Part IIIB: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process – Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Letters 6-10

Letter 6 took another turn – away from consideration of different dimensions of unity (letters 1-3), away from a potted narrative of the past one hundred years (letters 4 & 5), towards possibilities of peace at the present time. We are 50% through the letters but 57% through the book.

The formulation of moving towards reviving the peace process is simple. Not lines on the map. Instead, address each nation’s deepest anxieties, Recognize each nation’s right to survival, to exist. Note, survival, not complete self-determination.

Second, recognize that each nation has its own narrative and critical historical memories. Third, revive partition and accept that each nation regards partition as self-mutilation, as amputation. The corollary – reject a one state solution shared by two nations. Fourth, and perhaps most controversial, accept the legitimacy (not realism) of the other side’s maximalist ends and that partition entails partition of justice not just of land, and that both nations are partners in the mutual pain of partition.

Jews need a Jewish state defined by Jewish culture values and needs. But they do not need all of historic Palestine. However, unlike the Left, most Israeli Jews need to recognize the attachment and rights to the entire land, an attachment that the Left unilaterally abandoned almost from the start. But it was the Right that uprooted settlements – Begin in Sinai and Sharon in Gaza. Though the Right refused to surrender its attachments, it implemented land for peace nevertheless.

However, with respect to Judea and Samaria, the attachment is so strong, the numbers are so great, that settlement withdrawal should not be enforced even as settlements are left on the other side allowing Jews to become citizens of a Palestinian state. Nor need it depend on a final peace agreement which, of necessity, would include dealing with the “right of return.” The trade-off is that the Israelis contract settlements and the Palestinians contract the right of return, not to original homes, but to a Palestinian state. Most of the gains of 1967 will be surrendered for the surrender by Palestinians of the losses of 1948. But Abbas has been two-faced, accepting no right of return to original homes on the one hand while insisting that, “No one can give up the right of return.”

One problem is that Halevi is historically incorrect in terms of negotiations. As one example, in historical terms, Halevi believes that UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, was created by a convergence of interests among Islamic, the Communist and the Non-aligned blocks. This is historical nonsense. UNRWA was the standard model for taking care of refugees through humanitarian means rather than seeking a permanent solution of return, settlement or resettlement which emerged shortly thereafter. Korean refugees were treated with an equivalent Korean agency. And the prime initiator for Arabs from Palestine was the United States which envisioned using humanitarian and development tools to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Arab lands, primarily in Iraq using the equivalent device of a Tennessee Valley Authority to reclaim agricultural land while providing a source of electricity and water.

UNRWA is the only agency devoted to a single refugee issue because the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with its universal and solutions approach was created after UNRWA and because humanitarian means were used to deal with other refugee crises before that time.     

On letter 7, Halevi tackles the third ostensible intractable problem, not just borders – which he has thus far side-stepped, not just refugees, but the disposition of the governance of the religious sites. In this focus, Halevi reverts to letter 1 and the underlying unity of Judaism and Islam, the shared ideal of hospitality, the shared proclamation of the oneness of God, a shared founding father, a shared antipathy to idolatry.

But on the ground, there are also shared religious sites, the Temple Mount and the Haram al Sharif, the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. It was a Jewish terrorist and extremist – Baruch Goldstein – who, in murdering 29 Muslims at prayer and wounding many more, destroyed the ease of sharing; a rigid separation followed. Similarly, Jews, while never relinquishing their rights, have been relegated to the Western Wall. Practical implementation need not be congruent with claimed rights.

In this, for Halevi, the Jews have set the model, have practiced restraint, which thus far the Palestinians have refused to do with respect to the Hebron religious site. But how can this be the case if sharing was the general practice before Goldstein? Does the Palestinian narrative not differ from the Jewish one in acceding to Jewish practices while denying Jewish rights? With respect to refugees, Jews deny a “right of return” but concede actual return in practice, nominally by a small proportion to Israel under family reunification, but practically to the truncated Palestinian homeland? Perhaps pragmatism and restraint have not been the exclusive prerogatives of the Jews?

Finally, Halevi shifts to another Jewish precept to support withdrawal and shared responsibility for religious sites – the norm that Jews are only sojourners on the land that, in the end, always remains God’s. Jews are only its custodians. With the addition of another Jewish moral precept – the prioritization of the holiness of life over all else – Jews have a solid ethical foundation for making concessions. The emphasis in Islam on surrender to God’s will, on humility before God, can be used as a parallel lattice work upon which to hang the battered peace.

There it is – three letters discoursing on unity, two letters discoursing on the Israeli narrative and two letters on the implication of shared and different religious precepts. But there are three letters remaining. Letter 8 is entitled, “The Israeli Paradox.” While calling for a different approach to peace, the chapter acknowledges a growth of rage and hatred on each side.

On the Palestinian side, recent news on 24 April reported on the effort of two Palestinian software development companies on Annual Hiring Day to recruit talent on Bir Zeit campus only to be driven off because working in software would necessarily entail working with Israeli companies and, hence, enhancing normalization with Israel. “We reject normalization and adopt the approach of resistance until the liberation of the entire Palestinian territory.” “Normalization is Treason.” And this in spite of the very high rate of unemployment among Palestinian youth. Once again, passions trumped interests for the extreme position of “resistance,” the rejection of the existence of Israel altogether and an insistence on continuing the armed struggle. Once again, extremism pushed aside moderation using intimidation and coercion.

In Israel, Halevi begins with tales of Jewish coexistence in entertainment and the IDF prosecution of an IDF soldier for killing an unarmed and disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron. Behind this outreach, Halevi claims, lies Israel’s age-old longing for normalization, for Israel to exist as a normal nation amongst the other nations of the world even while seeking to advance a prophetic vision. However, on the international stage, Israel is anything but normal. And on the domestic stage, Israel is a far cry from being exemplary.

Hence the paradox – externally abnormal and internally unexceptional. Even towards Jews with practices and laws that force non-Orthodox Jews to marry abroad. And then there is the gradual easing of transportation and the opening of restaurants on Shabat while commerce still remains highly restricted. On the one hand, there is a failure to reconcile Israelis secular and diverse religious character with a relief from restrictions and a failure to fully embrace Arab citizens as an integral part of the public space. Yet, in spite of the latter, the vast majority of Arab Israelis are surprisingly proud to be Israeli, though many refer to themselves as 1948 Palestinians.

However, the trends are ominous – the passage of the Jewish nation-state law and the inadequate programs for correcting the injustices towards Palestinian Israelis. Is it one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and one step back?

Letter 9 begins with Holocaust Memorial Day that again took place last week. Halevi is correct when he earlier challenged the belief that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel. Halevi said the claim was grossly inaccurate. Halevi was appalled that Barack Obama in his Cairo speech in 2009 to the Muslim world only justified the creation of Israel because of the Holocaust. In this letter, Halevi insists that Western guilt over the Holocaust as the major reason Israel exists is misleading – I go much further: Western guilt over the Holocaust had nothing to do with the creation of the State of Israel. I will argue in a subsequent paper from an address that I gave on Yom ha-Shoah that the claim is not simply exaggerated; it is invalid.

However, Halevi does demonstrate how the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again. Here he is a bit clearer, though still not clear enough, than in his earlier excursus into fate and destiny. “In turning from victims into survivors, they (Jews at a Holocaust Memorial ceremony in Israel) had extracted destiny from mere fate.” Jews not only survived, but emerged as victors. Further, “Israel’s legitimacy is based not on Jewish suffering but on Jewish faith and the attachment to the land.”

Nevertheless, there is a need both to free Israelis from the trauma of the Holocaust and avoid misusing Holocaust memory to ground diplomacy – as Begin did in his speech alongside Sadat in Jerusalem in 1978, or using it to justify the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as Begin did in 1982. He claimed that the invasion was as an effort to preempt another Holocaust.

Further, there is a need to turn away from what others did to the Jews towards taking responsibility for what happened. Jews were responsible for their relative passivity, almost slave mentality, that they incorporated into their psyches in the diaspora in Europe. That slave mentality once again needs to be expelled. Jews must abhor victimhood as much as they celebrate agency and responsibility. That is the main reason for Israel’s enormous success. Judaism is a refusal to be beaten by history.

