Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah

by

Howard Adelman

The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.

Hiding

  1. In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
  2. In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

Note:

  1. a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
  2. b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
  3. c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.

Pleading

  1. In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
  2. In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
  3. a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
  4. b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
  5. c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
  6. d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.

What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.

What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.

However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.

In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.

In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.

But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.

Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.

In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.

SL                                     S&G

Number of strangers                 3                                           2

Location                        in front of a tent                  at the gate of the city

Appeal to self-interest   feel refreshed                   so the angels can get

away early

Method                            bow                                     bow, face to the ground

Behaviour                      eat outside                           enter the tent

Staying overnight          acceptance                           rejection

What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates.  In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.

There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.

When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

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Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

by

Howard Adelman

If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies.   טוְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:

וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies.

The Israelites are in the wilderness. Why are they getting commandments about blowing a trumpet in a certain way when they are defending their land against an aggressor? The Israelites had no land to defend. This is the only mention of the land in this section. There are verses on the cloud settling in over the Tabernacle and remaining there. There are verses on the cloud lifting from the Tabernacle and once again permitting the Israelites to go forward. There is the fire on the altar; when the cloud rests over the Tabernacle, and then the latter had the likeness of fire. (9:15) However long the cloud settled in over the Tabernacle, the Israelites remained encamped, unmoving and unable to move.

There may be fire, there may be water in the form of a mist, and there is always the harsh land, but what is noticeable is the absence of any mention of ruah, the divine spirit that animates things. Sometimes ruah is identified with the breath of life and with the soul, the only thing that remains when the physical body melts away with death. Earth, water – sometimes in torrents rather than as simply a mist – and fire, but no ruah.

The setting is described at the beginning of Numbers in the opening of verse 9:1-2. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Let the people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time.” Some take this as a message to hold a second Passover when you were unable to celebrate the first, when the family was unclean because someone had just died. But it is a description of a second Passover, as horrid a period as when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt when God was killing the first-born in every Egyptian family.

On the first anniversary of the exodus, when the nostalgia for what has been lost sets in, when the Israelites are in the desert, when the casualties of the trek through the desert can be counted, they are told that they are suffering a very different misery. This misery too shall pass. The cloud of despondency will lift and they will be able to move on with their lives. But when death lies in their midst, they are unclean. And once again they must eat bitter herbs and consume unleavened bread, the bread of affliction.

On the anniversary of the exodus, on the New Year, on Rosh Hashanah, otherwise known as Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1), Tekiah is sounded, a long blast, when the people are assembled. Then, when they are attacked, when they are at war with themselves and, thus, with others, the Israelites sound the Teruah, the series of nine very short staccato notes, and the Shevarim, three medium length blasts following each Teruah section of three notes. The community is called to leave behind its misery, leave behind self-pity and get on the move to fight the enemies that assault them.

If you want to comprehend this section of the Torah, I suggest you watch Terence Davies’ movie, Sunset Song. It is a long film. (two hours and fifteen minutes) It is also a slow film. But it deserves your patience, if only to view the gorgeous but harsh Scottish countryside and the main character, Chris Guthrie played by Agyness Deyn. Chris is a bonnie lass and one of the greatest, if not the greatest character, in Scottish fiction. The film is an adaptation by the director of the first 1932 volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, set in the north-east in the Scottish village or estate of Kinraddie and largely located in the farm, Blawearie, the meaning of which is found in its very sound – blah and weary.

The farm stands in stark contrast to the name of the larger community, Kinraddie, which means whistling away to oneself when the day shines bright before one and the sun is shining. The film oscillates between these two opposite moods. As Gibbon wrote, “there were more than nine bit places [like the very short blasts of Teruah] left in the Kinraddie estate.” Blawearie is one of those bit places. The film ends with the Sunset Song, the Flower Song, in an elegiac reference to the passing of loved ones and the passing of an old order, the passing of an age of innocence, but also of horror that receives its ultimate global expression in the muddy trenches of World War I.

The film begins in Kinraddie, in the local school, where a tall and thin and precocious red-headed lass, Chris Guthrie, is singled out for her excellent pronunciation of French, her ability to whistle as the instructor says, without making the whistling sound. The film ends by repeating the refrain, “The Land endures.” “Only the land endures.” And Chris discovers that she is the land. Otherwise, “there were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that… Nothing endures.” But the land! The land endures even as the song, “Flowers of thee Forest” is sung.

I’ve hear them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
As boughs in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.
At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

How does that harsh land endure? How does it survive the harsh winds and pouring rain, the heavy snows of winter? Through fire. The constant flame throughout the film is the family altar, the big stove in the kitchen ever burning. And life is renewed when Chris falls in love with Ewan Tavendale (James Grant) and they blow out the candle to have sex in the dark, not only when they are first married when Chris is still seventeen and approaching her eighteenth birthday, but on each occasion afterwards. Except when Ewen returns from WWI on leave.

Ewen went to war to fight for king and country, urged to do so by his Presbyterian pastor to fight Kaiser as the anti-Christ and lest he be regarded as a coward. War transformed him from a loving and sensitive man into a brute who rapes his wife without turning out the candle. The scene is even more horrific than it reads. However, his ostensible cowardice was truly an act of bravery, for the spark of love within him, the ruah in the film, made him seek out the “white feather” treatment by the military; he was shot as a deserter in the three short blasts of the shofar, the Teruah, in the final act of the film.

The flowers of the forest are all wede away. They go mad. They rage. They rave. As Chris does when Ewen, her dear and loving lad turned into a monster by a war he did not want to fight, by the English who “by guile wan the day” “for the order sent our lads to the Border,” is shot as a deserter, his self-sacrifice lest he condemn Chris to a life of abuse as her mother, Jean, had been before she took her own life and that of her baby twins.

However, that is not where the film begins. We will soon learn about the harsh unforgiving reality of the hardscrabble land of these Scottish farmers, but Chris leaves the class with which the film opens with her best friend. They skip playfully through the forest in one of the many moments of pure bliss in a scene of sheer pastoral beauty, like the many scenes of golden fields of grain and green pastures.

Sunset Song, in the end, is not a lament for a past that will be no more, though it is that, with all its vices and virtues, but it is about the renewal of spirit, the renewal of life, just when you begin to think that life cannot get any worse. We know from the narrator of the film, Chris herself, who will go to renew her love of books, her love of life, her love of what I would call Torah rather than the harsh prescriptions in the biblical text that become the sole focus of tyrannical men and fathers who will mistreat their sons and even long for incest with their daughters. Peter Mullan plays John Guthrie with the same mastery that he lights his pipe in the few moments when he sits content with himself and with the world. At other times, he straps Chris’ brother Will (Jack Greenlees) across the back. One suspects that Chris became a writer as well as a teacher, for poetry suffuses a movie of tragic loss and despair.

In the opening, Chis intones about herself: “So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrises there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” The schizophrenia was only resolved when, after many tests akin to those Job suffered, she discovered that she was the land.

