On False Prophets: R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

If I claim that, due to current and immediate past human behaviour, unless we change that behaviour, climate change in the not very distant future will be so dramatic as to threaten life on earth, am I being a prophet? If I claim that predictions of global warming are lies, am I a false prophet? I am at least a prophet assuring the world that the natural world in the future will be much as it has been in the past, buffeted by nature to go this way and that. Many might argue that neither is a prophecy. The second is an outright lie. The first is a rational estimate based on the best scientific evidence. Further, it is a conditional statement – if we do not change human behaviour, if we do not reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, if we do not reduce the destruction of our tree canopy so critical to the reabsorption of carbon, then widespread disaster will result.

Is scientific prediction prophecy and is scientific denial false prophecy? Can our sages in the past help us or is this just a semantic argument over the meaning of prophecy? Marty Lockshin, Professor Emiritus and a rabbi, was a colleague of mine at York University and is an expert on the history of biblical interpretation. He wrote a commentary, “Can a false prophet perform miracles?” (https://thetorah.com/can-a-false-prophet-perform-miracles/) Though that is not my question, his discussion of prophecy is very instructive.

He took as his textual reference verses 13.2-4 of Deuteronomy.

דברים יג:ב כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵתיג:גוּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם. יג:ד לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם. 13:2 If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner—and he gives you a sign or a portent13:3and the sign or portent that he named to you comes true—saying, “Let us follow other gods—whom you have not known—and worship them,” 13:4 do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For YHWH your God is testing you to see whether you really love YHWH your God with all your heart and soul.

Note that the false prophet in this text can offer a prediction that is true. Further, in some interpretations, he can even perform the miracle that brings about that truth. For mediaeval interpreters, the issue was how could God allow someone who neither believed in God and even tried to undermine such a belief to have such super-human powers. One commentator, Rabbi Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) offered three possibilities: a) the false prophet stole the sign from a true prophet; b) even if it came true, the prophecy should be rejected since it is anti-rational, and proofs based on miracles should not be a basis for worshipping false gods; c) a false prophet cannot perform a miracle nor predict the future but can only perform a symbolic act that may tempt one to believe in him. The temptation to believe a miraculous prediction is the test.

Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1165), on the other hand, believed that false prophets were able to perform miracles and/or predict the future. “God granted powers to the forces of sorcery to be able to predict the future in order to test the Israelites and to increase their merit.” In Marty’s words, “God created a world where false prophecy is possible and actually happens.”

My opening introduction to the topic seemed to favour Ibn Ezra’s rationalist approach, namely that it is reason in the end that dictates truth and evaluates performances. Now I would suggest that both views may be true, namely that Rashbam’s interpretation may not only be closest to the meaning of the text which accepts the possibility of miracles, but is true in the sense that there are miracles, events that happen contrary to reasonable assessments insofar as we can make them. But, if so, how can Ibn Ezra’s imposition of a Greek philosophical frame also be correct?

The reconciliation begins by taking the emphasis off of whether the future unfolds as the professed prophet predicted. Since the future may unfold over time, the critical matter is to determine whether a prophecy offered in the present is or is not false. We cannot await the future to determine the validity of a prophecy. I suggest the difference between the false and the true prophet is not whether the prophecy is accurate but whether it is a) conditional or categorical; and b) whether or not it is supported by existing empirical evidence. I will offer three additional clues for determining whether an individual is a false prophet later in this blog.

A false prophet makes predictions categorically. Climate change is a fiction and we are not headed towards an apocalypse. True prophets make predictions which are conditional – disaster will be forthcoming unless we change our behaviour drastically.  It is the trajectory that must be accurate based on current knowledge, not the ultimate result. Why? Because miracles can occur. Not super-natural forces. A large asteroid can strike earth and destroy our way of life before the worst effects of climate change take effect. Scientists were not wrong for their predictions always include the condition “provided the absence of any significant intervening condition.” The intervention does not have to be catastrophic. Human ingenuity may develop a mechanism for carbon reabsorption that is both economical and can be quickly and widely put in place.

Secondly, false prophets ignore or misrepresent empirical evidence and/or depend on the above types of magic to allow their assertions and contentions to be realized. True prophets pay very close attention to what can be perceived and understood and can and do utilize the best of current methods to discern what information is reliable.

This brings into play a third factor – Popperian falsifiability. Is there any method of proving that the claims of the false prophet are false – not because they are wrong about the future, but because they misrepresent and ignore the present? If they cannot be invalidated, that is, if those who hold such beliefs cannot be proven wrong according to the evidence available, then those proffering such beliefs are certainly false prophets. In contrast, true prophets always include methods to test and possibly falsify their prediction. The test they are subjected to is that they recognize that they are being tested, that they should be tested and that they have established methods for conducting those tests.

Is a prophet who does not rely on scientific prediction a liar? Not necessarily. He or she may simply be a person who insists that, in spite of the scientific evidence, a miracle will take place that will save humans from the self-destructive trajectory. In that case, such individuals are neither liars nor false prophets. Or they may believe all the evidence of science, but also believe that the world community lacks the will to act sufficiently and in a timely fashion to save us from destruction and that, without a miracle, we are doomed.

A false prophet is a liar because he denies the evidence available, because he uses that denial to deceive others, because he will not subject his beliefs to any reasonable test. In fact, I would venture to say that one has to be a liar to be a false prophet.

There are two other indicators of a false prophet. One has to do with the use of signs and portents. The other has to do with the use of the prophecy to lure the listener into following false gods.

According to Marty, for “ibn Ezra, the words אות and מופת (signs and portents) here do not refer to anything supernatural, but to symbolic actions. Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot involved no supernatural element; it was a symbolic action. I concur. When language or behaviour is used to construct a social reality, when language is used to arouse individuals to engage in collective action, when words or images or gestures are used to generate identification and induce division, when words or images are used to represent a thing or an object or an action, then we are working in the realm of symbolic action. Words and thoughts are powerful tools that can change reality. They can be used as a form of black magic. A false prophet may mumble and stumble, may be grammatically obtuse and sometimes inarticulate, but at the same time be a great and effective communicator.

Demagoguery is the specialty of a false prophet and meme magic is his or her specialty. The symbolic action and portents and symbols of false prophets serve to create a world of alternative facts and a realm of occult politics. Reference and uses of portents are specific kinds of symbolic action that use signs to presage, forecast, forewarn and prognosticate.

There is also a belief in actual magic.

“It was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech. In fact, when I first started, I said, oh, no. The first line, I got hit by a couple of drops. And I said, oh, this is too bad, but we’ll go right through it.  But the truth is that it stopped immediately. It was amazing. And then it became really funny.  And then I walked off and it poured right after I left. It poured.”

A portent is also a person who regards him or herself as a marvellous and wondrous being. Self-aggrandizement is inherent to his character, as is bullying and prevarication. If you are offering official recognition (and benefits) to the first responders of 9/11, a false prophet will seek to identify with them and insist he was there even though he wasn’t. More than that, he helped search through the rubble. False prophets are serial exaggerators and fabricators.  

When appearing before the commemoration wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia that honours the 117 CIA officers who sacrificed their lives overseas, in his speech he denounced the media, spoke of his enormous inaugural crowds and even asked the CIA officers to, “Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”

I allow the reader to identify any false prophets they might recognize, especially when they use memes both to identify themselves and to send forth a self-image to others. A week ago, requoting what a sycophant said about him, a tweet appeared referring to himself as the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” That same day, he referred to himself as “the Chosen One” in response to a question about trade with China.  

And that meme includes the reference to the false prophet’s children. He said “Behold, I, and the children whom God has given me, are לאותות ולמופתים—for signs and for portents” (Isaiah 8:18). A false prophet embraces his children as part of his prophetic role and is intent on becoming the portent of an era.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part V: The Pre-Vietnam Richard Holbrooke – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Richard Holbrooke’s parents were Jewish, but they only told him when he was a teenager. His father was a refugee from Europe, a General Practitioner, a Democrat and a political internationalist who took his son to visit the site of the UN building. At 16 years-of-age, Richard Holbrooke went to Europe to visit his mother’s relatives and viewed the Suez crisis from a European perspective. He became critical of Eisenhower’s passivity and his lack of understanding of the British and French position. There is no mention of the Israeli position and its seizure of the Sinai, and Israel would remain a blank page for the rest of the book. The only mention of the Middle East was that Holbrooke wanted nothing to do with it.

