The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

I wrote the following blog on Sunday morning. But I did not send it out. Instead, I rewrote it on Monday. I still did not send it out. I set it aside on Tuesday and did other tasks in preparation for my leaving today. I read it over once again this morning, did a few edits and continued the debate with myself about whether to send it out. Spoiler alert! If you decide to read this tale of Israelite alt-right zealotry, you may find some current echoes, particularly a link between self-righteous religious pandering and wanton behaviour, and between defensive apologetics and inexcusable decadence.

In this case, I am not referring to Donald Trump and the alleged “treasonous” behaviour of Donald Trump Jr., but rather of Netanyahu’s pandering to the religious right and their imposition of shabat restrictive laws on the non-orthodox community while Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is recorded as engaging in whoring in Tel Aviv and of blackmailing wealthy friends for money to pay the prostitutes. “It was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.” And there is another link – an emphasis on exclusion of the Other regarded as a danger to national identity. Donald Trump may inconsistently suddenly want to protect “dreamers,” Latin Americans brought to the U.S. at a very young age who grew up as Americans, but Netanyahu continues to move ahead to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Why is corruption usually so intertwined with nationalist self-righteousness, whether in ancient Israel, contemporary Iran or the U.S.? Why are dodgy deals and sordid behaviour linked to a presentation of a wholesome image? When perpetrators are rewarded with an elevated status, is that elevation linked to a curse as well? Is hubris inevitable?

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

If it is true, and, even further, if I endorsed Eric Ward‘s conclusion of his years of research, that the core of the alt-right is antisemitism, how can I suggest that the position of the alt-right is to be found in the Torah itself? I can because, although antisemitism is the central expression of the alt-Right of the twenty-first century, the core factors are universal. They characterize a certain type of personality and a certain type of political program. Those core values include the following:

Core Beliefs

  1. Supremacist beliefs, particularly male superiority
  2. Racism – defining that Other as inferior
  3. Placing blame on an Other
  4. Paranoia of that Other
  5. Nationalism rooted in racism to achieve security
  6. Ethnic cleansing or even genocide to get rid of the perceived threat
  7. Core Emotional Expressions
  8. Zealotry and evangelical fervour
  9. Cowardice or spinelessness – a lack of backbone
  10. Pornographic obsessions
  11. Authoritarianism
  12. A politics of resentment, of tactics and intrigue, rather than strategy aimed at achievable goals
  13. Utopian dreams of freedom from institutions and constraining rules
  14. Core Behaviour
  15. Spewing forth hatred
  16. Parading
  17. Property destruction
  18. Coercion versus assent; while projecting a utopian vision of social harmony, demonstrating a ready resort to non-state violence
  19. Attacks on Media
  20. Murder

The key part of the Torah where an alt-Right position is not only depicted, but seems to have been endorsed, takes place in the story of Pinchas or Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-30:1. Aaron’s grandson is called Pinchas. His most celebrated action is thrusting a spear or javelin through the bodies of a Simeonite prince, Zimri, son of Salu, and his paramour, Cozbi, a Midianite princess and daughter of Zur. It is an archetypal tale of a Jewish prince consorting with a shicksa (a gentile woman) that is perceived as threatening the genetic unity of the Israelites, completely ignoring that many, perhaps most, of the heroines in the Biblical tales are of non-Israelite background – whether Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh and refused to kill baby boys, the princess Bithiah who saved Moses, Zipporah whom Moses married, and, of course, Ruth.

The worst part of the story is not the lawless murder of the lovers, but that God forges a covenant of peace with Pinchas and makes Pinchas chief priest, inheritor of the mantle of Aaron. Not only Pinchas, but all his heirs and descendants. A divine priestly right of inheritance is created as Pinchas was credited for his “righteousness unto all generations forever.” (Psalm 106:28-31)

It is not as if this is a one-off story. It has a prominent place in the Torah. In fact, it is probably the most repeated narrative. The reward is discussed in Numbers 31:15-16 and the Ba’al Pe’or tale of sacrilegious behaviour is recounted in Deuteronomy 4:3-4, Joshua 22:16-18, Judges:20:28; 1 Samuel 1:3-4:11.

The story simplified is as follows: Just before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, at Shittim (named after an Acacia tree used to make furniture) where they camp, Israelite men become involved with Moabite women. Involved is a euphemism. The men are described as “whoring” with the Moabite women. Further, the men are not only enamoured by these women, but are enticed into their “idolatrous” practices. The Israelites were allegedly being led into sin via assimilation and flouting of the Mosaic ethical code.

As a result of the Israelite men consorting with the Moabite women and in partaking of their worship of their god, Ba’al, the Lord of the Israelites became incensed. God ordered Moses to take the ringleaders and have them impaled before him.  Only in that way could God’s wrath be redirected away from the Israelites. Moses ordered his officials to each slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or. Just after issuing the order, an Israelite male brought a Midianite, not a Moabite, woman into the camp. Phinehas or Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron, left the assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and stabbed the man and the woman in their bed chamber with a spear right through their private parts.

Did it matter that a Midianite rather than a Moabite woman was the consort of the Israelite? Does it matter that in this case there was no association with worshipping false gods? Does it matter that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a very important and influential political adviser, was a Midianite? Does it matter that this vigilante action was taken against people of wealth and status from both the Israelite and Midianite communities? Was the action motivated by resentment? Does it matter that the execution was carried out by Phinehas, whose name, like that of Moses, was of Egyptian origin and referred to a Nubian, perhaps from Sudan, like Sadat with a darker complexion? Had Aaron or his son, Eleazar, married a Nubian woman? Does it matter that the method of killing was not stoning – the usual means of dealing with those who followed false gods – but stabbing with a spear? Does it matter that they were stabbed through the belly? As Gunther Plaut notes (fn. 8), “into the chamber….through the belly” is a Hebrew word play better rendered “into the private chamber…through the private parts.”

When I was reading the latter, I immediately recalled a vivid scene. I was at the place of a mass murder outside of Butare in Rwanda of over 17,000 Tutsis who had been killed at the Murambi Technical School where they had sought refuge from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had been buried in a mass grave. The bodies, barely decomposed because they had been so packed together, had been laid out on school benches and we had the onerous task of sampling and confirming the numbers slaughtered. I was most appalled by the babies and young children killed. But some of the women who were killed still had the spears in them that had been thrust up through their private parts to kill them.