The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They had yet to learn that they were the land, that they were at one with the land, and that they would repeatedly betray that land as they betrayed their harsh and unforgiving God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Irrationality of Humans

The Irrationality of Humans

by

Howard Adelman

In this series of blogs I began a week ago, I tried to sketch the deep philosophical assumptions underlying a variety of approaches to comprehending and managing the polis. How do we organize our political lives and to what end? The blog on last week’s Torah portion offered a moral approach, as set out in the Book of Leviticus, essentially setting up rules for redistributing wealth in the economy. The presumption was that religious laws could be imposed on the polity and used to counteract the built-in propensities encouraging economic inequality.

A variation of this approach is currently being applied in Iran which just witnessed the landslide re-election of an ostensible reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, against his challenger, the hardliner, Judge Ebrahim Raisi. I call Rouhani an ostensible reformer because his program differs markedly from the puritans who want to close off Iran to Western influences versus the Rouhani position of greater flexibility and interaction with the rest of the world. Rouhani has a more tolerant perspective on the role of domestic individual behaviour and external foreign interests in dealing with the policies of the polis. But both the reform and the conservative leadership remain committed to the precepts of Islam framing the polity. The conservatives want to control it as well.

The previous two blogs analyzed a book that won the Donner Prize last week (Alex Marland’s Brand Command) which documented the Stephen Harper government’s method of centralized control and the use of branding to manage the polity. My critique insisted that the book had inverted the roles of framing and branding, and that the key issue was framing. Branding was simply a method of covering up the contradictions within the Tory base between free enterprise conservatives, who oppose any moral frame for the polity, and community conservatives who believe the polity should conform to historically predominant Christian norms.

The analysis also implied that, as long as Liberals (or Democrats in the U.S.) covered up the divisions on their own side between economic liberals who believe, on the one hand, that a light touch of liberal tolerance and justice can be used to manage the polity, its inequalities and injustices, versus a more radical wing that sees the need for a greater role of the state in managing competing interests to ensure greater equality, then a well-disciplined opposition with a clear brand can disguise and, indeed, repress those fundamental differences, and then win. The brand can be the disciplined command and control that Stephen Harper employed or the anarchic populist appeal used by Donald Trump. Branding is a tool used to manage contradictions and manipulate constituents either by means of control and command or by populist appeal.

Framing, however, has priority, for if we fail to understand the warfare over principles, in despair a divided polis can easily turn democratic representative and responsible government into a populist system run by a demagogue. The warfare is not simply over principles, but over the role those principles are permitted to play in the polis. To understand the tension between various sets of moral principles wanting to provide the frame, and the behaviour of humans within the polis, it is necessary to acquire a better grasp on that behaviour and the nature of the tension and tribulations between the frame of the polity and the behaviour of its members. In this blog, I concentrate on the latter. In the next blog, I will analyze the civic religion in Canada that provides Canadians with a generally dominant overarching frame.

Conservatives are divided between free enterprise and community conservatives. For free enterprisers, humans are rational actors who make choices to maximize their own individual interests, but their interests are determined by a deeper human nature driven by a need to survive at a minimum, and by greed and acquisitive drives that build on and enhance the survival mode. Humans may be driven by greed, where the principles of survival play a commanding role, but they also may be driven by passions that have an inherent propensity to undermine interests. The predominant Christian ethos was based on the need to control passions that could wreak havoc in our individual and collective lives. Is life or desire fundamental? Neither is rational.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who worked in the United States for years, won the 2002 Nobel prise in economics for documenting and explaining individual economic behaviour and demonstrating that it was fundamentally irrational. Their proofs also undermined the rational choice assumptions of the high priests of monetary policy whose behaviour Juliet Johnson described in Priests of Prosperity, a nominee for the Donner Prize. The sacred religion of rational choice was upended in the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Imprinting and unconscious embodiment explain to some degree why survival and desire dictate choices more than any rational deliberation over alternatives to determine which one will best satisfy our individual interests.

The work of both men in behavioural psychology and their articulation of prospect theory undermined totally the Kantian assumption that judgement was simply the process of rational reconciliation between our moral values and our understanding of the world in accordance with the laws of nature, between practical and pure reason, between morality and nature. In 2011, Kahneman published a volume with great popular appeal, Thinking Fast and Slow, which contrasted our predominant predisposition for fast thinking, for thinking that I have described in my writing as searches for congruencies between one’s own inscribed views of the world and priorities in dealing with it, and rational deliberative decision-making.

If you are a free enterprise conservative, you are steeped deeply in the frame set out by both John Hobbes and John Locke that humans are interest maximizers and possessive individualists determined to secure their futures by seeking to acquire and own goods ad infinitum. Humans were inherently possessive individualists driven by the natural laws of survival. Kahneman, using his original work on complex correlational structures and studies of how attention, more than the actual observed world, was correlated with actual behaviour. Influenced by Richard Thaler’s pioneering work on consumer choice and hedonic psychology, in 1982 Kahneman published with Amos Tversky Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Both men were Israelis. Kahneman in particular had served in the intelligence service. The IDF, the politicians and Mossad in 1973 had all ruled out the possibility of a massive assault by the Arab forces. After all, Syria and Egypt had both suffered enormous psychological and physical defeats in the 1967 war. Any rational assessment would have indicated that initiating a war with Israel would be self-defeating. The failure of the intelligence operation to anticipate the possibility of an attack, the failure to look at worst possible scenarios, ignoring or misinterpreting data the IDF itself had collected of an imminent attack – that Russia advisors had withdrawn – failing to recognize that Egypt was currently driven by a sense of shame and a need to recover some honour, even at the risk of another great defeat, had, together with other forms of mindblindness, produced a situation in which the fate of Israel had been risked and almost sacrificed to this immersion in preconceptions that made both the state and much of society blind to the motives and actions of others. Even at its most fateful level of survival, irrationality had framed and limited rational deliberation. And Kahneman and Tversky went on to demonstrate how this mindblindness and irrational choice revealed itself in the most mundane of subjects, consumer choice.

Thus, began the tectonic shift undermining rational choice theory based on interests. Choice was seen to be rooted, not in survival and life, but desire and the assessment of whether an experience will be pleasurable rather than painful. While life emphasizes the needs necessary for the body to survive, desire is something else. It is the effort to see ourselves projected into the world and recognized by another, usually another seen as superior in some respect, for who we have become and what we have accomplished. The individual suffers discomforts and even pain when that recognition does not come. Desire is not material, even as it is manifested in material things. God is portrayed in the Torah as motivated to create the world in the first place to become manifest and to be recognized through projections into the world. Humans were created with the ability to provide that recognition. In contrast to God, humans had the benefit of being embodied.

Humans are not so much possessive individualists as troubled personalities making mistake after mistake about what satisfied their interests, mistakes made precisely because they are governed in their judgments and decisions by a commanding illusion that develops mindblindness, an incapacity to take into account a variety of other factors as they focus on a specific one perceived as crucial to realizing who they are. Humans are not so much possessive as obsessive individualists.

If not for obsessive individualism, how else can you explain why Israelis living in an environment in which neighbours threaten your very existence and when personal allies argue endlessly over every triviality, they nevertheless perceive themselves as extremely happy? They do so certainly in comparison to members of Nordic countries who have created polities that do far more than any other on earth to ensure both that needs are satisfied and that long-term security is achieved. Israelis were indoctrinated to believe in Jerusalem of Gold, that Israel was the Promised Land, even though the external evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. On the other hand, in one study by Kahneman and Gilbert, Midwesterners in the U.S. experienced themselves as deficient in comparison to Californians because they suffered from a much harsher climate; they became convinced that good weather would solve their discontent. Any study of the experience of Californians would show it would not.