“Dick wanted America in the lead…Now [Ike] must, as leader of the West act, not hesitate.” (13) American leadership. Action without hesitation. Bywords for Holbrooke’s life as a diplomat. “Holbrooke lived through action, and it’s through action that we can know him.” (14) But not if we do not know whether he was or was not active, whether he responded or did not respond, to international crises that Charles Packer does not write about. In 1956, I was 19-years old and in second year of premeds. The year before, I had discovered the world of literature. I was beginning to discover the world of politics.

In 1956, the Russians invaded Hungary. A well-known student theatre director called a rally and summoned us to join a resistance group that would go as volunteers to fight the Russians alongside the Hungarian students as his parents had volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain in the 1930s. But Hungary had been crushed before we could even get organized to offer our bodies as fodder for a war in Europe. By Remembrance Day, in only two weeks, the uprising was over. Russian tanks crushed the Nagy communist regime. The episode marked the end of any effective Communist Party in Canada, even under the cover of The Labour-Progressive Party of Canada, as Joe Salsberg, my federal representative in Parliament, resigned from the party in 1957 over the assault. There is no mention of how Richard Holbrooke responded to the invasion or the flight of 200.000 Hungarian refugees in November of that year. Later, he, and Charles Packer, would mistakenly refer to the War in Former Yugoslavia, as the first in Europe since WWII.

Is this erasure Holbrooke’s or Packer’s? Was it influenced by Holbrooke’s father’s death in January of 1957? “Smothering silence.” For Packer, “that was an action.” “The self-creation that begins in self-erasure was another.” (14) There were many figures in the post WWII period, particularly Jews, who gave birth to themselves. Erik Erikson is but one example. Richard Holbrooke’s father was another. But Richard Holbrooke, who seems to always put himself fully on display, did not seem to be such a candidate.  Packer claimed that Holbrooke “became, the son of no one and nowhere – of himself, of America.” But he had just written that Holbrooke’s destiny in the pursuit of internationalism had been implanted in him by his father. Further, he could not both be the son of America, which he certainly was, and the son of nowhere.

Though Packer’s book is moving and brilliant, in many ways, probing, I have tried to show that in at least one area, that of refugees, he fails. He also, as in this case, seems to favour a clever comment rather than consistency. Did Holbrooke’s mind get fixated on a foreign service career in 1958 by a speech of his surrogate father, Dean Rusk, the father of his best friend David, the Dean Rusk who himself had such a stellar diplomatic career and was named Secretary of State by John Kennedy? This happened when Holbrooke was 19-years-old, a junior at Brown and the new editor of the Brown Daily Herald. Certainly, Packer makes a powerful case that becoming Secretary of State became Holbrooke’s lifelong goal, a goal which always eluded him, or managing editor of The New York Times. Two roads diverged in the wood and Holbrooke got on the diplomatic rather than journalist track, probably because Packer was correct, he was more committed to being an actor than a witness.

However, Rusk was quiet, loyal, discreet and reliable. Holbrooke lacked every one of these qualities. If Rusk was his political muse, why did he not try to cultivate those same qualities? Why did he exemplify ones that were the very opposite – loud, not always loyal, indiscreet and with a reputation for unreliability in conforming to the policies dictated by those higher in the political tree? Holbrooke, according to Packer, tried to compress the gap between diplomacy and journalism. “Diplomats envied and distrusted him for preferring the company of journalists, journalists pursued and suspected him for being a diplomat.” (16) I do not know whether journalists suspected him is true or not, but Packer throughout the book makes an excellent case that other political figures distrusted Holbrooke for leaking to reporters, but absolutely no case for the proposition that reporters distrusted him for being a diplomat. But one very pithy sentence that depends on balance seems more important than evidence.

Woodrow Wilson was another icon of Holbrooke’s intellectual interest in WWI when America first occupied the centre of the world stage. Is it Holbrooke or Packer or both who saw Wilson as “a great and tragic figure” who believed in universal peace and freedom, but was “too moralistic and rigid to carry it out.” (17) Though this was, and perhaps remains, a pervasive caricature of Woodrow Wilson, was this the same individual whom I had read about? In 2015, 12 years after I had taught a course on refugees at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University where Wilson had once been President, Princeton students stormed the office of University President Christopher Eisgruber demanding that Wilson’s name be removed, not only from the school, but from all programs and buildings at Princeton.

Wilson, who became Governor of New Jersey and President of the USA, had been a blatant racist. In 1914, before America entered WWI and Wilson pronounced his vision of a League of Nations, he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter, a graduate of Harvard (he could not have attended Princeton for Wilson ensured blacks would not be admitted), and his onetime supporter, out of the Oval Office. And it was under Wilson that Jim Crow was introduced into the federal civil service by providing separate toilets in, for example, the U.S. Treasury and the Interior Department and separate eating facilities, dressing rooms and lockers. Wilson argued that segregation was a benefit to blacks “to protect them from friction.”

It is not as if, in writing his praise of Woodrow Wilson, that Holbrooke could have been ignorant of the President’s racism. The story of his contretemps with Trotter had been front page news at the time. Wilson was a Southern-born outright segregationist and white supremacist, not only with respect to America, but in his observations about the world. He was appalled that in the French army, blacks served alongside whites. He defended the Ku Klux Klan who, driven by “an instinct of self-preservation,” organized to protect Southern values. As for their practice of lynching, he deplored the embarrassment it brought to whites, but he expressed no empathy for the blacks that were strung up or even for the abuse of the rule of law. He even defended slavery, insisting that black slaves were happy and well cared for. He explicitly referred to blacks as belonging to “an ignorant and inferior race.” And if you think that Donald Trump is a racist with respect to immigration, Wilson defended the policy of national exclusion in fear of Oriental Coolieism and because, “We cannot make a homogenous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.”

Did Holbrooke, as editor of a university newspaper in the early sixties, write about the emerging civil rights movement? In his Wilson academic paper, did Holbrooke mention Wilson’s racism? Instead, Holbrooke criticized Wilson’s “moralism,” but not his racism, his rigidity, but not with respect to the institutionalized discrimination in the USA. Pragmatism but not moralism for Holbrooke. But a different kind of moralism led the fight against the testing of nuclear weapons and the civil rights movement. There is no mention of whether Holbrooke paid any attention to either issue.

In 1962, Holbrooke passed his Foreign Service exam and began his career as a diplomat, at 21, the youngest member of his class. He did so allegedly as a response to President Kennedy’s request that he ask what he could do for his country. When we in our jeans and sweatshirts were protesting to prevent nuclear weapons from being deployed by the U.S. into Canada, when we were protesting the numerous U.S. nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, the USSR nuclear tests in Eastern Kazakhstan and America’s resumption of above ground testing, when my brother was trapped in Cuba as a result of the American blockade, when Kim Philby had defected to the USSR and that repressive authoritarian state was trading Francis Gary Power (captured after a U2 was shot down) for Rudolph Abel, a communist spy, when Charles De Gaulle was ending the French War in Algeria, when the bus boycott started in Macon, Georgia and, shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court forbad race separation on public buses, Holbrooke had purchased a conservative suit, wore a tie for his new career, abjured moralism, and began to offer a different interpretation of the new Beatles’ hit, “Please, Please Me.”  From Packer, we learn nothing of Holbrooke’s attitudes to any of these issues.

