist purpose was to have that national group displace another as the civil polity in a region – Palestine. The ingathering of Jewish exiles was intended to supplant the local population by those who mouthed words of peace and the slogan ‘Do No Harm,’ such as David Ben Gurion and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were hypocrites, unlike Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, according to Khalidi. The mouthers of the prospect of peaceful replacement knew that such a displacement enterprise would cause a great deal of harm. (I will examine this fundamental claim in greater detail at the end of this series of reviews.)

One of the strengths of the Khalidi thesis that has such a wide purchase among Palestinians is that it does not deny the pogroms and persecution that motivated Jewish relocation from Europe. He also acknowledges the blockages to resettlement in the West. But he refuses to accept the assurances of Zionist leaders at the time that the migration of Jews to Palestine would neither be an invasion nor an imposition on the native population. Instead, he characterizes Theodor Herzl as arrogant, ignorant and disingenuous; Herzl blamed all sources of harm on the resistance of the native Palestinians.

Palestine was not an “empty” country, though I dispute that anyone ever really thought it was in the sense that there were no people there. The belief was that it was very underpopulated. Zionism, for Khalidi, was a Jewish colonization movement which offered the world a narrative line that whitewashed its history of its willingness to sacrifice the local population and to paint itself as simply another anti-colonial uprising. For Khalidi, since colonization had such a bad odour after WWII, the Zionists had to reconstruct their tale even when it is historically clear that their immersion into counter insurgency lasted a very short period. The true story is that Zionism was a stepchild of British imperialism. Further, it only succeeded because of the massive economic and political support behind the enterprise.

Benny Morris, who was the first to document the intentional ethnic cleansing underway, became a revisionist in the twenty-first century asserting that Jews had no other choice. It bequeathed a “them or us” moral dilemma. What Khalidi argues in the vein of Edward Said is that the war was as much a discursive battle as a fight on the ground. Which side would control the dominant narrative? For the tropes underpinning each side were irreconcilable. And the Zionists had the Hollywood propaganda machine behind it – Leon Uris’ Exodus as a novel and a film providing the most explicit example of the propaganda of one side.

The myth, which is what he calls it, of immigration to Palestine as the only option to prevent Jewish annihilation, is countermanded by the fact that other options for relocation were offered to Jews by the Imperial powers – Uganda and Argentina for example. And the Zionists considered each one seriously, but then opted for Palestine. That alone is proof for Khalidi of the complicity of Zionism and imperialism. The real story is how, because of its partnership with great powers, the Zionists managed to establish the dominant narrative of its success into a tale of liberation by a genuine nationalist movement.

The creation of Israel was no different that the creation of Australia, of Canada, of New Zealand and especially of the United States. It was a settler movement built and developed at the expense of the indigenous population. The major difference is that, in Palestine, the native population was not devastated by contagious diseases and not as bereft of other actors to support its cause. Hence it struggled and survived to challenge the Zionists. Thus, in spite of Zionist designs, in spite of its anti-assimilationist underpinnings and the artifice of its nationalism, the opposition of the indigenous population refuses to wither away and die. This is the Khalidi thesis.

And, for Khalidi, every historical step reinforces that thesis, whether it be Jewish collaboration in suppressing the Palestinian revolt from 1936-1939 that killed, wounded or captured anywhere from 10-17% of the adult male population of Palestine and gave the Zionist the manpower advantage in the 1948 war, the 1967 war in which every expert who really knew the strength of the forces on each side predicted an easy Zionist victory, the 1982 exile of the Palestinians from Beirut, the explicit objective of the 1982 war, and Oslo, the greatest fraud perpetrated against the Palestinians in the whole history of the conflict, for, in the name of peace, a Zionist colonial settler enterprise was not only legitimized but given a moral cover, international endorsement and American military backing. 

Part of this argument over narratives and the discursive war is to claim that when Britain became exhausted in the 1939-1948 period and withdrew from the trenches and the de facto collaboration with the Zionists, the Americans took their place. Israel could take no steps that did not have the wholehearted backing of the Americans. The Americans were fully and knowingly complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 that drove the PLO out of the region and that made an unsuccessful effort to make Lebanon a puppet and satrap of Israel.

With Oslo and the effort to craft an accord, the gap between America and Israel kept re-emerging. Americans viewed the enterprise of settlement and displacement as having an iron ceiling while the right-wing Zionists recognized that the matter would be settled in the end by facts on the ground and not American diplomatic posturing. The key was to control both the land and the people.

Israel had the narrative advantage that it could give the whole colonial enterprise a Biblical cast with a very wide appeal in the Christian West. This extracted external support for an imposition enterprise even in the days when colonialism had been sentenced to international death. The Jews could and did argue that they had a genuine historical connection to the land and that Jewish presence on the land had been continuous – a very different colonial tale than that of the American pioneers of the Canadian and Australian and Kiwi settlers.

They also had the advantage, according to Khalidi, that the Palestinian leadership repeatedly betrayed the Palestinian population. But the times have changed and the pace of change has picked up. In universities, the BDS movement is continuing to gain support. Within the redeemed Democratic Party which won the Presidential office, allies of the Palestinian cause have experienced a resurgence and the old order Zionists apologists are being forced into retirement.

What a plethora of assumptions in creating this alternative discourse. They have revived the will of Palestinian youth to re-engage in the enterprise of resistance, but this time with a network of support and anti-colonial attitudes in the West, for there is a natural synergy between movements like Black Lives Matter and anti-Zionism. Resistance can displace resignation. To what degree do these premises and the narrative built upon them enjoy enough resonance to strengthen the resistance to Zionist hegemony?

Let me list the revisionist assumptions and tropes.

  1. The territory of Palestine was not empty.
  2. The conflict is not a fight between two nationalisms with opposing claims to the same land, but a long-term colonial enterprise of resettlement and local displacement.
  3. The Zionists only won their victories because of support from strong imperial powers.
  4. The explicit purpose of Zionism from the beginning was to displace a local population by a settler population.
  5. All Zionist narratives describing the peaceful intent of the settlers are false fronts to disguise true intentions; they knew that they could only achieve their aims by causing harm to the locals.
  6. A Palestinian population with a nationalist idea of self-determination was already present in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century when Jewish Zionism had its modern birth.
  7. Zionism was a stepchild first of British then of American imperialism.
  8. Zionist success depended less on enterprise and ingenuity from within than on extensive political and economic support from without.
  9. The war on the ground was matched by a discursive battle between competing narratives.
  10. Zionism and Palestinian self-determination are irreconcilable.
  11. Zionism was boosted by the highly influential American Hollywood propaganda machine.
  12. Zionism discarded its narrative of partnership with the powerful in favour of a liberation movement when colonialism fell into disfavour after WWII.
  13. In contrast to settlement colonialist movements in the West, the indigenous movement for self-determination did not suffer the enormous loss of population from disease, but it did suffer a huge manpower loss in its war with the British from 1936-1939 that put it at a great disadvantage in the conflict that followed WWII.
  14. From the start, the Zionists enjoyed a logistic advantage over not only the local population but the Arab states in the region.
  15.  The Palestinians were not only overwhelmed by settler colonialism but by incompetence and corruption of their own leadership.
  16.  The movement for Palestinian self-determination is gaining new momentum with the rise of the people in the West against their own elites and against settler colonialism that delivered so much harm to not only indigenous populations but to mistreated minorities.

Chayei Sarah חיי שרה

On Bondage

I want to set this Torah text and the story of Sarah and Rebeka against the background of a movie and a TV series. The Israeli movie Sand Storm (Sufat Chol), written and directed by Elite Zexer, was shown at TIFF four years ago and won the Israeli “Oscar” (an Ophir) as the best film in 2016 and the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The four-part TV miniseries, Unorthodox, also on Netflix, is one of the hits of the 2020 season. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” it was adapted by Anna Winger and directed by Maria Schrader.

Both the Hasidic mini-series and the Bedouin movie are about women kept in quasi-bondage to their respective communities and the males in those communities who are the enforcers of tradition and ensuring that women continue to treat their husbands as kings. Both are about young women trying to break free from those bonds. In both, the performances, especially by the leads, the sets, the cast, the script, the plot and the settings, reek of authenticity. They are both wonderful to watch.   

Sand Storm opens with a Bedouin daughter (Layla or Lulu played by Lamis Ammar) in her late teens driving a pickup truck along a dusty desert road. Beside her in the passenger seat is a man who we quickly learn is her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari). The two banter back and forth as the father tries to extract what mark she received in a course at the university. 90, he guesses. She finally owns up that she got a 63. Her father is clearly very disappointed. “63, surely you are kidding.” When he recognizes she has told the truth, he becomes angry and chastises her.

Will he make her withdraw from university? He clearly expected more from her. And we quickly learn why. She is a very bright as well as very beautiful young lady with a very strong independent streak. She is obviously a student at Ben Gurion University in Be’ersheva where the one scene outside the Bedouin compounds is set. Otherwise, the whole movie unreels in this tiny Bedouin ramshackle of a tiny town in the Negev Desert south of Be’ersheva. It is a dusty town. Layla no sooner washes the floor of the house than it is soon again covered in dust. When she and her father are getting out of the truck, they try as much as possible to sweep the dust off their clothes. But, as we shall see, they do not succeed.

God formed humans from dust and to dust they will return. Dust, as in James Joyce’s Eveline,is a symbol of a suffocating, boring, restrictive and dreary life. At least in the Hasidic tale, there is a mikvah in which the bride thoroughly immerses herself with the last piece of dirt scraped out of her fingernails. Later in the film, she will strip off her pantyhose and sweater and finally remove her wig or sheitel to allow it to float away in Lake Wannsee right opposite the castle outside of Berlin where the final orders were signed to implement the Holocaust. Like Moishe, Yanky’s cousin, the Chasidic enforcer, who later strips and jumps in the Rhine, she too submerges and then floats on her back.