Cain and Abel were not driven by possessive individualism. They clearly demonstrated this by their willingness to sacrifice the best products of their labour so that God would recognize them as the best. When one received the recognition and the other did not, the latter was driven, not just to distraction, but to murder the other, not because of the superiority of the other’s nomadic life, nor because of all the herds the other had collected that he as a farmer had not, but because this nostalgic way of life seemed to be recognized as superior by the same God of judgement. There would always be a bias to the status quo called nostalgia or, in modern economic and political theory, status quo bias.

Kahneman and Tversky pioneered in developing an understanding of base rate fallacies and cognitive, optimist and conjunction biases, in attribution substitution and the economic conception of loss aversion that undergraduates find so entrancing in undermining rational choice theory. Together they built the structure of prospect theory and established the primacy of framing, but have thus far had only a marginal impact on the economic religion of rational choice. Their own work could be used to predict how difficult it would be for the status quo of economic rational choice theory to absorb the lessons that emerged from their research.

They provided a solid empirical basis for undermining rational choice theory that has been reinforced by the research of neuroscientists on imprinting and on more contemporary versions of the theory of the unconscious than Freud offered. We are, to a great extent, our genes and the environmental imprinting in our lives.

 

In the contest between genetic determinants and environmental cues, we learn independently of the consequences, not only because of the genes we have inherited, but because we can only really learn some things when we reach different stages of life. Learning is phase-sensitive. It works through genomic imprinting: DNA methylation and post-translational modification of DNA-associated histone proteins. The 1,000+ transcripts in our brain – particularly in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus – is where memory is imprinted and learning takes place in a process of neurogenesis. Thus, it is not only our organ development, the development of our muscular-skeletal system and organs as imprinted in the subventricular zones and lateral ventricle of the brain that stage our physical development, but our mental development is, to a large degree, also determined by imprinting.

Alongside these developments, in the actual field of politics, efforts were initiated to select politicians who could perform. Hillary supposedly lost because she was so stiff. It was only after she had lost and gave her first interview that she seemed to relax. The goal became to groom politicians to match biases in the populace and to appeal to those biases through controlling the brand or, more demonstrably in the U.S. in the last election, deal with the incongruence of the candidate and both the needs of the populace and the needs of the nation with a more fundamental emotional appeal, even if originating in the chaotic mind of a populist candidate versus the chaos in the beliefs of the populace.

Thus far, Canada has avoided that fate because it has a strong civic religion. But dangers are evident concerning the fragility of the faith.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Mother’ s Day

Mother’s Day

by

Howard Adelman

Dedicated to Ariella, who loves Yehuda Amichai in the original Hebrew,  

and my forthcoming great grandchild whom she carries in her swelling belly

 

At Torah study this past Saturday, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, visiting from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had been rabbi at Sinai Temple, reintroduced me to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, whom I had not read for years. Yehuda was reborn when he arrived in Palestine at the age of twelve, the same year my older brother, Al, was born. Like my brother, Yehuda died seventeen years ago.

As it turned out, Mark Shapiro was from Toronto, had once been an associate rabbi at my synagogue (1977-1982) when I was not a member, had studied intellectual history at York University when I taught there, and, most surprising of all to me, his father was Dr. Bernie Shapiro, head of Mount Sinai Hospital’s radiology (now called “Imaging”) Department where I worked when I lived in the hospital as a medical student.

One of the stanzas we read was the following third one from the poem, “My Parents’ Motel”:

My mother was a prophet and didn’t know it,
Not like Miriam the Prophetess dancing with
cymbals and tambourines,
not like Deborah who sat under the palm tree
and judged the people,
not like Hulda who foretold the future,
but my own private prophet, silent and stubborn,
I am obliged to fulfill everything she said
and I’m running out of lifetime.
My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one use only: You’ll be sorry,
you‘ll be exhausted, that will do you good,
you‘ll feel
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able to, you won’t like that,
you‘ll never manage
to close It, I knew you wouldn’t remember,
wouldn’t
forget give take rest, yes you can you can.
And when my mother died, all her little
predictions came together
In one big prophecy that will last
until the Vision of the End of Days.

(translation from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

What kind of prophet did Amichai envisage his mother to be? He contrasted her with Miriam, Deborah and Hulda. I begin by comparing her to Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, the first president of the United States.  In the Saturday Washington Post, Gregory Schneider wrote an article entitled, “The mother who made George Washington – and made him miserable.” (12 May 2017) The article begins with a tale as good as can be found anywhere in the Mishna about a visit George made to his mother when she was eighty years old. In just a few lines, we grasp the core of their relationship that makes it sound like one taken out of a Seinfeld episode.

George: Guess what? They want me to be president.

Mom: I’m dying.

George, flustered: Well, as soon as I get settled in New York, I’ll come back and …

Mom: This is the last time you’ll ever see me. But go, do your job. That’s more important.

Schneider described the relationship of George and Mary. George was very attached to his mother who hectored him as her son rolled his eyes at what she said. Evidently, when George was elected president and when he and Martha went to give her the news in Fredericksburg, Mary informed her eldest son that she was deathly ill. George knew his mother; he called her bluff and insisted that, in light of her announced impending death, he could not accept the position of president. Mary reputedly responded: “Go and fulfill the high destiny which Heaven has foreordained you to fill. Go, knowing that you go with a Mother’s and Heaven’s blessings!” Mary was not a prophet like Yehuda Amichai’s mother; God was. She, Mary, would suffer just so her son could serve out heaven’s promise.

When George was away in 1755 fighting alongside the French, and the battle was going poorly, his mother sent him a letter asking her son to send a servant – and some butter. George wrote her back stating that he was in no position to do either. Mary was subsequently portrayed by historians as a controlling shrew who tried to use George’s status to get money for herself from the government. George, in contrast to Donald Trump, was appalled. He intervened to inform the government that his mother had been very well provided for – he had bought her a house and helped administer her estate.

His mother was formidable and sent shafts of fear into the souls of his cousins. But she also worked hard and long to secure the well-being of her four boys and her daughter, but especially her eldest son. Some insist that she was truly kind. If Yehuda Amichai’s mother was a prophet who did not know it, a private prophet, silent and stubborn, Mary denied any abilities at prophecy while executing strong control over her son’s destiny. She had once predicted that George would suffer grievously if he became a soldier. She was wrong. He did not. He thrived as a military officer. Mary was also much more of a public figure, much more vocal in her claims on her son, but eventually bent “graciously” to a higher power.

While Yehuda Amichai felt “obliged to fulfill everything” his mother said, George only nominally accepted the obligation to do so. His form of acceptance undermined his mother’s ability to control him and his need to submit to her wishes. Amichai never developed or mustered the skills to escape his mother’s tight embrace and her haunting presence. Was this because she was a petty prophet but knew it not, while Mary Washington claimed no powers of prophecy, but always credited a higher power to predict great things? If Mary feared her son’s death, Yehuda’s mother feared that her son would become exhausted. Her cautions were all small, even petty. Mary’s were always grand and melodramatic.

But Yehuda would write, as George did not and could not, “when my mother died, all her little predictions came together in one big prophecy that will last until the vision of the end of days.” For God’s hand imitated that of his mother, “God’s hand in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/ on Sabbath eve.”

