Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

In the 2019th season of the Stratford Festival, Nathan the Wise (in the original German, Nathan der Weise) was paired with Birds of a Kind. The latter, as I tried to demonstrate in my review, is focused on identity politics and agents who are not what they seem to be. This is also true of each of the characters in Nathan the Wise. Both plays are also about ethnic, religious and political identity and the conflicts between and among them. There is a dramatic dialectic between the two spheres, identity arising from the struggle to reconcile the different parts of the self engaged in an internal civil war and the external identity markers imposed by one’s family and society. However, in Nathan the Wise, the difficulty is not primarily about knowing your cultural, ethnic and religious identity, but how identities clash and interact with others who carry different social markers. In Lessing, the drama of the play is to be found in the intimate, clever and very funny interactions.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the son of a Christian pastor and himself originally educated and intended to serve as a Christian minister, wrote his final play in 1779 before the French Revolution against royal and Roman Catholic authoritarianism. The play was never staged during his lifetime. Birgit Schreyer Duarte, who directed Nathan the Wise at Stratford, according to her stage notes, evidently believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. In other words, Nathan’s Jewishness is an oversized and ill-fitting cover for the small, and perhaps in reality large, true human beneath. As I will try to show, this is precisely the opposite message of Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s good friend and the acknowledged model for Nathan in the play.

Presumably, that is why Nathan is played by Diane Flacks in an overcoat three sizes too large. That is why he (she) enters the stage with the lighting projecting the character as a black silhouette of an outsized figure. The real Nathan is hidden beneath that coat and the real Nathan will be a larger-than-life shadow figure. To repeat, Duarte believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. As a result, we become isolated, ignorant and walled in. Religion – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are but superficial and weighty overlays to the true spirituality beneath. The wall, very specifically, the Western Wall in Jerusalem that forms the stage backdrop, is the signal and single large negative metaphor on stage of a play that Duarte interprets to be about false divisions among peoples who need to and should respect and appreciate one another for their differences.

“Perhaps it’s an instinctual act of self-preservation: erecting and maintaining walls, be they material or ideological, protects us from the threats of the outside world and helps us define ourselves in contrast to others. Walls give us stability, remind us of who we want to be [and presumably the reason Jews in the play stuff their notes in the crevices between the stones], who we don’t want to be. They are meant to keep our ideas of who we are intact and untainted. Of course, the same impulse is also what threatens to make us isolated, closed off, ignorant of what the world looks like beyond such borders, Ultimately, walls can make us more fearful of the unknown and foreign, rather than less.”

As Robert Frost wrote in “Mending Wall,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Unequivocally, Birgit Schreyer Duarte does not love walls, especially the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for it is a symbol of oppression, of separation, of self-repression.

This, of course, is but a variation, a milder one mind you, of Karl Marx’s claim that religion “is the sign of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” The function of critique was to allow people to overthrow these false covers, to throw off these false chains, to discard illusions and allow humans to move around freely in their own human skins. Then the true spirit beneath this heartless world will emerge. Duarte attempts to use Lessing’s play to unveil the true humanity that lies beneath Nathan’s oversized coat.

When Nathan first appears on stage in the Stratford production, anyone familiar with Nikolay Gogol’s magnificent short story, “The Overcoat,” a biting satire of the banality of bureaucracy, will almost certainly recall that tale now applied to religion rather than state administrative structures. Stratford’s production of Nathan the Wise is an interpretation of Lessing’s play in terms of the banality of institutionalized religion and, perhaps too strong a term for the occasion, its resultant evil. Religious differences are but arbitrary historical artifacts beneath which can be found the true source of the spirit of humankind, not reason but a common humanity.  

The play is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade at the end of the twelfth century. England’s King Henry II, France’s King Phillip II and the Holy Roman Empire’s German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, united to reconquer the Holy Land, oust Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf), the Ayyubid sultan and nephew of General Shirkuh who had served the Syrian ruler, Nur ad-Din Zengi, so well. Saladin had first succeeded his uncle as vizier of Egypt when he died suddenly in 1169. The Muslims emerged victorious to rule Jerusalem in 1187, and once again occupy the Holy City. Christian forces made a beachhead in Jaffa and Acre, but otherwise failed to recapture the city. The failure reputedly killed Pope Urban III who died of shock on hearing the news.

Thus, the play is set at the crosshairs of two centuries of warfare between Christians and Muslims, with the Crusaders in general and the Knights Templar in particular, infamous for their pogroms against Jews to expropriate their wealth, even when very meagre, to benefit their crusades. The Muslims, in contrast, were renowned for their art and architecture, the depth of their learning and their tolerance then towards Jews. However, the historical context is ignored both in the program play notes and in the production.

The play makes much of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backgrounder, but nothing about the historical context in which the play was actually set, presumably between 1187 and 1192 when a peace agreement was forged between Richard I, who succeeded Henry II upon his death in 1189, that permitted Christians to visit the city, but only if they came unarmed. Jews were already, and had been there for centuries, peaceful residents of the city. What are we then to make of the soldiers in what looks like Israeli army uniforms carrying Kalashnikovs lurking menacingly throughout the play?

Nathan the Wise is a play about identity, about mistaken identities, in the strong tradition of dramatic farce, but, unlike those farces, Lessing’s play does indeed have a serious message about respecting diversity, about honestly acknowledging differences, but not necessarily cutting through them. As Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s model for Nathan, wrote: “Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement, where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence. [My italics.] None of us thinks and feels exactly like his fellow man: why do we wish to deceive each other with delusive words?” (from his 1783 volume, Jerusalem) Plurality of truths, not a universal humanity, was his message.

Nathan’s wisdom does not lie, as Duarte claims, “in his capacity to see beyond the façade (and the soldiers’ armour [sic!]), to recognize the religious and cultural identities as constructs under which the personal, the common humanity can be found if put in the effort to do so.” Moses Mendelssohn was an orthodox Jew. So was Nathan. The point of the parable on tolerance (see the next paragraph) is NOT to stress a common humanity, but to recognize and respect differences because no human is in a position to discern the ultimate truth. Nathan is not a man with a finely tuned emotional and intellectual intelligence, but is himself flawed in how he understands Daya, his daughter and the knight. But he does learn, as does Saladin, as does the Knight Templar.

The key to the play is Nathan’s parable of the three rings. A father has three sons each equally accomplished, each equally loving and each equally loved. To whom should he pass the ring as a symbol of his “favourite son” – itself a Jewish theme challenging the primacy of rights of the first born. He promises each son the ring and makes two copies that cannot be recognized as imitations and gives one to each son. The quarrel that emerges is over which son has inherited the authentic original when there is no empirical way to determine the difference. (Incidentally, a scientific fallacy, but take it as poetic license and a reference to the Kantian theme that answers to such questions reside outside the realm of reason.)

The authentic ring will emerge in who is guided by the best conduct, not on the historical origins of the ring. There is no authentic religion – neither Judaism, Christianity or Islam. For Nathan held that our behaviour, not our origins, determined our personalities. And one should not, as the Christian knights did, look down upon Jews engaged in trade and banking. For the Christian nobility in the twelfth century viewed reading and writing as an effeminate activity beneath the worth of courage and valour in battle. Jews were people of the book. Nathan was a merchant, but also a very learned man. The Christians knights were robbers not traders, fighters, not men of learning.

Moses Mendelssohn, the son of an impoverished Torah scribe originally intended for the rabbinate, became one of the most celebrated philosophers of the eighteenth century. Largely self-taught, he mastered Greek, Latin, French and English to be able to read his favourite philosophers in the original (e.g. John Locke’s essay in English on tolerance). In Lessing’s view, nobility belonged to character, not to physiognomy or inheritance. Moses was the epitome. Physically, he was the opposite in appearance to a noble, somewhat hunchbacked with a very far from attractive face, but he carried himself with nobility without the mannerisms and picaresque stereotype of the shtetl Jew. He was, as described by a Christian believer who wanted to convert him as a man of “keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition, frank and open-hearted,” but also thoroughly rabbinic.

Moses expressed that nobility, not only through his elevated thoughts, but through the elegance, beauty and lucidity of his writing and discourse. Lessing and Moses were famous and friendly chess competitors, just as Nathan and the unkempt dervish (and supposedly ecstatic), Al-Hafi, just as Saladin and his sister, Sittah, and Saladin and Nathan in the play are. But you would never know the importance of the metaphor of chess about intellectual competition under universal rules rather than conflicts of power and financial interests by watching the Stratford production of the play. For Lessing, as it was for both Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, universality is in the rules of the game, in reason, in the principles guiding conduct, and not in human nature. Lessing was not a prototype of Jűrgen Habermas who esteemed discourse and empathizing with the other.