These are moments of freedom from the strictures of Hasidism.  The Holocaust in many ways haunts the series. Washing is not only renewal; it is risk, for, as the rabbi opines at the seder table, whenever Jews assimilate, whenever they forget who they are, “they suffer God’s wrath.” It does not pay to take risks.

Unorthodox opens with a broken eruv hanging from a pole. Though its purpose is briefly explained in the TV series when Esty (Shira Haas) is forced to leave her meagre carrying bag of belongings behind in her flight from Williamsburg and the Satmar Hasidic sect in which she grew up, I doubt if many viewers will catch the symbolism. For an eruv does not merely place a wire or a string around a community so that the area it surrounds can be treated as a single household in which its members can carry parcels and handbags on shabat. The thin string ties high rise apartments, stores and streets into a single private domain. When the eruv is broken, instead of uniting one set of domains and separating it from the rest of the world, the supposed “private domain” is shattered as well as the imaginary separation of the community from its surroundings.

That, in a nutshell, is the series which starts with Esty’s flight from the sect and her arranged marriage or shiddukh and flits backwards to the process of getting married and the quality and character of the first year of her married life in Williamsburg and forward to her life in Berlin where she discovers herself and her freedom. Whereas Esty escaped her bonds, Layla in Sand Storm heads back into the family compound with her father.

Clearly, Suliman is a very progressive father. After all, he allows his daughter to go to university. Further, that is a place where she can mix with other boys unchaperoned by her parents – and why it is risky. When they reach the edge of town, Layla pulls over and the two switch seats. Clearly, neither wants to allow the people of the town to observe a father teaching his daughter to drive. In the Hasidic TV series, women have different restrictions; for example, they cannot sing in front of men. In the Bedouin village, custom insists that women do not drive.

We soon learn the purpose of the trip in the truck. Suliman is returning with a bed for he and his bride-to-be. He is greeted by his sullen wife, Jalila, played by Ruba Blal. We quickly understand why she looks so sour. Her husband has built a new and much better, even if ostentatiously decorated, house for his new bride to be. We see the contrast between the new house and the old one when Suliman gives his first wife a tour of the new home. Suliman is about to take his second wife.

A Bedouin and a Hasidic wedding occupy centre stage of each respective production. They are both elaborately and sensitively choreographed as occasions of great joy. But the joy hides tears. In the Bedouin village, it will mean demotion and eventually banishment for wife number one, Jalila – not freedom from bondage in a bad marriage, but a new, more restricted confinement. The Satmar Hasidic joyous festivities are followed by Esty finding herself in an increasingly oppressive marriage to a well-intentioned momma’s boy, Yanky, played by Amit Rahav. It is from him and the marriage that she eventually flees.

In the struggle between tradition allied with the appearance of patriarchy and strong independent women, both Layla and her mother Jalila in the Bedouin film, and Esty and her mother Leah (Alex Reid) in the Hasidic series, fight against oppression, resulting in loss in one and victory in the other. Esty married to find a sense of purpose in her life. Layla married when she gave up the search for purpose in her life. To escape to freedom and uncertainty and risk or remain within the tight bounds of a community secure and fulfilled by having a family and children – that is the question. Culture is not only a particular set of restrictive norms but its opposite, the music and art of a cosmopolitan world that Esty found in Berlin. When a movie or a TV series is marked by both psychological insight and cultural acuity against a very rich physical and emotional tapestry, each story offers a universal message.

Against this shadowy background of both the film and the TV series I want to explore the relationship between Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and then Rebekah and Yitzchak (Isaac). Parashat Chaye Sarah open with the death of Sarah at the age of 127 in Kiryat Arba, now Hebron, in Canaan. Clearly Abraham loved his wife for he mourned and wailed over her death. In contrast, Yanky sobbed when his wife left him even after he entreated her to return. In the Bedouin village, men do not and did not cry, let alone over a wife.

What do we know of Sarah’s life that was covered in the two previous parasha? When Abram left Haran with his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai for Canaan, they had accumulated considerable wealth and possessions. Once arriving in Canaan, the troop gradually moved towards the Negev (12:9), the setting for Sand Storm. When there was a famine in the land, he took his family to Egypt. But before entering Egypt he turned to Sarai and told her that because she was so beautiful, the Egyptians will kill me in order to take you as a wife. Pretend or tell them that you are my sister, which she really was since they had the same father but different mothers. (See 20:12) When they encountered the Egyptians, they did take Sarah for the Pharaoh’s harem and, instead of killing Abraham, let him live and prosper and grow even more wealthy.

The Egyptians were afflicted by a plague, discovered the cause as the fact that the Pharaoh was sleeping with another man’s wife, so Abram, Sarai and their entourage were expelled from Egypt into the Negev Desert. We learn very early that Abram is a revolutionary. Even when he used his men to defeat the enemies of Sodom, he refused to benefit from their wealth (14:23). When at the beginning of Chai Sarah he was offered a gravesite for his recently departed wife, he refused to take any as a gift, but rather bargained to buy the Cave of Machpelah in which to bury his late wife. Abraham had established a new culture built on covenants and contracts rather than gifts. Guilt from breaking a witnessed agreement rather than shame at not repaying a gift was to become a cornerstone of the new culture. God too became a covenantal figure rather than an arbitrary exerciser of divine power. Further, God was dedicated to ensure that the progeny of Abraham – he had none at the time God made him the promise – that, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” (15:13)

Williamsburg is not America, Esty opined. But Esty was a stranger both in Williamsburg and the United States. Ironically, she eventually found a home in Berlin, the centre of the instigation of the Holocaust. In contrast, Layla always felt at home in her Bedouin village even though she rebelled against its strictures. Both Sarah and Rebekah leave their father’s homes for a new land and the creation of a new nation built on a culture of contracts and guilt as well as a culture in service to progeny rather than progeny to strictly following tradition. Unorthodox tries to have both cake in the form of lots of children to replace the six million murdered while paradoxically insisting that those children are akin to matzah and, unlike Abraham’s heirs, strictly observe the traditions of an inherited past. Clearly, the Bedouin village in today’s Negev was a mirror of Williamsburg, only the men wore jeans and t-shirts.

Abraham’s first child was not by Sarai but by Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Sarai who had offered her to Abram when she herself seemed to be infertile. She became Abram’s concubine (a second wife), became pregnant and then, “when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.” (16:4) Hagar took on airs and no longer respected Sarai. Abram gave Sarai permission to treat Hagar as she wished and “Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away.” (16:6) In the wilderness, an angel appeared to Hagar, addressed her directly and instructed her to return to Sarai and put up with her harsh treatment. But the angel promised her a child to be called Ishmael.

The rivalry between the two “wives” was underway and is mirrored in Sand Storm. Children are caught up in that rivalry. Each would be an heir of Abram to whom God had made an unconditional commitment for all time. This was a God not dedicated to His own glory but to the children of man. The promise was for the future not subservience to the past, to independent and responsible humans and not blind obedience to a divine being. God served man and that is why men served God. This was as true of Ishmael as it was of Isaac when he was born. Circumcision would be a sign of the covenant for them both. Abram was renamed Abraham. Sarai was renamed Sarah and promised a son, Isaac. They were all in bondage to God, but God was also in bondage to humans – the other side of the coin forgotten both in the Bedouin village and in Williamsburg.

When Sarah overheard that promise, she snickered. She was well past menopause. She, like Eve, lied to God. She denied that she had laughed, but a year later gave birth to the son as promised. He was named Isaac, Yitzhak meaning “he will laugh.” (See 21:6) Unlike the tale in Sand Storm where the first wife, Jalila rather than second wife, is banished back to the home of her father when she stands up to her husband in defence of her oldest daughter, Layla. In contrast, Abraham gave in to the willfulness of Sarah. Esty after one year of marriage and one successful but very painful act of intercourse, like Sarah, also became pregnant. Abraham assumed that bondage to God meant blind obedience. He learned it did not and proved himself able to argue with God. Sarah would never have offered her son as a sacrifice to God so Abraham had to sneak away in the early hours of the morning. Esty went further and fled the world of oppression committed to bringing up a child in a cosmopolitan but very risky world.  

Whereas Jalila evolves from a harsh and strict mother and reveals her deep love for her eldest daughter and becomes, for that love, a very sympathetic figure, Sarah becomes even harsher and banished Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. There, Hagar’s deep love for her son becomes apparent. God promises Hagar that not only will her son survive, he will become the father of twelve that, in turn, will develop into twelve tribes. Hagar finds a wife for him from her Egyptian family and wee see the origins of marrying within your own tribe for both the Bedouin and the Satmar Hasidim.

In the biblical text, Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father. It is a tale of reconciliation in which all the progeny prosper, though not without the grandchildren of Isaac eventually moving to Egypt and becoming slaves of the Egyptians for four hundred years. Even though there is much suffering on the way, God’s dedication to and covenant with the progeny of Abraham would be kept. God would be revealed as a very different celestial being, not one who enslaves humans to His service, but who asks for voluntary service in return so that those who serve Him will grow and prosper as responsible individuals. But the risks became too great and bondage became a matter of absolute obligation for both Bedouin and Hasidim.

Sand Storm has a tragic outcome. In spite of the progressive inclinations of the father, the power of patriarchy is restored. Wives would be forced to submit to the will of their husbands rather than asserting their own will and independence; instead, independent assertions of will are crushed. In Unorthodox, female independence is set free. The ultimate victims are not the daughters, but the risk takers. Whereas the Torah and Unorthodox are stories of emancipation, Sand Storm is a tale of the tragedy of feminine suppression.  In the end, in spite of the father’s progressive leanings, in spite of his unequivocal love for his daughters, they become the victims instead of being treated by a father for whom “compassion for his children” (Palms 103:13) trumps all.

That is why, in the end, the Torah is not a tale of patriarchy but of the process of matriarchy gradually assuming the upper hand. Whereas a wife for Isaac was obtained from Abraham’s family according to the same strictures as the Bedouin, and perhaps the somewhat broader but still very narrow strictures of the Satmar sect, look at how Rebekah was tracked down and enlisted to marry Isaac according to both the  narrator and Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, who located Rebekah.