Yehuda’s mother died on Shavuot, the last day of counting the Omer, forty-nine days or seven weeks after the second night of Passover. Shavuot commemorates the harvest as well as the giving of the law in the Torah as commanded in this past week’s portion – Leviticus 23:15-16. Yehuda has lived his life in anticipation of the revelation of the legal code, only to confront his mother’s death. He has spent a lifetime rolling the rock back uphill, a Jewish Sisyphus who must constantly give witness both to the effort and the disappointment just as he was reaching the pinnacle. For Yehuda, his mother’s death always signified the lost battles for the future.

What then was that big prophecy that he inherited? Yehuda wrote, “My Mother on Her Sickbed,”

My mother on her sickbed with the lightness
and hollowness of a person
Who has already said goodbye at an airport
In the beautiful and quiet area
Between parting and takeoff.

My mother on her sickbed.
All she had in her life is now
Like empty bottles in front of the door
That will show once more with colored labels
What filled them with joy and sadness.

Her last words, Take the flowers out of the room,
She said seven days before her death,
Then she closed herself for seven days,
Like the seven days of mourning.

But even her death created in her room
A warm hominess
With her sleeping face and the cup with its teaspoon
And the towel and the book and the glasses,
And her hand on the blanket, the same
hand that felt my forehead, in childhood.

Even in the end, there were the small instructions, but the directions had a much larger meaning. Mary Washington would use her allegedly coming death to try to blackmail her son, and, ironically, teach him the diplomatic skills of an artful dodger. Yehuda’s mother continued her retreat from the world to leave a warm and cozy space for her son. As a result, Yehuda always held his mother close, though she had none of the enormous stature of Mary Washington. He wrote another poem called, “My Mother Once Told Me.”

MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME

Not to sleep with flowers in the room..
Since then I have not slept with flowers.
I sleep alone, without them.

There were many flowers.
But I’ve never had enough time.
And persons I love are already pushing themselves
Away from my life, like boats
Away from the shore.

My mother said
Not to sleep with flowers.
You won’t sleep.
You won’t sleep, mother of my childhood.

The bannister I clung to.
When they dragged me off to school
Is long since burnt.
But my hands, clinging
Remain
Clinging

(translated by Assia Gutmann)

If Mary thought she was a prophet, but was not, Yehuda’s mother was a prophet but knew not. She focused on the small things, the small matters, including the belief that flowers left in the room of a sick patient would kill that patient by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Yehuda’s mother always wanted to ensure her son had lots of oxygen. Mary Washington demanded that her son bring back oxygen to fill her room.

We all have different mothers. We may go somewhere they did not foresee or somewhere they feared and where they did not want you to go. Some worry and fret for their sons. Others worry and fret about their own loss. The latter are divas; the former are tiny song birds.

My mother was not a prophet and knew she was not. She dedicated her life to her three sons and taught us petty dos and don’ts, almost all of which we did not and did. When she was young before she married, she danced with cymbals and tambourines, but unlike Miriam, she was not a prophet. She judged others, but she never sat under a palm tree to dispense her judgments like Deborah. And she never could foretell the future. But she bathed in it and joined her grandchildren in the bathtub. My mother was not a baker like my Aunt Gladys or Yehuda’s mother who “baked the whole world” for him “in little sweet cakes.”

My mother was stubborn in voice but easy in manner. And I escaped the obligation to fulfill her dream and become a doctor. I never learned, and never wanted to learn, whether I broke her heart when I left medical school. Like Yehuda’s mother, my mother worried and fretted the small things, but comfortably ignored any of my larger accomplishments. She never once heard me give a lecture or speech. She was too embarrassed to attend my play, Root Out of Dry Ground.

If George used subterfuge to escape the tight reins of his mother and if Yehuda was always left clinging, even when he became a star in the heavens of poetry, my mother, in spite of her fears, in spite of her dread, in spite of her disappointments, always left space for me and counted on me, as Mary Washington counted on George, but with credit rather than with demands, with loving kindness rather than any meanness of spirit.

Yehuda turned out to be direct and simple, I indirect and dialectical. Yehuda’s poetry is open and hospitable; I sometimes write to drive people away. Yehuda is both passionate and tender; I am passionate but tough. And unlike myself, Yehuda is witty and wry. He translates what he finds into poetry; I find poetry to discover meaning. Yehuda had a father who was his God and against whom he rebelled. My father was a rebel against whom I had no need to revolt so full was I of revulsion. Neither of us are artificers who have learned the arts of the necromancer and the alchemist.

Do we blame or credit our mothers? Where Yehuda Amichai clung to a bannister when they dragged him off to school, my mother clung to me in her arms as she leaned against the bannister on the first floor of her parent’s home where we lived; she cried and wailed at the death of her mother upstairs when I was a year old. I lived “to walk through/the deep ravines between her sobs.” My mother’s eyes danced on their own in spite of her sorrows. Yehuda’s mother’s eyes were sad, “the only ones that could compete” with his father’s eyes “in the ancient Jewish game of heavy eyes sliding into hollows beneath.”

I supported my mother then, when I was one year old. She supported her three sons ever since. And her grandchildren and great grandchildren all know what a great woman       their little bubby was.

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous two blogs, I tried to show why Gregory Baum was wrong in arguing first, that Orthodox Jews hesitated to support Israel because they believed that Israel could only be recreated by an act of God – indeed, only a small Orthodox sect, the Neturei Karta believed that. Second, Gregory argued that had there been no Hitler and no Holocaust, there would have been no Israel. Though there is a thread of plausibility in this thesis, and a few arguments and pieces of evidence support it, and though this is a belief also widely held in the Jewish community, I offered a number of arguments to demonstrate it is an erroneous thesis.

In this blog, I want to take up the other six quantitative theses of Gregory Baum’s anti-Zionist position in a slightly different order than first presented. Before Gregory shifted to theology, he earned an MA in mathematics. Therefore, it is thus more surprising to read the gross numerical errors concerning Zionism. The six quantitative theses are as follows:

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.
  2. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.
  3. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  4. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism.
  5. The Creation Thesis: that mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.
  6. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration also led to the conflict with the Arabs.
  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.

Gregory is correct. Prior to Israel, Zionism was a belief held by only minority of Jews. But so was Bundism (Socialism), Communism, Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Liberalism, Assimilationism, or the Reform Movement. This is certainly true compared to what emerged after the creation of the State of Israel. Zionism became the clear majority belief among all Jews; it has remained the predominant belief since then. The issue is not that Zionism was a minority ideology before 1933, but whether Zionists constituted a significant minority prior to the accession of the Nazis to power. World Jewry has never articulated its views in a single voice. Even currently, when a majority of Jews support Israel, there are many different ways in which that support is manifested and different beliefs supporting the myriad of voices.

  1. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.