In the biblical tale, the murder by Pinchas of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman stops the plague that had already killed 24,000. God spoke to Moses and praised Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron. Because of his action, God’s wrath and desire to commit genocide against the Israelites was turned aside. As a reward, God gave Phinehas a pact of friendship granting to him and his descendants a hereditary right to the priesthood in Israel. God then ordered the genocide of the Midianites.

Does it matter that an apparent result of destroying contact between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women may have had the benefit of stopping the plague which may have been made worse because the form of worship of the Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, was a of a fertility cult? Does it not matter that the murder was NOT “merely a kind of battlefield execution,” as Plaut describes in his commentary, but a summary execution of unarmed civilians in their private chamber? Does it matter that the persons killed had both status and wealth? Does it matter that humans had assumed God’s responsibilities to determine who should live and who should die? Whatever the answer and significance of the answers to the many questions above, what is clear is that, to repair a breach of the covenant, civilian murder and genocide were being endorsed in the Torah.

The issue becomes even more problematic. For when the story of Pinchas is the assigned Torah portion to be read that week, the Haftorah portion from the prophets that is read is the story of 1 Kings 18, where Elijah, who also acted in defence of the Jewish God and Hebrew practices, was so esteemed and even associated with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. Elijah is viewed as a Messiah-in-waiting and Elijah’s name is invoked at the reading of Havdalah marking the end of shabat as well as at a Passover seder and in the performance of a brit, the circumcision ceremony.

More appalling I find is all the apologetics attached to the actions, to the beliefs and to the attitudes of Pinchas. For example, Targum Jonathan (18) claims that because Pinchas held the spear with his arm, prayed with his mouth, and stabbed the couple through their innards, that explains why the tender parts of the shoulder (zeroa), cheekbone (lechayayim) and maw (kevaw) accrue to the priesthood. Hirsch in his commentary insists that Pinchas was given such great credit because he caught them in flagrante delicto, in the overt prohibited act, and by the way he assassinated them, he sent a sign to others, as do professional mafia assassins and the gangs involved in the drug cartel. Given that the couple were “royals,” Pinchas was given greater credit; Moses, in contrast, had only slain an overseer and was not credited, even though the act was carried out in defence of another Israelite.

I am clearly disturbed by the tale. I am more disturbed by those who regard the spontaneous eruption of emotion, passion and murder as worthy of merit. I am appalled that commentators are not outraged by the action and by the apologetics that explain the action away as following the norms of the time. If so, why is the action not denounced in the commentary? Perhaps the story had an ironic thread. Perhaps the death of the two sons of Pinchas was his punishment. Perhaps the reward of an hereditary priesthood was really a curse for a family who would encounter tragedy after tragedy.

I am most troubled because the scene depicted conforms so closely to that of a mass rally where one of the demonstrators is so enraged that he leaves the crowd and takes upon himself the responsibility of murdering those with whom he disagrees. He is a zealot. Hatred spews from his mouth and blood comes from the use of his arms. Coercion not persuasion is the answer. When royals engage in the practice, it is regarded as even more heinous because, just as now, socialites stand out because of their role in the media in communicating values. Sometimes the messengers are killed as well. Antisemitic zealots murdered the Jewish radio talk show host, Alan Berg, in Denver.

The defined problem is not just a difference in belief between the Israelites compared to the Midianites and the Moabites, but that intercourse with the latter was regarded as the source of the plague. The others were blamed. The Israelites were not just different, but regarded themselves as superior. And the allure of females was pointed to as a source of betrayal. The others were not only regarded as Other, as an inferior Other, as a dangerous Other, but, in the name of respect for the Covenant of the Israelites with God, genocide was endorsed. Israelite nationalism was wedded to fanaticism in defence of security and continuity of the group.

Go further. In the portrait of God, vanity and brand management seem to be the key components at stake. The Israelites, in their escape from slavery, seem to be riven with insecurity and a fear of disappointing their demanding God. For God, politics is personal. Only He could occupy the limelight. If this does not trouble you, I would like to hear why.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

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Trump as a Disrupter: Part III Responses to his Jerusalem Pronouncement

Trump as a Disrupter: Part III Responses to the his Jerusalem Pronouncement

by

Howard Adelman

Obviously, if the “deep” international diplomatic strategy outlined in the last blog lay behind the move, the U.S. was signalling that the Israelis were being given the benefit of the doubt rather than the Palestinians. The Palestinians were being considered the more intransigent side with less ability to back up that intransigence with actual force and now with an obvious threat that their situation would deteriorate even further in the future. America was clearly signalling, even if only symbolically at the present, that it had greater confidence in Israel in protecting the accessibility of all three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – than the Palestinian regime, especially given what had happened when Hamas came to power in Gaza.

The U.S. was, at the same time, signalling to the rest of the world that hypocrisy and the huge gulf between real power on the ground and policy would no longer prevail. The move had global ramifications, even though at this time it was largely symbolic. The Palestinians had been sent a clear message – come to the negotiation table, but without an intractable position that made progress impossible. Come with no preconditions.

Signals will bounce back to indicate whether a disruptive process might succeed where traditional methods failed. Will the demonstrations of the Palestinians stop short of becoming an all-out intifada? Will other countries travel the same path and reinforce the American signal? Though scotched by the Prime Minister, the President of the Czech Republic signalled a willingness to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Philippines may be ready to do so. In fulfillment of the King of Bahrain’s promise restrictions on his subjects traveling to Israel would be lifted, a Bahraini delegation of 25, though not consisting of government officials but representing all faiths, will still be visiting Israel to discuss peace and coexistence as a step in normalizing relations, despite the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Will the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, signal they are willing to take a new course by restricting any protests to rhetorical ones only? The signal had to be one that, while leaving the door wide open to negotiating anything and everything, also sends the message that if there was no movement, America would be prepared to up the ante to the disadvantage of the Palestinians.

If Trump’s pronouncement had been an expression of the ancient art of international diplomacy, it had to conform to certain general rules. Sun Tzu in The Art of War, published about 2,500 years ago in China, offered the first basic rational foundation for an art of international diplomacy and military strategy. The use of the military was to be a last resort. Before the military was deployed, a long period of military preparation was required based on a combination of deceit and diplomacy to forestall war if possible and seek a peaceful resolution of a conflict. Sun Tzu offered the prototype for “balance of power politics” that formed the foundation of international relations for the previous two centuries in our time. The goal: to minimize the disruption, economic and social costs of increasingly bloody wars. The issue was how to subdue an enemy without fighting at all. Using the manipulation of both allies and enemies, rational international policy was viewed as an effort to end the prospect of war, minimize its effects if avoidance was not possible, and create a stronger foundation for peace following a war.