Abraham told Eliezer to go find a wife for Isaac from his native land, but the servant interpreted that more narrowly to find her only among members of his family and, serendipitously, that is where – thank providence – he found Rebekah. In fact, Rebekah found him by offering water to Eliezer’s camels. Only then did he learn that she was the granddaughter of Nahor and, according to his retelling of what happened, give her the jewelry as a present and bridal payment. Even wives had to be obtained transactionally rather than by force.

In contrast, the matchmaker for Esty did not carry out his responsibilities to ensure that Esty was born of a solid and good family but just affirmed that he had found aa wife from Abraham’s family as instructed. Further, as in the story of Rebekah and of Esty, it is the women – the mother of Yanky – with whom the match is negotiated even though she will later blame her husband for being too relaxed on the credentials required. In Sand Storm, men are unequivocally and exclusively in charge of the negotiations.

Unfortunately, Esty did not have her mother in her life with whom she could check whether the match was a good one. Rebekah ran to her mother’s house to get her approval and Laban, her brother, is sent forth as the intermediary. As with Abraham, in effect the father then appeared to in effect say that whomever his wife approved of, so did he. Layla spoke to her mother first, who warned and chastised her for wanting to marry a boy she met at university for that would enrage her father. It did. And when Layla’s mother stood up for her, that is what led to her banishment.

Both Rebekah’s mother, Betuel, and Sarah, Isaac’s mother, are the powerhouses in their respective families. So is Esty’s mother, even though she was defeated and fled into exile. So is Jalila, Layla’s mother, even though she too was banished, but locally back to her father’s house rather than abroad. It is through the women that primacy is given to the parents serving their progeny rather than the reverse as in the Bedouin culture where, when Jalila confronts her husband, she is banished. Further, though it is Abraham who establishes Judaism as a covenantal and contractual culture that feeds off guilt, women are the implementers. The Bedouin mother tried but failed. The mother that fled the Hasidic sect tried but failed. But that is only because Hasidism is a throwback to tribal patriarchal culture rather than placing the real power of cultural transmission in the hands of women.

The American Election Part V: Norms and Governance

The “efficiencies” introduced by the US Postal Service prior to the election, particularly in Democratic-dominated areas, did impede the delivery of ballots until these cuts were suspended. This failure in governance could be considered political interference in the selection of a president. Measures that reduced the possibility of eligible voters being able to cast their ballot did so as well. Old fashioned measures, such as poll taxes and literary tests, are no longer used. But reducing voter rolls in counties which generally vote for the opposition by severely limiting early and absentee ballots, reducing access to voting stations, reducing the number of voting places in minority areas by Republican governments, distributing misinformation on where and when to vote and making identification difficult for the voter, all were used to limit voting from the other side. Gerrymandering, that is, drawing constituency boundaries so that Democratic voters, for example, were crowded into the same constituency so that, although that constituency might be lost in the voting, three other surrounding constituencies might be won because they number of Democratic voters in each was reduced.  

Gerrymandering, and a host of other measures to suppress the vote of minority voters expected to vote mostly Democratic, worked to keep the senate in Republican hands, reduce the Democrat majority in the House and to deliver well over 70 million votes to Trump in spite of his appalling character and his massive failure in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing constituencies in such a politicized instead of a neutral way might be legal, might even have been the norm no matter which party held power, but it was not and should not be a norm of a quality democracy.

Breaches in norms may not have been strictly illegal, but they did offer an unwarranted assault on the democratic process. For most norms – such as how power is transferred from one administration to the next – are not written regulations, but assumptions about how leading politicians are expected to behave when they lose. Instead, Donald Trump’s declared victory at 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning when voting had not been completed, gained little traction. His futile calls to stop the counting (at least in those states where he lead) appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.

The problem was that breaking norms was at the heart of the Trump approach to governance – and of his widespread appeal for disaffected voters. That he kept getting away with it, that he rubbed the noses of his Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House to ensure their supine support, actually won him applause. Power back to the people was Trump’s slogan even as he broke almost every single norm that limited presidential power lest an incumbent use power against the will of the people.

Trump never did, as he promised, release his tax returns. He never reported on the loans he owed to foreign powers and/or banks. He openly flouted the norm of separating private business interests from executing government responsibilities. He fed his clubs, hotels and golf courses with business, not only from those who wanted to get on his good side, but from the large contingent of security personnel and civil servants required to accompany him when he golfed an average of 70 times a year at his own golf courses and when he visited Mar-a-Lago. What used to be an absolute norm – avoiding even the appearance of personal financial gain in carrying out presidential responsibilities – had been thrown in the trash heap with little fanfare.

Donald Trump abjured accountability, firing whistleblowers at will and even five Inspector Generals, the internal watchdogs of government operations. There were no legal obstacles, except normatively that this was not the way presidents were expected to govern. Presidents are not supposed to remove the Inspector General of the Intelligence service for personal political motives. Michael Atkinson had not blocked the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s blackmailing of the Ukraine president to get dirt on the Bidens in return for American military aid and support. Christi Grimm, the Inspector General for Health and Human Services, had been too honest in revealing the terrible faults in managing the COVID-19 pandemic that led to so many deaths. Steve Linnick, the Inspector General for the State Department was inspecting whether Pompeo and his wife had used civil servants for personal purposes. Because he had not been sufficiently loyal, he was fired. For Trump, the responsibilities of these officials were not to higher principles but, rather, to the person and not the office of the president.

President Trump decapitated the heads of the defence department – Mark Esper, the defence secretary, resigned. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr. James Anderson, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, Joseph Kernan, and Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense, Jen Stewart, submitted letters of resignation. They were all replaced by Trump loyalists. Chris Miller became Acting Secretary, Anthony Tata was named under Secretary of Defence for Policy. Did Trump want to use the military to defend retaining his continuation in office? Was national security being used for personal interests rather than the security of the state?

Trump’s conversion of the Attorney General of the United States into his own consigliere of his mob mentality was perhaps his greatest breach of accepted norms, starting with Jeff Sessions who had heretofore been an unquestioning loyalist. Trump fired the FBI Director because he had crossed him, Trump’s own personal interventions into the legal cases against his campaign associates were serious breaches of previous normative standards. Trump attacked and insulted the judge trying a case in which he was personally involved. He pardoned associates who had been convicted. Instead of the justice system being independent of power, it was increasingly reduced to an extension of his personal interests.

Loyalists rather than competent individuals or even just Republican partisans were appointed to other senior civil service roles. Trump insulted the democratic leaders of allied countries, including Canada. In a democracy, practices and traditions determine norms and their protection. Trump has been a disrupter of such norms. He personalized foreign policy – the withholding of aid to the Ukraine until he received cooperation in announcing an investigation into the Bidens – just the most egregious example. But perhaps the clearest breach of norms is the professed claim to tell the truth. Donald Trump is an unadulterated serial liar.

Though a number of those broken norms will have to be restored through legislation, unfortunately banning the propensity to lie will not be one of them. How do you legislate restraint? How do you legislate against self-aggrandizement? How do you legislate civility? How do you legislate against spreading conspiracy theories or offering cover for white racists? But you can legislate against authoritarian propensities that had heretofore been unwritten norms.

However, the biggest and most important norm belonged to voters. They were expected, not required, to cast a ballot. That norm emerged from the Trump administration much stronger than ever. Looking at the glass two-thirds full, over 160 million American voters cast ballots. Looking at the glass one-third empty, up to 80 million did not. Perhaps some were ill.  Some were in longer term care facilities and were incapable of voting. But I am not letting off the hook those who were eligible to vote but chose not to do so. Given that about 155 million votes were cast, and 239 million Americans were eligible to vote, and generously assuming that five million of those who did not vote were ill or faced other serious obstacles to voting (even by mail!), that adds 79 million Americans whose souls are stained by their failure to care enough about the fate of their country, of the world, and of democracy, to cast a ballot.

Should we celebrate that more voters than ever came out to vote Donald Trump out of office? Or should we shed crocodile tears because more citizens cast votes for Donald Trump as the loser than any previous president in the history of the United States? The norm of voting had been more than upheld. But Donald Trump, by personalizing the practices of governance, came far closer than anyone preceding him to cover the first lap towards an authoritarian form of rule. What if he had won? Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who did not vote for Trump, correctly stated that, “No election or person is more important than our Democracy,” which meant that preserving democratic norms was even more important than an election. Was it? What happens if electors choose an arsonist who will not allow the firetrucks to leave their stations whenever he decides to set a fire? Should we take away his book of matches?

The sitting presidenmt is on the way to getting at least 75 million votes. He has 72,174,568 and there are still 6,577,661 to be counted. Thankfully, Biden leads Trump by 5 million votes on route to 80 million. But what if Trump had not been responsible for many of not most of the 232,000 Americans who died of COVID-19? What if unemployment levels had not reached record heights so that Trump will be the first president since at least WWII to leave office with fewer jobs in the country than when he took office? Had he not been impeached by the House of Representatives for “high crimes and misdemeanours”? And he currently undermines democracy by insisting his loss was a fraud. What if he won? He came close. The situation reveals how fragile democracy is.

There are those that celebrate voter turnout as the apogee of democratic success and voter apathy as a sign of failure. The election for them was a stunning victory for representative democracy. But recall that when the referendum was held in Germany in 1933 to withdraw from the League of Nations as the key step to consolidating Nazi rule, 96.3% of voters cast ballots. The voter approval rate was 95.1% And this was not the result of coercion or intimidation or fraud. Further, Jews participated in the vote. And their much higher rate of disapproval of the measure was subsequently used against them to reinforce the Nazi claim that they were disloyal. The series of referenda culminated in 1934 in giving Adolf Hitler absolute power as Chancellor in Germany.