There is a hint of truth in this thesis, but one which reveals its overall gross distortion. With the rise of Hitler, the level of support for Zionism in 1936, particularly in America, was significantly higher than in 1932. But that does not mean that Zionist support prior to the rise of Hitler was insignificant. More particularly, with the plight of German Jewry worsening and the gates closing on immigration to America, Zionists could promote resettlement in Palestine in a way they could not in the years prior to Hitler’s accession to power. Those efforts earned support among individuals who would previously had nothing to do with Zionism. On the other hand, Britain began to close the gates even more to Jewish immigration in 1935, just 3 years after Hitler was first elected. Given the growing trend in the pattern of Jewish migration to Palestine prior to 1932, and had the original number of Jews been allowed to stay alive, it is safe to assume that, by 1947, the total number of Jews interested in migrating to Palestine would have grown in at least the same proportion as it did prior to the rise of Hitler. At the very least, there would have been as many Jews in Palestine as there were after the rise of Hitler and the catastrophe of the Shoah.

My focus will be on the five decades between 1882 and 1932 to assess whether there were only “a few thousand” Jewish arrivals in Palestine during this period.

The numbers of Jews and Arabs in Palestine who arrived in each of the following decades after 1880 before the rise of Hitler is a matter of some controversy. So are the Jewish and Arab percentages of the total population. I do not intend to sort through the various positions. Nor do I have to, for it takes very little effort to demonstrate an overwhelming consensus that the claim that, prior to the rise of Hitler, only “a few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine,” is false. The claim is not only demonstrably false, it is so erroneous, regardless of the estimates used, that it constitutes a gross misrepresentation and misperception.

Without getting into the variation in estimates, in 1880, only 3% of the population of Palestine was Jewish out of a total population of about 450,000; 94% were Arabs. Jews lived in Safed and Jerusalem and constituted the largest plurality in the small populations in those two towns at the time.

In the Third Aliyah between 1917 and 1923, in spite of quotas imposed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, 40,000 more Jews migrated to Palestine, bringing the total number by 1923 to 90,000 halutzim or pioneers who had resettled in Palestine (see the August 1925 “Report of the Executive of the Zionist Organization.”) It was a period when marshes were drained, roads built and towns established. Even critics of the Zionist figures, such as Justin McCarthy, agree with the British census that the total population of Palestine had risen to 725,000 by 1922 of which 84,000 or about 12% were Jewish. Other estimates offer a percentage of 12.4% or 90,000.

In the Fourth Aliya from 1925 to 1931, another 80,000 Jews resettled in Palestine. The number of Jews had doubled and the percentage of the total population had increased to over 16%. Of the almost 225,000 Jews who resettled in Palestine in the Fifth Aliya between 1931 and 1939, in the first two years an estimated 60,000 more had arrived. Thus, Zionist migration to Palestine probably totalled about 230,000 by then. This is not “a few thousand.” In the next fifteen years, in spite of the British barriers to migration imposed in 1935, the total Jewish population of Palestine had risen to 630,000 representing almost 32% of the population by 1947.

Without the rise of Hitler, given the rate of increase of the Jewish population over the previous fifteen years from 1917-1932 and projecting forward, without even considering the constant acceleration in the number of arrivals, the Jewish population would have doubled again to 460,000 rather than 630,000. If the rate of acceleration is taken into account, bracketing the war, the Holocaust and British barriers, it is estimated that about the same numbers would have arrived that actually did. That is, without Hitler, without the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Palestine would have been at least as many in 1947 as ended up there.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”

Quite aside for the number of Jews numbering far more than a few thousand, the thesis that if only a few Jews had migrated into Palestine, the Arab populations would have received them in peace is even a larger falsification. First, the Jews who arrived did not displace any Arabs prior to 1947. Though there is a debate over numbers, there is a general agreement that the booming Jewish economic sectors in Palestine attracted an in-migration of Arabs. Yet, in spite of the economic benefit, in spite of the fact that in 1922 Jews only constituted 12% of the population and totaled only about 80,000 to 90,000, Haj Amin el-Husseini emerged as the radical voice of the Palestinians. He organized fedayeen (suicide terrorists) who began to attack Jews in 1919.

Thus, Gregory perpetuates a double misrepresentation. First, that Jewish immigration prior to the rise of Hitler was small. Wrong! Second, that the initial reception of Arabs was peaceful. Wrong again! The leadership was violent even when the in-migration of Jews, though significant, was not threatening at all. In 1920, the first of a series of Arab riots began during Passover. Attacks increased in 1921. In spite of that history, in spite of being arrested and sentenced for sedition, in 1922, the British government released el- Husseini and appointed him Mufti.

Further, from that position, he consolidated power over the Arab community, taking control of all the assets and income of the mosques as well as controlling the educational system and the administration of sharia law. Like many dictators in the Arab world that succeeded him, like Erdoğan in Turkey or Putin in Russia, and, frankly, consistent with the actions of Donald Trump currently, no one could hold a position unless personally loyal to the Mufti. Given the power he accumulated so quickly, the British mandatory authority tried to assuage him by restricting Jewish immigration to “absorptive capacity.” But even that was not sufficient. Husseini insisted on zero immigration. Gregory Baum’s thesis on this issue is just balderdash.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism

This causal analysis reminds me of the tale of the scientist working on the causes of drunkenness. He conducted an experiment giving his subjects equal amounts of gin and water on day 1, bourbon and water on day 2, vodka and water on day 3, scotch and water on day 4, and rye and water on day 5. After he observed that the subjects became equally intoxicated each day, the scientist concluded that the cause of the intoxication was the water.

Gregory’s error was rather more egregious, for there is a temporal factor. Mass migration took place AFTER the creation of the State of Israel with the huge influx of Jews from Arab lands as well as a good part of the survivors left in the DP camps in Europe. Yet evidence suggests that the support for Israel became a majoritarian perspective with the creation of the State of Israel. Majority support for Israel preceded large scale migration.

  1. The Creation Thesis: mass migration led to the creation of Israel

This is virtually the same issue, but applied to the non-Jewish world. Britain prevented mass migration to Israel from 1935 to 1948. The migration that took place mostly occurred in spite of British policies. In 1947, the UN members offered majority support for creating the State of Israel to get rid of the 250,000 refugees in the camps as well as for a host of reasons within Palestine. The creation of the state and the Arab resistance to that majority decision, the invasion of the nascent State of Israel by Arab states and, mostly, the persecution of their own Jewish citizens by those and other Arab states, led to the mass migration. Mass migration followed and did not precede the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

The above account also demonstrates the perfidiousness of this final thesis. I want to end, not by summarizing, but by asking how such a genuinely good man could arrive at such heinous conclusions. They are not the conclusions of Gregory alone, but of leaders in the United Church in Canada and of my other three friends and colleagues who joined with him in writing the terrible 1970s ecumenical paper based on more or less these same arguments.

One explanation is that none of the four were historians. But most of the information cited above was publicly available. One did not have to be a historian to avoid such egregious errors in judgment. Another approach to find an explanation examines the development of their ideas in the context of their personal and institutional histories. Gregory’s position must be viewed in such a context. He is a Roman Catholic. However, there has been a movement of reconciliation with Judaism in the last fifty years among Catholics. On the religious level, Gregory played a leading role. But not on the political level! The Holy See established formal relations with Israel only in 1993, well after Gregory’s influence had waned. Historically, the papacy had been consistently hostile to Zionism as an ideology. The Church actively opposed diplomatic efforts to promote the Zionist cause through resettlement of Jews in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Cf. Sergio Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism, Oxford U.P., 1990)

However, I believe the main cause is mindblindness, an inability or unwillingness to see what is in front of you plainly in view. One final example. In that older seventies paper I recall one of the arguments was over the Crusades, an argument in which Gregory expressed a specific Christian responsibility for the Crusades that was the exertion of Western power against the Arabs in the Middle East. Whatever the value of that thesis, most noticeable was the omission of any effects of the Crusades on the Jews who had been devastated by pogroms perpetrated by the Crusaders.