However, as part of the theory of a balance of power, the formula insisted that it was best first to attack strategies, then alliances and finally armies. But what if the very strategy of a balance of power approach to international diplomacy was itself attacked by disruption as a new means of conducting international relations? After all, disruption of communications has always been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes domestically. Such regimes have extended its use to the international sphere. Putin proved its effectiveness in attacking America during the last election. This was complemented by Trump’s tweets used for domestic distraction.

Part of the context for the re-emergence of disruptive versus so-called rational international diplomacy has been the existence of irresolvable paradoxes in other international crisis areas. To cite one such paradox, after our studies of the Rwanda genocide and our attack on the complacency of bystanders, it became clear that the greater the righteousness with which the problem was approached, the greater the number of casualties. The loftier the rhetoric, the less likely there was to be any action. This was true of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). That Canadian initiative was endorsed unanimously by the United Nations, but the initiative only received that unanimity by gutting its central foundation, the limitation of national power and legislating the right to international intervention in cases of genocide. RtoP gained universal support only by requiring national consent for an intervention. The greater the support, the weaker the application of the principle! Hence the tension between humanitarian intervention and sovereignty re the ethnic cleansing in Darfur as it played itself out clearly in favour of the superior status of sovereignty. (Cf. Alan Seelinger (2009 Does the International Community Have a Legal Responsibility to Protect?  An Analysis of Norms Regarding Humanitarian Intervention in Africa since 1990)

Further, in traditional diplomacy, negotiations were conducted with the perpetrators of the crimes to mitigate the loss of life. When that door was increasingly closed, slaughters became more wanton in places such as Darfur, the DRC and Kenya. When Jan Egeland could not follow through in his negotiations with Joseph Kony for a deal to mitigate the slaughter; the murders continued. One could almost formulate a principle: the greater the degree that righteousness enters into international diplomacy, the less effective that diplomacy will be and the loftier the moral rhetoric will become, accompanied by reduced action rather than increased military intervention.

Thus, an alternative method of dealing with international diplomacy emerged in the face of the hypocrisy and impotence of traditional so-called rational diplomacy. The policy was one of disruption rather than a rational and systematic use of diplomacy to reduce the threat of war and the misuse of children. The gamble was introducing a controlled wildfire rather than continue the stalemate of a growing cold war between enemies, such as the Israelis and the Palestinians. For that was the source of the real danger, not the fulminations of Iran nor the resort to violence of Hamas.

Hamas was on the verge of being domesticated. The risk had to be taken to bring even Hamas under the auspices of the PA back to the negotiation table without Hamas retaining a veto. Advantage had to be taken of the new willingness of Saudi Arabia to use power and not just financial influence to gain traction in its competition with Iran. Advantage had to be taken of the new security needs of Egypt for Israeli support to stop the extremists in the Sinai. Advantage had to be taken of the declining power of Turkey in the region even as the Turkish voice had grown ever louder and shriller in its denunciations of Israel. Advantage had to be taken of the continuing decline of the status of a PA controlled by the PLO rather than the newly-born extremists.

World, get off your butts. The stalemate up to now only promised future disaster. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was indeed a keg waiting to explode. That was all the more reason to light a controlled fire to divert the path of the flames away from such a potential explosion. After an initial controlled fire, after a cooling off period, after secret support and actions now by key Arab countries, after America sent a clear message that the status quo and complacency were no longer tolerable, after the U.S. had once again assumed real leadership on the peace issue and gave up on the illusion that international cooperation was a prerequisite to a breakthrough, the latter stance favouring the Palestinians and disadvantaging the Israelis, and only after the 1947 UN partition resolution decisions had been buried as a reference point, only then could the problem of Jerusalem be settled.

America was indeed signalling that the problem would be resolved in favour of the Israelis even as it reiterated that all parties had to come to the table without preconditions. The context on the ground had changed. Tiny Israel had emerged as a world economic power and as a regional military power. More and more, Israel was being accepted for what it had become. The participation of the IDF in military cooperation in Cyprus was simply an indicator of this change. Traditional diplomatic ambiguity and equivocation, that had always been the order of the day internationally, had to be buried alongside Palestinian dreams that it could and would inherit the Old City. Israeli expansionism had to be stopped, but the international benediction of mythical reversibility had to be buried as well.

Did the Trump initiative offer clarity based on a deep strategy or was it a toss of the dice when rationality has proven to be impotent? In traditional diplomacy, equivocation rather than clarity is highly valued. But equivocation in this situation would mean a clear signal (that the Palestinians could not eventually win the day) could not be sent to the Palestinians, for such a message would likely trigger escalating initiatives in the same direction. However, the gamble also meant that if Palestinian intransigence was deemed counter-productive, this would just reinforce it and thereby create more of a long-term concern for Israel.

Rather than refocusing on the two-state solution, disruption might force the Palestinians, as Saeb Erekat prophesied, to give up on the two-state solution and now push for equal rights for all Palestinians in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By sending the sham of a peace process and the vision of a two-state solution to the ash heap of history, the one-state solution might gain real traction even if the U.S. finally formally adopted the two-state solution as the preferred outcome. Would the game then be worth it if that was a likely or even possible outcome?

However, if Donald Trump’s mode of acting was aberrant, was intentionally non-rational, was driven by instinct rather than a rational and deliberative approach, was a belief resting on years of experience in defying conventional wisdom, then disruption as a mode of diplomacy could become the order of the day. If the Trump administration has deliberately abandoned cautious regional and international diplomacy, is the above then the rationale for the employment of irrationality?

What I believe has occurred is that James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, Mike Pompeo as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, all openly opposed Trump fulfilling his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Jared Kushner himself had urged caution. Tillerson, Mattis and Pompeo privately urged Trump to reconsider recognition of Jerusalem’s capital while Kushner and even Jason Greenblatt asked to delay the embassy move.

But no one can stop Donald Trump when he is on a tear. The use of disruptive international diplomacy had the added advantage of serving as a distraction from the Mueller inquiry. Tillerson, the Director of the CIA, Trump’s Defence Secretary and even his son-in-law went to work to massage an irrational initiative and cover it with a patina of rationality. Hence the well-crafted and nuanced policy statement. Hence the reading from the monitors. The principles behind the rational approach to international diplomacy were married to disruptive methods. What an unholy marriage! How could the two methods work together on the operational level when the premises were so disparate?