The reality, however, is that the continuing war against Israel’s existence reinforces those fears of a renewal of victimhood where the only crime of the Jews is their existence. That is why anti-Zionism constitutes the newest expression of antisemitism and is not just an intellectual posture. When the conflict becomes about existence, Israel and Jews can only resist with all their hearts and all their minds. The radical Palestinian triadic trope that the Holocaust never happened, that we are glad it did and that we plan to repeat the exercise, must be fought against by Jews with tooth and claw.

Halevi’s final letter, number 10, offers a paradox about Jewish Israeli religion and culture as exemplified by living in a sukkah for a week a year to remind Jews of the fragility and transience of where we live while, the same ritual in Israel, is a reaffirmation of the determination that Israel will never again be a place of transience and an historical sideshow. Further, the repetition of these ancient rituals is not only a reaffirmation of Jewish persistence over millennia, but a reaffirmation of the Jewish commitment to be a blessing to humanity, a light unto the nations.

Thus, the paradox of letter 8 of external abnormality and internal unexceptionalism. While Israel is retrograde in reconciling Israel’s diverse religious range and its strong secular character, it fails to deliver equality to its Arab citizens. That these Israeli Palestinians largely remain proud of being Israeli offers no excuse. Thus, the paradox depicted in letter 9 of the Holocaust as insignificant in the creation of Israel but extremely significant in the psyche of Jewish Israelis. Thus, the paradox of letter 10 about transience but persistence over millennia.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Next: A Critical Overview of Yossi Klein Halevi

Scapegoats: Parashat Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30

What do prohibitions against marrying relatives, prohibitions against defiling the land and the punishment of Aaron’s two sons have to do with one another? And what do each of these have to do with what is going on in the world today?

Almost a week ago, Passover ended. Since I had by then pneumonia for almost two weeks, it took me another three days to join the world of the living. For until then, I strongly felt that I had been abandoned in the wilderness to cough my life away. It did not help that the wilderness appeared to be a world still filled with hatred that had killed Lori Gilbert Kaye at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego and shot away the index finger of the rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein. The killer had previously set fire to a mosque. Yet, at the same time, believe it or not, I felt sorry for myself. To a degree I wallowed in self-pity.

In my conceit, my inner state seemed to match and mirror the worst in an external world populated with the dead from attacks of hatred in Sri Lanka, in Christchurch, in Pittsburgh, in Wisconsin and in Charleston. And yesterday was Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we presumably re-dedicate ourselves to, “Never again!”

Why do some people want to injure and kill others in their places of worship and in their schools, all purportedly areas removed from the world of conflict and violence? Why does someone feel so traumatized by imagined events that they become possessed and want to traumatize others? My coughing was violent. The behaviour of the shooter – unfortunately no longer a rarity – was traumatic. Do the internal retching coughs have anything to do with the wretched and tormented of the world where their hatred leads them to perform such evil acts? If I was physically ill coughing out my germs for everyone around to catch, as much as I tried to isolate myself, were such murderous perpetrators filled with hatred just coughing up bullets to take out people they believed were their enemies? Are security measures merely the equivalent of anti-pneumonia vaccines?

For the germs of hatred are spreading. Antisemitic incidents are at a peak. White nationalists and supremacists now account for almost three-quarters of the antisemitic incidents in America. Whether the target is a Christian place of worship in Sri Lanka, a small black Baptist church in America, or a synagogue or a mosque, the sacred is profaned. That is the point of such actions. The targets are seen as other, seen as lesser others, seen as threats to the survival of the white race or Islam or Judaism or Christianity. For the source of that threat must be eliminated.

But it cannot be. That is the point. The source can be contained and isolated but not ultimately extirpated.

“Jews will not replace us,” the white nationalists chanted in Charlottesville. Jews will not be replaced or exterminated ever again. Jews will not be defined by hate even as in every generation an enemy will rise up to destroy us. Am Israel chai! What has all of this to do with what follows after the death of the two sons of Aaron for ostensibly drawing too close to the presence of the eternal” (16:1)? What does it mean to draw too close to the eternal?

“The Eternal One said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die?” (16:2) Aaron had to wear the proper sacral vestments and only bring with him an animal worthy of being sacrificed. Why are you saved by following rote religiously while condemned to death if you come too close to God? What does it mean to be “too close to God”?  

After all, Aaron, as far as we can tell, never did anything wrong overtly. Yet God tells Moses that his brother will surely die. How? Unless he strictly follows the rules of self-protection. God will bring about Aaron’s death for God appears in the cloud over the cover of the ark. It is as if God is a vapour of germs. If Aaron comes too close without the proper protection, without the appropriate acts of purgation, he will be infected by those germs. What does this have to do with the reality that we remain living in a wilderness afflicted with poisonous hatred and bigotry? Is God a vapour barrier filled with these murderous germs that can infect anyone?

Don’t come near me, I say when I had pneumonia. Don’t come near me when I, Your God, am a vapour cloud over the Arc of the Covenant. What is the connection between rules and prohibitions set down in the sacred texts and the danger of the spread of hate and bigotry? Is it possible that these sacred sanctuaries – mosques, churches, synagogues – all have within them also the source of hatred and bigotry? Is there a connection between purity and the desire to exterminate the other?

If you conceive of yourself as a member of a “pure” white race, if you consider yourself a member of an exclusive religion in strict service and obedience to God that can be achieved no other way, if you consider yourself God’s gift to the world and a superior nation in all respects, then you can be a source of infection. Then it is well to advise others to engage in acts of purgation before they come in contact with you. For purity and its quest have the same source as the spread of the disease of hatred.

Clean yourself. Wash yourself. Bathe yourself. Purify yourself. Do so to kill the germs within you. But you will need something in addition. A scapegoat, designated by chance to make expiation and not sacrificed but sent off to the wilderness of Azazel. The wilderness will continue to be infected, will continue to be afflicted by poisonous hatred and bigotry. But it should be isolated. A double act is required – recognition that hatred must and will remain at large and which cannot be eliminated and extirpated like measles and polio. Second, an effort must be made to recognize how you, how each of us, can and may be infected so that we too do not spread the disease. We must isolate and purge ourselves. All the while there will remain the danger of further infection and the possibility of the death of your soul as a member of an immoral universe.

Perhaps voodoo acts can help. But it is the overall thrust that matters – the recognition of how you yourself can be infected and possibly die precisely because you want purity. Yet you must seek to cleanse yourself of such evil propensities. Secondly, you must recognize that you cannot entirely cleanse the world of evil no matter how hard you try. It will persist. The best you can do is drive it into isolation in a wilderness far from civilization. Psychopaths of hatred cannot be allowed to live in proximity to a world of tolerance we have to try to create. It is that scapegoat upon which you must lay your hands and confess your own sins concerning your own propensities to foster inequity and the social ills of whatever tribe to which you belong. The best you can do is use a scapegoat to carry off these iniquities to an inaccessible region – even to the moon.

Azazel is the weirdest, the strangest, the most perplexing extra-human force in the Torah. Of the two goats brought into the sacred centre for sacrifice, one will live on and be released into the wilderness of Azazel, the scapegoat. The spirit of evil will be left upon this goat, a spirit of evil purged from oneself in one’s own confession, and the goat sent to an area of desolation and ruin where it can live out its life carrying the sins of bigotry and hatred without endangering humanity. The task of humanity is to keep itself clean of these evil germs and to prevent their return to civilization. This is the most important task of a polity.

Hatred and bigotry, the desire to exterminate others are not ordinary crimes and misdemeanours. Hatred crimes eat away at the soul of society. Vigilance against them must be the mantra.

Yesterday was Yom ha-Shoah. I gave a talk yesterday which I will distribute as a future blog. The thesis was that the senseless hatred of the past, and it was senseless, and even more importantly the indifference to it, are both parts of the present. That hatred has even infected those most victimized by it. That is why we must isolate and disinfect ourselves before we can return to repairing the world and ensuring that the scapegoat carrying this hatred is isolated and restricted to living in a wilderness where it cannot infect others.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process – Letters 1-5 in Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Aristotle argued that, although the style is important, the structure and organization of the way the persuasion is presented is even more so. Halevi offers 10 letters ranging in length from 15 to 25 pages each. There does not seem to be any apparent order to the letters. Nevertheless, there is an underlying order.