When guilt over the Crusades was married to guilt over the desire to ethnically cleanse European Jews, the two premises were synthesized in the willingness and desire to dump Europe’s problems with Jews onto the Arabs. Whether or not neo-colonialism should be viewed as a modern extension of the Crusades, the assumption of guilt for pushing the Jewish problems onto the Arabs seems totally unwarranted, especially given that almost half of the Jewish population in Israel is made up of Jews forced to flee Arab countries. However, I do not believe that mindblindness should be viewed as a form of antisemitism.

Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

by

Howard Adelman

In my analysis of the claim that Christian churches supported the creation of the State of Israel because of “the historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism,” I tried to indicate that the Roman Catholic and prominent Protestant theologians a) expressed no such guilt in 1945-1947 and b) were not strong supporters of the creation of the State of Israel. In this blog, I want to go back earlier. Gregory Baum contended in his memoir that, “the distant cause of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the Final Solution engineered by him. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Zionism was a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community.” (p. 151) Was the rise of Hitler and his genocidal ambitions and practices responsible for the emergence of Zionism as the dominant ideology of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s?

Though this position includes a sliver of truth, an examination of the various propositions making up this claim reveals a much greater distortion. The claim consists of eight theses which I first offer as quotes and then reconfigure as sub-claims:

  1. “Orthodox Jews had religious hesitations with regard to Zionism: the promised return to Jerusalem, they believed, would be a religious event, an act of God, not the result of a secular movement supported by political power.”
  2. “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.”
  3. Further, a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine.”
  4. Those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  5. “Because of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the self-understanding of Jews changed: looking upon their historical situation in the Diaspora as precarious, they now supported the aim of the Zionist movement – the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a safe haven for Jews experiencing persecution in their country.”
  6. “Now Zionism attracted vast numbers of Jews to Palestine.”
  7. “The mass migration, supported by the international Jewish community, led to the creation of the Jewish State.”
  8. That mass migration led, “inevitably to the conflict with the Palestinian population.”

It is one thing to make erroneous claims about Christian support for Israel and its origins. It is a calumny for a non-Jew to rewrite history without empirical support when speaking of the dynamics of the Jewish community. These eight theses, briefly stated, summarize the conceit of liberal universalists critical of Zionism, criticism that goes well beyond any just criticism that the government of Israel has earned. These universalists may be religious or secular, they may claim to offer a “balanced” view, but the foundation of their critique is deeply rooted in their alternative history, history, while sometimes having a thread of truth, is ultimately devoid of substantive empirical support. The eight theses are as follows:

  1. The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) Thesis:

The non-support of Zionism by Orthodox Jews before the Holocaust.

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust (H/H) Thesis:

H/H were jointly responsible for the creation of Israel.

  1. The Few Thesis:

Only a “few thousand” Jews lived in Palestine prior to H/H.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis:

The local Arab population only opposed Jewish migration when there were large numbers.

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM):

Only because of H/H, did Zionism become prominent in the diaspora.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM):

The shift from a minority to a majority position led to large scale migration to Palestine.

  1. The Creation Thesis:

Mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis:

Mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

Quite aside from the distortions of history, there are several contradictions among these claims. For example, there is the claim first that Hitler and the Holocaust (H/H) were responsible for the creation of Israel and, second, mass migration was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. One might argue that this contradiction is only apparent since if H and H were responsible for mass migration, therefore mass migration was secondarily responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. However, a historical examination quickly reveals that they are disconnected; the distortion in making the connection is revealing. We can examine whether this initially apparent causal contradiction can be overcome by empirical evidence.

If mass migration was responsible for both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs, if mass migration was a result of H/H, then that mass migration must have taken place after WWII and, therefore, both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs emerged only after WWII. This provides a key timeline for Gregory’s thesis as a stand in for a great deal of religious and secular anti-Zionism and the key events leading to the creation of the State of Israel. I will get to this point in subsequent blogs, but this blog will focus on the first thesis.

The OJ thesis contends that among Orthodox Jews there was little support before the Holocaust. In our contemporary period, only a very small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta – Guardians of the City, originally, for a very short period, Chevrat HaChayim) maintain that the creation of Israel before the messiah arrives is a sin. The recapture by force of the Land of Israel is a violation of divine will. The members of Neturei Karta number less than 5,000; no more than two-three hundred, led by Rabbi Moshe Hirsch in Israel, partnered with Moshe Ber Beck in Monsey, New York, are active anti-Zionists. (Hirsch served in Arafat’s cabinet as Minister of Jewish Affairs.) What about the period before the Holocaust?

This sect is not rooted in Hasidism. Rather, its adherents follow the practices of the Gaon of Vilna and trace their roots to Lithuania and Hungary. Neturei Karta is a Litvish sect. Their arrival and resettlement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century preceded the rise of Zionism. Rabbi Kook, a leading Orthodox rabbi, recognized that return to Israel was first promoted by disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, very early on he endorsed political Zionism as a secular movement leaving it to the land to determine who was deserving of it.

The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] … is its motto, the entire nation. This nationalism proclaims… that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors…. And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.

Most Orthodox rabbis at the time did not follow his lead. In 1937, Rabbi Amram Blau of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, an activist in Agudat Israel (a political party of Orthodox Jews founded in Poland because of opposition to Zionism), left the latter movement because of its increasing rapprochement with secular Zionism. He was joined by Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen from New York. Together, they founded Neturei Karta in 1938. This clearly suggests that well before the Holocaust, only a tiny minority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism in 1937.

This did not mean that in 1937, Agudat Israel became Zionist. Rather, it moved from the anti-Zionist camp to become non-Zionist. The roots of Orthodox anti-Zionism, as does ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, go back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik was anti-Zionist. So was Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A number of prominent Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews were not simply hesitant about Zionism; they were strongly opposed to it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1937, the Central Committee of Agudat Israel claimed an independent Jewish state would endanger Orthodox Jewry. It did not argue, as Neturei Karta did, that the return to Jerusalem had to await the messiah. Instead, it argued in terms of “pollution”; secular Zionism was a threat to Jews defined as a holy people. They offered to support the resurrection of the Jewish state only if its achievement was accompanied by Torah law becoming the foundation of the legal system in the state.

Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel rejects outright any attempt at despoiling the Land of Israel of its sanctity and considers the proposal to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine as a hazard to the lofty role of the Jewish People as a holy nation. Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel declares that Orthodox Jewry could only agree to a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel if it were possible for the basic constitution of this state to guarantee Torah rule in the overall public and national life.

In the UN debate over partition, Agudat Israel urged the General Assembly to vote against partition. There is thus a thread of truth in the claim that Orthodox Jews, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed the creation of Israel and Zionism, even after 1937 and even during the UN vote for partition in November of 1947 after the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel, members of Agudat Israel became supporters of the government, but refused to take any seats in the cabinet lest the movement be perceived as pro-Zionist.