Rational Diplomacy                           Disruptive Diplomacy

The Primacy of National Interests    Personal Preferences Prevail

Emphasis on Diplomacy                       Emphasis on Pronouncements from

on High

Foundation in Strategic Analysis         Ignorance and Thoughtlessness

Perceptive                                                 Blind

Equivocation to Disguise Differences Absolute Clarity

Circumspection                                        Indiscretion

The Importance of Credibility             Introduction of the Incredible

Comprehensiveness                               Piecemeal

Confidence-building                               Emphasizing the Unexpected

Caution and Indecision                           High Risk Diplomacy – Recklessness

Indecision                                                  Decisiveness

Predictability                                            Unpredictability

The new disruptive methodology has not been restricted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international area offers a plethora of paradoxes that have not been resolved by rational diplomacy. No one knows how Trump will handle the consensus on dealing with other paradoxes in the international sphere: stopping nuclear proliferation while basing ultimate strategies on nuclear deterrence; an emphasis on economic sanctions that may run counter to national interests. The list goes on. The negotiations on Iran’s nuclear capability may have been the last great victory of rational diplomacy even as Trump pronounced it the worst deal in history. As much as I supported it, in one sense it was a weak deal. For it favoured nuclear deterrence, but allowed Iran to grow as a regional power and expand its use of proxies to engage in ideological warfare. Iran became a more dangerous state when denuded of its nuclear capabilities.

If diplomacy is the art and practice of negotiating to maintain peaceful relations between and among states while reducing animosity through the use of confidence-building measures, quiet diplomacy, and engendering goodwill and mutual trust, Trump has thrown all these practices into the fires raging in southern California and, instead of stressing communication between different parties to reach agreement on issues of fundamental disagreement, he has pronounced. He has announced, all the while paying lip service, but only lip service, to negotiations between the parties.

 

Tomorrow in a subsequent blog I will examine other versions of the disruptive thesis than the unholy alliance between rational and disruptive international diplomacy over the endgame with respect to holy sites.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

Canadian Civic Religion and a German Core Culture

Canadian Civic Religion and a German Core Culture

by

Howard Adelman

When I posited a set of values central to the Canadian civil religion, I did not define that set as constituting the core culture of Canada as a nation. Further, I dubbed it as a civic religion rather than as a set of cultural values. The differences are important.

Germany is a country that has undergone a radical revolution with respect to the dominant values and practices of the society in the last 72 years. The difference in practices was most evident when Germany agreed to admit and resettle by far the highest number of Syrian refugees in the West. Germany also admitted the most asylum claimants.

“Germany has pledged 30,000 places for Syrian refugees through its humanitarian admission programme; nearly half the global total of resettlement and humanitarian admission programme places for Syrian refugees and 82 per cent of the EU total.” (Amnesty International.)

What a change even from 1979, about the half way point between WWII and the present. In the Fall of 1979, I was a guest of the German government sitting in the balcony of the Bundestag in Bonn (the old capital of West Germany before reunification) when parliament passed a motion to admit 20,000 Indochinese refugees into Germany by a sizable majority, but the vote was very far from unanimous. Afterwards, the Minister in charge met me and, with an enormous smile of self-satisfaction, asked me whether I thought that what had been accomplished had been great.

I did not give him the answer he was expecting. Essentially, I gave his Parliament a C grade. Germany was so much larger, so much wealthier than Canada, I said, and Canada was then admitting 50,000 Indochinese refugees. I said that I did not see why Germany was not admitting 100,000 rather than just 20,000. The Minister was visibly unhappy with my reply. Somehow, I had deflated the great joy he had taken in what had been accomplished. But his reaction was not defensive. We went back to his office to discuss the prospect of Germany taking in more Indochinese refugees.

Germany then had a much more expensive method of resettling refugees. Supported 100% by the government, they were kept in special camps, usually for two years, where they were taught to speak German, learn German ways and otherwise acclimatize themselves to German society. While the young attended school, adults were given training to upgrade their skills to facilitate their entry into the German job market. Of course, this method of resettlement posed challenges. As one example, it is much more difficult to learn a language when you live within your own linguistic community and have relatively little contact with the native German-speaking community. I described the Canadian private sponsorship program and how it might be both more suited to integrating Indochinese refugees as well as permitting Germany to take in many more refugees.

The Minister was skeptical, but he was a very enlightened and open man, indeed eager to try new things. He offered me a car and a translator to travel around Germany for 2-3 weeks and explore the issue with Germans and to return with a report on whether I thought such a program would work and, if so, how it might be implemented. The translator was necessary to facilitate contact with a much wider group of Germans than the many who spoke English. Further, my German skills had so deteriorated that I could not speak as well as an Indochinese refugee, and he wanted me to speak to them as well about their own experiences.

I took up the challenge. I visited only lists of liberal people in human rights and other humanitarian organizations as well as a number of German clerics. My report was completed in 8 days. I concluded that it would be impossible at that time for the German government to introduce a private sponsorship program for refugees. Second, I had come to understand why the decision to take in 20,000 refugees was considered such an accomplishment.

My interviewees were unanimous in declaring that such a program would be impossible to implement at that time. It was not that Germans were ungenerous. Rather, they regarded the Indochinese as never being able to become German. This was not seen as a problem of the Indochinese, but because of the German self-definition of themselves. To be a German was not just to be a citizen – which the Indochinese could certainly become, but it meant being an ethnic German. The liberals I consulted said that a shift away from an ethnic self-definition would not and could not take place in their lifetimes. I would not have predicted from those interviews that the shift came as fast and as extensively as it happened, even though, as I understand it, a majority of Germans still maintain a self-definition of a German primarily in ethnic terms. (Cf. Christian Jopke “Contesting Ethnic Immigration: Germany and Israel Compared,” European Journal of Sociology, 43:3, 301-335, December 2002)

Last month, the German Federal Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière from the Christian Democratic Union, published ten points that he believed were central to the German core culture. This was especially interesting to me because his name indicated that he might have been descended from the Huguenots, the Protestant refugees who fled France and the French Catholic persecution then underway in the seventeenth century. When I first visited Berlin, I remember being surprised to learn that 10% of the names in the Berlin telephone directory were Huguenot ones. I checked and my presumption was correct. The Minister’s family originally came from Maizières-lès-Metz. As Hurguenots, they sought asylum in Prussia and attended French-language schools and Huguenot churches in Berlin until the beginning of the 20th century.