Like the three rings, the importance is not to find out whether Christianity, Judaism or Islam is the true religion, but to live a life worthy in the eyes of God. Muslims (Saladin) and Jews (Nathan) can play chess, Muslims and Muslims can play chess. A Dervish can play chess with a Jew. Even the Christian friar can play chess with a Jew, but would he do so as a betrayal of the Patriarch or as simply a convenient mode of spying on Nathan? Christians are conflicted, either disillusioned warriors after confronting the hypocrisies of Christianity, such as the Knight Templar played by Jakob Ehman (Eitan Zimmerman in Birds of a Kind), or men of the cloth which disguised their bloodthirsty propensities hidden beneath their religious garb, the Patriarch of Palestine played by Harry Nelken (Etgar in Birds of a Kind) – “The Jew must burn” – or Bonafides (Ron Kennell), the friar serving as the Patriarch’s messenger and spy on Nathan, or, finally, women, like Daya (Sarah Orenstein who played Norah in Birds of a Kind), a “true” Christian because she honestly serves and respects Nathan while retaining her Christian beliefs.

Duarte did not seem to understand this. Hence her interpretation – or should I write, misinterpretation – of the main character Nathan and the direction she gave to Diane Flacks who performs the role. The choice of using a female to portray Nathan is but part of the misinterpretation of the play to see it as an echo of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, that is, after all, underneath our skin, are we not, male and female, Jew, Christian or Muslim, all humans? The answer, of course, is yes, but that is NOT the point of the play, but rather, that we respect difference, that we respect diversity, that we treasure distinctiveness and dissimilarity. We must applaud heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. And, most of all, we must applaud reason and wisdom from whomever it originates.

One final historical note. Why does Lessing name his main character Nathan? I think the answer is self-evident. In the Old Testament, as Christians call it, Nathan was the wise and diplomatic friend of King David. He served as David’s mentor and conscience. Nathan served as God’s messenger to David, not as David’s plenipotentiary to those he ruled or to other rulers. Most particularly, he articulated Judaism at its core as a religion to be guided into the future by God who made a covenant with His people.

But Nathan in the Bible is best known for his role as David’s superego. As everyone knows, King David, smitten by Bathsheba, arranges for her husband, Uriah, a loyal soldier in David’s army, to be sent to the front where he is killed in battle. This was clearly and unequivocally a sinful act. If Nathan confronted David directly, it might have meant his own execution. Like Nathan in Lessing’s play, the biblical Nathan offers a parable to King David. A very rich man, true to tradition, takes in and is host to a stranger. But he was also a skinflint. So instead of sacrificing the best of his flock, he took the plump and succulent lamb of a poor neighbour, in fact, a lamb who was a family pet, and sacrificed it for the festive meal for the stranger.

King David, outraged at the injustice, opined that the rich man ought to die for his sin. Then Nathan informs David that he is the rich man. He committed adultery and killed an innocent loyal Israelite. Nathan prophesied that the sins of the father will fall on the child and that David would be sinned against as he had sinned against Uriah. Nathan in the Lessing play, as I will try to show in Part II of this review, is the wise diplomat, not with a message about the universal nature of humans, but of the specific responsibilities of a Jew as well as respect for the differential characteristics of various religions.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Birds of a Kind

The 1965 novel, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński, tries to capture the essence of The Holocaust in terms of a metaphor. A boy, either a Gypsy or a Jew, is wandering around the countryside in Eastern Europe during WWII searching for his family. He is equated with a bird from a flock that has been painted and then released back to fly up and join its fellows. The bird is pecked to death and falls to the earth dead. Exclusive tribal units are intolerant of the appearance of difference.

The human “flock” itself is portrayed as ridden with incest, bestiality, cruelty, rape, senseless violence and intolerance. The boy is both a witness to and victim of the horrors he observes until he, like the Biblical Joseph of the multi-coloured coat, is thrown into a pit. Unlike Joseph, who emerges victorious through his clever wit and articulate insight to rise higher than ever, the boy is rendered mute – until, miraculously, at the end of the novel, he is reunited with his family.

Greeted initially by Elie Wiesel as a novel of “deep sincerity and sensitivity” and taught by myself in a university humanities course, the book turned out to be a fraud. Not only was it not based on Kosiński’s experience during the war, but it was taken without acknowledgement from a Polish folktale with total sections plagiarized from a work by the Polish-Jewish ethnographer, Henryk Biegeleisen. The book is moving. The book is powerful. The book is also a fake. It may even have been ghost written since Kosiński lacked sufficient mastery of English to write the novel.

A writer struggling with his own identity may, however, have been an excellent choice to write on the politics of identity. And the politics of identity is the core of a great deal of fiction, including Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, one of the three plays I saw at Stratford last week which I will write about in a separate blog. 

This blog is about the most powerful of the three productions, Birds of a Kind (Tous des oiseaux) written by the Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s current artistic director. The play is translated from the original French by Linda Gaboriau. Lebanese-born, Paris-raised and Canadian-educated, Mouawad advanced his career in Quebec and is now based in Paris as artistic director of the Théâtre de la Colline. Unlike The Painted Bird, the author openly acknowledged his debt to my colleague, Natalie Zemon Davis (perhaps best known to the wider public for her 1983 social historical volume, The Return of Martin Guerre) and her 2006 book, Tricksters Travels: A Sixteenth Century Muslim between Worlds.

Go see this marvellous play and stupendous production with phenomenal acting, staging and lighting. For as an added bonus you may be enticed into reading Natalie’s study. I thought of including the volume in my course that I gave this past spring on the attitudes to Jews by important scholars in the sixteenth century, and am now very sorry that I did not. My limp excuse was that Leo Africanus, the subject of Natalie Davis’s book, was not well known like the other authors. Further, he was only an ersatz Christian, a forced convert who remained inwardly a Muslim.

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi was born in Granada and, like the Jews, his family was expelled in 1492. They moved to Morocco. He was brilliant, was appointed as a diplomat by the Sultan and was captured by Spanish Christian privateers (corsairs) and presented as a gift to the Pope in Rome. Given the offer of freedom if he became a Christian, he converted and gained access to the Pope’s marvellous library. In 1550, under the name Giovanni Leone, though more widely known as Leo Africanus, he writes a famous book on North Africa and becomes a leading intellectual light in the papal court.

For Natalie, telling one’s story is at the core of history. The story, as in Martin Guerre, can even be a fake one. And the story can be told both in the form of fiction (Amin Maalouf, Leo the African) and as history. Further, the way the story is told can be subject to the vagaries of technology so that Natalie also explored the difference between the original almost one-thousand-page manuscript and the much shorter printed version that was produced on the new printing presses of Venice. Natalie’s book, and the play, Birds of a Kind, inspired by it, is about the very opposite theme than The Painted Bird, about breaking cultural boundaries to forge a new identity rather than simply its rigidity bequeathed to you by your family, your ethnic group and your religion.

In the play, Birds of a Kind, Leo Africanus appears as the subject of the PhD thesis of Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), an American assimilated Arab, also from Morocco. As played by Aladeen Tawfeek, he is also a very physical haunting presence in the play serving as a one-person Greek chorus to comment on the action, the issues at stake and the mindblindness of each of the characters. He is also the trickster, the shape shifting presence of a multitude of identities, sexual as well as ethnic and religious.

The idea is carried through by means of one of the oldest tropes in drama, a false identity bequeathed on a child by his or her family. But it is also a play about the assimilated Arab-American, Wahida, who, in the midst of a Jewish family drama and the war between the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians raging around her, discovers her Arab/Islamic roots as she raises questions about the sixteenth century Leo Africanus, who haunts the play as a ghostly presence and chorus. There is also the mystery. Did al-Hasan al-Wazzan disappear from history by reclaiming his Islamic heritage in Tunisia after hiding for decades in the Pope’s court in the costume of a Christian? Or did he die at the hands of Christian zealots? Or did he retire to the Italian countryside to pass away as a Christian?

Since the Stratford season is almost over, with only a few performances of the play left, I will by and large avoid any warnings about disclosures, appropriate when writing about a play dealing with hidden identities and breaking barriers in those identities. I have a grandson named Eitan. He is an Israeli. The main character in Birds of a Kind is Eitan Zimmerman played by Jakob Ehman. In the play, Eitan is a German Jew only because his father, David (Alon Nashman) at the age of fourteen was skirted away from Israel and off to Germany by his father, Etgar (Harry Nelken) who is Eitan’s grandfather.