This has two implications. It means the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust did not convert this group of Orthodox Jews and the Hasidim to support Zionism. Secondly, if the followers of Hasidism and Agudat Israel constituted a majority of religiously practicing Orthodox Jewry, then Gregory would be correct about the OJ thesis even if incorrect about the H/H thesis. However, Ezra Mendelsohn in his essay, “Jewish Condition in Interwar East Central Europe” in the volume, The Vanishing World of Lithuanian Jews, noted that, “The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, according to the census of 1923, identified themselves as Jews by nationality.” (81-82, my italics) It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Zionism was transformed into a political force, a force subsequently accelerated with the rise of Hitler. In spite of Agudat Israel and in spite of the anti-Zionist sentiments of Hasidism, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe, led by the enlightened Orthodox leadership in Lithuania, supported Zionism. Even when Jewish socialists (Bundists) and communists were added to the mixture, supporters of Zionism possibly constituted the largest plurality amongst Jews in Eastern Europe.

In addition to Agudat Israel, most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism, and were opposed well after the creation of the state of Israel. Since 80% of Haredi Jews perished in the Holocaust, one might argue that this could imply that the majority of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. That thesis seems to be reinforced when it is recognized that Ahavath Zion, a pro-Zionist Orthodox party, never made any inroads with the Hasidim. In the nineteen twenties, the party was also opposed by the majority of Orthodox leaders. However, it garnered a significant following among rabbis and the populace in smaller communities. By the time of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of sentiment among the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe favoured Zionism.

What about the prominence of Zionism among Jews in North Africa and in the Muslim states of the Middle East? The immigration of Jews from Yemen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in 1911 preceded large-scale migration of Arab Jews to Palestine, though the majority would only arrive with Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. The first evidence of Zionist activity in North Africa can be traced to Tunisia in 1902; Ahavat Zion was established there in 1913. About the same time, stirrings of Zionist activity began in Morocco. It is true that Zionism never became a majority movement among traditional practicing North African Jews until after WWII, and even then only after the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that in 1933, a majority of North African practicing Jews sympathized with Zionism, in spite of the fact that Zionism was a European ideology and almost all its leaders were of European origin. The shift to identification with, as distinct from sentiment for, Zionism may have begun with the Holocaust, but it only became reified with the creation of the State of Israel based on sentiments already widespread in 1933.

The same pattern was evident in the Middle East. In 1928, young Jews may have joined Maccabi sports organizations, but the Chief rabbi in Baghdad and the Jewish establishment opposed Zionism then. Even though sentiment among the masses began to shift in favour of Zionism, only a few thousand Iraqis migrated to Palestine in the 1930s under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Many more came on their own. However, there is a record of an official shift even before the Holocaust in 1941-1942 before the Holocaust, though it took the Holocaust for the European leadership in Zionism to pay significant attention to Jews in the Middle East and then only with a condescending eye and “segregationist” policies, but that is another story.

What about Jews in America? Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in North America. They came very late to the table. Initially, Progressive Reform Judaism rejected Zionism as a nationalist ideology at odds with its ethical universalism. When they came around, it was not after the rise of Hitler. It was not after the Holocaust. It was not even immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. It was only after the sixties when the consciousness of the Holocaust became imprinted among Jews. Further, only in the Miami Platform of 1997 was this made official as Reform Judaism celebrated the rebirth of Am Israel, the Jewish people in Israel. But even then, it was conditional upon self-determination being exercised on universal principles of human rights, respect for minorities and preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

I have not even counted the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that among worldwide Judaism, Zionism was indeed a minority movement among Jews in 1933. But so was Marxism. So was Bundism, secular socialism. So was Reform Judaism itself which was only predominant in North America. There was simply no majoritarian ideology then among Jews.  However, Zionism was not a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community in 1933. There is great deal of difference between not being a majority movement and being a small movement.

Further, Orthodox Jews in Europe opposed to Zionism in 1933 were not just hesitant in their support for Zionism. The establishment part of the Orthodox movement in 1933 was openly opposed. This was true of virtually all Hasidic sects. However, by 1933, among the Orthodox populace in Eastern Europe, a majority sentiment identified with Zionism, with many also supporting competing ideologies at the same time. Even then, although the establishment was still officially opposed, only a very small minority among them based opposition to Zionism on requiring the messiah to return as Gregory claimed.  Gregory was and remains wrong in each of the particulars of this thesis.

Gregory Baum – Israel’s creation depended on Hitler and the Holocaust

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust Thesis

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum wrote, “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.” In yesterday’s blog on Orthodox opposition and support for pre-independence Zionism, I pointed out a number of factors which suggest that, although Hitler, and to a minor extent, the Holocaust itself, had an impact on the creation of Israel, both were relatively minor factors with mixed effects, a position much against the widespread beliefs in both those critical of Zionism and its defenders, though not among most scholars.

One positive, if horrific fact, supporting the thesis is that 80% of the ultra-Orthodox – who strongly opposed secular political Zionism – were killed in the Holocaust. The slaughter of the Hasidim reduced a major source of diaspora opposition to Zionism and may even have increased the percentage of Jews supporting Zionism.  Of course, this is not generally what is meant when writers claim that without Hitler, there would have been no Israel. They really refer to enhancement of the motivations of Jews and guilt created by the Holocaust among bystanders. (“Understanding for Zionism and sympathy for its cause has waned in Western countries as the memory of the Holocaust has receded” – the Herzl Institute.) However, there is only miniscule evidence for this thesis. Nevertheless, the historical facts offer some data to suggest why the thesis could possibly be correct.

Though Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London 2000-2008) claimed that Hitler had supported Zionism, this is false news. However, there is a second argument that might suggest that Hitler enhanced the Zionist cause. On 25 August 1933, Nazi Germany and Zionist German Jews signed the very controversial Haavara (transfer) Agreement. The Anglo-Palestine Bank under the direction of the Jewish Agency had been part of the negotiations. Allowing German Jews to use a portion of their assets for Jewish businesses in Palestine to purchase German goods permitted German Jews, if they resettled in Palestine, to be compensated by those Palestine businesses. In six years between 1933 and 1939, Germany was able by this means to export about US$35,000,000 worth of goods. Jews who went to Palestine were able to recover about $US100 million of their assets. However, while a significant injection, this represented a very small part of the productivity in Palestine between 1933 and 1939. Far more than that was lost as a result of the 1936-1939 Palestinian uprising.

The deal also facilitated the migration of 60,000 Yekkes from Germany to Palestine under what today is known as an immigration investor program. Whatever the support for Zionism in Eastern Europe, among German Jews, there had been very little support in 1933 for Zionism. Their numbers represented about 2% of the German Jewish population and this is a significant source of the belief of Gregory Baum that Zionism was a small movement.

The Haavara Agreement strengthened Zionism on the ground in Palestine. However, it also set a precedent for breaching the anti-Nazi worldwide Jewish boycott imposed on Germany, a boycott instigated by the persecution of Jews with the firing of Jews from the government, the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the quotas imposed on Jewish enrolment in schools and universities. While the agreement led to the rescue of a significant number of Jews, it also created a deep chasm within the Zionist movement, a rift that some would argue seriously weakened it because of this schism. As Edwin Black wrote, “The Transfer Agreement tore the Jewish world apart, turning leader against leader, threatening rebellion and even assassination.” My interpretation is that the damage caused was more significant than the benefits, but it is a claim that is hard to make, for most of the 60,000 Jews might not have otherwise been saved.