The Minister asked, “Who are we? And who do we want to be? As a society. As a nation.” He initially offered three core characteristics of German constitutional patriotism: “the protection of human dignity,” the reverence for democracy, and linguistic commonality. However, he argued that there was more to it than that. “Democracy, respect for the Constitution and human dignity are honoured in all Western societies. I think there’s more. There is such a thing as a ‘German Core Culture’.”

The Minister offered two components to a core culture. “First is the term culture. This shows what is at issue, namely, not rules of law, but rules of living together. And the word “core” is not about prescription or obligation. It is much more about what is guiding us, what is important to us, what gives us direction. Such a direction-giving guide for living in Germany is what I mean by core culture.”

What is the difference between what the Minister wrote about Germany and what I wrote about Canada? Aside from the use of “culture” rather than “religion,” he referred to rules. I had referred to values. His were rules about “living together,” which implied they were obligatory informal rules governing behaviour for all those who lived in Germany even though he declared that “core” did not entail obligation. Later he would specifically declaim such a suggestion by stating that the rules could not be prescribed and were not even obligatory. In contrast, the values I listed were normative aspirations rather than rules, which I do not believe even a majority of Canadians feel are central to who they are. But the implication was that they were the dominant set of values setting standards, not for living together, but for doing good works together.

In both cases of informal rules or aspirational values, they are signifiers as guides, as offering meaning and direction. However, in the German case, we observe an effort to redefine the German nation from an ethno-national approach to a normative frame. But not from a citizen frame. And not from a long term residential frame. All German citizens are automatically part of this nation. But the definition of the nation goes further to include others who live in Germany, speak German and agree to abide by the same rules that facilitate Germans (in this cultural sense) having “trusted and true” norms for living together. They are not the only rules which are trusted and true. Other cultures may have different sets of rules. Nor is it a claim for a superior culture, just one that is different and unique for Germany.

When the Minister spelled out the content of the rules as translated into a set of practices, it was clear that he was enunciating norms more characteristic of the French definition of laicité, what I have dubbed the French secular religion, than the description I offered for the Canadian civic religion, if only at its most basic in avoiding the description of what he was talking about as a religion. I contend that he was offering a secular religion based on rules rather than aspirations, rules which permeated the fabric of the whole society.

He called them customs, expressions of a certain attitude – norms of etiquette for members of German society, such as introducing oneself by name, acknowledging the other by name, and shaking hands upon meeting. But it also included “prohibitions against demonstrators” covering their face. At first, one is invited to think of demonstrators wearing face masks to hide their identity. But it is clear that he is enunciating a form of civic religion, a secular religion unlike Canada’s explicitly rooted in faith groups, a core culture based on rules rather than values, which limit even the clothes worn in public. “We are an open-minded society. We show our face. We are not Burka.” [my italics]

His second statement about the practices of the core culture of German society spoke, not of etiquette, but of a precondition, education, not as techné, not as instrumental, a type of education in which Germans excel, but a claim that, “A well-rounded education has a value in itself.” One is carried back to the debates in North America over general education at universities in contrast to mastery of specific disciplines so characteristic of the transition of the university from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service University. Germany came late to this transition in higher education. It is noteworthy that in my definition of the Canadian civil religion there was no inclusion of proselytizing even in the mild form of education.

A third emphasis was on achievement combined with a social safety net. “We require performance. High performance and high quality produce high living standards. Our country was made strong by striving for accomplishment.”

Perhaps the most interesting of the ten norms enunciated was the fourth one regarding accepting the past as present, which in Germany, entails a special provision for Israel. I quote it in full.

We are heirs of our history with all its high and low points. Our past affects our present and our culture. We are heirs of our German history. For us, it means a struggle for German unity in freedom and peace with our neighbours, the maturing of the states together into a federal State, the fight for freedom and for acknowledgment of the lowest lows of our history. This also includes a special relationship with Israel’s right to exist.

Wir sind Erben unserer Geschichte mit all ihren Höhen und Tiefen. Unsere Vergangenheit prägt unsere Gegenwart und unsere Kultur. Wir sind Erben unserer deutschen Geschichte. Für uns ist sie ein Ringen um die Deutsche Einheit in Freiheit und Frieden mit unseren Nachbarn, das Zusammenwachsen der Länder zu einem föderalen Staat, das Ringen um Freiheit und das Bekenntnis zu den tiefsten Tiefen unserer Geschichte. Dazu gehört auch ein besonderes Verhältnis zum Existenzrecht Israels.

In Canada, I did not make the obligation to remember the sins of cultural genocide committed against our aboriginal peoples or making up for those sins by acts of redemption a part of the civic religion, not because this is not entailed by the values of the civic religion I set forth, but because, even if this was the most egregious sin, our past sins are manifold – the imposition of the Chinese head tax, the rejection of Sikhs seeking homes in British Columbia, the “None Is Too Many,” approach to Jewish refugees and the internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians during WWII. More importantly, I believe the Canadian civil religion is more of a social justice than a confessional religion.

A fifth characteristic of the core German culture that he tried to define was the esteem given to poets and philosophers, to musicians and artists. “We have our own understanding of the stellar value of culture in our society.” Is the equivalent in Canada the centrality of hockey in our collective lives and memory? Is this why I did not include the so-called “low” culture as a central feature of the Canadian civic religion? The question is rhetorical only to make the reader think about why I would not include it.

The sixth characteristic directly addresses the issue of the role of religion in German society.

“Germany is characterized by a particular relationship between State and Church. Our State possesses a neutral worldview, but views Churches and religious communities in a friendly way. Church festivals add rhythm to our yearly cycle. Church steeples dominate our landscape. Our country is Christian. Our religious life is peaceful. And the basic prerequisites for this are the absolute priority of the law over all religious rules within our state and communal co-existence.”

Note, neutrality rather than impartiality with respect to religion. Note the state support for and celebration of religion. Note the definition: “Our country is Christian.” And it is evidently out of that Christian religion that the rule of law trumps and sets boundaries to any religious rules. Does de Maizière not recall when the ravings of Martin Luther “to connect” Germans included screeds against Jews? In the desire “to connect,” there must be a self-consciousness of what is disconnected in the process. A reading of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India would teach one that.

Note as well with respect to the Minister’s seventh point about the German “civilized ways to regulate conflict,” based on compromise and consensus (presumably as illustrated in the industrial-union accords so characteristic of German economic life), currently expanded to dealing with and tolerance of minorities and rejection of violence as a principal way for resolving conflicts. The seventh point includes this odd sentence: “We accept diverse ways of living, and those who reject this will find themselves outside the majority consensus.” Besides the construction as a tautology, the “majority” consensus dictates tolerance, but anyone who refuses to participate in this consensus is effectively ostracized from the core culture of Germany.