All this is to insist that although voting may be a cornerstone of democracy, it is not the only one. Governance in the interests of citizens rather than in service to preserving and expanding power is another normative practice of democracy. So are the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

Biden promises to heal. Biden promises to lower the toxic levels of public discourse. But how if Donald Trump continues to shout obscenities from the side of the field, “Lock him up,” can the temperature of partisanship be reduced? If Trump, given his control over so many voters, continues to hold Republican elected officials hostage, democracy remains in deep shit. Perhaps, however, because the vote counting has been so tedious and so drawn out, we may still have time for more and more Republicans to grow a backbone and remove their support for a regime approaching authoritarian rule.

“By the skin of our teeth.” Will that be the story of our time?

The American Election Part IV: Norms and Voting

“The U.S. election was a stunning triumph for democracy at a moment when it was sorely needed.” Professor Clifford Orwin, The Globe and Mail

If political polling is an effort to use the understanding of preferences to predict voting patterns, it is the voting itself that is a cornerstone of democracy. As long as polling is merely a matter of recording and possibly influencing voting, it is not contrary to democracy. In fact, as Ira Basin informed me, George Gallup and Saul Rae (Bob Rae’s father) wrote a book in 1940 called The Pulse of Democracy in which they argued that, “public opinion polling would be the saviour of democracy because it would allow leaders, for the first time, to truly know what ordinary citizens were thinking, as opposed to the rich and powerful who’s voices could always be heard.” Polling can enhance rational choice. Polls can also be deliberately distorted to influence a vote. If so, that is a serious step in undermining democracy. But it may not be illegal. It may only be an undermining of democratic norms.

Was polling misused to distort voting? Can polling provide an answer and explain the results of the vote in one swing state, Michigan? By a margin of 47.2% Democratic to 40.1% Republican, Michigan voters seemed to prefer the Democratic Party to control the U.S. Senate since, in 2018, Debbie Stabenow (Democrat) was re-elected by that margin. In the polling for the Michigan 2020 Senate race between Democrat incumbent Gary Peters and Republican challenger John James, in the WDIV/Detroit News poll leading up to the Michigan senate race, Gary Peters lead John James by a margin of 48.4%-38.8%; 8.7% of voters were undecided. It was very similar to the lead shown for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But Peters seemed to be running behind Trump by 2.8% of voters. However, the final result of the 2020 Michigan senate race was razor thin, 49.8% for Gary Peters (2,721,207 votes) and 48.3% for John James (2,636,892). Why were the polls so wrong in the Senate as well as the presidential race?

Look at one key county, Macomb in eastern Michigan and part of the more prosperous northern metro Detroit. Obama carried the county. So did Governor Gretchen Whitmer, though by a smaller margin. But Hillary Clinton lost it in 2016 by 12 points and in 2020 Joe Biden lost it by 8, though both got more votes the closer they got to the city of Detroit. On the other hand, Trump, though he got 40,000 more votes from the county in 2020 compared to 2016, received a smaller percentage. Even in a county he lost, Biden improved his vote among suburban voters, particularly female suburban voters.

Go back one election for a clearer example of intermixing polling manipulation and competition for votes. In 2018 when Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow stood for re-election, a poll ascribed to Delphi Analytics published in The Washington Free Beacon showed that rapper Kid Rock, then purportedly considering the Republican nomination, if put up as a competitor to Senator Stabenow, would win 54% of the vote compared to Stabenow’s 46%. This was Kid Rock who had sung, “If I was president of the good ol’ USA, you know I’d turn our churches into strip clubs and watch the whole world pray.” The poll went viral.

The poll was credited to Delphi Analytics. Was that organization a legitimate political pollster? It would seem not from its own website.

Delphi Analytics is a business centered around data, around analytics and around value. We are focused on problem solving for global customers with big-data and hard-to-manage problems. Although we began in the United States in the early 1990’s with an emphasis on the financial markets – we’ve now established a 25-year history in Europe developing markets with both financial and trade-related solutions.

Or, in another version of itself:

Delphi Analytics is a technology company that utilizes a variety of data analytics, models and machine learning to generate algorithms to increase predictability and outcomes in trading and corporate financial risk management. Delphi constructs proprietary algorithms and indices (termed AiCi’s = Artificial Intelligence Confidence Indices) as well as develops AiCi’s for specific/custom use.

Whatever its record in large scale data analysis, the company seemed to have no background in political polling. So why was it cited in a Michigan non-race for a Senate in the summer of 2018 for a candidate who never ran? In the early race for the Senate seat in Michigan in 2020, John James (Republican) was running against the Democratic incumbent, Greg Peters. John James was Black; Greg Peters was White. The Republicans had a plan to wean Democrat-held Senate (and house) seats by running women and minority candidates in Democratic strongholds.

It was very apparent to many that the 2018 poll showing that Kid Rock would beat Stabenow was not a legitimate poll; it is even very doubtful than any poll was ever conducted. Was it a form of mock poll? Possibly. Was it used to publicize Kid Rock so his new record release would sell better? Possibly. However, it is more likely that the exercise was not intended to elicit preferences, but to see if the voting population was fluid. Kid Rock was simply a place holder with significant name recognition in the Black community, particularly in Detroit. Many who read the poll took it seriously. (Further, there were some allegations that the poll was used to make money on internet election betting sites. If so, that did not seem to be the prime intention of the poll, but an indirect benefit.)

Voting may be sacrosanct. Voting may indeed be a cornerstone of democracy. But manipulating voting is as old as the practice of voting itself. For the object is to get more votes for your side than opponents get for theirs’. There can be undemocratic voting – when there is only one permitted candidate, for example. In single party states, we often encounter “guided” voting. Or, as in Iran, there may be candidates who compete, but only if they are approved by the religious establishment. But in North America, winning is as much a transactional exercise as an expression of the will of the people.  

I was the guest of one of the candidates trying to win the Progressive Conservative nomination in a suburban riding in Toronto. There were three males competing for the nomination – the establishment WASP candidate who had run and lost twice before and two other candidates from two different ethnic groups with a significant presence in the riding, but neither was anywhere near a majority. One of the ethnic candidates had signed up virtually the whole of his large church as members of the PC party. The other ethnic candidate had signed up large numbers of ethnic Canadian citizens of the same ethnicity as himself from his riding, but they did not have a common institutional affiliation. In the first round of voting, the WASP candidate ran third.

The non-churched ethnic candidate, who had not been able to sign up as many members as the churched one, had made a deal that if he or the WASP candidate ran third (neither expected to run first on the initial ballot), that candidate would ask his supporters to vote for the other. The WASP candidate ran third and did as he had agreed to do. But the non-churched ethnic candidate saw that even with the supporters of both candidates who ran 2nd and 3rd, the church candidate would still win. The non-churched candidate made a deal with a candidate with a different ethnicity running in the riding next door. Each would do their best to get their ethnic compatriots to join the PC party in the respective adjacent ridings and ask those new members to vote for the ethnic candidate whose ethnicity they did not share. They had traded ethnic support with the adjacent ridings. Who said that politics was not akin to a sporting match?

There were two serious problems. The WASP candidate had little control over his supporters compared to the ethnic candidate. Second, the neighbouring ethnic candidate, who won his nomination, did not put in as much effort into getting his fellow ethnic members to sign up for the PC party in the adjacent riding. The Church candidate won over the non-church one by 800 to 600 in a constituency of about 80,000 voters.

Democratic party professionals know that this is how the system works on the ground level. So do Republican party professionals. The selection of the candidate by a relatively small group is the first key step. Then advertising, phone banking, text banking, door-knocking, debates and now the extensive use of social media kick in. The Republicans in Michigan failed to take into account the discipline and organization, largely in the hands of Black women in Detroit. James as a Black was expected to make significant inroads into the black vote; he only won 10% of the votes of Blacks in Detroit according to exit polls. That is the major reason why Peters won. That is why the Biden/Harris ticket won in Michigan.  

Did anyone breach democratic norms? No, everyone had competed according to the same norms for getting the vote. The democratic norms were not simply about the right to vote but about how best to capture that vote. Political scientists have bewailed the weakening of norms as a result of Trump’s assault on the norms of democracy (see my next blog). That determination to win at all costs posed a danger to democratic institutions. However, whatever the case for such charges and worries, generally on the ground, the election was run according to democratic norms that govern both voting and capturing the vote. The voting was very broadly conducted securely, honestly, fairly and transparently. The Republican assault and charges that those norms had been broken did not appear to have any substance. But the charges may play a roll in the exercise of manipulation for control of the Trump party between 2020 and 2024.

Take another state and another county, this time in Texas that Trump won. Democrats expected and counted on making significant inroads with the Latino population in Texas, overwhelmingly of Mexican background. This was especially true since Donald Trump had insulted Mexicans. The plight of asylum seekers in the state, and especially the images of child separation, were expected to enhance the Latino vote in Mexico for the Democrats.

But that is not what happened. Rio Grande Valley with a huge Latino population went for Trump in increasing numbers, though not generally a majority. Though Biden came within 6 points of winning the solid red state of Texas, for the first time since Lyndon Baines Johnson, Trump, a Republican candidate, won in blue Zapata County. Further, in Hidalgo County that Hillary Clinton won by 40 points, Biden’s victory was cut to 17 points. He had dramatically smaller numbers than Clinton along the 1,200-mile Rio Grande border. Thus, in spite of – or perhaps because of – Trump’s treatment of new Mexican immigrants, and given the absence of any significant federal infrastructure investment in border areas during Trump’s four years, one might expect an increased support for Biden. In fact, that vote as a percentage declined. Trump ran ahead of past GOP numbers, offsetting Biden gains in suburban Texas. Trump won more votes than George W, Bush who had specifically reached out for the Latino vote and supported immigration reform.

The proponent of the wall, the insulter of Mexican immigrants, had gained votes among rural Latinos. A combination of factors was at work. Many Latinos feared the competition for jobs from the new arrivals. It reminded me of 1979 when we were active in the private sponsorship movement of the initial wave of ethnic Chinese fleeing Vietnam. Other than the Hong Kong professional class who had immigrated to Toronto, we found that we had weak support and even opposition from the waiters in Chinatown. They explicitly feared economic competition for their jobs.