The first letter contrasts the divide between Israelis and Palestinians while recounting Halevi’s personal odyssey in attempting to understand the devotional life of a Muslim to comprehend how the members of each religion share in God’s presence, share an intimacy with God, share a conviction that “the unseen is ultimately more real than the material,” that passions trump interests.

He notes in Islam how important bodies moving in unison – bowing, stepping back, prostrating – as well as the concepts of surrender and the “fearless heart,” all characterize Muslim religious practice. Halevi makes no comment on the differences with Jewish religious practices. Where he emphasizes difference is in the Palestinian narrative, the story of a nation within the Arab family with its own history and collective experience, the experience of humiliation and defeat at the hands of those characterized as invaders, expellers and occupiers.

In contrast, Halevi then offers the Palestinian parallel to the Israeli narrative:

  • Rejection of Jewish return
  • Rejection of partition
  • Rejection of trading land for peace
  • Rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state
  • Rejection of a comprehensive offer of peace when the Second Intifada began in September 2000
  • The resulting loss of faith of Israelis in peace, reinforced with the rejection of President Bill Clinton’s peace offer in December 2000 and nailing the peace process dead with the rejection of Ehud Olmert’s peace offer in 2008
  • The result – the withering of the left and the percentage of Israelis who believed in the possibility of peace – all confirmed by the Palestinian media that insists the Jews do not have rights to a state or a right to return to their land.

Yet in spite of it all, Halevi retains a belief that God wants peace, that God wants justice, that God wants fairness, even as the wall that protects Israelis purportedly humiliates Palestinians even further.

The second letter, “Need and Longing,” continues with the religious theme by focusing on Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of the Jews from Roman-governed Palestine following the second destruction. Then redemption, or, part thereof, with the return and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, a religious experience even felt by Israeli secularists. Acceptance of exile as fact had always been accompanied by rejection of it as permanent.

Jewish prayer was suffused with the longing for return that gave even secular Zionism its spiritual substance while the need for security and survival provided the urgency. That is, for Halevi, the essence of Zionism, the combined forces that gave legitimation to repatriation and the restoration of a people to their homeland. “Judaism isn’t only a set of rituals and rules but a vision linked to a place.” There is no Judaism without Zionism, without the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel and the dream of renewing Jewish sovereignty in the place of origin of the Jewish people.

And thus Yossi Klein Halevi’s own personal odyssey of return.

The first letter tells a story about the division between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, at the same time as Halevi claims that there exists an underlying possible religious unity. The second letter tells the story about Jewish unity in the effort to bring that rebirth of Israel into realization. Halevi was part of that effort and made aliyah to Israel. Letter three discusses “Fate and Destiny” as Jewish tropes. For Halevi, the core of Judaism since Abraham has been family, the sense of each Jew belonging to a community of fate.

That suddenly got my back up. Fate, as I understand it, refers to chance, to fortune, to adverse, predetermined and inescapable causes. Though often used interchangeably with “destiny,” I remembered and re-read an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called, “On Destiny and Chance.” Rabbi Sacks differentiated between destiny, which depended upon Jewish choices, and fate that did not. Fate was a matter of mere fortune, of chance. Fate and Destiny were both contrasted with untrammeled free will.

Fortune (vayikar) appears; destiny (vayikra) calls. God warns: If you “do not listen to Me, but continue to be hostile [keri] towards Me, then in My anger I will be hostile towards you, and I myself will punish you seven times for your sins.” A community of destiny blames itself for impending disasters; in contrast, the Jews who fled Egypt and were crowded against the shores of the Reed Sea, cried out, not to God, but screamed, “Oy, gewalt!” They blamed Moses for the bad idea of escaping slavery. They even expressed a hope of return while others engaged in fatalistic morbid Jewish humour and cracked jokes – “Don’t the Egyptians have enough graves?”

God was forgiving. The Israelites were still fully infused with a slave mentality. Choice and destiny were not in their hands. Nor possibly in God’s. Most of the Israelites believed that they were fated, doomed to die at the hands of the Egyptian charioteers bearing down upon them. But when Jews became a community responsible for their own destiny and for asking for God’s help, if they then blame fate and fortune, God will simply add to their troubles. “If, when I bring trouble upon you in order to cause you to repent, you say that the trouble is purely accidental, then I will add to your trouble the anger of being-left-to-chance.” God will abandon the Jews and leave their fate to others. Divine providence will not align with the acceptance of individual and collective responsibility.

In the words of Rabbi Sachs, if Jews “see history as mere chance—what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, called ‘a trashbag of random coincidences blown open by the wind’—then indeed they will be left to chance. Being a small, vulnerable nation, chance will not be kind to them.” The difference is between mikra, God’s call, and mikreh, history as a series of random events, as fortune and fate without meaning. The aleph on “mikra” is small, is microscopic, but it is critical and crucial. It is also both visible and audible to those who look and listen. “To be a Jew is to believe that what happens to us as a people is G‑d’s call to us—to become ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

That is why I was so taken aback by Halevi referring to Jews as a “community of fate.” Further, Halevi believes that it is the “dark side of the Jewish family” when Jews turn on one another when things go wrong. But that is not family at all. It is deregistering from family. It is resigning and giving up in resignation rather than insisting that together, with God’s help, we can make it. For Jews, “to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” requires that they trust themselves, trust one another and trust God. That is what it is to be and become a community of destiny rather than a community of fate.

But perhaps this is only a quibble over words. Perhaps by fate, Halevi means destiny rather than fortune. For the moment, I give him the benefit of doubt, though the skeptical hairs on the back of my neck have been raised. After all, Halevi insists that the “foundation of Jewishness is peoplehood,” and a people is not a race but a community of destiny which others are free to join. But joining means that, “My people are your people and your people are my people.” And, “Loyalty to the Jewish people is, for Judaism, a religious act,” an act of assuming individual and collective responsibility.

Thus, the first three letters are all about unity, the unity underlying all three monotheistic and other spiritual faiths, secondly the political unity of the Jewish people in the collective dedication to the land and to self-determination on that land, and, thirdly, the religious unity demanded of any Jew, the unity between humans and God and among those chosen to be God’s people.

With letter 4, there is a shift from the theme of unity to history, to narrative, moving from a community of great equality but equally great austerity, to a community with enormous income disparities and a significant devotion to material indulgence. Nevertheless, in spite of these radical changes in “interests,” the passion remains communal, the passion for mourning the fallen soldiers on Memorial Day and for celebrating Israeli independence on the following day. Mourning and celebration remain intimate bedfellows. In contrast, the Palestinians only have a day of mourning, Nakba Day, and the celebration of self-determination remains a promise rather than a realization.

But the devil is also in the details of each respective group’s history. Jews returned to their own land primarily as labour Zionists, as rediscovering themselves as labourers on the land only to find that the non-labour returnees who preceded them employed Arab workers as cheap labour. To create a Jewish proletariat meant excluding the use of Arab labour. Thus, interests divided the Zionists even as passion united them. But, whatever their ideological bent, they bought their land; they did not steal it. Unfortunately, it was often purchased at exorbitant prices from absentee Arab landlords at the expense of the displacement of Arab or Palestinian serfs. This is the beginning of the narrative of return.

The return was, however, rejected by local Arabs, not primarily because of the effects of these contradictory instrumental values of the returnees – but because of the Arab passion for their own exclusive self-determination. Jews were neither invited to join in nor to engage in a joint effort. Further, the desire for exclusion was accompanied by pogroms – the worst initially in Hebron in 1929. The first step in the Jewish loss of faith in the other began with the loss of faith in coexistence and the preparation for protracted conflict to avert the prospect, even promise, of extermination.

The surrender of a belief in coexistence by Jews became a political statement with the acceptance of partition in 1947, while Arab rejection of coexistence was confirmed by a rejection of even partition. That self-determination was not a product of the then UN white man’s club, only its international legitimacy. The self-determination was determined by Jewish history and Jewish resolve to avoid the alternative – expulsion once again or even mass slaughter. To date, not one Palestinian leader has recognized the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in Eretz Israel.