Supporters of the H/H thesis also claim that Hitler and the Holocaust greatly increased the sympathy for Zionism. However, the reality was that the general antisemitism prevalent throughout Europe before Hitler even came to power had made Zionism a much stronger movement in Eastern Europe than most of its competitors even though it had an insignificant impact among German Jews. Zionism was NOT a small movement in 1933.

Further, the evidence seems to be clear that in 1933 there was already a movement among Orthodox Jews to support Zionism. This movement initially opposed  the community establishment and prominent rabbis that culminated in 1937 in Agudat Israel, an Orthodox political movement, formally shifting from an anti-Zionist to a non-Zionist position. On the other hand, even after Hitler, even after the Holocaust, Agudat Israel opposed the United Nations motion in November 1947 recommending partition and the creation of a Jewish state. If Hitler and the Holocaust had been so consequential in the creation of the State of Israel, then a major political party representing certainly the leadership in the Orthodox community would have shifted to support the creation of Israel. But they did not. So at least in this area, there is clear evidence that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust had no major influence on Agudat Israel’s support for Israel.

One argument supporting the claim that without Hitler there would have been no Israel is based on the fact that WWII so weakened the British economy and military capacity after the war that Britain was unable to defeat the Zionist rebellion. On a broader scale, this position really credits Hitler for the dissolution of the British Empire, ignoring the worldwide forces behind the principle of self-determination quite independently of both Hitler and British power.

There is another argument that claims that the Holocaust benefitted Israel. As a result of the Holocaust, Germany paid Israel reparations and those reparations helped Israel to grow economically. But this happened after Israel was created and may indeed have played a role in ensuring the economic viability of the state. But it is not an argument supporting the claim that the Holocaust helped bring Israel into being. It is difficult to understand why the claim is so widely accepted that, “the Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to Palestine” thereby creating a critical population mass. I will deal with this latter claim, namely that the Holocaust motivated large numbers of Jews to move to Palestine, in a separate blog on migration.

Further, roughly half the population of Israel came from Arab and other Middle East states. Their move to Palestine started before the Zionist movement developed tracks and mostly continued without formal Zionist help. But the really large movement came after the creation of the State of Israel. If Hitler and the Holocaust were the major sources for this movement, then the effort of Jews from Arab lands and other Middle East countries (Turkey, Iran) would have increased enormously after the war and put enormous pressure on the British attempt to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. There was no significant pressure from Jews in Arab lands and in Iran and Turkey. The push came after the state was created, suggesting strongly that the creation of the state, for various reasons, stimulated the large migration from these sources. Migration pressure from this source did not result from the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust to influence the creation of Israel. Quite the reverse! The creation of the State of Israel instigated the mass migration.

Even within the major denomination of Jews in the New World, the sympathy for Zionism in Reform Jewry only took off well after WWII, well after the Holocaust. The latter two may have had an influence, but the evidence suggests that the Six Day War was really the turning point. The reason is that, in the build up towards that war, Jews who did not identify with Zionism identified with their fellow Jews under threat of annihilation and even feared that Israel would lose and the Jews would be slaughtered. Thus, solidarity with live Jews under threat acted as a much greater catalyst than the dead Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, though the Holocaust had begun to haunt world Jewry as well as the rest of the world. But by then, Israel was already nineteen years old.

What about the effects of the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust on the sympathies of non-Jews? Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. Was there any dramatic effort to stop Hitler from persecuting Jews? Were there strong government boycotts? Did countries open their borders to Jews in flight? If the rise of Hitler had such an impact, why was that impact not translated into some significant action then? There were a number of options available to countries which, at the very least, they could have considered.

During the Holocaust, and certainly afterwards, the West was chastised for not bombing the railroads transporting the Jews to the extermination camps. There is now ample evidence that those in positions of power knew about the transports. I happen to believe, based on my reading, that bombing the railroads leading to the camps by the West was not realistic since the fighter escort craft guarding the bombers would not have had enough fuel to get to places like Poland and back to Britain. But when I was reading documents in the British archives providing background for my research on Jewish refugees after WWII, I never read any evidence that there was a serious study of the alternatives available to interfere with the murder machine, quite aside from whether any of the alternatives was realistic.

Most significantly, immediately after the war, when the Anglo-American Committee visited the refugee camps in 1946, the concern was how to get rid of the refugees. Try to find any significant evidence of guilt over the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust influencing the decision to recommend that Britain allow the entry into Palestine of 100,000 Jews. If countries felt guilt about Hitler and the Holocaust, surely they would either have pressured Britain, a country on the economic ropes at the time, to change its policies and/or resettle the refugees. No significant pressure was applied. By 1947, the Jewish refugees collected in European camps totalled about 250,000.

When I read both the minutes of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine as well as the archival files and memoirs of some of the members, I could not find a hint of guilt about Hitler or the Holocaust, let alone some discussion of both. Instead, a very major concern was again the disposition of the refugees, by then increased to 250,000. I would argue that this problem, as well as the difficulties of any other solution, would lead both the Majority Report that recommended partition and the creation of a Jewish state, and the Minority Report recommending a federation, to see Palestine as a repository for the Jewish refugees.

In 1946, when a survey was undertaken of the Jewish refugees about where they wanted to resettle, the majority indicated Palestine. However, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that representatives of the Jewish Agency manipulated both the refugees and the vote to ensure that outcome. In 1946, though Zionism was certainly a significant movement by then, in spite of Hitler, in spite of the Holocaust, a majority of Jewish refugees did not prioritize Palestine as a place to resettle.

However, this changed by the time UNSCOP visited the camps in 1947. The numbers had more than doubled. But genuine support for Zionism in the camps was now almost overwhelming. Why? Neither Hitler nor the Holocaust held positions as intervening causes. The reason was the recognition that Jews still were unwanted by the nations of the world. Without Palestine, the Jews might remain warehoused in camps for years. They did not anticipate that the West would begin to unlock the gates, especially in North America.

In sum, the evidence suggests that both Hitler and the Holocaust were reasons why the pressures among Jewry decreased in Europe because there were far fewer Jews, both to oppose and to support Zionism. Hitler and the Holocaust did not give Zionism a boost, but severely undermined its efforts by slaughtering 95% of the populations from which it drew its main base of support.  There is no significant evidence that either the Holocaust – which in the 1940s was still little discussed outside legal circles – or Hitler enhanced the Zionist movement in any way. The dedication of Zionists to converting more of the Jewish masses to their cause, their efforts in diplomacy with nations from whom they could get potential support, the military preparations on the ground, and, most importantly of all, the effect of the military victory in the War of Independence after the state had been created, had the most profound influence on support for the nascent state both among Jews in the diaspora and among non-Jews.

Why then the myth that Zionism became a significant movement only because of Hitler and the Holocaust. After all, even Nahum Goldmann, once president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that “without Auschwitz there would be no Israel.” I will try to answer that question by the time I finish reviewing the other six theses that Gregory Baum put forth. In the interim, the preponderance of evidence undermines the thesis that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust provided Israel with the resources, the population, and the approval of other nations to come into existence and subsequently thrive.