The play begins with the craziest pick-up I have ever seen between Eitan and Wahida, the two star-crossed lovers at the centre of the drama, in an almost magical and very unproblematic encounter in the library of New York City University (or is it Columbia University). Eitan is a geneticist, deeply immersed in the science of probabilities. Eitan has been stalking, not Wahida, but a library table waiting to see who has been reading the book that he has seen left on a table over two hundred times. Eitan confronts Wahida with a wild speech on statistics and improbabilities.

Eitan will eventually learn that chromosomes do not carry anything more than one’s genetic identity, and that there may be more powerful carriers of identity than one’s material heritage. On the other hand, it is genetics that produces the greatest reveal of the play. Eitan collects the cutlery left at a seder table to prove that he must not be his father and mother’s son, only to discover, first, that he is, and second, that his supposed grandparents are not. Nor are they his father’ parents.

While that scene is both romantic and comical, the scene in which Eitan plans to introduce Wahida to his parents at a seder table is anything but. At the seder, Eitan’s father, David gets into a raucous argument with his son about the need to uphold Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment, that because of the Holocaust, Jews are commanded to survive as a people. Marriage to a Muslim is out of the question, even though Fackenheim himself married a student deeply involved in the Christian Student Movement. Fackenheim’s obligation was not about who you married, as many have misinterpreted him, but the commitment to raising your children as Jewish and their obligation in turn to raise their kids as Jewish. For Jews have a solemn duty not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory. David took it a step further. He became religiously orthodox and a Jew who hates Arabs only to learn at the end that, at birth, he lacked both identities. The lesson, however, is an intellectual one. The emotional lesson breaks his heart.

David’s wife and Eitan’s mother, Norah (Sarah Orenstein), was raised as a communist in East Germany by parents who suppressed any acknowledgement of their Jewish heritage. Norah has resumed her Jewish identity, but it seems to lack any depth, so it is particularly puzzling when she supports her husband’s refusal to accept the love of their son’s life, Wahida. She argues that she does not want to see the negative effect that her rebellion against her communist past had on her own father now inflicted on her husband.

Etgar attempts to be the peacemaker, but there is a second front in the emotional war, the extreme hostility of David towards his mother, Leah (Deb Filler), whom he felt abandoned him at the age of fourteen. It is not clear what the relationship is between Norah, David’s wife, a German-born psychiatrist raised in East Germany as a communist who only discovered she was Jewish at the age of fourteen.

The following may help is picturing the relationships:

Etgar (Harry Nelken)    –    Leah (Deb Filler)


                    David (Alon Nashman)    –    Norah (Sarah Orenstein)


Eitan (Jakob Ehman) – Wahida (Naraka Rahman)

Fourteen, just when teenagers are beginning the race through their teens, seems to be the magic moment of trauma in the play. That is the age when Wahida loses her parents, when David’s parents split over whether they ought to tell their son about his true origins, and the date when Norah learns that she is Jewish. Only Eitan remains as a suspended adolescent. For this age of early adolescence is precisely when children develop perception and insight, but also when they are most naïve and inwardly absorbed. Just when they begin to shift away from their families, adolescents most need them. Just when they want to express their uniqueness as social personae, they also have the deepest need for rootedness. It is a conflictual period of hormonal drives and ethical conflicts, grasping for abstractions and universal guidance and trapped in the very specific particularities of one’s own life.

Eitan, though thoroughly invested in science and the conviction that our identities are strictly chromosomal, travels with Wahida to Israel to see his grandmother, Leah, whom he has never met. Wahida is detained for questioning, thus saving her from injury and possibly death from a terrorist bomb that sends Eitan to the hospital in a coma. His parents and grandfather are recalled to Israel because of his medical state. But it will not be his physical condition that will become the central issue, but his cultural and ethnic identity. At the bedside of Eitan, Leah meets her grandson for the first time, meets Wahida and also meets both her husband and son whom she has not seen for 35 years since they left when Eitan was fourteen just after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila and the profound and deep moral crisis that Israelis went through. Leah learns that the wall she has built around her heart to shut out the military and the familial violence is far more fragile than she thought. It is shattered by the reunion and the family politics.

There is one other character in the play. Hannah Miller plays Eden, an Israeli soldier who befriends Wahida and tries to help her escape the violence of the Jewish Israeli-Palestinian violence. There is a suggestion at one point that the two have had a lesbian affair, but we are left uncertain of whether we heard it correctly since nothing is made of the hint. The reference to DNA at the beginning of the play has some substance. It is the plot device to reveal his father’s “true” identity. It is also at the core of survival when the play ends with a reference to donor transplantation to save four other lives. However, the lesbian suggestion is weird and gratuitous. 

Identity confusion is compounded by language confusion as characters slip back and forth between English and Hebrew and German and even Arabic, Eitan speaks German to his parents and they speak to each other in the same language. David Speaks Hebrew to his father, Etgar, and his mother, Leah, and the parents speak Hebrew to one another. Eitan and Wahida speak to each other in English. (The dialogue is translated on a screen above the action on stage.) This is the opposite of gratuitous for it goes to the heart of the matter whether one’s “native” language is at the core of identity rather than religion per se, ethnicity, gender and least of all citizenship.

This powerful play ends with a loud proclamation about Eitan’s own version of kaddish, but it really is a weak copout and a purchase into the liberal principle that beneath it all, beneath all the cultural accretions, we are one. Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet cannot consummate their love because of tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries ingrained by history.

How does one live true to one’s culture but also to oneself given the real forces of one’s environment? Leo Africanus offered an answer. Adapt. Become a bird that can live under the water. A Muslim as a captive can convert to Christianity, can paint himself to look like those who are his captors, but given the chance, as he was, he could eventually throw off his make-up and resume his cultural identity. A mother tongue more than the genes of a mother seem to be the key to cultural identity.

Birds of a Kind is unlike Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play, Birds. The latter is a comedy; the former is a tragedy. The Israeli-Arab conflict is explosive front and centre in the Stratford production. The Peloponnesian War is a silent backdrop to the Athenian’s play, specifically the misbegotten Sicilian Expedition and, domestically, a real witchhunt and riotous behaviour led by religious dogmatists attacking rationalist philosophers. In Birds, birds of the fields and mountains, of the trees and the seas, of the rivers and marshes, collect to build a city in the sky, Cloudcuckooland, that overwhelms Olympus. The birds become gods supplanting the Greek deities, but it is at the cost of their freedom as they now have to dedicate their lives to the defence of the monstrosity they built.

Birds of a Kind include four types of birds, but each is an archetype of a different kind of human benighted by nature as depicted in the Aristophanes play. There are Birds of Beauty (Wahida), Birds of Chance (Eitan), Birds of Misfortune (David) and Amphibious Birds like Leah and Etzek who provide the direction and underlying thrust of the drama, but become totally confounded by what they set in play. However, all the birds, all four kinds, are entities without wings, insubstantial as dreams, ephemeral things, as Aristophanes writes, “enfeebled and powerless creatures of earth always haunting a world of shadows.”

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Parashat Nitzavim Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20

In the recent election in Israel, the people of Israel, both Jewish and Arab, from all genders and all classes, stood before their Maker and cast their votes for who should rule on their behalf. In the imminent election in Canada that is just a little over three weeks away, the people of Canada, both English and French, from all genders and all classes, will stand before their Maker and cast their votes for who should rule on their behalf. In the election just a bit more than thirteen months away in the United States of America, the American people, black, white, Asian and Latino, from all genders and all classes, want to be able to stand before their Maker to make a free choice for who should rule on their behalf.

However, before they can do this, they face a crisis with their current leader. For he went beyond the sea, across the sea for assistance to bring ignominy on a leading fellow citizen. He used pressure to do so. He, or his minions, also tried to cover it up.

For the Constitution which binds them together, the Constitution to which the president bound himself when he accepted the obligations of that high office, is now before them all once again to see if those citizens want to renew their vows, to join themselves once again with the covenant they made with one another and before their Maker. For that is the only way, when there is a constitutional crisis, that the members of a people can renew their vows. Without such a renewal, the Constitution, the covenant that binds them together to constitute them as a people, becomes but a tiger made of papier-mâché.

In other words, it is not only the president that will be on trial. It will be the American people, not only all the political leaders – congressmen and senators, judges and prosecutors – but every citizen in America, including, and especially, those who carry out the most menial of duties, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. All, every American, is now responsible for renewing his or her vows to uphold the Constitution.