The eighth point insists that Germans are no longer to be defined ethnically, but are also no longer to be defined in terms of nationalism. “Enlightened patriotism” is the new designation to celebrate unity, justice and freedom. Note the difference with my depiction of the Canadian civil religion. There was no mention of unity there. Instead of justice, which is a result, the stress was on impartiality and fairness, both of which are procedural. And freedom was very clearly articulated as a goal rather than a given.

While my depiction of the Canadian Civil Religion was small “l” liberal, but otherwise apolitical, the Minister’s depiction of the core culture of Germany included a clear political position.

“We are part of the Western world: culturally, spiritually and politically, and the NATO protects our freedom. It links us to the USA, our most important foreign friend and partner. As Germans, we are always also Europeans. German interests are often best represented and fulfilled through Europe. Conversely, Europa will not flourish without a strong Germany. We are perhaps the most European country in Europe – no country has more neighbours than Germany. Our geographic location has formed our relationship with our neighbours over the course of centuries that used to be problematic, but is currently good. This fact influences our thinking and our politics.”

Wow! It is one thing to describe this as a current reality about Germany. It is another to depict it as a core feature of German culture. Partnership with the U.S. Primacy of Europe. Centrality of a strong Germany.  Compare this claim of partnership with my own negative contrast with the values and norms of those who rule America at present, the implicit depiction of the economically and militarily weak Canada relative to the U.S., but with its moral superiority. Further, Canada has an outlier status, not just in North America, but with respect to the rest of the Western world. That politics may have influenced the creation of the Canadian civil religion, but does not define it.

Finally, and most descriptive of all, there is at the heart of the German culture, nostalgia, memories and attachments to place and time that did not play any part of my depiction of the civil religion of Canada, except in the claim that the different memories of groups, such as religious communities, helped understand the differential responses to refugees by different religious and other communities. Therefore, the core of memory was not nostalgia, but a concrete memory of the failure to live up to the values and virtues listed as central to the Canadian civic religion.

Look at how the Minster described those who do not share in the norms of the core German culture. First, they seem to be only newcomers. Secondly, there are those who 1) do not absorb those values; 2) ones indifferent to them; and 3) those who reject them. The result will be a failure in integration. Canadians who do not share the values of the Canadian civil religion are not depicted as failing to integrate, if only because the core civic religion does not require a majority status. In a subsequent blog, I will outline the problems that emerge when identifiable groups do not identify with the predominant Canadian civic religion. There will be differences in the values of the emerging generation as well as the values of various groups of immigrants from those of the Canadian civic religion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

by

Howard Adelman

It is Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen. Tonight, the celebration of Israel’s independence begins. In yesterday’s blog, I referred to three sources of discussion of Israel – one by Emanuel Adler on the drift in Israel towards illiberalism, one on the Torah justification for an independent Jewish polity in Israel and a third, the sermon in my synagogue by the Israeli Consul in Toronto. Today I will concentrate on the most basic one, the justification in the Torah, the one considered irrelevant to most Canadian Jews and most others, except for evangelical Christians. The reference to archeology, history, political realities, what Israel has accomplished in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, need based on security and humanitarianism as justification for the State of Israel and its domination by Am Israel (the Jewish people) awaits another discussion.

Torah study began with Rashi’s well known question of why the Torah, if it is the constitution of the Jewish people, begins with cosmology. Why does the text not start with Genesis 17:1 when God initially forges a covenant with Abram, renames him Abraham and promises that he will be “a father of a multitude of nations,” not just the Israelites or the Jewish people, but many nations. (17:4) Further, in chapter 8, Abraham is promised that, “I will give the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession.”

The answer usually given for starting at Genesis 1 rather than Genesis 17 is that it was necessary to establish that the whole earth was made by and belonged to God and that God was totally free to distribute the land to whomever He chose. Nations are not owners of the land, only trustees. Further, if the Torah is to be followed, there is no prior right to a land by people long settled there before another group of people arrived.

But there is a prior question – why refer to the Bible as a source of authority for establishing a state? Rashi comments on the first Psalm, “But his delight is in the teaching (in Hebrew, the Torah) of the Lord, and, in his teaching, he studies day and night.” Psalm 1 reads:

Psalm 1
1 Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither; and in whatsoever he doeth he shall prosper.
4 Not so the wicked; but they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore, the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the LORD regardeth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Verse 2 makes it clear that the function of studying Torah is critical to forging an ethical life. Verse 3 declares that an ethical life is sustained by planting oneself in a land where one can be fruitful and creative, implying possibly both a physical land and a land of learning. Whatever else it will be, the land will be one based on the rule of law that must serve the development of an ethical life.

The principle of Judaism, as distinct from the reference points of other nations, including other nations descended from Abraham, is that the Torah, which initially is a possession of (not necessarily written by) God, becomes a possession of Jews when they study Torah. Jews may infer that they have rights to live in the land from their studies, but not (thus far) that they are entitled to a state of their own. Further, there is no suggestion that other nations should not live in accordance with the rule of law for the sake of forging an ethical life and do so in the land of Israel. There is no guarantee that the land of Canaan should be the exclusive territory for Jews or that it is a land on which a Jewish state should be constituted and developed.

Genesis 12:1-7 says:

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land’; and he built there an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.

In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says: “The Lord said to Abram, “Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, southward, eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.” In Genesis 15:18, the land promised becomes very extensive. “18 In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

The covenantal promise is repeated in Genesis 17:4-8:

My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. 6 And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. 8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

There are many promises in these quotes. First, the land is promised to all the nations that spring from the seed of Abraham and not just Jews. Second, the extent of the land promised varies, sometimes extending well into Iraq and through the Sinai desert right up to the Nile River. Since various tribes of Canaanites lived on both sides of the Jordan River, the promise can even be seen to include Jordan. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy 9:1-4:

“Hear, O Israel: You are to cross over the Jordan today, and go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the descendants of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you heard it said: ‘Who can stand before the descendants of Anak?’ Therefore, understand today that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and bring them down before you; so you shall drive them out and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has said to you.” (Deuteronomy, 9:1-4)

On the other hand, with respect to specific parts of that territory, there is no promise in the Torah that the seed of Judah will reside in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is not even mentioned once in the Torah though it is referred to approximately 600 times in the rest of the Bible.