The result of that success has been Arab defeat, Arab humiliation, the expansion of the Jewish control of land and the expulsion/flight of just over 700,000 Palestinian refugees. The result was also the ingathering of the Jews from Arab lands, largely a product of Arab anger at the victory of the Jews and a turn against and persecution of their own centuries-old Jewish communities. Thus, while the Arabs suffered from a catastrophe, the Jews, through realism and faith, salvaged their people and initiated a new phase in their over three millennial-old history.

Letter 5 carries that history forward to the Six Day War in 1967 preceded by the existential fear and trembling felt worldwide by Jews around the world, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist. Almost all Jews experienced the prospect of the imminent destruction of the Jewish community in Israel. In spite of Israel’s appeal to Jordan to stay out of the war, Israel was attacked from three sides, from Egypt on the south, form Jordan on the east and from Syria on the north-east. The miracle happened. In only six days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, reunited Jerusalem, captured the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – the Sinai and the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the results of all these captures leaving a legacy until the present over fifty years later.

The legacy was acted out in debates over settlements. In the Sinai, settlements were planted and then uprooted in a peace with Egypt in return for a total exchange of land and a peace agreement in 1979. In Gaza, settlements were planted and then uprooted in a unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza and the dismantling of the settlements there in 2005.  This year, in 2019, the Golan Heights were recognized as part of Israel by the U.S. What remains uncertain is the fate of the settlements in Greater Jerusalem and in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria.

What started as an effort of reinforcing security gradually evolved into a religious settler movement to reoccupy the heartland of the Jewish people.  By 1975, the Labour Government lost control of the settler movement, propelled by continuing Palestinian intransigence and by the international community passing a UN General Assembly resolution on 10 November 1975 equating Zionism with racism. The hard right won, propelled by Palestinian rejectionism and the scurrilous behaviour of the world’s highest international body. The Jews were on their own and to hell with everyone else.

But the parallel consequence was further humiliation for Palestinians now subject to military occupation and its inherent corruption based as it was and remains on continuing Palestinian humiliation. Then Oslo. Then the turn away from mutual non-recognition to mutual recognition and diplomacy.  But it was a shift not based on trust, but on a gamble, particularly since Arafat reassured his people in Arabic than any peace agreement would just be a temporary bus stop on the road towards the goal of complete Zionist expulsion. For Arafat, that was inevitable and just a matter of time as the very small Jewish minority in the Middle East lost its relative power.

As it turned out, the relative discrepancy in power increased rather than decreased. Not by reliance on that power alone, but by relying on the new strategic east-west depth and the capture of the Judean Hills in the Six Day War.

This is Yossi Klein Halevi’s narrative of the Jewish people in which he personally played a part.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: An Analysis of the Epistolary Style

An analysis of the style of a book may seem to some as extraneous, but a knowledge of the role of style reveals how important it is in comprehending the substance of a book. In Greek, epistolē means “letter.” Halevi delivers his message through a series of letters. Why letters? Why only his letters and why did he not initially invite a Palestinian to respond to each letter in turn? In other words, why a monologic rather and a dialogic use of letters? Evidently, the second edition due in June will include 12 Palestinian responses.

And why letters and not a blog? Precisely because it is a private letter made public, a personal appeal rather than a public platform which is inherently impersonal and disembodied. A physical letter, even though in type in a printed book, somehow retains the tactile quality of a personal letter. There is no screen or technical device that mediates between the writer and the reader. Immediacy and connection are enhanced.

Halevi presents a series of open letters rather than ones tantalizingly placed inside envelopes because: a) he has no individual person at the other end to whom to address his letters; and b) he wants what he writes to be part of the public record while preserving the personable character of the private letter.

In the monologic form he does adopt, he combines direct experience, personal narrative, abbreviations of his understanding of history and analysis. He begins by addressing an anonymous “neighbour,” not his Jewish neighbour on French Hill in Jerusalem, but his unknown neighbour across the “wall,” his Palestinian neighbour, initially characterized as such only in the Introduction.

He no sooner addresses his “neighbour” than he questions the form of address. Why? Not because it misdescribes, but because it “may be too casual.” But then it is not the casualness that follows, but the estrangement between himself and his neighbour both of whom are not only unknown to each other, are not only strangers, but “are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst nightmares.” Thus, strangers and intimates at one and the same time. An assertion of proximity followed by a depiction of impersonality and then a reversal to even much greater intimacy, but not of affection, but of a nightmarish presence. Hence, an inverted argument in favour of “neighbour” referring to those who live proximate to one another and whose lives are intertwined but who nevertheless remain strangers to one another.

Clearly, this is not going to be a series of letters in which Halevi tells his Palestinian neighbour about the difficulties and pains he has suffered because of what the Palestinians have done to him. Nor, in its monologic form, is it about two different perspectives told through different eyes and ears and sensibilities. It will turn out to be a single narrator offering two different perspectives on a common problem. And that may be one problem.

But in setting up the tension between proximity and psychological threat, we not only have a frame, but one that projects forward as suspense. How is Halevi going to try to resolve the tension?

This monological series of letters is not akin to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl because Anne’s expression of her feelings and thoughts shift rapidly from the mundane to what is existentially and personally most profound. Further, though Halevi captures some sense of immediacy in the use of the form, Halevi’s letters have none of the real and detailed intimacy that open Anne’s writings to a universe of readers. They do, however, offer a genuine facsimile to communicate that combination of inward insight and outward sharing.

Anne’s Diary and Halevi’s letters have a further uniting thread. Both books are tales of hope and dreams. Both offer an historical context which makes the realization of those dreams seem to be impossible, in Anne’s case, more poignantly, because they were already proven to be impossible when the Diary was published. And Anne’s diary entries are made even more painful by her wit and humour, something absent in Halevi’s letters. As Anne wrote in her satirical advertisement for their hiding place:  

Open all year round: Located in beautiful, quiet, wooded surroundings in the heart of Amsterdam. No private residences in the vicinity. Can be reached by streetcar 13 or 17 and also by car and bicycle. For those to whom such transportation has been forbidden by the German authorities, it can also be reached on foot. Furnished and unfurnished rooms and apartments are available at all times, with or without meals. Price: Free. Diet: Low-fat.

I do not offer these comparisons to diminish in anyway Halevi’s accomplishments, but rather to emphasize the rhetorical devices of the epistolary form he does adopt and which ones appear to be outside the scope of his offering to his neighbour, though one could ask why he never makes fun of his own situation or offer it up as satire. Perhaps, in Anne’s case, the humour added to the powerful realism of the form and a direct connection to real events, whereas in Halevi’s case it would most likely appear to be fatuous and detract from those affects.  

The epistolary format is a style that directly contradicts Aristotle’s dictum on the nature and function of rhetoric. For Aristotle, “The argumentative modes of persuasion [as used by Micah Goodman] are the essence of the art of rhetoric.” Why? Because appeals simply to the emotions arguably warp judgement, though pathos was an inherent necessary quality of rhetoric. But Halevi’s precise point is the need for a certain type of emotion, not fear or humiliation, but empathy, sympathetic emotional identification with the other. “For peace to succeed in the Middle East, it must speak in some way to our hearts.”

Most importantly, there is logos. But not for Halevi. While argumentative persuasion relies on demonstration to advance truth and justice, Halevi’s rhetorical method relies on the writer’s power to express and communicate his own personal character that allows what he says to be credible. That is the ethos, not the logos, of rhetoric. Secondly, as stated above, the rhetoric must stir the emotions of the reader. But what Halevi does not do is try to advance an apparent truth by various forms of argument. Instead, in the Jewish tradition, narrative substitutes for argument, a form Aristotle despised because it lacked any sense of the universal.

In Aristotle, of the three kinds of rhetoric, Halevi’s political or deliberative type focuses on one of five sub-types: war and peace. Halevi ignores ways and means. While mentioning security a number of times, he pays only a glancing attention to national defence. He pays no attention to trade policy, including that with the Palestinians, or to legislation and the shifts in the form of governing in Israel. His is a dog and pony show without the dog.

One of the major defining characteristics of Halevi’s short monograph is that it is almost exclusively about what Albert Hirschman dubbed the “passions” versus “interests.” (The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph) Modernity has been characterized by an emphasis on and priority on interests as opposed to passions. Men like Shimon Peres counted on common interests and positive sum games to drive the movement towards peace. That focus did not succeed.