In America, the hewers of wood and drawers of water are not a caste destined forever to serve in menial roles. These jobs are not assigned to them because they crossed the border and claimed, perhaps falsely, to be persecuted. People that desire to be one with America and its people shall not remain problematic. Rather, they are symbols that the lowest must join the highest to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. Without them, there can be no democratic polity. And the highest in turn must prostrate themselves as low as possible before the demands of the Constitution. For the Constitution is an instrument of inclusiveness not divisiveness. When one goes, not bowed at the waist, not merely on bended knee, but spread across the floor, one does so by becoming a hewer of wood who trims his or her own branches of arrogance and self-righteousness, who becomes the drawer of water to those who have been parched and dried out by following their leader in a moral desert.

In order to excise the idol, one must cut oneself down to size. In order to excise the idol, one must bring, not remonstrations, but drinks for the souls of those who have so long been parched. Only when the pruning and the watering come together, can future growth be resumed.

The people must look back to the covenant, to that Constitution, to its terms, to its rights and to its responsibilities, in order to guide them out of the wilderness in which they now find themselves. Their moral wealth must be revived and restored. For the president solemnly swore or affirmed that he would, “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” and would to the best of his ability, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He did not.

However, the instruction to uphold the Constitution is not simply the responsibility of the president but of every member of the polity. Each is enjoined to uphold the law when the matter before the people is not baffling but put before them with clarity and concision. The interpretation of what is at issue does not require sophistication. Rather, it is very close to every American, close to their mouths that have made those vows and to their hearts that have pledged allegiance to the Constitution.

If they do not regain that faith in the lifeblood of their constitutional being, America as the democratic leader of the free world will die. But if that renewal is made in this time of crisis, America as a leading moral light in the world will once again burn brightly, have long life and endure upon the soil of America on which American citizens have a custodial role.

And if they do not? If they forsake their vows and their Constitution, disaster awaits. If they betray their founding fathers, if they turn to defend narcissistic idolatry based on manipulation, dishonesty and resentment, if they worship a false god, then the wrath of the world and their Maker will wreck vengeance on sinners and do-gooders alike. The American polity will sink into an abyss. The land that has been so blessed will become cursed. If the American people do not listen, if they fail to heed all the warning signs, if they close their hearts off from the words of their own Constitution, then America as a light unto the nations will perish.

Section 3 of Article Two of that Constitution includes The Take Care Clause that requires the president to obey and enforce all laws, though he has some interpretive discretion with respect to enforcement. Section 4 of Article Two establishes that the president and other officers can be removed from office through the impeachment process, which is further described in Article One. Impeachment is the analogous process to an indictment by a grand jury that is handled by the House of Representatives. The trial itself is conducted by the Senate.

Grounds for impeachment include:

(1) improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the office;

(2) behaviour incompatible with the function and purpose of the office; and

(3) misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

The action does not have to be criminal. An impeachable offence is an abuse or violation of public trust. It is a breach of faith. When there is a breach of faith, it is an assault on the Constitution itself. The more important offence is NOT the impeachable offence itself, but the excusing of such offences that are driven by feelings of resentment and bitterness. For in implicitly endorsing such offences by failing to confront these failures of faith in the Constitution, those members of society become infused with “gall and wormwood.” Instead of a democratic polity, there is a danger of the politics of resentment superseding it.  

Let not arrogance, let not overconfidence, let not a desire to separate oneself from the well-being of the community as a whole, including those who heretofore have followed an idol and false god, an idol who considers himself immune from sanctions, an idol who could declare that he could shoot someone in cold blood on Fifth Avenue and still not be punished by the people, let not the righteous desert the fallen and followers of the sinner, for Americans are in this together. They must separate themselves from the hubris of a leader who imagines and acts as if he is above and apart from everyone else, above the law and apart from the Constitution and the polity created by that Constitution. Their polity survives or falls with how they handle this crisis. The theme must be reiterated – the whole community has a responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

When a citizen, when the leader of those citizens, turns to a foreign entity to assist in winning to become the choice of the people, when a significant portion of those people also forsake their faith in their own Constitution and its principles, when both the leader and his followers fail to listen, when they walk “in stubbornness,” they bring disaster, not only on their own shrivelled and dried out hearts, but also on the bleeding hearts who cry for the cost and loss to the democratic polity. And the moist are swept away with the dry. Democracy dies. No one is a winner.

The bleeding hearts must also bleed for those who have been duped. They cannot imitate their idol and adopt the arrogance of, “I told you so.” Self-righteousness has no place in defending the Constitution. Superiority and self-importance must be cast aside and the process followed with all due humility. No pounding of chests to demonstrate pride in not having become a lemming. Rather pounding of one’s own chest to rid within oneself of the self-importance, the arrogance, the self-aggrandizement of he who would be Lord.

29:19 the LORD will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven.

The only solution: lance the source of evil. The leader of this self-idolatry and self-serving must be impeached, must be cursed, and his name must be blotted out from under heaven. He shall be separated out and driven out of office according to the curses demanded by his vows, by the covenant into which he entered to uphold the Constitution as written in the book of law. Unless that happens, the polity will disintegrate, it will become dysfunctional and it will become subject to the interventions of foreign forces. At the very worst, the same leaders that tried to close off the land and its society from welcoming strangers will themselves be cast as refugees in another land.

This is what happens when the supreme source of all law is blatantly betrayed and when the leadership fails to live up to the specific words of the law. This is what happens when a portion of the polity is smitten by such a leader. This is what happens when those who escape such hypnotism fail themselves to get rid of any sense of self-importance in their own hearts, who fail themselves to bow and come not simply on bended knees before the Constitution but prostrate before the book of laws in engaging in the process of excision. The bleeding heart must now not only bow before the Constitution but prostrate him or herself before it. It is insufficient at this point in the crisis to merely bow at the waist. Those in the right must lower themselves entirely to make common cause with those who have been betrayed and misled the most. Only then can humility and hubris reengage to once again give life to the Constitution. Each must individually become small so that the whole community can once again become large, become once again a moral force for good in the world.

Americans must return to their constitutional faith. They must listen to its ordinances and its demands. They must come to understand what it means to commit high crimes and misdemeanours. Americans must become great again – not so much as an economic and military power, but as a moral leader and witness before the whole world. They must renew their pledge to the Constitution to keep its commandments and statutes that are written in the book of the law.  


A Follow-Up Analysis of the Israeli September 2019 Election

On the morning after, I published my immediate responses to the Israeli election results. That blog has subsequently been edited, the figures updated, some new observations included and has been posted on my web site ( on WordPress. I now want to offer a more detailed analysis, beginning with my notes from the end of my initial blog on the election. Contrary to most commentators who insist that the results are not much different than in April, I argue that they are a game changer.

Clearly, the biggest winner emerging from the election is Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beiteinu and former Defence Minister. He not only blocked Netanyahu from forming a government following the April election, but increased his representation from 5 to 8 seats in this election and is now clearly poised to become the kingmaker in the new government, even though his security and defense policies are not congruent with those of Blue and White. Lieberman took a significant risk in taking down Bibi, who enjoys considerable popularity on the right. However, in so doing, he enhanced his base by promoting a national unity as well as secular government that would exclude the religious parties. Lieberman gained the votes of rightists who were tired of Netanyahu or of alliances with the ultra-Orthodox, or both.

However, since the results were formally announced, Lieberman indicated that he would be willing to sit with Haredi lawmakers – but only on condition that the government back a series of proposals which religious MKs have long opposed, especially passage of the Haredi draft law unamended, but also permitting the passage of legislation permitting civil marriages, requiring the Haredi schools to teach the secular curriculum, changes to the conversion system in Israel, opening minimarts and permitting public transportation on shabat in towns with a significant non-ultra-orthodox presence, and the expansion of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In other words, “I will join with you in a coalition if you surrender on all the platforms you hold dear.” Highly unlikely to happen, though it is notable that those parties have stopped referring to Lieberman as Amalek.

Either way, if his gambit works, next to Netanyahu, the religious parties may be the biggest losers and Likud may become not only eventually free of Netanyahu, but of its dependence on those religious parties. Netanyahu has had to repeatedly reiterate that, “we are in this together. I will not abandon you.” But Likud might. Further, Netanyahu’s blasting at the “left” during the election campaign was clearly misdirected. Bibi seemed to have lost control of his political artillery for it was not aimed at the greatest danger to him. Instead of screaming that Arabs are voting in droves to drive his right-wing voters to the polls, he upped the ante and laid unsupported charges of Arab voter fraud, which many if not most of his own supporters viewed as a political sham.