Trump had an additional appeal to Latino males versus the urban and suburban educated Latinos which increasingly supported the Democratic Party. Ethnic Mexicans worked in the oil fields of West Texas and Biden promised a switch out of fossil fuels. Ethnic Mexicans were not involved in the high-tech construction of windmills to capture energy from the winds of west Texas. Trump had the image of a regular guy; he did not read. He was macho in his treatment of women. He supported a gun culture. Many Latinos had switched from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity. They often worked as Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents. Thus, in Hidalgo County, Biden got 127,507 votes, 8,698 over Hillary’s total, but Trump got 89,991 votes, 41,349 over his 2016 vote. Trump lost but he won. He cut into Biden’s majority so severely that Biden could not catch up in the rest of the state. Instead of the counties along the Rio Grande swinging more for Biden, Trump increased his percentage intake of the Latino vote and denied Biden a victory in Texas and a chance to turn a previously solid red state blue.

Polls did not capture the great diversity in education, skills, generations, gender, degree of assimilation and immigration history of Latinos in Texas where the ground game from county to county was critical. Republicans had concentrated on raising the profile of Hispanics in the party. Aron Peña in Hidalgo, a former Democratic campaign worker, became disaffected at his and his compatriots lack of recognition and switched to the Republicans. Where Democrats had run campaigns that stressed local engagement and status, several counties went for Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Overall, however, the pros in the Democratic Party had done too little and what they did came very late. Beto O’Rourke had failed to convince the party to change its strategy in winning the Latino vote. Neglect does not win support. Many Latinos were alienated rather than engaged and Trump attracted alienated voters.

The United States proved to be a robust democracy in spite of Donald Trump’s authoritarian propensities. More people cast ballots than ever before, even for the loser, Donald Trump. There was no significant violence. There was no significant intimidation. And there was almost no fraud. The norms of voting and of recruiting voters had by and large been followed.

The American Election Part III: Polling

Opinion polls tally voter preferences. They ae almost as old as America itself. The Raleigh Star and the North Carolina State Gazette, the Wilmington American Watchman and the Delaware Advertiser all published surveys in 1824 predicting that Andrew Jackson would defeat John Quincy Adams. He did – 335 to 169.

Gallup is the longest reputable pollster in the United States. Since 1948, it has conducted eighteen presidential polls. What is not recognized is that it has significantly erred in five of them, three since the turn of the century. If your batting average had dropped from being in the eighty percentile to fifty percent, there might be some expectation that you would be benched.

The first major error took place in 1948. Gallup erroneously predicted John Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman. The predicted breakdown of the vote was 50% for Dewey, 44% for Truman. It was a consensus view and was the most embarrassing moment for polling in U.S. history. Harry Truman, of course, won.

Gallup erred again in 1976, 2000, 2012, 2016 and 2020. In the twenty-first century, it was wrong 3 out of 6 times and in the last three elections, there was a hundred percent error record. In 2000, on 27 October, Gallup predicted George W. Bush would garner 52% of the vote while Al Gore only obtained 39%. In a 51.2% turnout, the Bush/Chaney team actually obtained 50,462,412 votes or 47.87% of the total. The Gore/Lieberman team obtained 51,009,810 votes or 48.38% of the total.

In 2004, the turnout increased to 56.7%. Bush/Cheney received 50.7% of the popular vote and won by 35 electoral college votes. The Kerry/Edwards team won 59,028,444 votes or 48.3%. Polls generally predicted a close race with Bush the likely winner. It was the only election in the twenty-first century that Republicans won more of the popular vote than Democrats. Pollsters appeared to recover their reputations.

The turnout increased again in 2008 when 58.2% of the electorate cast ballots. Barack Obama received an amazing 52.9% of the votes cast while John McCain, a true hero in the American firmament, but one who tethered himself mistakenly to Sarah Palin, won only 45.7% of the vote. In the final Gallup pre-election poll, it was estimated that Barack Obama would win with 52% of the vote while McCain would get only 42%, pretty accurate for Obama, but beyond the room for error for McCain. This was a clear indicator that pollsters were underestimating Republican votes.

In Gallup’s final election survey in 2012, Romney was supposed to get 49% to Obama’s 48% out of a vote total predicted to remain constant. Obama actually won by four percentage points. Gallup issued a report explaining its gross error. The organization blamed:

  • Misidentification of those likely to vote
  • Under-representation of regions which were too broad
  • A system of racial representation that gave extra weight to white voters
  • A new sampling system based on a random selection of numbers listed in the phone book rather than based simply on random numbers.

Who would use Gallup again?

Nothing, however, prepared pollsters for the disaster of 2016. Bunching the states most strongly or very strongly in one camp or another, these were the estimates of the distribution of electoral college votes and a selection of swing states:

PollsterClintonTrumpComment
   SwingStates – Cl.SwingStates– Tr.
   WiscMi    PennOh.   Nev.   Az.
Crystal Ball322216 xxxXx
Associated Press274190xxx  x
Princeton308215xxxxCl. 
FiveThirtyEight272214 xxx x
CNN Electoral268204xxxx  
Cook Political278214xxxx x
Rothenberg/Gonzalez323197xxxx x
NBC274170xxx   
NPR274214xxxx x
The Fix275215xxxx x
Louis Jacobson274186xxx   
ABC News274188xxxx  
         

The swing states either leaned towards Clinton or towards Trump. Generally, the results of the polls were remarkably consistent. The results of the election, however, were not consistent with the polls.

The problem of such inaccuracy is made much worse because people believe polls, believe they have a record for accuracy. In this century, and most notably in the last two elections, it has not been accurate in predicting the margin of victory for the victor and in 2016 even the candidate that won.

While sweeping judgments on the overall performance of polls in 2020 are premature before all the ballots are counted, while, as Joe Biden said, patience is required, nevertheless a number of conclusions can be drawn without fear that they will be subsequently contradicted.

In 2020, polls badly missed the actual results. Most predicted an easy win for former Vice President Joe Biden. Most predicted that the Democrats would make net gains in the Senate, enough to wrest control from the Republicans. They even predicted the strong possibility of gains in the House of Representatives where the Democrats actually lost seats. The mistakes were generally outside the margins of error. Trust in sophisticated prognostication imploded. The ability of expert elites to divine the behaviour of everyday citizens was put into question.

George Gallup, like most pollsters, had a deep faith in numbers and what they represented. True to the Platonic tradition, numbers provided a different order of truth than direct observation. Aggregates matter. Aggregates offer insights that an observer would not otherwise have. George Gallup originally asked who was reading the Daily Iowan that he edited. And which parts did they prefer? In 1936, after mastering statistics and refining his methods, and noting that the Literary Digest had got it right in the previous five presidential elections, predicted, based on its postcard surveys, that the Literary Digest would give Republican Alf Landon 56% of the votes and would, therefore, win.

Gallup was out by only 1% about how the Literary Digest would predict the election. But his own predictions and the magazine’s on the outcome, as well as all the other polls, were also wrong beyond any margin of error. Gallup had not only seriously underestimated the amount by which Franklin Delano Roosevelt would win the election, he expected him to lose to Alf Landon. It was predicted that Landon would win in a landslide, 57.1% to 42.9% taking 370 of the electoral college seats. The actual result: Roosevelt whipped Landon 60.8% to 36.5%.

Gallup spent the next eight years perfecting his methods and breaking the American voting population into demographic groups, a method that remains the mainstay of the polling profession to this day. But what if geography, what if education, what if gender, what if race were all better predictors? What if a pollster had to get the right mixture? What if ideology counted so much that it deformed who would answer questions and how?

But the problem was prediction itself even more than the degree of accuracy. For in consumer products, a pollster wants to determine why a consumer prefers one product rather than another so that the product can be made or packaged in a more appealing way. Polling began to influence and to a degree even shape policy platforms. Further, as the 2020 results showed, what if the pollsters for one reason or another could not reach the reticent rural conservative or the highly mobile youth in the city? How many would vote became harder to estimate than how people would vote.

And what if the division into demographic groups was simply a poor way to classify voters. The polling organization More in Common in Britain has tackled that issue. It starts with the premise of deep fractures no longer based primarily on religion or ethnicity or age. “Societies are fracturing as the forces of division grow stronger, driving people apart. We are losing trust in each other and in the future. Feelings of frustration, powerlessness and a loss of belonging are making us vulnerable to ‘us versus them’ stories, which turn us against each other. Social media is magnifying the loudest and most extreme voices.” (https://www.moreincommon.com/)

More in Common could be a front for Joe Biden message of healing, the message of overcoming the chasms that so divide our societies. “Our organization’s name reflects our vision: to build more united, inclusive and resilient societies in which people believe that what they have in common is stronger than what divides them. More in Common’s mission is to understand the forces driving us apart, to find common ground and help to bring people together to tackle our shared challenges. We draw from ground-breaking research to test and find solutions, working with partners that have the capacity to make a real difference at scale. And we help build the larger field of efforts to strengthen democratic societies against the threats of polarization and division.”

Unfortunately, whereas the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe created a greater sense of togetherness and an awareness of our common humanity, and even uplifted the people into a more caring society, the U.S. under the leadership of Donald Trump went the other way, deepening people’s anxieties and despair at government mismanagement. Mutual trust declined rather than improved. Further, the pandemic enhanced a feeling of localism and greater trust in government on the municipal level. More significantly, perhaps, the “invisibles,” the disengaged were more lonely and more isolated than ever before.

Severe disappointment in both government and other people, and, therefore, deep divisions were prevalent in the U.S. compared to other countries. Ironically, and extremely paradoxically, that increased the base of support for Trumpism even though Donald Trump was a major cause of this effect. This was also the case with rising unemployment, but again with the ironic effect of reinforcing support for Donald Trump who had sold himself as the better manager of the economy. Third, this distrust was more directed towards scientific experts and, shockingly, enhanced trust in Donald Trump and his message of scepticism about institutions. The result: much deeper divisions that ever before and an enormous challenge for those intent on bridging the chasm.