His assignment in the State Department was Vietnam. It was the same time that the U.S. Military Forces in Operation Ranch Hand sprayed the jungles of Vietnam with defoliants, such as Agent Orange. Americans began their first combat mission just before Vietnamese air pilots failed in their attempt to assassinate President Ngô Dinh Diêm and U.S. advisors first engaged in combat operations. However, according to Packer, Holbrooke was simply excited to be part of the action. If young people were doing the twist on the dance floor at that time, Holbrooke began by introducing the twist to diplomacy just when antimatter had first been discovered. Holbrooke would begin his education as an anti-diplomatic diplomat. Though no one had ever discovered how to produce significant amounts of antimatter, Holbrooke almost single-handedly created anti-diplomatic diplomacy. While singularly focused on a problem in international relations, Holbrooke threw away the tools of tact and avoiding offence and traded in a concern with hurting feelings for a career in manipulating emotions.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part IV: The United States Refugee Act of 1980 – Holbrooke’s Role A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 (USRA1980), signed by Jimmy Carter on 17 March and made effective on 1 April 1980, amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (MRAC) to alter an ad hoc system of admitting refugees into the U.S. The aim was to standardize the process of admitting refugees and people of humanitarian concern. The Act provided uniform and consistent procedures for the selection, resettlement and integration of those refugees, but was not concerned with asylum procedures, that is, with refugees who claimed Convention refugee status in the U.S. The Act also primarily set as a goal the effective resettlement of refugees to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.

 Within six weeks of its signing into law, another source of a large refugee flow arrived on the shores of Florida, the Cuban boat people.

USRA1980 incorporated into U.S. law the UN definition of a refugee, raised the limits from 17,400 to 50,000 per year and provided mechanisms for the executive branch of government to exceed those limits in cases of humanitarian emergencies. The Act established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator of Refugee Affairs, whose responsibilities were temporarily assumed by the Secretary of State, but a year later was housed within the Department of Health and Human Services. As its foremost function, the Office administered the funds available for domestic resettlement costs, including ESL and employment training, in cooperation with state and local authorities. Reporting and oversight systems were put in place.

George Packer claimed that Holbrooke had “a lot to do” with USRA1980 and Jimmy Carter signing the Act into law. (p. 205) Was this the case? It is well known that Senator Edward Kennedy drafted a bill to reform refugee policy in 1978 and tabled his proposal in the United States Senate in 1979. The Carter administration had sent its proposed draft legislation to Congress in March of 1979. The eventual consolidation of the President’s proposal, the legislation tabled in the House of Representatives and Kennedy’s bill took only a year and was passed unanimously by the Senate, indicating no significant opposition to the legislation in spite of a majority of Americans opposing an increase in the refugee intake. The relative speed of passage was a clear indicator of the widespread support for new legislation in Congress.

Note how modest the legislation was – 10% of the annual immigration intake and only 1 refugee for every 4,000 Americans. Canada admitted 60,000 Indochinese refugees alone between July of 1979 and December of 1980, or about 40,000 per year, and about 1 refugee for every 600 Canadians. Was Jimmy Carter reluctant to sign the bill so that Holbrooke provided the extra heft to get it passed? Not if anyone knows anything about Carter’s empathy for refugees. Finally, the bill was mostly about resettlement and Holbrooke disdained domestic policy; he was a foreign policy wonk.

An academic colleague of mine at the time, David Martin, who taught immigration law at the University of Virginia, took a leave of absence then (or was he on sabbatical?) and served as special assistant to the assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs at the State Department. (Holbrooke was very busy as assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.) Martin, an expert in refugee law, was the principal drafter of the legislation that dealt with this program to move selected refugees (humanitarian in contrast to Convention refugees) from refugee camps overseas to resettlement programs in the U.S.

In Canada, the mandarins in Ottawa had become acutely aware that the refugee outflow from Vietnam was no longer primarily an after-effect of the Vietnam War as thousands of Vietnamese – primarily ethnic Chinese at first – crowded old unseaworthy commercial vessels to escape. In November of 1978, when Hong Kong would not allow the 2,600 refugees aboard the Hai Hong to disembark, Canada offered to resettle 25% of them. The U.S. civil servants were as well aware of the looming crisis as the Canadians. Americans at the time called for action from federal officials when it became clear that the 25,000 target for resettlement in 1978 was clearly insufficient.

At the same time, acceding to U.S. pressure, the U.S.S.R. began to permit large numbers of Soviet Jews to leave. Canada, in response to lobbying by the Jewish community, amended its 1976 draft legislation that was incorporated into law in 1978 to make provision for the private sponsorship of refugees. That became a major factor in Canada’s large and disproportionate uptake and resettlement of Indochinese refugees. The American legislation had no equivalent provision.

USRA1980 was a direct product of increased demand – Soviet Jews, Indochinese, the continuation of freedom flights from Cuba about to erupt from a trickle to a flood, let alone Argentinians and Chileans, Iraqi and Lebanese Christians, Ethiopians and other Eastern Europeans. Further, in spite of a majority of Americans who were unsympathetic to an increased refugee intake, there was an upsurge in popular feeling, especially among urban educated groups, politicians of all stripes, business leaders, professionals and academics, to reform the law and increase the number allowed to enter.

There was also a significant gap between existing legally permitted levels (17,400 annually) and the need to legislate an increase and regularize the process. Existing legislation, limited to refugees from Communist countries and the Middle East, also failed to provide for the movement of people fleeing oppressive regimes, such as those from Argentina and Chile. Reliance on the parole provision of section 212(d)(5) of the INA allowing the Attorney General at his discretion and in emergencies to admit aliens into the U.S., that is, to ameliorate threats to isolated individual cases, was clearly insufficient to handle large movements.

Further, the parole provisions for the Cubans in 1962 provided for 100% federal funding of, for example, medical assistance for the refugees, with no termination date, a patently unfair provision in comparison with assistance available even to American citizens. Most of those Cubans were by now citizens. There were other odd provisions for assistance to refugees, such as Jews from the Soviet Union. The motley provisions for aid were inconsistent and incoherent and led to clashes between the legislative and executive branches of government. Legislative order was needed.

There is no doubt that Richard Holbrooke was totally supportive of these changes. However, there is little evidence that he had “a lot to do” with the legislative changes, in particular, with Jimmy Carter signing the legislation into law. Yet reviewers seem to have accepted and summarized Packer’s account as an accurate representation.

For example, Fred Kaplan in Slate (9 May 2019), in “When America Took Responsibility for Refugees,” simply summarized Packer’s five pages without a single critical note. Though his review is mildly critical of Packer, David Klion, too, uncritically echoed Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s role with respect to refugees. “Holbrooke consistently defended human rights and played a central role in getting Jimmy Carter to sign the Refugee Act of 1980, which welcomed an eventual 1.5 million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into the United States.” (“The Unwinding: Richard Holbrooke and the lost idealism of a generation,” The Nation, 13 August 2019) Once again Donald Camp: “What about the achievements? …His idealism came out in his…focus on Indochinese refugees, while Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.” (American Diplomacy, May 2019)

David Martin, who was intimately involved with the legislation, opined that, “combined frustrations account for the surprisingly wide consensus that new legislation was needed. Outside lobbying played at most a minor role; their own unhappy experience with the process furnished the key executive and congressional figures with ample motivation for hammering out the Refugee Act of 1980 and seeing it through to enactment.” (“The Refugee Act of 1980: Its Past and Future,” University of Michigan Journal of International Law, 3:1, 1984)

Further, as I indicated previously, the claim that Holbrooke brought the plight of the Cambodian refugees to the attention of the world was unwarranted. The 1975 Indochina Migration and Assistance Act already encompassed both Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. Why was Packer claiming special credit for Holbrooke in this area?

There are several possibilities. Holbrooke in his notes, diaries and memoirs may have taken such credit himself. Former wives and friends interviewed by Packer may have said this as a result of what Holbrooke told them in his propensity for self-promotion. Since there are no citations included, I do not know. Packer may have exaggerated Holbrooke’s role to enhance the importance of the person whose biography he was writing and, therefore, the importance of his own work. His version may have made the account more dramatic. Finally, it could have been a device to match and, indeed, enhance Holbrooke’s own sense of his own self-importance.

I do not know the reason. However, Packer was incorrect on a number of matters on the refugee issue. After 1975, America did not close its gates to or turn its back on Vietnamese refugees. Packer exaggerated Holbrooke’s role in changing American Naval policy with respect to the Indochinese from simply picking up refugees in the path of American war vessels to actively seeking to rescue refugees at sea. The intake increase from 7,000 to 14,000 Indochinese refugees per month was not the result of Holbrooke badgering either the President or the Secretary of State. Packer also mischaracterized the activities of both the UNHCR and the NGOs.