When politics can no longer be painted as black and white, Netanyahu emerged as a loser. Further, he miscued when he tried to buy the support of the Libertarian Zehut by promising its leader, Moshe Feiglin, a ministerial position and offering to support the legalization of medicinal marijuana. There is little indication that he won anything significant by that move. To the contrary, he emerged as desperate and willing to make any deal to stay in power. Finally, his desperation was on full display when he blatantly violated laws against broadcast interviews and also published polling figures on Election Day.  

Three different majorities were produced by the election. There’s a definite majority against Netanyahu remaining in power. There’s a clear majority for a secular coalition, without the clerical parties. And there’s also a right-wing majority. The Blue and White Party is an amalgam of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience (including the Telem faction headed by Moshe Ya’alon) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Though Blue and White is committed to pursuing a two-state solution and continuing negotiations with the Palestinians, the party also ran on a platform of continued settlement growth and permanent control (but not an extension of sovereignty, let alone annexation) over a large part of the West Bank along the Jordan River.

The party campaign also included a promise not to include the ultra-Orthodox parties in any coalition. More positively, it advocated the realization of the right of every person and community to shape their way of life and future. Freedom and tolerance were bywords in the party platform which also promised to pass legislation permitting same-sex civil unions, surrogacy by same-sex couples and expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall to be administered by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders. The party supported initiatives blocked by the ultra-Orthodox, such as public transportation on Shabbat and canceling the “mini-market law” prohibiting certain commerce on the Sabbath. As stated above, this was also Lieberman’s explicit goal, which also included ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. It is an ambition that would be supported by the two small leftist parties as well as the Joint List. That alone could be the basis for a coalition sufficient to produce a majority government with 65 seats in the Knesset.

The Joint List is not strictly speaking an Arab Joint List since it includes a Jewish member of the Knesset from the socialist Hadash Party. The three other parties included in the Joint List are the exclusively Arab Ta’al, the Islamist Ra’am and the nationalist Balad, the last anathema to Jewish leaders such as Yair Lapid. However, the four parties are united on defining Arab Israelis as the indigenous inhabitants of Israel (a non-starter for Blue and White), their recognition as a national minority with collective cultural, educational and religious rights (negotiable) and in opposition to land expropriation and home demolitions, a position conditionally acceptable to Blue and White. The Joint List will insist that action be taken to rescind or severely amend the nation-state law. The Joint List also aspires to have a democratic constitution based on the principles of justice, equality and human rights.

The Joint List also supports ending Israel’s military rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, ending the blockade of Gaza, establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, dismantling of all settlements and the security barrier, freeing all “political prisoners” and achieving a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue that ensures Palestinian refugees have the ability to return to lands now a part of Israel. Not a single one of these election goals is acceptable to Blue and White for the party not only supports the status quo and a “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but also continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank, but willing to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, on the domestic front, during the election, Gantz plastered Arab towns with campaign posters and appeared on Arabic language television, appealing to Arab voters by upholding equality of rights as an abstraction and the rule of law as a fundamental principle. It is not clear how Gantz will handle the issue of expropriation and demolition of homes, but I would bet that he would be negotiable on this in dealing with the Joint List.

Blue and White, however, is uncompromising in making security a prime platform, with IDF freedom of action anywhere, though it supports convening a regional conference with the Arab countries to advance a peace deal with the Palestinians. Lieberman is even more hawkish since he deplored the November ceasefire with Hamas. He would end the payments to Hamas as well. He dubbed that caving into terrorism and abandoning the Israeli citizens in the south. Instead, he advocates the death penalty for “terrorists,” destruction of their homes and the expulsion of their families.  

On defence policy, Yamina is equally hawkish. Before the April election, former Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, then his number 2, split away from the national religious party to cater to secular right-wingers. The gambit did not work and their party failed to pass the minimum threshold. Their political careers were saved by the failure to form a government following the April election.

At the same time, Rafi Peretz, who inherited the leadership of the Home Party, merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s hardline National Union and then with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and got 5 seats in April, but the risk of a repeat in September was too high and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) joined with the New Right in a marriage of convenience under Shaked to ensure they passed the minimum threshold without the burden of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which did not pass the minimum threshold. Shaked, though leader, is but one of the two secular candidates in the first 13 spots on the slate. The marriage of convenience lasted only until the votes were counted. Shaked is now positioning herself to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Right.

Only one Jewish party, the only declared socialist party, and it has only 5 seats, supports a separate Palestinian state. The Democratic Union, led by Nitzan Horowitz, is a merger of Meretz, former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party (who, in 10th position, did not get a seat) and Labor deserter, Stav Shaffir. That party calls for immediate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and, in the interim, loosening restrictions on both the Gaza Strip and Palestinians in the West Bank. It is very revealing that a realistic two-state solution is only supported by a very small minority of Israeli Jews. The Democratic Union, as secular and egalitarian, could be part of a coalition, but without any responsibility for or even involvement in decisions with respect to the West Bank and Gaza. Would the party be willing to accept being part of a coalition on such terms just to see Netanyahu out of office?  

What about Labor-Gesher made up of Labor, led by Amir Peretz, a former socialist party, and Gesher, led by Orly Levy-Abekasis? It did not pass the minimum in April to be given seats? It still has a strong economic egalitarian program for wealth distribution (minimum wages, new public housing, free education, increased pensions paid for by increased taxes on higher earners), opposes special budgets for West Bank settlers, but otherwise is not hawkish concerning a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.

Could the two Jewish religious parties bend in order to be included in a coalition given the likely policies contrary to what they stand for? Perhaps if the coalition protected United Torah Judaism’s chief, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from standing trial for bribery and aiding an alleged pedophile, Litzman might compromise to enter a coalition with his 8 seats. But that is unlikely on a number of counts, particularly since Blue and White ran on a rule of law platform.

Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, has 9 seats and has had a history of being more flexible provided its core interests were served. But Deri too is under investigation for corruption and had been previously imprisoned for bribery. Given the demands for secularization and the prospect of charges, the party is unlikely to be part of a coalition led by Gantz.  

What seems complicated, with a multiplicity of possibilities about the formation of the new government, is much simpler upon analysis and boils down to two main options. In one, Gantz will lead a centrist-right government that includes Lieberman and Likud without Netanyahu as leader. It would have about 72 seats. Alternatively, there are two variations. Gantz could form a centre-left party with respect to domestic issues, supported by both the Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher. The government would include Lieberman on the right who would be awarded an important ministry like Defence. However, this coalition would only have 52 seats. It would need the support of the Joint List.  The two variations are its inclusion in government or an agreement to support the government for say two years under specific conditions.

Lieberman and Gantz, as well as even the Joint List, prefer a unity government. The Joint List would then not have to support the government. More important, Ayman Odeh would become Leader of the Opposition, a formal position with cabinet rank. He would be entitled to be updated at least once per month on security and domestic policies. Odeh would also be formally included in all ceremonies. That might really rankle the explicitly anti-Arab Jewish parties and might be sufficient reason for Likud members to remain reunited behind Netanyahu, especially given Bibi’s grip on the party and determination not to be convicted. My own conviction is, that although this is the preferred solution among the winners in the election, it is unlikely in the short run. More likely is a Gantz-led centrist-left domestic government and centrist-right government on Palestinian and foreign policy, with an agreement that the Joint List will not support a vote of no-confidence – under specific conditions (such as removing Netanyahu laws meant to suppress dissent) – for about two years. Whatever variation, Israeli Palestinians will, for the first time, exercise a degree of power. A more inclusive Israel is on the horizon.

In my next blog on proportionate government, I will weigh the merits and demerits of the system and review the roles and success rates for those parties that did not meet the minimal threshold. There are over twenty of them.

Appendix Reprint

At 2:37 Friday morning Israeli time, the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the “almost final” results of the 17 September 2019 election…Over 4,431,000 votes were cast and over 99% of the votes counted. The turnout was 69.7%. The electoral threshold for a party to win seats was 3.25% of the votes cast.

Party Seats % Party Seats %
Kahol Lavan 33 25.93 Likud 31 25.09
Joint List 13 10.62 Shas   9   7.44
Labor-Gesher   6   4.80 United Torah Judaism   8   6.06
Democratic Union   5   4.34 Yamina   7   5.88
Total 57 45.69       55 44.47
Yisrael Beiteinu   8   6.99 Votes for other parties   0   2.85
  65 52.68     100.0

A Vow and a Covenant: Parashat Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Wow!!! Read this Parashat with fresh eyes. What a deal the Israelites made with their God! It has all the power of Ecclesiastes. But to understand that deal it is helpful, indeed necessary, to go back to several verses in the previous Parashat on vows in chapter 23 that we actually worked on in last week’s Torah study group.