Thus, we had polling that explained the divide rather than just depicting it. Further, the trend line went in precisely the opposite direction as one would expect from rational choice. That, at least, is consistent. Rational choice theory had shown unequivocally that people do not vote based on their perceived best interests but were more often influenced by subliminal clues. Further, old fashioned polling had become obsolete. Monitoring choices by all kinds of ways enabled not only much better ways of predicting voting behaviour, but allowed the surveyors to influence that behaviour by sending out specifically designed reinforcement messages or, alternatively, and much more difficult, signals that undermined existing biases. Surveying had become a matter of manipulation and not just measurement.

However, polls, even as measuring tools as inaccurate as they became, had turned elections into horse races. Who was ahead? Who was behind? Who was catching up? And at what pace? What were the trend lines? Policy issues were swamped by a betting model.

The pollsters claimed they had corrected their methods which failed so badly in 2016. They were prepared for the 2020 election. Once again, most surveys missed the actual results. They predicted an easy win for the Biden/Harris ticket. It was a squeaker. They failed to predict Democratic losses in the House of Representatives. And they predicted that there was a very good chance that Democrats would elect enough senators to wrest control from the Republicans.

But the innovations in the voting system flummoxed them. The COVID-10 crisis encouraged states to facilitate voting my mail and offered more options to vote before election day. And each state had its own rules. How would these systems skew the voting? How would they effect counts since Democrats encouraged voting by mail while Donald Trump discouraged unsolicited voting by mail. He claimed that voting by mail facilitated fraud, even though he could not offer an iota of proof to justify yet another lie.

How much did fear on either side of the divide spur turnout? For it seemed clear that the real race would be determined by how many would vote on each side. Thus, each side exaggerated the fear of what would happen if the other side won. There was so much emotion that pollsters could not track what the controllers of new social media could. But the interest of the controllers of the algorithms was not in reporting voting trends, but in influencing them. They were playing a different – and more perfect – game.  

One of the conclusions of the More in Common polling in the United States is perhaps the most intriguing. Unlike other countries, 4 in 5 of Americans believe that citizens can change society, that democracy works, that the decisions and actions of individual voters have consequences. Americans have more confidence in the efficacy of democracy than any European country, in spite of the fact that U. S. democracy has suffered from the most and the deepest fractures among Western democracies. This is perhaps the greatest irony that needs to be probed all on its own.

Actually, that is not the greatest irony. That will be how the media and the public will follow polls in the next election in spite of the record of polling in the past. The polls were wrong again. Long live polling.

Part II: The American Election

TrumpismA Long-term Problem Versus An Interlude

Populism is not simply the Nietzschean politics of resentment. It is not simply discontent with leaders who only work for their own self interest. Otherwise, why would 70 million, and perhaps 75 million Americans when all votes are counted, offer their support for a blatant narcissist? Why would they resent the nanny state that tries to correct the maldistribution of not only goods and services, but opportunities as well? They are not motivated by a distrust of the extreme disparities in the distribution of wealth, but the chattering classes who they view as looking at them with condescension. They hate the enlightenment. They hate the intellectual and policy elites. They abhor their disdain. They are willing to go to war on behalf of traditional values for they see no sign of a common good, only of their own virtue. They are MAGA believers. They have faith in someone who professes that he will make America great again.

Donald Trump may have lost the presidential election in the United States. He may go down in history as the tenth president to be thrown out of office after one term. He may have won the largest number of votes – over 70 million – for a loser in the history of American politics. But did Trumpism lose? Was it just, in the end, a blip on the television screen of the long history of American democracy as Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker believes? Another McCarthy and Wallace moment? Was the historian of American presidents, the author of the tome on Alexander Hamilton that became the basis for the musical that you have to mortgage your house to see, was Ron Chernow correct that the turbulence of the Trump regime was “a surreal interlude in American life,” “a topsy-turvy moment”?

Do “blip,” “topsy-turvy” and “brief interlude” misrepresent Chernow’s views? At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2019, which POTUS once again boycotted, Chernow opined, “The thing that worries me most is the sustained assault on truth, the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media.” Nevertheless, while he acknowledged the appearance of fragility of both the republic and civil society, he was convinced that Americans would pass the test, that decency would prevail, that Isaac would not have to be sacrificed on an improvised altar at the top of a mountain. Joe Biden embodied that decency. “Democracy endures.” The audience applauded. Chernow applauded “any president who aspires to the Nobel Prize for peace. But we don’t want one to be running for the Nobel prize for fiction.”

Donald Trump lost. However, Trumpism won, and won big, and in spite of Trump, in spite of his gross incompetence in managing the COVID-i9 crisis, in spite of his pettiness, in spite of his misogyny, in spite of his narcissism, in spite of his racism, in spite of his being a bully and a serial liar, in spite of his denigrating dedicated, professional and long-serving civil servants like Anthony Fauci, like Fiona Hill, like Alexander Vindman.

Jeff Flake, the former Republican senator of Arizona, was wrong. “There are no illusions about where the party is going under Trumpism. This is a dead end. This is a demographic cul-de-sac.” Wrong! The king is dead, but long live the king. Instead of the Republican Party ending up in a dead end, it has discovered its means of revival. It has discovered its identity and raison d’être, one which was unanticipated. No outreach to the Latino community was needed as George Bush had advised. An outreach to machismo males, including Latino and Black ones, sufficed. As one scribbler wrote, “The malignant presidency of Donald Trump is moribund.” However, Trumpism is vigorously alive.

Trumpism is heir to Donald Trump’s individual pathology. Trumpism is not only a narrative of necrophilia, a pathological fascination with dead corpses – the coal industry, the prison industrial complex – but Trump tries to murder other institutions, especially international ones, to add to the pile of bodies. He tried to kill the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement.

Which are the most important targets – trade deals, a nuclear cessation agreement with Iran, virtually any agreement that Barack Obama entered into? For Obama practiced, “be real and deal,” while Trump celebrated “deal and steal.” Trump thrived on what the famous psychoanalyst Robert Jay Lifton called, “malignant normalcy[1],” the death of norms that encourage civility and life to thrive in a civilized society.

The problem with such a cult of death is that it believes that it is infallible and that it offers permission to its cultic followers to set aside the demands of a conscience.  Not only did Donald Trump offer a blown-up case of narcissism to the prairie of paranoia that stretched across the heartland of America, but also a personality disorder syndrome that gave the Tea Party and the troglodytes of the Republican Party a social and psychological foundation for their previously ungrounded convictions.

The chants – “build the wall,” lock her up” – can only be understood as an xenophobic effort to restore America to its mythical role as a great economic and military power, but one girded in myopia, racism and nationalist fundamentalism that has always been part of the cult of the flag and the message of evangelical Christian schools. It is this cult which metamorphosed into Trumpism as a religion that superseded Christianity, a faith that must trump science, and hagiography that could not tolerate critical history, that will persist long after Donald Trump.

The narrative offered demanded submission not critique, obeisance rather than dialogue and disputation, conformity rather than exhibitions of intellectual daring. Why? Because the cult’s accounts of the natural geography or the world, its history, its economy, its politics, are based on eternal truths. In that light, Trump’s lies are no worse than anything that comes out of the eminent universities, first class scientific journals and the pens of eminent journalists.

The cult of death is a cult of the lie, the cult of recapture and resurrection all in the name of the gospel of wealth. What better man to lead such a movement than a businessman who built a reputation for wealth on a fraudulent foundation. It is a cult that is rooted in nostalgia for a mythical heroic past of the frontiersman in opposition to restrictive government practices. After all, in the end was not the War of Independence fought against Britain that wanted its treaties with the indigenous tribes respected that prevented the invasion of tribal lands?

What a powerful founding myth – bring civilization to the wilderness, law to the life of savages and freedom to those who were slaves of nature rather than a divine force. Such leadership was beyond reproach. Disease that devastated whole populations were but manifestations of divine will. Should there be any surprise that no real organized effort was made to combat the COVID-19 pandemic? Any alternative universe to this fabulism had to be a “web of lies” that undermined traditional virtues.

And then there was the cultivation of violence that is such an integral part of this cult. The belief that there are good people on both sides, good people among those who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” This belief came from the same roots that insisted that the Ku Klux Klan resort to terror was rare and only undertaken in defence of Whites – and White supremacy. For the cult is racist at its core.

It is also anti-urban. Cities are inherently just newer versions of Sodom and Gomorrah made much worse because they are overpopulated with Blacks. And now that Blacks have moved into the suburbs, these areas too have also become contaminated. Power is a product of lack of motivation complemented by encouragement from the nanny state. This twisted take on the past and the present serves a future that elevates nostalgia to idolatrous practices.

Trump was the prophet of self-pity, of teaching his followers that there were plots that surrounded and undermined them to threaten everything they held dear. The system was rigged against them. That is why Donald Trump lost the election – not because he drove away any who questioned sycophantic respect for the ruler, not because he alienated women, not because he boasted he was the least racist person in the TV studio even as his comments dripped with racist contempt. And not because he adopted a self-inflicted tactical error in attacking unsolicited mailed-in ballots.

Voter fraud! Eight million of them! The attack was against the post office. The attack was against the security of the voting system managed by Democrats and Republicans alike. There was absolutely no evidence that mail ballots were unfair, “unbelievably unfair,” compared to in-person voting. Except in-person voting was like stepping into a confessional cabinet where you owned up to your sins and pledged fealty to your Lord. Mailed ballots are deposited in mail and drop-in voting boxes anonymously. The action lacks any ritual accompaniment. Therefore, it cannot and should not be part of a cultic practice unless a matter of necessity and request.

Carnage becomes The Art of the Comeback. Resurrection and a renaissance are the results of bankruptcy. Trumpism, after all, is a narrative of death and rebirth. Through irresponsible behaviour, Trump caught the coronavirus but was miraculously saved. However, according to the official narrative, his was an act of self-sacrifice, an act he asked to be followed in his multiple rallies across the land. Life after death is the governing trope of this cult.