What is the alternative? In the Middle Ages it was called “honour,” the very opposite of humiliation. Halevi would resurrect at least a minimal restoration of honour to Palestinians by, at the very least, recognizing their victimhood. But that can be a reminder of the loss of honour and Halevi never tackles the dilemma of how to reconcile the two. Nor does Halevi deal with the impact of interests on the peace process. Halevi is Peres’ alter-ego.

In stressing a restoration of recognition as honour, at a minimum by recognizing the validity of the narrative of the other, Halevi is in many ways running upstream against the currents of modernity where the heroic ideal was reduced by Thomas Hobbes simply to a quest for self-preservation, by La Rochefoucauld to vanity, as an escape from self-knowledge by Pascal or a demeaning, foolish and demented perspective by other writers who, in trashing honour and recognition, indirectly strengthened the new emphasis on interests. In that sense, Halevi is not only a religious Jew, but his whole approach in emphasizing narrative is post-modern while his stress on respect and battle against humiliation is distinctly a pre-modern throwback.   

However, this is precisely Halevi’s point. There is no objective truth – only competing narratives of parties who live proximate to one another but with opposing narratives that haunt each other’s mind.  In that sense, Halevi is not a modernist objectivist. Hence, the self-description of himself as a non-authoritative narrator, reliable because he is sincere in his self-expression but unreliable in lacking any transcendent perspective. Hence, the paradox of a reader-response format, but with only the hope and not the presence of a responder. Therefore, there remains the lurking question of the real source of the book’s authority and authenticity.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process:


Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, HarperCollins, 2018

Micah Goodman Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War, Yale University Press, 2018

Part I: A Comparative Analysis and Overview of Halevi’s book


Howard Adelman

This initial blog in this new series will also serve as an introduction to the seminar on the subject of “Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” being held in Toronto over the next three weeks. (Email if you wish to participate.) The first blog offers notes rather than a prose analysis.

The progressive Left, the peace camp in both Israel and the diaspora, is at a dead end. The movement has become irrelevant. It is a sideshow left behind in the dustbin of history as communism once was. Progressive Zionists have come together in Toronto to review this plight. They are doing so by organizing a seminar around two books that both point to this dead end and offer very different routes out of the cul-de-sac.

The two books are indicated above. The opening section in this blog, after initial introductions and a reaffirmation that the books are not the central focus but points of take-off to consider the matter at hand, will be followed by more detailed analysis of the style and substance of Halevi’s letters. I will publish a series of blogs as elaborations of my own reflections and discussions in that seminar to allow the participants to probe even deeper and those on the sidelines to participate vicariously. I provide the seminar with a comparative overview of the two books outlining first ten common assumptions of both books and then eight differences in each author’s approach as follows:

Nine Common Assumptions:

  1. The peace process, if not dead, is at a dead end;

2. Arguments are repeated and innovation has evaporated;

3. The problem is not primarily over the issues, but a failure to listen to the other side;

4. There is a disconnect between complexity of problem and simplification of approaches;

5. There are different emotions at the core of each side: Fear (Israelis) vs Humiliation (Palestinians);

6. Right of self-determination of both sides; therefore, two-state solution;

7. Most Israelis have lost their sense of political conviction;

8. Importance of bringing religion to bear on the problem;

9. Desire to initiate a dialogue.

          Eight Different Approaches:

                                                 Halevi                                Goodman

Focus Israeli-Palestinian dialogue   Left-Right Israeli dialogue
Absence Empathy Reasonableness
Explanation Narrative explanation Dispassionate argument
Emotions Empathetic re-enactment Avoid emotional distortion
Trade Offs Surrender Palestinian refugee return for Jewish settlements                Delimit borders – change character of conflict to one between state & neighbours
Possibility Intimacy Security versus Honour
Thinking Narrative self-definition In degrees vs dichotomies
Precedent Islam + Judaism Hillel vs Shammai

I introduce Yossi Klein Halevi’s book by first referencing two important past publications:

  • At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, 2001
  • Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, 2013

I introduce Halevi himself as the co-director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which teaches Muslim American leaders about Judaism and Israel. There is an incidental Toronto connection in that Halevi credited Emeritus Rabbi John Moscowitz of Holy Blossom Temple for instigating the idea of the book. The introduction to the book can best be supplemented by reference to a youtube conversation between Yossi Halevi and Yehudah Kurtzer on 11 July 2018 at the annual Bronfman Family Foundation lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel 

Reviews of the book have been unanimously positive, even laudatory, but there really have not been many of them. Some reviewers made the following comments:

  • The book contains the most insightful description of this deep-rooted conflict — from the Israeli perspective — which I have ever read.
  • The author’s reasoned if sometimes too hopeful suggestions for peaceful reconciliation are surely worth hearing.
  • A profound and original book, the work of a gifted thinker.
  • I hope the book reaches its intended audiences both in the Middle East and around the world. For Halevi, in the end, is still optimistic that there could be peace.
  • This modestly-sized volume is a blessing, and may serve as a vehicle for dialogue and peace.
  • In its efforts to articulate and communicate history and belief and suggest some actual strategies for the future—strategies that require choice, compromise, and change for everyone involved—Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor offers a model for future discourse. And that’s enough to make me optimistic.
  • This book, utilizing the powerful vehicle of empathy, has great potential to help heal that trauma. With the hope for two states for two peoples receding, I intend to purchase multiple copies as gifts not only for my Palestinian friends, but with no less urgency, for my Jewish friends as well.
  • There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

In introducing the epistolary style of the book, I  ask why a monologic rather than a dialogic approach was used. I learned that the second edition appearing in June 2019 will include 12 letters as responses from Palestinians. The epistolary style offered the following advantages upon which I will elaborate in the next blog:

  • A private, personable and personal appeal made public avoids the impersonal;
  • It is unmediated and direct;
  • There is a singular focus on only war and peace;
  • The style combines direct experience, personal narrative, abbreviations of Halevi’s understanding of history and analysis to enhance credibility;
  • Halevi is fully aware of the paradox of an anonymous non-Jewish non-Israeli neighbour but an intimate other that haunts his nightmares;
  • The focus is on the profound and complex and without any self-deprecating humour lest the letters appear fatuous;
  • A facsimile of intimacy is used to communicate inward insight & outward sharing;
  • The book is a narrative of hopes and dreams rather than a focus on traumas;
  • The historical context suggests both the improbability of resolution but a commitment of effort to reach out in spite of pessimistic signals;
  • The elevation of empathetic re-enactment is used as the prime mode to advance understanding;
  • Halevi has a goal of replacing humiliation of the other with recognition and respect, even honour;
  • He hopes to do so by giving equal status to competing narratives.

In the following, I provided summaries of the contents of four groups of letters, 1-3, 4&5, 6&7 and 8-10, summaries upon which I will elaborate in subsequent blogs.

The first letter is about religious unity claimed by Halevi in spite of differences in practices and conceptions of Islam versus Judaism, but a unity which stands in stark contrast with the political differences consisting of the four Palestinian rejections – Jewish return, partition, trading land for peace and Israel’s right to exist at all. Thus, the Palestinian narrative stands in stark contrast to the Jewish one. The result – loss of faith in the peace process and the withering away of the Left among Israelis.

The second letter focuses on Tisha b’Av, mourning for the loss of the temples and Jewish expulsion and, then, miraculously, the return and declaration of an Israeli state in 1948. For Jews, return provided the spiritual core while security responded to the urgent material needs of survival.

The third letter on fate and destiny is more puzzling because it is questionable whether Jews constitute a community of fate if fate normally connotes happenstance beyond one’s control. This culminates a triad of letters about unity and difference, overall religious unity in spite of differences, deep political differences between Palestinian and the Israeli narrative and the need for Jews to maintain their unity.