There is a more disturbing part of the covenant stated above and repeated elsewhere in the Torah: the settlement of the nations that stem from the seed of Abraham will occupy the land by means of war and not simply ethnic cleansing, but genocide, for the existing nations of Canaan will be expunged from the land: the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy, 7:1-2)

Quite aside from the extent of the land promised and those to whom it is promised, in addition to the land of Canaan, quite aside from the means of acquisition, the land of Israel is promised, not just as a place to live, as a place to thrive, but as a place to study Torah and as a place to raise ethical individuals. Further, Israel is a land where the bones of the seeds of Israel that flow through Isaac and Jacob are to be buried. In Genesis 50:4-14, Joseph keeps the promise made that the bones of his father will be returned to Canaan to be buried next to his first wife, Leah, who bore him his eldest four sons. Even, Joseph, who lived most of his life in Egypt, has his bones disinterred and brought back to the land of Canaan to be buried in Shechem (Hebron). (Exodus 13:15)

In Genesis 50:24-26, just after Joseph had ensured that his father Jacob’s bones would be buried in Israel, Joseph told his brothers and made the sons of Israel swear that, like Jacob, “you shall carry my bones up from here.” This suggests that even more importantly than living an ethical life in accordance with the rule of law on a land promised by God is the promise of burial in that land even if one is raised and achieved success in the diaspora. The fight over burial rights is not exclusive to Israel. In Canada, we recently went through the Oka crisis, a land dispute instigated by Mohawk aboriginal peoples over an allegedly sacred burial site. Near my cottage on Georgian Bay in Ontario, there was a fight over Grave Island claimed by some Ojibway as a sacred burial ground. One reason we fight over land, in addition to the right to live on it, is to die and, more importantly, be buried in that soil.

Israel, therefore, is a land where the “ghosts of the past meet the ghosts of the future,” where one’s deep seated longings are satisfied, where “my father’s store was burned there and he is buried here.” In the “port on the shore of eternity” in “the Venice of God.” (Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem 1967”), there shall I be buried insists the ardent Zionist.

But none of the citations of sacred text justifies a Jewish state in Israel or Jerusalem as its capital or Israel as an exclusive state for the Jewish people. Israel is a place for Jews to live, a place for Jews to die and be buried. What else justifies the independence of Israel in a specific boundaried territory? Whatever it is, the state must be governed by the rule of law and dedicated to raising an ethical people if the Torah is to be a guide.

 

To be continued: Historical and Political Justifications

Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale

Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale

by

Howard Adelman

I should have written this as the first essay in my series on antisemitism. For this is the first tale about antisemitism. It is set in Babylon between the period of the first and second Jerusalem temples. However, tonight is Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Book of Esther and the escape of the Jews from the evil Prime Minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, who was determined to exterminate Jews throughout all the lands of Persia that extended over 127 provinces from India westward to Ethiopia. He was the world’s first antisemite. This is the appropriate time to tell the tale.

I will write about that antisemitism, but I must first build the foundation by recapping the tale itself to set in place the parts and then explicate the genre of fiction known as romance in which Esther fits.

However, as Jane Austen taught us, everything is not always what it seems. Everyone wears masks and, to understand what is going on, the royal court must be unmasked. We begin with a depiction of the romance of the court itself when King Ahasuerus in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, in the third year of his reign, had a great feast inviting all the members of his royal household, all of his military officers, all the princes and princesses throughout the provinces for a week-long feast after 180 days of celebration throughout the empire. Talk about the excesses of royal conspicuous consumption! It is difficult to find anything that competed before or since as the guests drank out of vessels of gold in a room where:

“there were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble.” (1:6)

The first sub-plot begins with the introduction of Queen Vashti that will adumbrate the whole story about costuming and revelation. On the final day of the big bash, before the officers and princes of the court, the king summoned Queen Vashti “before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on.” (1:11) She was required to appear nude with only the crown on her head to be put on display as a trophy wife. With this initial act of vulgarity, it should be no surprise why many rabbis speculated that Ahasuerus was originally a commoner who had usurped the throne in a coup.

To the king’s complete embarrassment, Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s bidding lest she be humiliated before the whole court. Did she know the risks she was taking? Did she understand what it meant to publicly defy the will of the king? She stood on principle no matter what the risks. It is very difficult to know or understand why the rabbinical commentators needed to portray her as a wicked queen. There is not even a hint of that in the story. Sure enough, Ahasuerus was boiling mad; “the king was very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” He was not thinking about what an ass he had been to issue such a stupid order when he was drunk.

Seething, King Ahasuerus turned to his wise men and advisers and asked what he should do. How should he respond to this act of willful disobedience?

Yesterday was International Women’s Day protesting against the remaining remnants of a patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society, such disobedience of women to their male overlords might set a precedent. The advisers advised. “For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.” (1:17) Man is owed honour and respect from his women, the very principle romantic tales subvert. To set an example, Queen Vashti, because she would not appear naked in her crown before the whole court, was stripped of all her properties, all her magnificent gowns, all her jewelry and cast out of the court.

The whole point of this prolegomena was to set the stage of what Esther would be risking when she chose to disobey the king’s edict much later in the tale. With the dismissal of Vashti, there came an opening for a new queen. Like the tale of the golden slipper, a search was begun for the prettiest maiden in the land.

A new character and the major plot is then introduced. Mordecai, a Jew who lived in Shushan, the capital, was “the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) This is an important detail which almost no rabbinical commentator overlooked. For in saying that Mordecai was a Benjamite among the Jews captured when the first temple was destroyed in Jerusalem and transported to the capital of the Persian Empire, we are led to recall that Mordecai was himself a descendent of royalty, from the tribe of Kish, the name of King Saul’s father. And, going further back, the descendent of Benjamin the youngest and favoured son of Jacob. We also remember that Jacob tricked Esau into giving him the birthright and, according to lore, bequeathed eternal enmity between the descendants of Esau and of Jacob, between Amalek, the grandson of Esau, and any Jew, suggesting that antisemitism has very deep roots in familial rivalry. Yet it is the name Mordecai that means “bitter,” though Haman will be the source of the “tumult” (the meaning of Haman) between him and the Jews of the Persian Empire.