Joe Biden empathized with those who suffered – and those who died – from COVID-19. Trump defied the virus and insisted, “You can’t catch me.”  Defying and denying death was his ministry. Biden teared-up at the memory of his wife and infant child who died in a car crash when he first became a senator, cried openly over the death of his son, Beau. In showing that he did not and could not defy death, he was ineligible to become an acolyte of Trumpism which demanded that empathy be purged from your soul.

The two wore different symbols. Trump wore red peaked caps with his name on or the MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan he had popularized. Biden wore a mask to protect himself and others. Biden was vulnerable whereas Trump was invulnerable. Democracy is fragile. Autocracy and absolute authority are viewed as the voice of the Eternal.

Trump entered the political commonweal riding on a mule – an ass that carried the message of “birtherism”. Barack Obama could not have been born in the United States. After all, he was so smart. He was suave. He was smooth. He was also Black. There was a general conspiracy that united all the institutions of government from the FBI to the courts that tried to hide the fact that Obama was born abroad, was an alien who misrepresented himself as a native-born American. One-third of Americans believed Donald Trump. For Donald Trump rode on an ass to claim the legitimacy that he was the promised messiah.

Donald Trump’s campaign for four more years was pronounced dead on arrival on shabat. How telling. How appropriate. He had been drowned out in a tsunami of even more votes than his own. However, it was a fraud. It was not real. It was part of the fake news that always threatened to drown him.  Thus, even before Donald Trump is politically buried, he plots his resurrection, he plots his Second Coming. And he bravely refuses to concede. If democracy had to buried in the grave in the same coffin, so be it. For he would rise again even if democracy stayed buried.


[1] Cf Robert Jay Lifton (2019) Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.

Part I – the American Election: The Enlightenment versus Populism

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Partnership

Yesterday evening Joe Biden addressed the people of the United States as well as the world. He claimed that the clear majority of at least four million votes and a majority of the electoral college “made it clear they [the voters] want the country to come together – not to continue to pull apart.” He continued: “we have to remember: the purpose of our politics isn’t total, unrelenting, unending warfare. No. The purpose of our politics, the work of the nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. We may be opponents – but we are not enemies. [my italics] We are Americans.”

Then he called for healing a deeply divided nation. “No matter who you voted for, I’m certain of one thing: The vast majority of the 150 million Americans, they want to get the vitriol out of our politics. We’re certainly not going to agree on a lot of the issues, but we can at least agree to be civil to one another. Let’s put the anger and the demonization behind us. It’s time for us to come together as a nation and heal.”

No! A significant minority of voters do not want the country to come together again. No! A significant minority of American voters do not want the government to solve problems; for them, the government is the problem. No! You are not Americans; only we are Americans they claim. Only we wave the flag in pride. You, we dare say, are our enemies. You are the devil incarnate. The vast majority in the heartland make up the real America  

If Joe Biden does not recognize that there is a real and deep-seated war, if he tries to paper over differences with an appeal to the existence of a common faith, then he does not recognize who he is fighting. But perhaps he does. Perhaps offering an olive branch in one hand is part of a strategy that includes carrying a big stick in the other. Or else in his partners’ hand.

But I doubt it. Joe Biden is a man of faith. He is a true believer in the common good. Read Pope Francis’ social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship released last month. It too is addressed to the world and not just Catholics. It too is addressed to people of good will. Why? Because all people of good will are concerned with the common good. All people have an aspiration towards fraternity and social friendship.

Yesterday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory died. He was a wonderful and wise spiritual leader and insightful interpreter of Torah. He too was an ecumenical moralist. He too accepted the Roman Catholic doctrine of the common good even as he espoused a covenantal religion as an orthodox rabbi. (See his 2020 volume, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.) He too advocated a shared framework of virtues and values.

But he too erred. Even though he was a small “c” conservative, he saw the source of modern evil in the elevation of self-interest over the common good. He claimed that morality had been privatized, outsourced to the market and made into a transactional enterprise instead of a binding moral framework that put limits around the operation not only of the market but the state as well. And although he addressed the evil of populism, and viewed (mistakenly, I think) Korach as its exemplification, he never recognized it as a religious cult, but rather just a power grab by a rabble rouser.

What were the clues for Rabbi Sacks?

  • Korach claimed the establishment was a swamp; Moses and Aaron were corrupt.
  • Moses was guilty of nepotism; he appointed his brother as High Priest.
  • Korach advertised himself as the people’s champion.
  • Korach insisted that holiness was communal and not a characteristic of one individual, even as he expected to be idolized by that community.
  • He posed as a true democrat so that he could act as an autocrat.  
  • He claimed to be purer than anyone else, not because he paid his fair share of taxes, but because he did not ask for anything material, not even a donkey, as he prepared to fleece the pockets of the people just as he promised to lift the economic burden of temple sacrifices from them.
  • And the biggest lie of all: he was chosen to assume his role; it was not a matter of personal ambition.

Certainly, as Yasmeen Serhan wrote in his essay in The Atlantic (5 November 2020), “Populism Is Undefeated: The U.S. election proves that this divisive style of politics is still viable.” The 2016 American election was a ‘populist earthquake.’ “Donald Trump demonstrated that an iconoclastic anti-establishment style of politics was possible in the United States.” However, the 2020 election was not a reset, as Joe Biden claimed. Trump received over 70 million votes and perhaps as many as 75 million when all ballots are counted. Next to Joe Biden, no presidential candidate had received as many. Serhan claimed that the 2020 election was not just a referendum on Trumpism – it was that – but a test for the viability of populism worldwide against the nightmare of a plague devastating the population.

Donald Trump may have been defeated, but populism was not. Trumpism lives on. That is because it is not dependent on the emergence of a single charismatic leader. That is because it is not just a product of resentment at the maldistribution of wealth. That is because it does not abhor self-interest so much as the rule of reason, the rule of elites and the rule of dominant norms that threaten their own values and virtues. That is because populism is engaged in a religious and not just an economic and political war. Populists, even if they are like Korach and gain political power by presenting themselves as anti-establishment leaders, are not the essence of populism.

Immigrants are not rejected because they are economic threats but because they are viewed as aliens. Experts are not rejected simply because they speak a foreign language but because they propose rules and norms which undermine the people’s communal practices. Even if Korach failed in his rebellion, the spirit of populism and rebellion lived on. Trumpism will survive Donald Trump’s defeat. The “real” people will continue to oppose the purveyors of “fake news,” that is news that must be fake because it conflicts with what they have been taught to believe.

The election must have been manipulated, must have been stolen. After all, they are the real America. The arrival of all those newcomers has shifted the power balance and threatened their survival. And the truth? It has. Why then would they agree to accept a belief in the common good? Why would they accept a return to civil discourse among groups that simply failed to accept the same policy nostrums? This was indeed a war for the soul of America. And although Donald Trump may have lost the battle, the war for the soul of America will continue. Joe Biden has to take his own rhetoric seriously.

Donald Trump was a clumsy oaf, a bull in a china shop. “An ideologically aligned leader who is less brash and more polished than he is,” could assume his mantle and become a much more effective leader of Trumpism. He could play the same role as St. Paul did for Jesus, propagating the brand while turning it inside out.

Again, perhaps Joe Biden recognizes this. Just as Barack Obama delegated to him the problem of saving the economy when he first was elected vice-president, perhaps Kamala Harris will be assigned the role of killing the dragon and not simply dousing the fire and flames that issue from its throat. As Vice-President-elect of the United States, Kamala Harris, as the first female VP, the first Black VP, the first VP of South Indian descent, addressed the nation and the world. Although Joe Biden shared the stage with Obama at Grant Park in Chicago and embraced his boss in 2012, and although this was also the case on the red-curtained utilitarian warehouse stage in Chicago in 2016, Biden was not invited to address the nation on victory night either before or after Obama spoke. Nor do I recall a Vice-President-elect sharing the stage on victory night ever before. Kamala Harris sharing the limelight in Delaware adumbrated an even truer partnership than Biden had with Obama.

Harris said to her audience, “For four years, you marched and organized for equality and justice, for our lives, and for our planet. And then, you voted. You delivered a clear message. You chose hope, unity, decency, science, and, yes, truth.” The quest for victory did not begin in 2020 but in 2016 when Donald Trump won. And what was at stake was both a morality of decency and a respect for truth.

Joe is the healer. Joe is the uniter. And herself? She indicated by her words that she would be the warrior. She would be the fighter. For what was at stake was indeed the soul of America. What was at stake was truth. Joe will exude empathy. I offer harsh judgment, she told her audience with a broad smile. For women have become the guardian class, “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”

They do not symbolize an offer of an olive branch, but strength and struggle. They are not like Lot’s wife who looked back nostalgically on the destruction of her heartland of Sodom, so pained at loss that her tears fell in such quantity that she turned into a pillar of salt. Instead, women warriors look to the future. Look to the little girl watching tonight who envisions her country as a realm of possibilities rather than lost causes. Dream not of what has been. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see, simply because they have never seen it before.” Dream an impossible dream and make it possible.  

As Kamala Harris said in the opening of her speech, “Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: ‘Democracy is not a state. It is an act.’ And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And when our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake, and the world watching, you ushered in a new day for America. America’s democracy is not guaranteed — it is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it.”

Women are the shock troops in the war underway. Joe Biden may engage in cross-cultural discourse in the name of the common good with “the opposition”, but women recognize that their good is not our good. Our truth is the truth and not the expression of a false consciousness. Their claimed truth is fantasy. Looking back at a mythical past is at war with looking forward to a future that belongs to those women of valour who fight for it.

Abraham: Supplicant to or Partner of God – Parashat VaYera

Supplicant:

“What can we say in Your Presence, Lord Our God… all the heroes are as nothing before you… The wise as if they were without knowledge… most of their doings are worthless… all is vanity.” (Translation: Koren Daily Prayer Book, 36-37.)