The fourth letter offers a more detailed story of the two different narratives.  The Jewish surrender of a belief in coexistence became a political statement with the acceptance of partition in 1947 while Arab rejection of coexistence was confirmed by a rejection of even partition. That self-determination was not a product of the then UN white man’s club, only its international legitimacy. The self-determination was determined by Jewish history and Jewish resolve to avoid the alternative – expulsion once again or even mass slaughter. The result – Arab defeat, Arab humiliation, the expansion of the Jewish control of land and the expulsion/flight of just over 700,000 Palestinian refugees. The result was also the ingathering of the Jews from Arab lands, largely a product of Arab anger at the victory of the Jews and a turn against and persecution of their own centuries-old Jewish communities. Thus, while the Arabs suffered from a catastrophe, the Jews through realism and faith salvaged their people and initiated a new phase in their over three millennial-old history.

Letter 5 carries the history forward to the existential fears leading up to and following the after-effects of the Six Day War. Absolute victory on one side. Absolute humiliation on the other side. Settlements as a key issue are developed, first for security and then for ideology. But Halevi contends that there never was an absolute commitment. Settlements were dismantled for peace with Egypt. Settlements were unilaterally dismantled in Gaza in the hopes of a final stage in the peace process. The result, however, of the latter led to further and escalating conflict. This was but a reflection of earlier offers of some, even almost all, land for peace, offers which were rejected.

  1. Letters 6-7

Letter 6 turns towards prospects of peace in the present. That depends, Halevi argues, not on lines on the map, but on reducing each nation’s deepest anxieties by recognizing the right of each nation to self-determination based once again on partition, on the right of each nation to its own narrative and on the right of each narrative to have maximalist hopes while acceding to more limited realities.

Letter 7 turns to the disposition of religious sites. Share them based on common religious values rather than political differences.

  • Letters 8-10

The prospects, however, crash against reality with the growth of rage and frustration on each side both from tensions between and within each community – religious versus secular, differences in ideology within each camp, and ominous trends on each side. One paradox succeeds another. Letter 9 follows with a focus on the Holocaust and Halevi’s insistence that the role of the Holocaust in the creation of Israel was greatly exaggerated. (I argue, the Holocaust played virtually no role.)  But the Holocaust hangs over Israel like a haunting shadow and a fear and determination never to be victims again. Letter 10 discusses the paradox of transience remembered in the Jewish religion in contrast to the determination not to have history repeat itself.  

The analysis of the epistolary style and a more detailed analysis of the content of each of the letters will follow in three subsequent blogs. I will then offer a critical analysis of Halevi’s book.

Machiavelli: Netanyahu and Trump

pBibi Netanyahu won the 2019 Israeli general election. He has, in my mind, correctly been hailed as a brilliant Machiavellian politician, even by those strongly opposed to his policies and performance. As Gal Beckerman wrote in The New York Times, “no one can dispute his genius at political survival.” And survival in power is at the core of Machiavellianism. Neill Lochery, in his 2016 biography of Bibi, The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, painted a portrait of a politician fixated on survival, on persistence, on endurance. It is the essence of Netanyahu’s modus operandi. As Lochery wrote, Netanyahu’s career “has been all about survival.” Not quite!

Some, or even most, commentators believe that this focus on retaining power and developing the resilience to do so is incompatible with having goals and an agenda. But that would be incorrect. The goal of Bibi has always been to secure the geographical boundaries of an expanded Israeli state even as Lochery portrayed the details of Bibi’s Machiavellian domestic and foreign moves. Contrary to popular opinion, Bibi is not a radical right ideologue cut from the same cloth as his father, Benzion Netanyahu. A two-state solution, yes, but not necessarily a two-state solution. Benzion would never have made such a concession.

On the other hand, Netanyahu junior did not simply bow to the left and then to the right just to keep power. Keeping power was a requisite to achieving his long-term goal. That is why he is a Machiavellian and not an ideologue like his father. And that is why he is neither a pragmatist nor a practitioner of realpolitik. That is why he is also not an immoral fantasist like Trump. He has been and remains flexible as required by the historical moment, but to retain power, and to retain power to achieve a specific goal.

Lochery incorrectly dubs this “pragmatism.” There are two meanings to pragmatic, in ordinary parlance suggesting practicality or common sense in contrast to conceptual or aesthetic ideals, and, in a second meaning, a derivative adjective of the philosophy of pragmatism. But Lochery errs in branding Bibi a pragmatist in either sense. He is definitely NOT wedded to common sense, but displays an uncommon sense of what it takes to stay in power while refusing to adjust to what others consider common sense in dealing with the security and survival of the State of Israel. One may disagree with his vision of how to achieve it or whether that should be the goal, but that is his vision. He has one, but Machiavellian means offer the instruments to achieve such a goal.

Nor is Bibi a philosophical pragmatist who insists that an idea is valid if it is doable, if it works, if it leads to success. Bibi is committed to the idea of a stronger, expanded Israeli state even if a majority of Israelis, and certainly the rest of the world, are committed to reifying some version of the Israeli 1967 state. An idea is not simply valid because it can be successful. In Netanyahu’s definition, the job of a politician is to use the means necessary to make his vision of the future succeed.

A Machiavellian politician has a huge political toolkit to pursue success rather than be committed to others’ views of success. Pragmatists don’t simply twist and turn to adapt to the flavour of the day. They are instrumentalists of a very high order, but a very different instrumentalism than Machiavellianism. And that Machiavellianism does not convert Netanyahu to the practice of realpolitik either. Bibi held onto Israel’s ties to a bipartisan American vision of Israel, but, at the first opportunity to make a move when an opening occurred to advance his goal, he sacrificed that fundamentalist conviction of fostering American bipartisan support for Israel that previously defined the character of Israeli political success. In the process, he will soon supersede Ben Gurion and become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

I propose to tackle Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism by considering his political practices, both under the popular view of Machiavelli and the scholarly view of Machiavellianism. In the next blog, I will then see how Moses as well, who Machiavelli admired enormously, can be seen as a Machiavellian in the scholarly interpretation I put forth.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat and politician, historian and philosopher of the Renaissance, has deeded to modernity an idea of politicians as simply scheming unprincipled opportunists who will use any means available to retain power. A politician to succeed must be cunning, constantly scheming and inherently unscrupulous. Politics is then viewed as a high-level confidence game based on deception and manipulation. On the personal level, politics may even be neurotic and narcissistic, pessimistic and paranoid, self-serving and stealthy. Both the principle of “the end justifies the means” and the strategies embraced by realpolitik have been credited to Machiavelli. This is Machiavelli’s legacy in the popular imagination, but is this what he thought?

Though Donald Trump shares a few of the above characteristics, he is too impulsive and so lacking in self-control and discipline that he would be considered an insult even to the popular view of Machiavellianism. More importantly, Trump is a liar on a gargantuan level and he tells lies that are easily exposed. “Wikileaks is a marvellous godsend.” “I know nothing about Wikileaks and have nothing to do with it.” Trump repeatedly utters the most contradictory of assertions. Most importantly, Trump’s narcissistic psychopathy is self-destructive, while Machiavellianism, even in the popular imagination, is identified with a determination to succeed. What Netanyahu’s Machiavellianism and Donald Trump’s psychopathy have in common is an indifference to public moral standards and a willingness to push forward with little if any regard for the effects on others.

However, does this popular view of Machiavelli have anything to do with the views Machiavelli espoused. His most famous book is Il Principe (The Prince) or The Ruler. In Chapter 6 entitled, “Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability,” he depicts Moses as a ruler who rose to power through his ability, even though he is often depicted as a man who simply carries out the will of God. Like other great leaders, Moses was an opportunist, not in the sense of taking advantage of others, but in turning situations he faced into opportunities to advance an agenda.

True Machiavellians are men of courage and ability. Donald Trump is a coward and offers little evidence of any analytic skills, though he certainly has an instinctive grasp of populism. Further, Machiavellians are reformers rather than restorationists of nostalgic agendas. Disagreements with the direction of those reforms should not blind an observer to respecting an agenda as infused with advancing the ruler’s vision of the well-being of the polis. Trump, unlike Bibi, has absolutely no vision of the well-being of the American polis. And, Bibi, contrary to much of his portrayal, is not a mini-Trump, even though he faces indictments and Trump may do the same, even though both denounce fake news, even thought Bibi advertises his partnership with The Donald and even though they both seem to enjoy a strong personal rapport. The reality is that Bibi is a nationalist of a very different order than Donald Trump, a visionary rather than nostalgic nationalist.