כב  כִּי-תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ:  כִּי-דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ, חֵטְא.
22 When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it; for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it will be sin in thee.
כג  וְכִי תֶחְדַּל, לִנְדֹּר–לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ, חֵטְא. 23 But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.
כד  מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ, תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נְדָבָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, בְּפִיךָ.  {ס} 24 That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt observe and do; according as thou hast vowed freely unto the LORD thy God, even that which thou hast promised with thy mouth. {S}

Vowing is a totally voluntary act. There can be no coercion forcing anyone to take a vow. A vow must be uttered, must be mouthed. It is an action and not simply a clause in a contract. The vow is one made “unto the Lord thy God,” that is, either directly to God or “as God is my witness.” The vow of marriage could be made just to one’s betrothed, but it could also be a divine vow, one made in the presence of God. Further, if one makes a vow unto God, and it is kept, there is a reciprocal vow by God, a collective one to cherish the people He has chosen. A vow consecrates a marriage made between God and the Jewish people.

In a commentary on 5 September 2017, for whom this passage summarized the whole of the Tanakh, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

The English translation, above, is that of the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Any translation, however, tends to conceal the difficulty in the key verb in both sentences: le-ha’amir. What is strange is that, on the one hand, it is a form of one of the most common of all biblical verbs, lomar, “to say”. On the other, the specific form used here – the hiphil, or causative form – is unique. Nowhere else does it appear in this form in the Bible, and its meaning is, as a result, obscure.

The JPS translation reads it as “affirmed”. Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, reads it as “declared allegiance to”. Robert Alter renders it: “proclaimed”. Other interpretations include “separated to yourself” (Rashi), “chosen” (Septuagint), “recognised” (Saadia Gaon), “raised” (Radak, Sforno), “betrothed” (Malbim), “given fame to” (Ibn Janach), “exchanged everything else for” (Chizkuni), “accepted the uniqueness of” (Rashi to Chagigah 3a), or “caused God to declare” (Judah Halevi, cited by Ibn Ezra.

So what does he really mean to make a vow before God? What happens when we make a bond with God or between two human beings before God, a vow that is stated orally and one which preserves the power of an oral culture as it transitions to a literate one in an act which itself engages in the transition from a shame to a guilt (or sin) culture?  

We create a new world just as God brought the world into being with His words. A vow does not depict. A vow does not classify as in Adam’s first assignment. A vow does not determine merit. A vow is not the expression of a feeling. A vow is not simply a connector – “Hello.” A vow does not praise or blame. A vow is certainly not a critique. Nor is it an order. Neither is a vow either a scientific hypothesis or, on the other hand, an extension of our imagination as in poetry, though poetry may be used to capture the essence of a vow. A vow is an oral statement that creates a new world. It is an illocutionary act. It does not describe a fact but creates one.

But a vow is not simply a promise or a pledge, unilateral or reciprocal, each in itself an illocutionary act. A vow creates a covenant and not just an oral contract. Contracts can be broken and, if broken, the breach carries consequences. In that, promises are similar to vows. But a contract once made is fixed. While a vow is only kept alive through repetition, through recommitment in each moment of daily practice. Ironically, a vow, which is far more profound than a promise, is also more ephemeral. It has no life without renewed commitment.

Precisely because vows are dependent on repetition, they are not dogmas. They are not absolutes. They are not matters of blind faith. Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof is full of doubt and questioning. He lives in a time of great uncertainty. But the vow has allowed empathy and compassion to enter into the world and become an integral part of relationships.

What is the nature of that new world created by the vow? It establishes a moral relationship, a relationship that depends on mutual respect rather than an exchange of rewards. Slavery is founded on coercion. The relationship forged by a vow creates a bond between a bondsperson and a Lord that has neither a component of coercion nor a transactional quality. Most importantly, the relations established by a vow are not time bound. They continue endlessly but, ironically, only continue if there is a moment-to-moment recommitment through one’s actions.

As Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Judaism is a covenant, a marriage between God and a people” in which each party must continually renew that vow. To do that, to heed what is said in a vow, it is incumbent that one listen, that one listen and hear. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talks to God. He does not need to request a hearing. But he has to strain to hear the words of his God. And God must open up to him in turn. “And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) In return, we vow with our whole heart and soul to walk in the ways of God and keep His laws and, thereby, become a holy people.

ט  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, אֶל כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר:  הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 9 And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.
י  וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-מִצְוֺתָו וְאֶת-חֻקָּיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.  {ס} 10 Thou shalt therefore hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command thee this day.’ {S}

Hear. Hearken to the voice. Listen. And note the consequences – the curses, the blessings, and the curses again and again. So many!  “And all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou didst not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded thee.” (28:45) On the other hand, “And all these blessings shall come upon thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.” (28:2) Curses or blessings overtake you, take over your life.

But were vows not voluntary? Why the commandments? Were vows not made without reference to rewards and punishments? Why the long list of horrific consequences, every plague and every sickness, every humiliation and every form of slavery and psychological depression, and, worst of all, exile and becoming scattered throughout the world for not keeping one’s vows?

But if kept? If you know and keep the vow deep in your heart, if you look and listen, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

With the help of Alex Zisman

en, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

The Israeli Election for the 22nd Knesset September 2019

The election is over and I believe the results are more or less clear, though there is a slim possibility that the late counting of IDF votes could shift the results, but, in my estimation, not enough to make a significant difference.