Partner:

“He [God] joins man and shares in his covenantal existence… The element of togetherness of God and man is indispensable for the covenantal community… the very validity of the covenant rests upon free negotiation, mutual assumption of duties and full recognition of the equal rights of both parties…” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1991) The Lonely Man of Faith, 44.[1]

VaYera, And the Lord appeared. It was a hot day. Abraham was sitting outside his tent. He looked up. And, “behold, three men were standing beside him,” They had come out of nowhere. Abraham, as soon as he saw them, ran from the entrance of his tent to greet them. But not just greet them. He bowed to the ground before them. And he beseeched them: “My Lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) You can rest, bathe your feet and quench your thirst. Relax as my guests and have a bite to eat. “I am your servant and you have come by.”

Why does it say that the Lord appeared? That is singular. Three men appeared. “My Lords,” Abraham called them. Did Abraham think that one of these was God? Or did he, as the Plaut footnote states, believe that all three were messengers sent by God, that they were “apparitions of the Divine.” Whoever they were, how and why did Abraham recognize them to be such? And why did he abase himself before them? Why did he promise them a bite to eat but then order Sarah, his wife, to prepare a feast for them with fresh cakes and a freshly slaughtered lamb which was cooked in milk?

The latter was directly contrary to that which was subsequently prohibited. (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” When I was a guest of the Masai in the Serengeti Plain in 1973, I was offered a mixture of blood drained from the cow’s neck and milk from the same cow. I learned that they had the same prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk as the Torah had taught. Why, I asked. I am not sure that I recall the answer correctly. In fact, I remember different explanations that sounded to me similar to the far-out rationales my mother told me for not drinking milk with meat or the interpretations I learned in my first year anthropology course at university.

  1. It was unhealthy; you will get sick and have diarrhea. (When I did so after I turned sixteen, I did not like the taste of them together, but I did not get sick.)
  2. Milk is like your mother; cooking meat in milk and eating the combination is to assault and insult your mother.
  3. Meat is like your father; cooking meat in milk is the emasculation of your father.

Why then did Abraham offer his three guests meat cooked in milk when herders and shepherds forbad such a practice? Abraham bowed before them, but then offered them food which was either unhealthy, debased mothers or could contribute to making them eunuchs or a combination of all three? What is going on?

Recall what just happened to Abraham. He was reborn at the age of ninety-nine as a new man when he, and his son Ishmael, were circumcised. God made a covenant with him and promised him another child by his wife Sarai, now renamed Sarah. At which promise, Abraham rolled on the ground and broke into laughter. In the story that followed, was Abraham not resting in front of his tent recovering from the pain of a circumcision at the age of ninety-nine?

Perhaps Abraham had an experience of Dream Reality Confusion (DRC). I know it is a rare experience. But I have had it. You cannot distinguish reality from a dream. You experience what you later learn must have been a dream as if it was totally real. It could be a byproduct of my Sleep Phase Disorder (akin to narcolepsy). However, the physiological correlation does not explain the meaning or the significance. If Abraham had an experience of DRC, why was it an apparition of three men? Every previous time, God had appeared alone as when he first called him. (12:1-3) and when he and Lot parted ways and parted ways of life. (13:14-17) God appeared when he entered into a covenant with Abraham and reaffirmed that covenant.

So why the two witnesses? Because a covenant to be valid had to have at least two witnesses. Promises, covenants and contracts precede even the law. And the law would consecrate the need for two witnesses, even when Godis a party to a contract.

Why did Abraham abase himself before them? Why did he wait on them as he served them the food? Why did he believe that the Lord had appeared before him and why did he offer these three men a feast and the specific feast that he did? Did his very recent painful operation contribute to this DRC? The entire episode had a message. Serve your children. That is how you serve God. Penance is not required. The penalty and pain had already been imprinted on Abraham’s flesh.

Sarah standing just inside the entrance of the tent overheard one of the visitors promising to return in a year when she was ready to give birth to a son. On hearing such a promise, like her husband, she laughed, but to herself. And she did not roll on the ground in thinking that such a promise was but a load of malarkey. Never mind having a son. Since she was so old, why would Abraham even want to have sex with her?

Then the confrontation took place. The Lord asked why Sarah laughed. After all, I am the Lord and can perform wonders. You, Sarah, shall have a son. Then Sarah, like Eve when she was caught out in thee Garden of Eden, lied, then said, “I did not laugh.” God replied, “You did laugh.”

What a dream sequence! Even more extraordinary, what a dream experience to be taken as if it were totally real, as if it actually happened! But it must have been a dream. It must have been an apparition. After all, God appeared in the flesh. Not only that, He ate. And it had to be God because he reiterated the promise he made when Abraham agreed to his and his son, Ishmael’s, circumcision. Further, just as Abraham had laughed, Sarah did as well. But quietly. To herself. But God knew that she had laughed even though she lied and denied it.

Look where this event took place – “by the terebinths of Mamre,” beside an ancient cultic shrine in Hebron focused on a holy tree that had grown on that spot since time immemorial. Was this the Tree of Life that had been at the centre of the Garden of Eden?

The portal for explaining this DRC must go through understanding circumcision. It is an imprint on the flesh of a Hebrew boy when he is only eight days old to recall the covenant God made with both the Hebrews and the descendants of Ishmael. And the father performs the circumcision even when he uses a proxy. And no matter how much wine is soaked into the wad of cloth stuffed in your mouth as an infant to suck, it hurts like hell. You cry and the cry pierces the heart of your mother hiding on the stairs of your house because she cannot stand to see such pain inflicted on her newborn infant.  

What father would do such a thing? What father would passively obey an order by God to sacrifice his son? But then there is an entirely different line of questioning. Isaac was a grown man by then. Why would he go along with such an outrageous instruction? Because it meant hearing the other shoe drop. After all, if his own father whom he knew loved him with all his heart and all his mind, if his own father who gave birth to a new value set for a civilization that parents live for their progeny rather than children being birthed to care for their parents, if that father whom you trusted absolutely could inflict such pain when you were a helpless infant, then you had to learn the lesson that if he could hurt you, anyone could. You had to learn to be wary. You had to learn that trust must be boundaried by mistrust, that trust could never be and must never be total. That is why you need contracts. That is why you need covenants. That is why you need witnesses.

God appeared before your tent pitched in front of the Tree of Life. He was accompanied by two others. He was not actually God but an apparition of God. And you did not have to mortify your flesh, except to be circumcised when you are older and when it was most painful. Instead of grace being visited upon the being of Abraham, a covenant is, one between Abraham and God to be passed on through his sons and imprinted in his son’s flesh through the act of circumcision so that it would be aa memory for all time. Abraham did not have to prove his faith first. Rather, the action was a condition of the possibility of his having any faith in the first place. Abraham went from supplicant to becoming a partner, but never a penitent.

A Dark Night of the Senses had already taken place for Abraham. It would also be experienced by his infant son born against all natural law from the womb of his very elderly wife. By that ritual, Abraham was not sanctified; the covenant was. A new nation would be the result, new in the most important way in which nations are new. Further, the communication from God was not an interior experience, the vision of what happened did not take place in a dream. It happened at high noon in the bright sun.

Just as Abraham had not been ecstatic on hearing the promise made to him – he had rolled with laughter on the ground – so too Sarah was not ecstatic but she too distrusted what she had overheard and laughed inside. But God knew. God knew that she had laughed. God could read her thoughts. This was a Dark Night of the Flesh rather than of the Spirit, the establishment of an intimate connection with God that had nothing to do with purification this time but had been sanctified by the emasculation of the male, by the feminization of the male.

Just as God would become an empathetic being and not just an individual full of wrath and harsh judgement, so would the spirit of this new nation be made flesh through male circumcision. Tradition would be in service to the future and not just preservation of the past. Actions would not be dictated by shaming but by a contract between humans and God. Man might begin as a supplicant, but his destiny was to become a partner. It was an integral part of the deal.

The fact that God and Abraham had become partners was evidenced by the story of Lot and Sodom that followed. After the feast, the two witnesses departed for Sodom. God thought to himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (18:17) He decided not to hide his intentions. After all, Abraham was now His partner in creating a new set of values for a new nation. First, God’s two witnesses had to go to Sodom and Gomorrah to confirm whether the people living there had committed the outrages that they reputedly had done.

Abraham then proved he was a partner and not just a supplicant. He argued with God. You can’t kill everyone. There may be fifty good men. The collateral damage will be too great of fifty innocents are killed to do away with the bad guys. Okay, God replied, if my guys find fifty innocents, I will save the whole place to honour our partnership now built on empathy and not just harsh judgment. Abraham asked, what if there are five less than fifty? Would you wipe all of them out or if forty-five innocents were killed.

“No, I won’t.”

“What if there are forty?’

“Then I will not wipe out the cities.”

“And if thirty-five.”

“No, not even if there are thirty-five.”

“Thirty?”

“Ok. Thirty it is.”

“What about twenty?”

“Ok. Ok. Enough already. Not if there are twenty.”

“And if even ten?”

“That’s it. I will hold back if there are at least ten.”

But there were not ten. Only a xenophobic mob. God’s two agents offered to save Lot and his whole family. But his married daughters and sons-in-laws would not flee with him. Only his two virgin daughters. The remnant of Lot’s family ended up taking refuge in the small town of Zoar. Sodom and Gomorrah were reduced to ashes.

But Lot had been saved at great cost. His married daughters and grandchildren had died in the conflagration. His wife had turned to a pillar of salt for not obeying the agents’ instruction not to look back on the horrific destruction. And his two virgin daughters got him drunk and slept with their father on successive nights. Out of their progeny would come the Moabite and Ammonite nations.

Why had Abraham been treated so differently from Lot. Lot had abased himself before his visitors and offered them food and shelter as well. But he did not feed them lamb cooked in its mother’s milk. He did not give them meat cooked in such a way that their militancy would be assuaged. Further, Lot bargained to save his own life and the lives of his family. Abraham bargained to save the lives of the innocent.

Abraham had proven that he had become a true partner of God.


[1] The emphasis as well as the origin of both quotes can be found in Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s commentary.