Unlike Trump, true Machiavellians, in advancing their agendas, recognize the fickleness of the public, note that enthusiasms wane and fade. The true Machiavellian is able to sustain a long-term agenda and, in some way, use penalties to enforce discipline and accept sacrifices for the sake of a long-term goal. Their tenacity is not to be confused with blind dogmatism indifferent to realities on the ground. Rather, a Machiavellian in the scholarly rather than popular sense has to deal with the resentments and resistances within the body politic and recognize that, however despised or resented for the tactics used, eventually he will be lauded and honoured and accorded affection and respect. The men close to the real Machiavellian are loyal and devoted; a great Machiavellian is able to expand and grow that core rather than treating others as disposable instruments à la Trump.  

Bibi Netanyahu aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian even if he does not quite succeed. Donald Trump does not even qualify as a player. Bibi Netanyahu demonstrates superior skills in manipulating others, whether Donald Trump himself or Vladimir Putin, while Donald Trump goes through acolytes as if they were candy lifesavers. But there is another even more profound difference between an authentic Machiavellian and a Donald Trump. Machiavellians and Trumpists both despise those saintly and noble figures who make a profession of goodness. They regard such a person as fated to come to grief since politics is considered, by authentic Machiavellians, as the art of the possible rather than the delusion of the impossible, whether bad or good. Trumpists are simply bad. Machiavellians make discerning judgements about when it is best to be good and, at the same time, recognize whom one must ignore and what good can be discarded in favour of longer-term goals and aspirations.

Where Netanyahu fails as an authentic Machiavellian compared to Moses is in his lack of prudence in charting a course that avoids scandal and indulgence in vices that undermine his hold on power. That does not mean that an authentic Machiavellian will not use vices and bad means if viewed as necessary to maintaining his rule. The measure is not whether an action is characterized as virtuous or a vice, but whether the action contributes to one’s success or undermines it. Thus, a true Machiavellian ruler is not ostentatious, but a miser. At the same time, he is willing to set aside parsimony when incoming revenue is sufficient and enterprises can be initiated which benefit the people, or, at the very least, do not impose additional burdens. However, more generally, an authentic Machiavellian adopts a practice of niggardliness, even though it is a vice, but does so only when it reinforces his reign and hold on power.

That principle applies to virtues as well as vices. Mercy is a virtue. An authentic Machiavellian must both display and be considered merciful. But not weak. He should not appear to be a wimp or a bleeding heart. More importantly, the high value placed on mercy should not detract from a willingness to be cruel when considered necessary to secure the well-being and stability of the realm and when critical to ensuring citizens remain united and faithful. The latter is critical. For in all situations, an authentic Machiavellian fosters unity even as he suffers and even destroys forces directed at disunity. An authentic Machiavellian may be a dissembler, but his goal is never to fracture the body politic, but to strengthen and reinforce it. Sacrifice others when absolutely necessary. But never sacrifice simply because of personal inconvenience or distaste.

Loyalty must be developed, not presumed. Individuals must not be discarded whenever they fail to meet the whims and standards of the moment. Though a true Machiavellian is not driven by a desire to earn the love of the people, he certainly wants to avoid inflaming their hatred. A pathological psychopath as a leader will wallow in public demonstrations of affection to soothe his insecurities. An authentic Machiavellian will not kowtow to win affection, but will scrupulously seek endurance and prevent hatred driving the emotions of the populace. A true Machiavellian practices a politics of hope rather than fear, but hope founded on prudence rather than wishes and dreams or fantasies and delusions.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the psychopathic narcissistic ruler in contrast to an authentic Machiavellian one is the disrespect the former holds with respect to the rule of law while the latter holds law in the highest esteem. However, a Machiavellian is not an idealist. He must be willing to employ force whenever necessary. A true and great ruler will know when law must be bracketed and force employed. As Machiavelli wrote, “One must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Always a fox but, if necessary, a lion. But one always able to disguise and hide one’s foxiness, to disguise this character and feign another. A true fox dissembles so that he is not recognized as a fox. Abraham Lincoln offers and excellent example. What is most important is that the fox succeed in his deceptions.

Abraham Lincoln projected mercy, was seen to have a reservoir of deep faith, humanity and religion topped off by integrity. He was to all public purposes “Honest Abe.” Netanyahu rarely if ever lives up to such a standard as much as he tries and aspires to be an authentic Machiavellian. In the end, he lacks what it takes to excel as a Machiavellian. On the other hand, compared to most of his rivals domestically and on the world stage, he is an exemplar of Machiavellianism.

With the help of Alex Zisman



“REDEMPTION: One year after an historic loss, Virginia wins its first title.” This was the headline this week in The Washington Post reporting on the victory in the men’s NCAA basketball finals of Virginia’s victory over Texas Tech by a score of 85-77. I do not watch sports on television, so please forgive me for not recognizing at first that this was a college contest between two universities. But I could not ignore the first word of the headline, a word I usually associate with religion even though it has a common ordinary and secular application.

Basically, Virginia not only won its first NCAA basketball championship, but it did so in overtime, the first NCAA championship to go into overtime since 2008. Virginia did so against the background of the year before in March of 2018 when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed by 74-54. In 2019, the team redeemed itself from the previous year’s humiliation. Individual team players also redeemed themselves. Kyle Guy, named the most outstanding player, scored 24 points. Ty Jerome scored 16 points and had eight assists, the last with 12.9 seconds left in the regulation game. Jerome dribbled up the side rather than directly down the centre and fed the ball to DeAndre Hunter in the corner, who, at halftime, had only scored five points. Hunter scored and the game was tied 68-68 as it went into overtime.

It was during overtime that the team really redeemed itself, making all 12 of its free throws. Hunter scored another three-point shot with 2:09 left to provide a 75-73 lead and eventually Virginia won by eight points, 85-77.

Sports figures can redeem themselves. So too can sports teams. Bus redemption is also used in politics. Yesterday, I wrote about the Israeli election. In that case, one party, Labour, embarrassed itself by winning only 6 seats when it previously held 20 seats and once was the “natural” ruling party of Israel. That party had been dominated by Ashkenazi, but tried to recover from its gradual decline by bringing in Avi Gabbay, a rags-to-riches Mizrachi who had become the CEO of Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Gabbay’s most fateful mistake that proved that he could never become Prime Minister was to declare that he would not sit in a coalition with the Arab parties. This meant that the centre-left would never win enough seats in total to form a government.

In one case in sports we had a successful redemption while in the second case in politics, a political party failed not only to redeem itself but went down to ignominious defeat. Neither is a case of religious redemption. This past week, I attended an event at my synagogue called, “In Pursuit of Redemption: Where is Redemption Found in the Jewish and Catholic Traditions? – An Interfaith Program in Anticipation of Pesach and Easter.” This joint Jewish-Roman Catholic program included wonderful choral music based on the exodus theme, a 1987 film (Babette’s Feast) adopted from Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) 1958 last collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, and commentary on the film.

Religious redemption differs from secular redemption in a number of important respects:

  • In the secular meaning, an individual, a team or a party redeems itself; in the religious meaning, God is the redeemer and humans serve as God’s messengers.
  • The third blessing of the morning prayers declares that God alone is the eternal redeemer; in other words, when God redeems, it is not a contrast between one point in time and another, but the redemption is forever.
  • Instead of being redeemed from loss, you are redeemed from oppression in the Hebrew tradition and from sin in the Christian tradition
  • In the Jewish tradition, a collectivity, the Jewish people, is redeemed rather than simply an individual as in the primary meaning in Christianity, but this contrast requires qualification – see below.
  • There is another secular meaning of redemption in commerce, as when a bond is redeemed or a debt repaid derived from the core meaning derived from the Latin, “redemption” from “redimere,” to buy back.