The first and last points, as well as the one re American action and publicity shifting the world’s attention to the Cambodian refugees, suggests that the issue was not just a desire to enhance Holbrooke’s status and roles, clearly unnecessary given his actual accomplishments, but a matter of too little concern with ensuring that Packer’s claims bore a close resemblance to what actually occurred in history.

Why let a fact get in the way of a good story? And Packer’s biography of Holbrooke is an enthralling read and a significant accomplishment. But he is not a historian. He is a journalist. The book not only generally lacks citations, but there is no index to facilitate cross-checking. The book is also advertised as a tale of the end of the American century or half-century of dominance on the world stage. The book alludes to such a claim, but never explores or develops it. The book is and should be read only as a biography. However, as a biographer, is his account of Holbrooke’s career and character accurate or persuasive?

And it is to that biography I will return and largely ignore the question of accuracy or comprehensiveness with respect to history. There is an irony in all of this. For Packer makes a very strong case, that though Holbrooke personally often exaggerated and even lied, he was driven to establish for himself what the real facts on the ground were.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Indochinese Refugees – Holbrooke’s Motives and Impact – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

What motivated Holbrooke to provide strong support for the plight of the Indochinese refugees? Later, he would go on his own, first to Tibet and to Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is clear that he had a very soft spot for those who were forcefully displaced, were persecuted or were denied the right to self-determination. Packer opined: “I don’t think being a child of refugees explains his passion on this subject. The past was buried by his parents and their son didn’t want to dig it up. No, it wasn’t the Jews – it was Vietnam. That was where he had seen a mother nursing her child next to her husband’s corpse.” (p. 204)

Second, did the world only start paying attention to the Cambodian genocide and the plight of the refugees who fled only after Holbrooke’s photo-op with Rosalynn Carter with Cambodian refugees in late November of 1979? Had UNHCR been silent and impotent as both the Indochinese and the Cambodian refugee crises developed? Were NGOs mostly passive and incompetent? Finally, did Jimmy Carter sign the 1980 Refugee Act in large part because of the influence of Richard Holbrooke? I will save the last question for a separate blog. If any of the above claims turn out to be a stretch or even a misrepresentation, why did Packer make such claims and what is the impact on one’s assessment of the quality of the biography?

Packer claims that Holbrooke was not motivated by his identity as a Jew. “No, it wasn’t the Jews.” Definitive. Assertive. Not a whisper of doubt. Packer claimed that Holbrooke was influenced by the actual suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war and his sense of America’s considerable responsibility for that suffering. Further, he was a man of action and when he saw a cause, he was disposed not to feel pity but to act with force and determination. At least, in my opinion, if he believed he could make a difference.

I want to argue that Holbrooke’s Jewishness did matter both with respect to his style, his shamelessness, compassion and his passions. I cannot prove that Packer is wrong, but I offer evidence that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was a major influence, unconscious at first but increasingly part of his consciousness in the last two decades of his life. Why was he so driven to go into the province of Ba Xuyen in the Mekong Delta where he saw for himself that the policy of strengthening the hamlets was not working because the Viet Cong came out at night and destroyed what had been created each day? His passion for the downtrodden and for refugees preceded his Vietnamese assignment.

Further, I have both my own experience as a once assimilated secular Jew who first became involved in 1957 in helping house Hungarian refugees arriving in Toronto and then in 1979 in playing a role in the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees in Canada. Then, I would have said that it was my universalist humanitarian outlook that motivated me. Later, when I undertook empirical research on what motivated sponsors of refugees, it was clear that a prior connection with refugees, especially when reinforced by a strong Christian sensibility in the case of non-Jews and a strong liberal sensibility as Jews, served as a critical catalyst. Reform Jews, who were usually much more distant from the Holocaust, sponsored Indochinese refugees far out of proportion to their numbers. The mixture of identification and a religious injunction, even when secularized, was a powerful if unconscious source for those commitments. It is not at all clear why Packer is so dismissive of unconscious propulsion.

In the last twenty years of his life, especially after he was named Ambassador to Germany, Holbrooke proudly spoke of his pride in his Jewish heritage. He even hung a portrait of his grandfather in a WWI German uniform on the wall of his ambassador’s residence and would always point out to visitors that his grandfather was Jewish. But in the first fifty years of his life, he was silent on the subject, though, unlike Madeleine Albright, he was fully aware of his family’s Jewish roots.

The turning point perhaps came when Holbrooke turned fifty and his friends and colleagues, at Holbrooke’s own urging, threw a large party for him in Packer’s telling. The speeches were a roast. The stories told hit very close to the bone. He felt humiliated. Perhaps never as much as when his oldest and best friend, Les Gelb, in the final speech of the evening, acted out both sides of an interview with Richard.

Reporter: Are you Jewish?

Holbrooke: No.

Reporter: Are you sure?

Holbrooke: Yes, I am sure.

Reporter: We have information.

Holbrooke: Actually, I had a Jewish great-grandfather.

Reporter: We heard it was a more direct line.

Holbrooke: Well, maybe I am half-Jewish.

Reporter: (to the audience) And that sounds half true.

His friends and colleagues roared with laughter as Holbrooke smiled weakly and squirmed in his seat.

Packer suggests a second key stage in Holbrooke’s coming out of the closet and embracing his Jewishness that went beyond shameful acknowledgement. Holbrooke was offered the position of U.S. Ambassador to Germany. (p. 271)  

“One thing you have to realize if you go to Germany is the people will ask you if you’re Jewish or not,” [Peter] Tarnoff said. “So are you Jewish?”

“Why is it important?”

Tarnoff explained why being Jewish was important in Germany.

“Yes I am.”

Jewishness now had become a badge he wore on his sleeve or a flag on his lapel. It was simply a label that allowed him then to express pride in his Jewishness, possibly instigated now that it was to his advantage. Holbrooke had to learn how deep his Jewishness was in his soul. That came when he doggedly set out to win the heart of Kati Marton after her marriage to Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, had disintegrated. I had only known of her as the author of a 1994 volume on Count Folke Bernadotte, the Israeli-Arab mediator in 1948. Until I read Marton’s book A Death in Jerusalem: The Assassination by Jewish Extremists of the First Arab/Israeli Mediator, I had not associated her with Holbrooke, which is more an indication of how out of the loop I remain when it comes to celebrity couples.

Kati Marton had been raised as a Roman Catholic. While researching for her book on Raoul Wallenberg, she discovered that her own parents were Hungarian Jews when she learned that her own grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz. She was the daughter of two famous journalists, UPI reporter Ilona Marton and award-winning Associate Press reporter Endre Marton. (Cf. Kati Marton (2009) Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.) They had hidden from Kati their Jewishness and her father even initially denied it when Kati confronted him.

Holbrooke had run into Kati a number of times in her role as a journalist and writer. What Kati did not know was that Holbrooke had been stalking her for years. They “happened” to be in Paris at the same Christmas of 1993 and arranged to meet and then to take a three-day jaunt to Chartres. The meeting became a tryst and Holbrooke single mindedly, with as much determination as he had brought to anything in his life, wooed and won her heart. It would be the same type of persistence and passion that he brought to the negotiations that led to the Dayton Accords.

Holbrooke was a good listener. He was devoted to Kati Marton’s happiness. And, unlike Jennings, he supported her success rather than feeling threatened by it. As Marton wrote, “Richard was a one-of-a-kind personality. He was also a very good husband, and a very loving one.” (Cf. Kati Marton (2012) Paris: A Love Story.) As Packer said in an interview on his biography of Holbrooke, “It’s through his relations with women that I think we really get to the heart of Holbrooke.” And it was through his relationship to Kati Marton that I suggest that Holbrooke finally got in touch with his own heart and the depth of his Jewishness.

He had always been an idealist as well as a realist wrapped in a patina of unrestrained ambition. As Packer described him, “a different person might have become secretary of state; someone more diplomatic, more suave and smooth, knowing how to operate, and being restrained and self-aware. But I’m not sure that person would have ended the war in Bosnia because it took a kind of shamelessness and relentlessness and willingness to fail in order to end a war that had defeated the attempts of everyone else who tried.”