  1. The polls were accurate. Contrary to early expectations that Netanyahu would eke out a small right-wing majority, and like a magician pull the rabbit of victory out of the electoral hat, polls from various aggregated media sources predicted that Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud’s party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party would both win 32 seats apiece. And each more or less did, though Likud won only 31 seats and Blue and White won 33 seats. In that fact alone, the image of Bibi as a magician has been destroyed.
  2. It was a neck-and-neck race between Benny Gantz’s centrist or centrist-right Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) (though some dub it a centre-left party since it supports negotiations with the Palestinians and a two-state solution) and Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud
  3. No party, given the results, can form a winning coalition of 61 seats for the moment.
  4. Nevertheless, contrary to many predictions, though the race was very close, it is not nearly as muddled as it was after the April vote.
  5. If Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu – Israel Is Our Home) keeps his promise, and there is no reason to suspect that he will not, he will not throw his 8 seats in support of Netanyahu’s Likud, unless Netanyahu bails on Shas with 9 seats and United Torah Judaism with 8 seats – a highly unlikely prospect. With the two religious parties, Netanyahu has 49 seats. Without the religious parties and with Lieberman, he would only control 41 seats. With Yamina, those totals would increase to 56 and 48 respectively.
  6. Voting patterns also indicated that Likud only managed to eke out its 31 seats by bleeding from another more right-wing party, Shaked’s Yamina Party. For example, in Kiryat Arba, 54% supported Shaked’s New Right, the antecedent to Yamina, but only 32% in September. By taking blood from Yamina, Likud was only able to maintain itself at 33% of the vote.
  7. The role of Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel is over.
  8. The Likud in April got 35 seats and, when merged with Kulanu, had 39; six months later, it has only 31. It was an ignominious defeat.
  9. But not for the right which collected 38 seats (Likud + Yamina). Add Beiteinu’s 8 seats and the two religious parties (17 seats) and the right totals 64 seats even though the religious parties cannot participate in the same government with Lieberman. This does not take into consideration that many consider Blue and Right as a right of centre party. Though Likud clearly loss, the right in general was the winner.
  10. In spite of the demise of Bibi, Trump’s image did not seem to suffer as a majority of Israelis, contrary to any other state in the world, including the USA, continues to give Donald Trump a favourable rating.
  11. A unity government is only possible if Netanyahu resigns as leader of Likud yielding a coalition of Likud + Kahol Lavan + Lieberman = 72 seats. This is explicitly and unequivocally Lieberman’s preference and he has stated that he will not sit with any other party. Lapid, Gantz’s partner, has said “no” to Netanyahu but “Yes” to Likud without him. Gantz: “The country went to the polls and made a clear decision – unity. Blue and White won the elections and is the largest party. My intention is to form a broad unity government headed by me, reflecting the people’s choice and our basic promises to the public.”
  12.  Alternatively, and possibly more likely, Kahol Lavan could include Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and the Democratic Union for 52 seats and perhaps tacit support (and even a coalition – is this wishful thinking on my part?) from the Arab Joint List to have a government with 65 seats supporting it. (Gantz admitted speaking to Ayman Odeh of the Joint List at 3:00 a.m. Israeli time on the morning after the election, but Odeh stated that their conversation contained nothing new and he believes the practice of delegitimizing Israeli-Arabs in politics would continue.) Alternatively, Gantz could make a bid to get some elected Likud members and perhaps part of Yamina to join his government, but the latter is very unlikely as Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett seem to prefer to position their party as an alternative to Likud. Besides, Hayamin Hehadash, that is part of Yamina, would not sit in a Gantz-led government alongside the left and Yamina has already notified President Rivlin that that the party will split and revert to the New Right and Jewish Home parties.
  13.  Odeh has, however, stated that he would prefer a unity government so that he could become leader of the opposition.
  14. Yamina, Labor-Gesher led by Amir Peretz and the Democratic Union of Meretz led by Tamar Zandberg, Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party and Labor’s Stav Shaffir, with Nitzan Horowitz as the new leader, all cleared the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.
  15.  Nevertheless, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union, the remnant of the left in Israel, have been effectively politically sidelined and are no longer viewed as part of the core Israeli consensus, even while maintaining critical leading positions in academia, the arts and the media. That marginality will likely be reflected in the ministerial positions they will be offered. Revital Amiran’s insistence that the left was undergoing a renewal now appears as part of dreamworks rather than reality. Zandberg of Meretz would have to back off his opposition to annexation of the Golan Heights.
  16. None of these “adjustments” will impact on the moves for egalitarianism for Israeli Arabs that is increasingly championed by the Arab List, but certainly will undercut any substantive move for a two-state solution, or, more accurately, a two-state solution with security, but, in the minds of the critics of the left, only security-lite.
  17.  How will the left and centrists deal with the seeming reality that, in the fight for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have lost; that possibility only continues to live with the help of life-support technical and foreign help? The combination of: a) the horrific outcome in Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal; b) increased Jewish settlements in the West Bank that cannot any longer be reversed in any reasonable political scenario; c) the stubborn resistance, blindness and intransigence of Abbas; d) the increasing preoccupation of Western states with their own internal problems and the shift to both populism and the right; e) and, most significant of all perhaps, the love affair with Israel as the exemplar start-up nation, all have conspired to undercut the thrust for self-determination for the Palestinians.
  18. The extreme right-wing Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which advocates ethnic cleansing and the elimination of Gaza, won only 1.88% of the vote, contrary to some fears, and did not meet the minimal electoral threshold of 3.25%. Did Netanyahu suffer politically by opening a possible door to their inclusion in an Israeli government? Bezalel Smotrich from Yamina attacked Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of Otzma, for “wasting” right wing votes.
  19.  The Arab Joint List with 13 seats became the third largest party in the Knesset. In the April election, without a Joint List, Hadash-Ta’al won 6 seats and Ra’am-Balad won 4 for a total of 10 seats. The Arab parties running on a Joint List once again helped get out the vote and win more seats. Jewish volunteers helped to get the Bedouin to voting booths. Netanyahu’s explicit attacks against the Arabs, including the preposterous unsubstantiated charges of Arab voter fraud and a proposal to put cameras in Arab-Israeli voting booths, may also have driven the Arabs to vote in increased numbers.
  20. In the election, the only explicit fraud documented was by Likud. A Likud member was caught stuffing a ballot box at a polling station in the northern Arab Israeli village of Fureidis.
  21. The extra three seats for the Arab List in this election were likely the result of a combination of increased turnout of 60% (in the April election, turnout fell to a historic low of 49%), a pattern enhanced by new efforts of Arab-Israeli NGOs to encourage voting period, no matter what the choice, plus some switch from the 28.6% of the Arab vote that went to a Jewish-led party, over half almost equally to Meretz and Blue and White. If the latter was the case, this will have contradicted the predictions of Eihab Kadah, Director of Research in Arab society at Midgam Consulting and Research, that depression, lack of hope and dissatisfaction with their own leaders would increase support for Jewish-led parties. That only happened with the Druze. Evidently, an estimated 80% of Druzim voted for Blue and White, almost directly a result of Netanyahu’s nation-state law.
  22.  If the Joint List explicitly or tacitly supports the Blue and White Party, Gantz could become Prime Minister. Ayman Odeh has signaled that it is time for a Jewish-Arab partnership and that, under certain conditions, he would consider becoming part of a government coalition that made civil majoritarianism rather than Jewish majoritarianism the basic premise. This would expand the precedent set by the Rabin government. Odeh in an op-ed in The New York Times (8 March 2019) wrote, “there is no electoral math that leads to victory for a center-left-wing coalition without the participation of the Arab parties” as once again Arab-Israelis have emerged as “a political force that cannot be ignored.” Incidentally, 80% of Arab voters support a coalition that includes Arab-Israelis.
  23.  Yair Lapid’s promise not to form a government with the Arab parties might now turn around to slap him in the face, though he could step back by insisting he was only opposed to a coalition with an Arab-Israeli party that included Balad, a radical pan-Arab nationalist party. It is my conviction that the most important effect of this election is that it will mark a significant turning point in the move towards equal status for Israeli Palestinians.
  24. If Netanyahu refuses to step down as leader of Likud, as expected, then the possibility of a centrist national union government will disappear for the short term.
  25. Netanyahu will face prosecution in the next month, but Gantz may dangle absolution in return for his resignation as leader of Likud, though this may be hard to square with the party’s explicit commitment to the rule of law. In any case, the immunity law for sitting Knesset members and the High Court Bypass Law will also be dead.
  26.  Though the economy and security are usually the main issues in an Israeli election followed by policies with respect to the West Bank, it does not appear that Netanyahu’s last-minute pitches about spreading Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank had any significant effect on the vote between right and left.

At 2:37 Friday morning Israeli time, the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the “almost final” results of the 17 September 2019 election…Over 4,431,000 votes were cast in the 99% of the votes. The turnout was 69.7%. The electoral threshold for a party to win seats was 3.25% of the votes cast.

Based on 93% of votes counted and a 69.4% turnout at 8:33 a.m. Eastern Canadian time (13:33 Israeli time), though the percentages came at an earlier time, the results were as follows:

Party Seats % Party Seats %
Kahol Lavan 33 25.93 Likud 31 25.09
Joint List 13 10.62 Shas   9   7.44
Labor-Gesher   6   4.80 United Torah Judaism   8   6.06
Democratic Union   5   4.34 Yamina   7   5.88
Total 57 45.69       55 44.47
Yisrael Beiteinu   8   6.99 Votes for other parties   0   2.85
  65 52.68     100.0

With the help of Alex Zisman

A fuller analysis of the election results will be included in a subsequent blog.

Part VIIA: Diplomatic Deception by Holbrooke re former Yugoslavia A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The Dayton Accords ending the war in former Yugoslavia are widely seen as the major accomplishment of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic role as well as a first-rate achievement of post-WWII American diplomacy. I eagerly read the biography to check whether my critical view of Holbrooke’s diplomacy in former Yugoslavia held up or whether I ought to alter my assessment of him. I was particularly concerned with the issue of diplomatic deception. By diplomatic deception, I do not just refer to misleading the militant parties who are deceived by a mediator in trying to help reach an agreement, but also the mis-directions aimed at one’s own political diplomatic superiors and colleagues.

If Holbrooke can be justly criticized for the Dayton Accords rather than complimented, can that be explained by the subtle corruption of American diplomatic work in Vietnam, as Packer implies? (p. 156) Packer considered the introduction of viciousness and deception that had already wormed itself into the heart of American diplomacy during the Vietnam War, to be further firmly pounded into place by the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Zbig), President Jimmy Carter’s Security Policy Advisor. In negotiations with the Chinese and Vietnamese governments and with the U.S.S.R. on the Salt II Agreement, Zbig finished the job of destroying a traditional lofty and honourable approach in favour of the misleading and bullying tactic, (primarily with one’s own team). Cyrus Vance dubbed Zbig “evil, a liar, dangerous.” And Zbig was. Further, he admired the use of muscle as a key element in diplomacy.

Perhaps I raise this question because I am a Canadian, because Canada has relatively little muscle to bring to the table and because of what I learned in my work with Canadian diplomats. I was taught that the central skill in international diplomacy was creative equivocation, the ability to forge language that allowed each side to take different interpretations of text, each favourable to one’s own side. As a variation on a standard Jewish joke, one party asks, “Does what you propose mean this?” The mediator replies, “Yes.” The other party takes the mediator aside and asks, “Am I correct in believing the proposal means this?” (That is, the opposite of the other side’s interpretation). And the diplomat again answers, “Yes.” Then an academic along as an adviser, who is trained in philosophy and a belief in “clear and distinct ideas,” takes the diplomat aside and says, “Those two interpretations cannot both be true.” The diplomat replies, “You are correct as well.” Diplomacy is interpreted as the art of making a deal by allowing each party to believe that the new arrangement serves each party’s interests, even if this has to be accomplished, in the worst case, by using equivocation.