However, the latter is also the core meaning in Hebrew. The verb, gä’al, means “to regain possession by payment,” in other words, “to buy back.” Paying a ransom is a form of redemption. But there is another meaning referring to revenge, “to avenge bloodshed” by blood (Numbers 35:19). The Passover holiday is about redemption. The Hebrews were spared the death of their oldest child by putting blood on their door-posts. Further, the entire narrative is a story of redemption from oppression in Egypt to freedom and sovereignty in their own land.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (The Human Role in Redemption) claimed that there could be no redemption without an individual assuming responsibility and taking action. Though God grants the redemption, humans initiate the process. (pp. 152-3) Man must be God’s shaliach or messenger, a malakh, an angel. When Virginia redeemed itself by winning against Texas Tech, individual players had to be the source of that redemption through their athletic skills. The religious dimension is added by declaring that a player’s and the team’s overall effort depended ultimately on God’s will. In Prophetic Choice, Martin Buber wrote that, “There is no other people in the world that believes in the great value of each and every person in humanity [to shape] the future so that the Creation will be fixed (takana) and redeemed by virtue of the will and actions of humanity.”

National salvation in this view is not a guarantee, but dependent on human choice and action. It is not a matter of optimism, but of hope that requires human activity for fulfillment. God may be the redeemer, but redemption depends on a partnership. That initiative requires putting the conditions for redemption in place. In the morning Amidah prayers in this morning’s synagogue service, nineteen blessings ae recited. The first three praise God (1) as the God of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, (2) for His power and strength and (3) for the sanctification of God’s name. The prayer for redemption is number 7 which asks God to rescue the people of Israel, but it is preceded by three other prayers, (4) a prayer to grant understanding (binah), (5) a prayer for repentance (teshuvah) and (6) a prayer for forgiveness (selichah).

Thus, though the story of Passover is a tale of travelling from oppression to freedom, there are prerequisites, praising God for choosing the Israelites to receive the Torah, for His strength and for the holiness of His name. There are three other prerequisites that belong to the individual – understanding, repentance and forgiveness. Redemption stands on these six divine and human supports. This suggests that redemption follows from three conditions that are a human responsibility – understand what one did and why one acted in the way one did, acknowledge responsibility for one’s actions and ask forgiveness for one’s failings. Then and only then is one in a position to be redeemed.

Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus offered a wonderful interpretation of the Passover narrative which puts women at the centre to ensure understanding, repentance and forgiveness as prerequisites to the redemption of the people. Exodus begins by relaying how the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became enslaved and oppressed by a pharaoh who did not know Joseph, culminating in the order to kill the firstborn of the Israelites.

First, Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives, are instructed to look (ur’iten) at the birthstool to see whether the infant is a boy or girl and, if a boy, to destroy the newborn child (Exodus 1:15-16).

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת-הָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַל-הָאָבְנָיִם:  אִם-בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ, וְאִם-בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה. 16 and he said: ‘When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, ye shall look upon the birthstool: if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.’

This seeing is understanding that the sacrifice of the males is no longer to be symbolic by performing a circumcision and drawing forth a drop of blood. Then, Shiphrah and Puah review their past practices and expertise and determine that they cannot do what they have been ordered to do and they engage in “wholehearted repentance” to draw closer to God and away from the authority of the Pharaoh. In order to succeed, they lie. The two midwives told the Pharaoh that the Israelite women gave birth so fast that they never got there on time.   

They ask for and God forgives theirs sin for they lied in God’s name to confront the affliction and cause of the Israelites and for the sake of God’s name. God can then get on with redeeming His people. The Pharaoh then simply ordered the Egyptians to throw the first-born males of the Israelites into the Nile River. From the tribe of Levy, a male infant is born to an Israelite woman, her first son. When she (2:2) “saw, votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא) how beautiful the infant was, she hid him and then, after three months, put the child in a wicker basket coated with bitumen and pitch and floated it down the river where the baby was (2:5) “spotted,” votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף). The princess sees a baby crying and her heart goes out to him and she too disobeys the order to kill the first-born Hebrew male.

One has to see and understand before there can be any redemption. One has to concretely repent by engaging in civil disobedience. Then and only then will God forgive you for a sin of disobedience for it was carried out for a higher cause. Moses follows a different path. He, too, is also overwhelmed with compassion as he saw an overseer whipping a Hebrew slave. (2:11) Seeing no one about, he killed him. But Moses did not see, as the women did, with compassion, but only with regard to his own safety. And he was wrong in believing he did so undetected. He had been spotted and fled Egypt. Moses at this point did not understand (that is, comprehend with compassion), did not repent but fled and was not forgiven for killing the overseer.

Understanding must be conjoined with compassion. Repentance is not simply saying you are sorry, but taking action and committing a crime in the name of a higher law. The action is then blessed by forgiveness. The women were the first to understand, to repent by their actions and be forgiven by God for their transgressions against the political authority of the day. In contrast, Moses acted rashly out of compassion and did not understand, committed a crime but fled the scene and, therefore could not be forgiven and was not yet ready to serve God as the redeemer of His people. It would take time before Moses would be able to see, would be able to disobey earthly authority, would be forgiven for his initial rash action. Moses had to look and see with understanding as well as compassion. Then he would not only personally change direction, but change the course of history.

Only when Moses passed those markers, could the Israelites be delivered from their oppression and be redeemed (geulah). Gaal means cover or protect (Job 3:4) Geulah also refers to the redeeming of property. Redemption in the material sense is conjoined with religious redemption. The Israelites are redeemed by gaining the land of Canaan.

The narratives of redemption in the Torah, is not only the one of the Exodus, but the one of Esther celebrated recently as Purim, and, even more telling, the story told in the Book of Ruth. Naomi was left with two Moabite daughters-in-law and all three were widows. She returns to the land of Israel with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, who exhibited extraordinary love and compassion for her mother-in-law. Ruth, a Moabite, was blessed with understanding.

What you sow you shall not necessarily reap, for you must ensure that enough grain is left for the poor and the needy. Leviticus 23:22 reads:

כב  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם, לֹא-תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ, וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  22 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God. 

And again in Deuteronomy 24:19-22:

ט  כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה, לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ–לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה:  לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.  {ס} 19 When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hands. {S}
כ  כִּי תַחְבֹּט זֵיתְךָ, לֹא תְפַאֵר אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 20 When thou beatest thine olive-tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.
כא  כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ, לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 21 When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it after thee; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

Naomi and Ruth are among those needy. They are widows. The two women tied together by a ribbon of compassion come in contact with the compassionate Law of Sowing and Reaping. Ruth meets with Boaz, the steward of God’s land titled to both he and his brother. Ruth is his sister-in-law. She goes to him while he is sleeping and protecting his grain from thieves and uncovers his feet in an act of submission and states: “I am Ruth your maid. So, as a close relative, spread your covering over me.” In effect, she seduces Boaz. This too is an act of repentance in the sense of challenging norms in the name of a higher norm. She is clearly forgiven by both Boaz and God for being forward. As a result, Naomi redeems her son’s land and Ruth is redeemed through marriage to Boaz.

Exodus is the story on a collective level of the sequence of understanding, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. It is both an individual and a collectivist motif. Further, it is material as well as “spiritual.” That is why the 1987 film, Babette’s Feast, is so interesting. Gabriel Axel’s Danish film is Pope Francis’s favourite movie. The two beautiful and beatific sisters in the film are God’s angels (malokhim) who turn their backs on realization of success in this world, one from marriage to an army officer and the other from fame as a divine singer. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Brigitte Federspiel) perform good works and conduct prayer groups to honour their Lutheran father, the original Protestant pastor of this Danish community dedicated to simplicity and community.

The two angels take in a refugee in flight from the French civil war, Babette, (Stéphane Audran) who lost both her husband and son in that conflict. She carries an introduction from Filippa’s opera singer suitor. After 14 years of payless service to the two angelic sisters, Babette wins a lottery from a gift of a ticket by the man who wanted to make one of the sisters famous as an opera star. Redemption in the normal sense is inverted. For Babette uses all the money to put on the most splendid feast possible, quite the opposite end of what this small Lutheran cult dedicated to minimalism are used to. The food and drink serve to redeem the villagers from their gray and narrow and puritanical world and remind them of God’s beautiful and sensual and aromatic and tasteful material bounty.

Thus, the Passover feast is an integral part of the path of redemption, for redemption is both material and spiritual. And, at the end of the seder, instead of four ponderous and leading questions, the matriarch of the house can ask her guests whether “she has served enough of too much.”

With the help of Alex Zisman