My only dispute with this description is Packer’s contention that Holbrooke was not self-aware. Certainly, though he admired the aristocratic bearing and impeccable dress of diplomats like Warren Christopher, he very well knew that he ate and stained his ties, that he could never be the dapper dresser that Kati Marton’s father was. But he was very aware of how he had to temper his bleeding heart with an iron will and an acute intelligence if he were able to translate his passions into actions that made a difference. And those traits came together into a braid best when he married Kati Marton and became inwardly Jewish.

Given his best friends – Gelb, Rosenblatt and their shared convictions – I suggest that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was not an accidental and incidental part of his make-up, but integral to his passion and compassion as well as his commitments.

What about Holbrooke as a publicity seeker? He could not compete with Donald Trump. Further, he sought publicity to advance good causes even more than himself. Did his concern with publicity and use of Rosalynn Carter in a photo-op bring the Cambodian refugee issue to the attention of the world for the first time? If so, why were the Cambodian refugees included in the June and July mandates to resettle Indochinese well before Holbrooke’s visit with Rosalynn Carter to the Cambodian refugee camps in November?

Recall that Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December of 1978. The new, pro-Vietnamese government proclaimed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January 1979. That is when the largest exodus of the half million refugees who fled Cambodia that year began. During that year, older members of the small Cambodian-Canadian community established the CCAO (Cambodian-Canadian Association of Ontario) partnered with private sponsors to bring Cambodian refugees to Canada. The Canadian government in both June and July included Cambodian refugees in its targeted population for resettlement in Canada. (For a more detailed account of the role of Canada in the intake of Indochinese refugees, cf. Running on Empty by Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert Shalka with a foreword by Ronald Atkey who was the Minister of Immigration when Canada determined that 50,000 Indochinese refugees would be admitted.)

This points to a central fault in the book. As I and my Norwegian colleague discovered when we were preparing our report on the international community’s responsibility for its general passivity in responding to the emerging and actual genocide in Rwanda, Washington was unlike any other capital. The way Americans dealt with Rwanda was almost totally the product of the internecine struggles within the American capital. By contrast, policy in Canada was a product of the interplay between what was happening abroad and domestic politics, with, in the case of the Indochinese refugees, the overwhelming influence of the overseas situation. In America, the situation was the reverse. The overwhelming influence on policy always seemed to be the competition of ideas and power in America. What other countries did, what other countries thought, what other countries believed, fell far down the scale of influential factors.

George Packer suffers from the same failing. His is almost entirely a Washington-centric account. What was happening in Geneva or in the field with UNHCR, what was happening in Amsterdam when he offered his very vivid account of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, were very peripheral if even on the horizon of his perspective. He is prone to make declarations about the world – such as that the world’s views of Cambodian refugees came into focus only after Rosalynn and Richard visited the camps – but this was simply untrue. There is no indication that he undertook research in any other capital, even to get German or Pakistani or Afghan views of Holbrooke.

What about the role of American NGOs? He knows that Rosenblatt went on to head Refugees International. That should have informed him that the agency would have been effective and driven by both commitment and knowledge. This was true of many of the NGOs, but certainly not all. But a negative generalization about the vast majority reflects more the views of Washington political insiders and critical journalists than the judgement of dispassionate investigators.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Indochinese Refugees – A Critique — A Review of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Did America close its gates to refugees in 1976 and 1977 after admitting 130,000 in 1975?

After WWII, the U.S. resettled 650,000 displaced Europeans, took in refugees fleeing Communist regimes (38,000 Hungarians in 1956-7), took in tens of thousands of Cubans and in 1975-6, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees as part of the U.S.-sponsored evacuation program culminating in Operation Frequent Wind. That program evacuated 7,000 American civilians and U.S.-allied Vietnamese by helicopter from various points in Saigon. By November, Operation New Life processed 110,000 refugees from Saigon who had been brought to Guam. Operation New Arrivals relocated Vietnamese refugees from Guam and other Pacific Islands to the United States. Did American policy change after this response to the fall of Saigon and emergency refugee crisis in 1975?

No. When American officials realized the exodus was continuing and that 90,000 refugees remained in camps in Thailand or were stateless persons in various countries throughout Southeast Asia, the U.S. established a refugee office in Bangkok, Thailand, headed by Lionel Rosenblatt, a friend of Richard Holbrooke. In 1975, Rosenblatt, with L. Craig Johnstone, had defied State Department orders, flew to Saigon and organized the evacuation of friends and colleagues with whom they had worked in Vietnam. For their work, they were formally reprimanded by Henry Kissinger who, at the same time, informally smiled and shook their hands. Rosenblatt received the William R. Rivkin award from the American Foreign Service Association for his work rescuing Vietnamese refugees. (See the character named Larry Rush in the 1990 movie Last Flight Out.)

Rosenblatt was then given the responsibility for processing additional Vietnamese refugees for entry into the United States. (Cf. Larry Clinton Thompson (2010) Refugee Workers in the Indochinese Exodus, 1975-1982.) Rosenblatt, who would eventually leave the State Department and become President of Refugees International, assumed his role as founder and chief of the Refugee Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. During 1978-81, he became the refugee coordinator and director of the Khmer Emergency Group. (His archives are located at the Irvine campus of the University of California.)

The U.S. continued to admit about 100 per month under Section 212 (d) (5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act permitting the Attorney General in his discretion to: “parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe for emergent reasons or for reasons deemed strictly in the public interest any alien applying for admission to the United States.” Other than this discretionary option, no legislative mandate existed to admit more. However, by 1977, pressure had grown to admit 1,250 per month led by Ted Kennedy in the Senate and, in the House of Representatives, Joshua Eilberg, a Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania.

Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State, rather than ignoring the refugee issue as Packer claimed, recommended that President Carter authorize Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to use his authority to admit 15,000 additional Indochinese refugees: 8,250 Vietnamese, including more than 7,000 “boat people,” 6,000 Laotians and 1,000 Cambodians living in Thai refugee camps. They were to be admitted at the rate of about 1,000 per month over the following fifteen months.

Now it may seem as if I am making a mountain out of a tiny molehill. However, these mistakes about claiming that the U.S. closed its doors and that Vance was indifferent to the plight of the refugees may signal a much larger problem in Packer’s writing. They may represent a plethora of errors and misstatements, perhaps influenced by Holbrooke’s grandiose self promotion. Further, Packer, in getting things wrong that are so easily checked, immediately becomes suspect as a source of historical accuracy. Finally, it suggests becoming very wary when Packer denigrates other officials, the UNHCR and NGOs when compared to Holbrooke’s purported creativity and activism on behalf of refugees. Let us see how Packer’s claim stands up, that, against widespread opposition, Holbrooke promoted the use of the American Navy to rescue refugees at sea. Did Holbrooke, in Packer’s words, badger President Jimmy Carter to increase the intake of refugees from 7,000 to 14,000 per month prior to the international conference in Geneva in June of 1979?

America may indeed have wanted to forget the war, but that was not the reason for the delay in the uptake of more refugees. A new president had just taken office. He had to get his feet wet. There were legislative obstacles. Further, the same people who opposed the intake of the 130,000, because the refugees were from a different culture and would not assimilate, because they would provide competition for American workers, even though the organized union movement supported the intake of the refugees, because of the costs of the resettlement program (one half billion for the 130,000), continued to oppose the intake of Indochinese refugees. And they were supported by a majority of Americans. However, and this is very important, the legislative and executive branches of the American government continued to provide the leadership in opposing the majority opposition to the intake of the refugees and the xenophobic voices that championed those sentiments. Fortunately, in both the Republican and Democratic parties, saner voices prevailed. Holbrooke may never have given up his concern for refugees, but he was far from being a lone wolf advocating on their behalf.

A much larger exodus was on the horizon. At the same time as Congress was holding hearings on 4 August 1977 of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law, at which Holbrooke appeared to support the 15,000 intake, 1,500 per month were escaping from Vietnam, mostly on unseaworthy boats. The Boat People exodus was in its very early phase. On 12 June 1977, a 1,570-ton oil tanker, the Leap Dol, well past its recommended use date but chartered by the World Conference on Religion and Peace for precisely the task of rescue, sat in a Malaysian harbour unable to unload its cargo of 249 mainly Laotian refugees rescued at sea in January. So much for Packer’s slighting of the majority of the NGOs for their incompetence and lack of initiative.