However, equivocation is not bullying, that is, putting pressure on the parties by the threat of military force. Equivocation is more akin to a gestalt experiment in which different parties are given room to make their own minds up about meaning reflective of their own beliefs. The conviction is that, once the benefits of peace, and even the belief in it, have taken root, the differences may remain on the table, but they are no longer differences that the respective parties will be determined to settle by violent conflict.

Further, when is the use of military threat an act of humanitarian intervention rather than bullying? Former (and failed) Democratic presidential candidate. George McGovern, who had been a peace ideologue on Vietnam, became a militant proponent (as was Holbrooke) of what later came to be called “The Responsibility to Protect” in terms of a Canadian international commission and proposal to which I had contributed. R2P is defined as the duty to insert military force into a country to prevent the use of massive violence against a regime’s own people, as in the genocide of the middle class in Cambodia. Vietnam, actually carried out the job of intervention in Cambodia in 1979 to stop the genocide, or, as perhaps, should have happened in Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia.

In our own time, R2P was applied in one bombing run by the Trump administration in Syria in retaliation against the use of chemical weapons against its own people by the Syrian government, but then stopped. Holbrooke’s period as Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was marked in good part by an effort to advance that doctrine. With one important caveat. “The thing called the national interest always came first. Holbrooke’s overriding goal was to re-establish the United States as a Pacific power.” (p. 196) But Zbig was several notches further towards the hawkish side than Holbrooke. He facilitated the Thai government supplying the Khmer Rouge and refused to allow what was taking place in Cambodia to be called “genocide,” both policy measures opposed by Holbrooke.

In the midst of Packer’s depiction of the tensions among the use of military muscle, realpolitik and R2P, Packer made a major error. He wrote: “After the fall of Saigon, President Ford had let 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States. Then the gates closed.” (p. 201) As my colleague, Astri Suhrke, wrote in a 1981 article, “As of 31 October 1980, the distribution of Indochinese resettled in other countries were: The United States – 429,302 (including 130,000 evacuated to the United States in 1975).” The 130,000 is the number of Indochinese evacuated before the U.S. embassy in Saigon shut its doors. But, as I have written in an earlier blog, America continued to take Indochinese refugees, both under Ford and Carter. I do not want to repeat my explication of the error with any greater depth. Instead, I want to use it to highlight the difference between Holbrooke and Zbig on refugees. Holbrooke favoured continuing and increasing the intake. Zbig was at best indifferent.

Holbrooke left government with the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan and went into the private sector to make money. But during this period, he became the ghostwriter for Clark Clifford’s memoirs, Counsel to the President. The result: “At its heart a book like that had to be a fraud. I don’t mean that it contained fabrications, or even that it was self-serving – all autobiographies are. I mean that, pushed down beneath the self-sacrificing public servant and sober statesman whose favorite descriptors were ‘gracious,’ ‘charming,’ and ‘delightful,’ there was, there had to be, a monomaniac whose ambition was so insatiable that he took on the running of a bank in his eighth decade.” (pp. 225-6) Packer described Clifford as a ruthless fixer consumed with power and money, but who had been transformed in the autobiography into a bore. Holbrooke, as a sycophantic hero-worshipper of Clifford, managed to convert him into a saintly sludge.  

In 1994, Holbrooke rejoined the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (following the advice of Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state) as assistant secretary for Europe – a step sideways from his previous position rather than up. In his own words, Holbrooke wrote: “I thought the administration had never done a correct action on Bosnia. Having inherited a mess, they’d made it worse, and I suggested we shouldn’t make tactical decisions on a day-to-day basis until we had a strategic objective, tried to figure out what it might cost, and whether it would be worth pursuing, and whether we could get public support for it.” (p. 292) That strategic objective became forging a peace, even an unfair peace, as long as the war was ended, and using the big stick as pressure to help force the parties to make a deal.

The second point to note from Holbrooke’s own writing is that he now placed the importance of character as equal to that of intelligence. He never lacked the latter. What was that character? “(A) set of guiding principles, a value system, and rock-hard integrity…Without character, one can lose one’s way.” (p. 293) Particularly relevant to the present, Holbrooke noted: “My private conversation with Biden was difficult. His ego and the difficulty he has in listening to other people made it uncomfortable.” (p. 296) What did the Dayton Accords reflect about Holbrooke’s character, especially in a time when the public no longer respected public service or the national interest? Voters had become cynics and believed that one went into public service simply to advance one’s personal interests.

However, the answers to the issue of character and how to balance diplomacy with the threat of force must await the next blog. It is first necessary to summarize the state of play of the military and political forces on the ground.

With respect to the war in former Yugoslavia, America could have lifted the arms embargo on the Bosniacs or Bosnian Muslims so they could not only defend themselves, but recover the territory seized by the Republika Srpska. Holbrooke believed the failure to lift the embargo was immoral. But he had great difficulty in planning and executing a plan to bring that about. As an interim measure, Holbrooke favoured a UN resolution combined with the use of airpower in the region to enforce a cease fire by NATO on the Serbs who were using international airspace to attack the Bihać pocket.

But the Europeans would not use military force to help the Muslims. And the U.S. would not insert troops on the ground. On this basis, there was no realistic way to intervene militarily to help the Muslims and punish Serb aggression, especially since the attack on the Bihać pocket had been instigated as a counter-offensive to a Muslim military initiative.

However, events on the ground were changing. The ceasefire was unravelling totally. The Croatian army was now stronger than the Serbian one. The Bosniacs were now being supplied with military equipment by Iran and Turkey. Under this pressure, the Serbs counterattacked, tried to strangle Sarajevo further and capture the enclaves of Goražde, Žepa and Srebrenica. The latter was accomplished by totally embarrassing and emasculating the Dutch peacekeepers and by the massive slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian men and older boys in Srebrenica. UN-guaranteed protection had been a complete failure.

On the other hand, time was no longer on the Serb side. The Croatians were now stronger and the Bosniacs were beginning to develop some ability to defend themselves more effectively. Further, Milošević wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of the international community and seemed no longer willing to backstop the Serb leadership of Republika Srpska, particularly General Mladić, a genocidal killer.  At the same time, both the UN and NATO had proven to be paper tigers. Clinton’s closest advisers were urging the U.S. simply to adopt a strategy of preventing the war from spreading.

Tony Lake, however, now dissented. He insisted that the U.S. either allow Bosnia to defend itself and regain territory or develop a new strategy to end the war. But if the Americans bombed, UN peacekeepers who, no matter how ineffective in deterring any massive Serbian attack, would have to be withdrawn. Boutros Boutros-Ghali procrastinated, dithered and deflected criticisms. NATO was an impotent enormous military machine. In the meanwhile, Žepa too fell to the Serbs. A red line was drawn. If Mladić attacked Goražde, NATO would bomb his forces and this would not be stopped by a UN veto.

Just at that time, the Croats launched an offensive, Operation Storm, in western Slavonia and ethnically cleansed the Krajina region of Serbs who had lived there for hundreds of years. Milošević sent the refugees to Kosovo, disrupting the population ratio there and accelerating Kosovo’s eventual path to militancy and independence.

Suddenly, Serbs who had controlled 70% of former Bosnia-Herzegovina were now reduced to 50%. Finally, Clinton authorized a strategy marrying the threat of force with diplomacy. Holbrooke was assigned the task of heading the diplomatic initiative. However, he was not given a free hand and this was the major lesson that I was forced to take into account in assessing Holbrooke’s performance in the peace negotiations. The end game plan provided to Holbrooke by Tony Lake included:

  • A comprehensive peace
  • A cease fire with three-way recognition
  • Two autonomous entities, a Muslim-Croat one on 50% of the land and a Serb one on the other 50%, within a single Bosnian state
  • Negotiation of borders based on ground-level reality and land swaps
  • The lifting of sanctions on Serbia
  • The return to Croatia of the last piece of Serb-held land in eastern Slavonia.

What was clear from this framework is that the political result – marrying three estranged nationalistic political entities within a single state – would be a foreseeable nightmare. Further, the Bosniacs would not only have suffered the most but would be left as the bottom-line losers.

To be continued – Holbrooke’s execution of the peace plan.

With tthe help of Alex Zisman