The Laotian flight adumbrated a new boat exodus from Vietnam as the Hanoi government in 1978 began harassing the Hoa, specifically the “overseas” Chinese who made up a significant segment of the merchant class in South Vietnam. At the time, Richard Holbrooke was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. On 30 July 1984, he wrote a review for The New Republic of William Shawcross’ book, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience, that contributed to the debate over the responsibility to protect, given additional momentum following the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Holbrooke wrote:

“The routine of government meetings never seems more unreal than when their consequences are so real—literally life or death—for people who have no spokesman present in the room. One such meeting that remains vividly in my mind took place in the White House Situation Room early in 1979. The South China Sea was filled with tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, many in ramshackle boats, seeking sanctuary’ in neighboring countries. Large numbers of them drowned, and others were attacked by pirates. There were ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, but not where the boat people were in greatest difficulty. At the time, the Navy was following traditional rules of the sea: picking up refugees sighted during regular naval patrols only if they appeared to be in imminent danger. No extraordinary rescue efforts were being made.

“The question arose: Should the Seventh Fleet be instructed to make the rescue of refugees fleeing Vietnam, in effect, an additional assigned mission? There was serious division within the U.S. government. The Navy was concerned about the diversion of ships from their primary naval mission. Moreover, some countries in the area, in violation of long-standing rules of the sea, would not let ships unload refugees. What destination, then, for those picked up by the Seventh Fleet? Would the Navy bring them directly to the United States, allowing them to “jump the line” and enter the United States months, or even years, ahead of others already waiting in the swollen camps of Southeast Asia? Some, including at least one staff member of the National Security Council (not Zbigniew Brzezinski), opposed doing anything that might “generate” refugees. They argued that once the news reached Vietnam that the Seventh Fleet was rescuing refugees off the Indochinese coast, many more people would set out to sea in ever more dangerous small boats. This would not only create more refugees, they argued, but would also remove from Vietnam many people who, if forced to remain inside Vietnam, might cause the Communists serious internal problems.

“Most of the points raised against the use of the Seventh Fleet had some validity. But as Washington argued, people continued to drown. Finally, the issue made its way to a high-level meeting chaired by Vice President Mondale. Sitting at the head of the long table in the windowless, sterile atmosphere of the Situation Room, as far from the stormy waters of the South China Sea as could be imagined, we debated the issue, at times as though it was just another abstract interagency dispute. Mondale patiently listened to every argument for almost two hours. At the end of it all, he cut through the legalisms and the complications. He could not imagine, he said, being part of an Administration which did not ask its ships to try to rescue innocent people fleeing an oppressive regime. He wanted the orders to the Seventh Fleet amended in order to save lives.”

From the details in Packer’s brief capsule of the incident, I suspect this is the source of the story. But obviously not the only one. Note a number of points. The issue was not, as Packer depicted it, the Navy picking up refugees at sea, but the Navy actively searching and rescuing those refugees. Second, Holbrooke explicitly states that Brzezinski did not speak in opposition to the Navy actively rescuing refugees. Third, though there was one person vocally opposed, certainly others, the general consensus supported assigning the Navy the active role of rescue. Fourth, Holbrooke makes no claim for playing a leading or heroic role in the discussion as Packer suggests. Finally, there is no indication here that Mondale reprimanded the admiral present for not getting on board (no pun intended) the new policy.

That does not mean that it did not happen, but since Packer does not cite sources, we do not know the origin of the anecdote. It may just have been a good lively tale. This use of imaginative licence is suggested by the false factual claim that, “Every agency found a reason to oppose his idea.” First, there is no evidence that it was Holbrooke’s idea, though he clearly supported it. Even in Holbrooke’s account of the incident. it was not opposed by most agencies (my italics) let alone all of them. Finally, the debate was not over the Navy rescuing refugees, as Packer depicted it, but of initiating a search and rescue operation rather than just taking on board refugees that Navy vessels came across.

Refugees fleeing by boat surged to more than 25,000 per month in 1979. Following UNHCR urging, several maritime Southeast Asian nations established camps, Bidong Island by Malaysia and the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia, to house the refugees. But these nations were explicit: this was intended to be a temporary solution and would only remain an open possibility if Western states committed themselves to resettling the refugees.

Did Holbrooke badger President Jimmy Carter on route to the G7 meeting in June of 1979 in Japan to double the monthly intake from 7,000 to 14,000? Note the gap in the narrative. There is no accounting for the increase in the monthly intake from 1,500 per month to 7,000. Look at how Packer described the lead up to the next conference in Geneva. “No one expected much from the [28 June 1979] conference…the U.N. refugee office was stuck in its own bureaucratic inertia.” Further, Packer insists that Holbrooke was the main source for Mondale’s moving speech at the G7.

By 1978, a consensus was beginning to emerge among mandarins in Western states that the cause of the exodus was not directly linked to the American Indochina war. Hanoi initiated a war to bring Kampuchea into line. Hanoi wanted to get rid of its “overseas” Chinese. Hanoi actively took steps to pressure tens of thousands considered “undesirable” to leave while expropriating their assets. The influx of refugees into other nations in the region was destabilizing. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Chinese were already a threatened minority and upsetting the current balance would likely exacerbate tensions in those countries. Chinese antipathy to its fellow communist regime in Hanoi exaggerated the situation. The special statement in June 1979 in Geneva summarized the consensus: “The plight of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia poses a humanitarian problem of historic proportions and constitutes a threat to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia. Given the tragedy and suffering which are taking place, the problem calls for an immediate and major response.”

In 1978, with exodus of over 2,500 refugees aboard the Hai Hong, Canada had already taken the lead and pledged to take 25% of them instead of following the usual formula of admitting 10% and relying on the U.S. and other countries to pick up the rest. Rather than inertia, by June 1979 the nations of the West had determined to take concerted action. As moving as Walter Mondale’s speech was, and evidence does suggest it was influenced by an article that Holbrooke had written on the 1938 Evian conference, all of the countries in the G7 were prepared to take more dramatic initiatives that did not simply rely on putting pressure on Hanoi to cease and desist. “The Governments represented (at the G7) will, as part of an international effort, significantly increase their contributions to Indochinese refugee relief and resettlement – by making more funds available and by admitting more people, while taking into account the existing social and economic circumstances in each of their countries.”

Taking advantage of its presidential rather than parliamentary system, the United States was first off the mark. On 29 June, President Carter announced that the U.S. would double its monthly intake. Holbrooke did not have to badger Vance, Mondale or Carter. The consensus had set in both internationally and domestically among the progressive leaders in the U.S. The Canadians had come to the meeting with prepared draft statements that would follow the Geneva meeting. Canada had already upped its intake in June from 8,000 to 12,000 per year and was making plans to increase that target further. By July, it settled on a figure of 50,000, about 4,000 per month, much more than the usual ration of 1:10 to the American commitment of 14,000.

My suspicion of Packer’s historical account of Holbrooke’s role had grown to a disquiet. Holbrooke was undoubtedly a leading voice supporting the refugees. Marty Kaplan, Mondale’s speechwriter, acknowledged the role of Holbrooke influencing the content of Mondale’s speech, not only the best that Kaplan ever wrote but one of the best ever on refugees. However, would my disquiet become a full-blown distrust when I looked into answering the last five questions raised in my first blog in this series?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Part I: Indochinese Refugees

A Review of George Packer (2019)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Richard Holbrooke was three years younger than me. He died nine years ago. He too had a calm and somewhat nasal voice, but it had a singsong cadence when he laughed while mine remains a low rumbling monotone interrupted by the odd guffaw. If I was the wallflower who listened and observed, questioned and interjected, Holbrooke led you onto the political dance floor by “cajoling, nattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you – applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current, so that by the end of a conversation, even two minutes on the phone, you found yourself far out from where you’d started.” I always try to bring the conversation back to where we began, though I am sure I am equally or even more wearing and exhausting with my verbosity as I drill down deep rather than carrying someone forward in a torrent of words.

Richard Holbrooke was a world-renowned statesman. I was an academic on the sidelines who inserted my toes in many of the same areas in which Holbrooke had become centrally involved, first and foremost into the issue of the Indochinese refugees, but also Bosnia-Herzegovina where I became a severe critic of Holbrooke’s. He went on to try helplessly and hopelessly to extricate America from Afghanistan while I implicated and accused America of failing to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda.

Holbrooke mirrored and expressed America’s confidence and energy, its efforts to reach and grasp at a heavenly ring, while I was probably more like the quiet Canadian who tried to play a modest and glancing role in trying to improve the world bit by bit. Instead of excess and mindblindness, Canadians have strived to see clearly and distinctly. In our desire to preserve our sight and our vision, however, we have often avoided the fray.

Holbrooke developed his foundational principles concerning diplomacy and politics, in good part as a result of his American experience in Vietnam. My political principles took root from my role as a leader and participant in the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement during the same period in the sixties. In my life, I learned a great deal about diplomacy, but never was able to incorporate those lessons deeply into my behaviour. Richard Holbrooke, by contrast, was a sponge. And, I would argue, a leach in his own unique way. Other than this over-generalized personalized comparison of our respective experiences, reading the story of this period of Holbrooke’s life brought back many memories of my own encounters with the Vietnam War.

As I indicated above, our paths crossed in terms of policy in the latter part of the seventies in dealing with the Indochinese refugees, an issue on which I became very active. Then we were both on the same side. Our paths would cross again over the Dayton Accords and Holbrooke’s seminal role in that agreement. I have never forgiven Holbrooke for his role in forging the terms of that agreement and I was anxious to read the second half George Packer’s biography to see if my previous thoughts on his role were reinforced or whether I would learn to understand him in a new way and discard my previous harsh judgements.

George Packer’s biography offers a detailed account of Holbrooke’s personal development, his friendships, his loves but, most importantly, his in-depth involvement in the foreign policies, strategies and their implementation over five decades of American history. The book is as much a story of America as it is of Richard Holbrooke.

George Packer’s decision to write a biography of Holbrooke is itself a sign of the latter’s importance. Now a staff writer at The Atlantic and formerly for The New Yorker, George Packer previously published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, that won the 2003 National Book Award. His book, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other political writings, Packer has written two novels and a play.

George Packer is a wonderful writer. He easily weaves the tale of the very personal and the very public life of Holbrooke as a pivotal diplomat over those five decades. The book is written more in the form of a novel where the author is often sitting on the shoulder of Holbrooke as the latter exchanges thoughts and intimacies with his lovers and exchanges ideas and political plans with his friends and colleagues. However, the volume is purportedly and primarily a political history and personal biography of Richard Holbrooke.

I read through the first over one-third of the book covering the Vietnam period in two sittings. I was entranced – that is, until I got to the relatively brief section on the Indochinese refugees. Then I paused. And I reflected. This was a period and an event that I knew very well. If it had been misrepresented, what should I now think of the portrait that so enthralled me up until this point? I jump ahead to this section before I review the tale of the previous sections on Vietnam through the refracted lens of Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s involvement with the Indochinese refugees.

The section on the Indochinese refugees is only five pages (201-205). It covers the period from 1975 to 1979. The story as told by George Packer is very straightforward. There were three phases. In phase I, in 1975-6, President Gerald Ford admitted 130,000 Vietnamese into the USA. In phase 2, from 1977-1978, “the gates closed” because “Americans wanted to be done with the region.” The refugee issue was ignored. The U.S. lacked any refugee policy. There were only two people in the State Department refugee office. Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, believed that refugees were an internal matter for the “host” country, the country of first asylum. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s security adviser, “gave them no thought at all.”

Richard Holbrooke was the exception. Because the refugees were from Indochina, the area in which Holbrooke lost his virginity in foreign affairs, and because the refugees were desperate, they “became Holbrooke’s concern. For four years [1975-1979], he never lost sight of them.” In August 1977, before Congress, he pushed to admit an additional 15,000 refugees. “In 1978 and 1979, when Vietnamese by the tens of thousands were forced to take to the South China Sea, he pushed for a stronger American response, such as using navy ships to pick up those turned away by neighbouring countries. But the navy didn’t see rescuing refugees as a military mission.” (p. 202)

Phase three took place in 1979; during that year, the policy shifted. On the issue of naval rescue in the spring of 1979, Holbrooke convened a meeting in the State Department to push his position, but was opposed by other agencies, especially the Pentagon. It was only because Holbrooke had recruited Vice-President Walter Mondale to support his position that Mondale, at the end of the meeting, simply ordered the navy to pick up the refugees. Mondale added that, alternatively, the admiral could find another job.

In the second step of Phase three, in June of 1979, Holbrooke on the way to the G7, “badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand.” Even if you knew nothing about refugee policy and the period 1977 to 1979, there had to be something fishy about this statement. For if the USA had turned its back totally on Indochinese refugees, why had the USA been taking 7,000 Indochinese refugees per month or 84,000 per year or 56% of the intake in 1975-6?

We’ll return to this strand in the narrative. The resistance to Holbrooke’s proposal was too strong. Vietnamese refugees were not a priority issue. Nevertheless, when Carter reached Tokyo, he announced that the refugee intake would go from 7,000 to 14,000 per month, with the implication that, against all odds, Holbrooke had persuaded Carter. Further, in July, with Carter preoccupied with Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, Mondale was sent to the pledging conference in July. His speechwriter used Holbrooke’s paper on the dastardly conduct of the Evian Conference in 1938 when Western states, with the one exception of the Dominican Republic, turned their backs on the Jewish refugees.

Mondale’s speech got a standing ovation in citing Evian. “Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful – something profound – to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.” Holbrooke, according to George Packer, had been motivated, not by the plight and flight of his Jewish parents, but by his experiences in Vietnam and by his disposition, not to respond with psychological despair but with “furious action.”

Lionel Rosenblatt, Holbrooke’s friend from their service in Vietnam together, then stationed at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, did as he had in 1975; he defied orders and helped evacuate South Vietnamese refugees from Saigon. In 1979, he moved to action to help the Cambodian refugees staggering across the border into Thailand while the UNHCR stood by and said nothing according to Packer. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz was on side. Holbrooke in Washington gave them political cover. In October, Holbrooke traveled to Thailand to visit the camps, when, with a few exceptions, according to Packer, international do-gooders “seemed more concerned with correct procedures than solving problems.”

In the camps, Holbrooke denounced the UNHCR, and, with “his egotism and idealism in perfect balance,” pursued a relentless policy of relieving the plight of the refugees as Rosalynn Carter took sentimental photo-ops with an exhausted refugee mother and her child and pronounced the situation “devastating.” Only after that, according to Packer, did the world pay attention. As a final outcome of Holbrooke’s efforts, Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, tripling the number of refugees allowed into the country. “By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.”

A lot of claims were put forth in these five pages. I have selected ten:

  1. After 1975-6, America closed its gates to Indochinese refugees.
  2. The reason: America wanted to forget the war and turn its back on the refugees.
  3. Holbrooke, however, never gave up his concern for the refugees.
  4. Holbrooke, against almost general opposition, successfully pushed a policy of naval rescue of Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1978-9.
  5. At the G7 summit in Geneva in June of 1979, as a result of Holbrooke’s badgering, Carter pledged to increase the American intake from 7,000 to 14,000 per month.
  6. In the August Indochinese refugee conference in Geneva, as a result of Holbrooke’s paper on the Evian Conference in 1938 dealing with the plight of the European Jews, VP Walter Mondale gave his historic speech rallying the world community to resettle the refugees.
  7. The initiatives Holbrooke took were motivated both by his memories of the suffering of the Vietnamese and his disposition to respond to suffering, not by an outflow of feeling, but by furious action.
  8. After, and, by implication, as a result of Holbrooke’s and Rosalynn Carter’s visit to the Cambodian refugee camps, “the world paid attention to Cambodia.”
  9. Up until then, the UNHCR had been silent and impotent and the NGOs mostly passive and incompetent.
  10. By implication again, as a result of Holbrooke’s dedication and commitment, Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Refugee Act which tripled the annual refugee intake into America of Indochinese from 17,000 to 50,000.

In the next blog, I will examine each claim in turn.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Bread and Memory – Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

I want to thank all of those who wrote in response to yesterdays’ blog. And I mean “all,” For I started to reply to the first few individually yesterday. However, if I continued, it would have taken yesterday evening and the whole of this morning. I have never had such a voluminous feedback to any blog that I have written before. Was it the subject matter with which so many could identify? Was it my approach? Or perhaps the style I had adopted.

The responses fell into different categories. There were those who advised me on the biochemistry of why eating bread becomes an addiction and eating fruit does not, though I eat even more fruit than bread. Eating carbohydrates is connected with the production of serotonin by the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can cross the blood-brain barrier to produce a feeling of pleasure. Carbohydrates – and very little is needed – leads to serotonin production.

If I stop eating carbohydrates, then no serotonin. Further, if eaten with pastrami, the protein offsets the serotonin production. If I eat quickly – and I do – then the serotonin is not produced fast enough to turn off my passion for carbohydrates. I act too quickly to give it a chance. I may not have gotten the science right, but you get the idea. “Challah and euphoria are universal, if not tribal.” There is also the physiology of the process – the effects on mood, on concentration, on sleep – which I have not gotten into. I had no idea how many scientists read my blog.

There were the humorists who tried to enter a friendly competition with me. One congratulated me for my “very evenly leavened depiction of the predicament. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. I wasn’t laughing at you but out of recognition of and identification with the problem.” All said and done, we are all part of the great unwashed overfed brotherhood of bread fanatics.

There were those who shared my pleasure and those who reprimanded me, not for eating rye or challah or bagels, but for my poor taste. “What a bagel!” Those fluffy high-rise excuses for bagels are made by Israelis who should stick to Pita. An Israeli never learned to bake or boil let alone appreciate a good bagel. They had just become ersatz Americans for whom bagels have now become their favourite breakfast food. Now Gryfe’s. There is a good bagel. Or District Bagels in Montreal. “Bagel World in Toronto and the overly expensive Buby’s NY bagel are the true, dense, chewy, exuberant poopy seed versions.”

Many assured me that my condition was treatable. I could get control over my compulsive disorder and learn to maintain self-discipline and sobriety. Others suggested that I was genetically doomed. Further, the genetic pattern was geographically determined, in Toronto, via “Litvacks primarily! Montreal and New York had earlier and different immigrant patterns than Toronto…though we were contaminated by Pollocks, Galitzianers and the Romanische.” Others offered a number of tricks used in dieting in general to manage my weight. I could save bagels for family occasions and then savour them more richly.

There were very many women who wrote, though the category included one man, who offered me advice (and a great deal of sympathy) on how I could treat my addiction. They congratulated me on my courage at openly confessing that I was addicted. They ached for me. They felt my pain, even though I had indicated that I was addicted to the pleasures of eating bread, at least delicious bread with deep roots in Europe. They had been there themselves. Some of them had mastered the literature, the tools and the use of societal groupings to bring their addictions under control. They offered to share their experiences and advice in greater detail. I cannot thank them enough for their sympathy and their willingness to assist me.

There were, of course the more professional psychologists, though one writer advised that I simply need a substitute narrative for the one I put on display that is so entrancing. For “emotional eating is rooted in the subconscious. So no wonder conscious attempts fail.” There is an App (Insight Time) on offer that can help but it involves inventing an even more amazing food story than the one I told. I would have to give up my authentic history for a fictional one. Then there were also the historians who reiterated traditional analyses of the ancient Greek distinction between the Apollonian vs Dionysian cults.  Perfection vs pleasure; reason vs feelings; mind vs matter; virtue vs vice; the equally ancient Asian distinction between the ‘higher’/rational realm vs the ‘lower’/sensuous realm.

This analysis easily slipped into the region of theology. There were those who offered a very radical religious remedy. “Convert! Renounce your Judaism (and its customs like eating bagels and rye) and adopt some other faith. The shock to your sense of identity might be sufficiently powerful to provide an antidote to your addiction.” On the other hand, another writer accused me of being too akin to Catholicism.

As it turns out, there is a specific theological dilemma that is addressed in this week’s Torah portion dealing with bread. In Deuteronomy (9:9), Moses informs the Israelites upon his return from getting the ten advisories that

He not only did not eat bred during the 40 days but abstained from water. “And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.”

וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי יְי יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם:

Man lives by bread, but not by bread alone. “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) In the desert the Israelites learned to live with manna from heaven. After the death of Moses, they would cross into the Promised Land where they could farm, grow grains and bake bread. There is a difference in elevation, geographical location and chronology. The manna from heaven precedes the growing of wheat and the baking of bread.

What is the difference between the heavenly bread (manna) and the earthly bread? מן or mon means a ready-made portion of food, fast food. Earthly bread was to be slowly leavened overnight, baked at the correct temperature for the proper length of time. Mon, in contrast, was fast food. So why is fast food associated with that which has status, that which has greater significance, that which comes from heaven?

First, it was of limited supply, an omer or 43 ounces. Just enough to be satiated but never enough to be overfed. And it could not be preserved. Only on Friday did the Israelites get a double portion for no manna reigned down on shabat. That is why the blessing for bread on Friday evening uses two loaves of challah. Bread, the best bread, was linked to manna from heaven. But how? And why?

Certainly, manna did not taste like bread. On the one hand, it was similar to a bagel and tasted like it was boiled in oil. But manna was also like a chameleon with different tastes depending on who digested it and at what age. Manna is a gift of God. Bread is a product of toil and time, of patience and loving care. Bread lives and rises. Mon falls. Bread requires growth. Mon is a product of daily repetition.

But bread is also a tempter in two very different senses – to our taste buds and to our pride in what we produce by our own two hands. Success seems to depend exclusively on our own efforts. “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, Till you return to the ground. Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

According to the sages, the blessing for manna is said first lest we forget the One to whom we owe everything. Moses pointed to heaven and manna. Joshua led us to land on which we could grow barley. But no nation can be great if its bread tastes like cardboard. It was important to bake good bread, tasteful bread that was delectable to our palate. Beauty may belong to the soul but bread belongs to the belly.

From heaven we desire recognition, appreciation and love. Bread does not love us. We love bread. With bread, we disperse recognition. We grade, we rank, we appreciate and we are passionate about the different breads we prefer. With manna, we are left unsatiated. With bread, we are satiated, if only for the moment. The heavens may be the daily bread for the eyes, but for the tongue and our nostrils, only genuine bread will do. When I smelled the cinnamon buns baking in the oven of my Aunt Gladys – and I can still recall that smell – I return to an age of delight and innocence.

Bread is about judgement, not about commands from on high. For we have to decide which side our bread is buttered on. On the other hand, we listen for the manna falling. We are commanded to listen to God. 92 times in Deuteronomy alone! Attend. Hear. Heed. Judaism is both a religion of listening and a religion of eating. In contrast, the Greeks taught us to see and believed that by seeing we would know. Indulging the appetites allowed us to take our eyes off the prize. The appetites were opposed to the intellect, whereas in Judaism, they are different but complementary.

In Judaism, knowing is NOT primarily seeing. Knowing is what happened between Adam and Eve. When Adam was a knower, he named things. He offered taxonomies, But he did not recognize Eve as an independent other but as an extension of his own body and saw his own body as an independent other. His sin was not in knowing Eve but in not knowing he was embodied. Judaism teaches us that we are embodied as much as it calls for our souls to listen to voices from above. Greeks saw or failed to see. Israelites listened – and ate. Greeks esteemed detachment; Jews esteemed attachment – to God and to our wives and children. In the Greek agora, there were only men.

Eikev. Ekev. Ekeb. Egeb. עֵקֶב. I try to weave them dialectically together. If you follow, if you follow what you hear and if you listen to the rumbling in your belly as well as what comes from on high, only then can you take up the responsibility for both yourself and the society in which you live. The appetites are not at war with the mind. Rather, they keep the mind grounded. And that is what it means when Jesus said to his disciples, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) Not that Jesus claimed divinity or to be an embodied deity. But if God was above, if God provided manna, Jesus was bread and bread, its smell and taste, was the embodiment of memory. Listen to God. Remember me.

Remember you mother’s rice pudding and the cinnamon buns of your Aunt Gladys. And listen to the word of the Lord.

So eat you bagels. Eat your challah. But be mindful.

“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)