Hadassah (Esther or Ishtar, in Aramaic “bright star”) was Mordecai’s niece whom he adopted and raised. Thus, we have introduced the archetypal orphan so beloved of romance novels. Esther is itself a mask for her real, earthier, name. Hadassah means myrtle, the symbol of righteousness. Further, and of course, she was a natural beauty. She joined the contestants for queen by becoming a concubine under the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women in the royal court. Esther rose quickly to become the king’s favourite and “Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.” (2:10) In other words, she hid her religious and ethnic identity. The masks were on. The situation was similar to the one where the Chancellor in the court of the Chinese Sung dynasty had his beautiful sister become his spy by having her planted among the women of Kublai Khan’s harem.

Unlike the Sung dynasty chancellor, Mordecai supposedly cared about Esther and her well-being and paced below the women’s house in the court to gain information, not on Ahasuerus, but on the well-being of Esther. Maybe he was himself a spy on the court? Perhaps his interest was not Esther’s welfare, but that was just an excuse for walking below the women’s house. Perhaps Esther was his planted inside secret agent. In any case, four years after the big bash and discarding Queen Vashti, “the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (2:17) And it is repeated: “Esther had not yet made known her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him.” (2:20)

The next step in the plot takes place. Mordecai overhears two chamberlains of the court plotting a coup. Mordecai told Esther. Esther told the king. And the two traitors were duly hung following an investigation.

The introduction of Haman, the Agagite, who became the Vizier or Prime Minister, followed. Like the Israelites, Haman was also a foreigner and a sojourner, but a descendent of Agag from the Negev, a people whom King Saul slew in a massive genocide. For the Agagites were descendants of Amalek. But a few must have escaped the slaughter. A deep desire obviously burned in Haman’s gut to avenge the destruction of his people.

When Haman was appointed by King Ahasuerus as Prime Minister, the king commanded that all bow before Haman, and, for Jews, before Amalek. But, “Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him.” For an analysis of why Mordecai refused to bow down, see my daughter Rachel’s article, “Why Did Mordecai not Bow Down to Haman?” (thetorah.com/why-did-mordecai-not-bow-down-to-haman) Was it because bowing was viewed as idolatry or because Haman was a descendent of Amalek? Or both?

Mordecai never offered a reason when the king’s servants asked him why he refused to bow before Haman. (3:2) Except he told them he was a Jew. Esther could not tell that she was a Jew, but Mordecai would use his being a Jew to excuse his refusal to bow before Haman.

Haman, on hearing the news, was full of rage. The text then continues: “it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.” (3:6) Killing Mordecai alone would leave Haman open to revenge by his fellow Jews, especially if they learned he was an Agatite. Haman would have to kill all Jews. The mass murder was justified in the same way the exile of Vashti was justified – he needed to uphold the perception of absolute authority. But if he only had Mordecai’s slain, he would have left himself open to revenge from Mordecai’s fellow Jews. Haman bided his time.

About five years later he worked out a plan. Playing Bannon to Trump, he planted the seeds of a fifth column in the king’s mind, a very early version of a conspiracy theory. Further, the king would benefit financially from this solution to “the Jewish problem.”

8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.
9 If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.’

King Ahasuerus gave Haman his signet ring to show he had the authority to carry out the deed. The decree went forth. What did Mordecai do? He panicked. Bewailing his and his countrymen’s fate, he put on sackcloth and ashes and mourned their imminent fate.  And all Jews in the empire followed suit. But this was the beginning of Esther exhibiting her independence from her uncle Mordecai, to whom she had always been an obedient niece. She challenged his fatalist approach and urged him to don proper clothes and discard the sackcloth. Mordecai refused. He sent back the details of the orders to destroy the Jews to Esther through her servant or steward, Hathach, for the meaning of his name is that he was assigned as Queen Esther’s protector.

What could Esther do? The law was clear and unequivocal. She could not appear before the king unless she was summoned. She knew what had happened to Vashti when she disobeyed the king’s edicts. Mordecai replied to this message in an early version of JFK’s, “Think not what your nation can do for you. Think what you can do for your nation.” “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.” (4:13) Esther wrote a note back asking all Jews to fast for her for three days. And she vowed, “so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16)

Remember she was a real beauty. After three days, she dressed for the part and appeared in the courtyard of the king and he raised his sceptre bewitched by her beauty and invited her in. He promised to grant any wish, even to give her half his kingdom. Her only wish she said was to hold a banquet in honour of both the king and Haman. The king once again promised to grant any petition she put before him. Haman on receiving the invitation burst with pride at his rise to the heights of the royal court.

At the same time, he prepared a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. But that same night, the king could not sleep and reviewed his Chronicles and came across the story of how Mordecai had discovered the plot to overthrow him as he learned he had never rewarded Mordecai for this deed. When Haman came before the court the next day without this background knowledge of what was in the king’s mind and the king asked, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” (6:6) it should be no surprise that, given the banquet that was being held and his invitation, that he believed the question was about himself. He answered, let the man be clothed in the king’s apparel and ride on the king’s horse through the streets so that he may be honoured.

Can you imagine the shock when the king agreed and ordered Haman to take the apparel for Mordecai to don and the horse for Mordecai to ride? It was now Haman’s turn to mourn for he had to know the fate that now awaited him, a fate reinforced by his wife and friends for Haman had challenged the edict of governing the Jewish treatment of the descendants of Amalek. But Haman still had to attend the Queen’s banquet for the king.

At the banquet the king once again promised to grant Esther any petition. She asked for the king to give both herself and her people’s lives and she told him about the plan to destroy her people.  She had heretofore kept quiet because revealing the name of the Jew’s adversary might damage the king. But the king asked who and where he was that would dare do such a deed. Esther said, “Haman.”

Haman, if he was terrified before, had to be trembling in his boots. When the king left the banquet in wrath to seek out Haman, Haman entered and fell pleading before Queen Esther. The king returned and interpreted what he saw as an effort of Haman to rape Esther. “Will he even force the queen before me in the house?” (7:8) And Haman was hung on the gallows originally built for Mordecai.

However, the king had a dilemma. The destruction of the Jews had been ordered under his seal. He could not retract the order. But what he could do and what he did was authorize the Jews to defend themselves against those who would kill them

Thus, were the Jews saved.

Tomorrow: The Analysis of Esther as a Romance

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

From Generation to Generation Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

From Generation to Generation
Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

by

Howard Adelman

This section is read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most commentators focus on the need for repentance, the need for confessing one’s sins to God and one’s fellow humans, and to ask for forgiveness of those sins. But the text is largely about passing the torch from the generation of nomads and desert dwellers to those who now would become settlers in the promised land. Nine and one-half of the twelve tribes will cross the Jordan led by Joshua and settle in that land. Moses will not go with them. It is not only because he was very old, but because God said he could not. He was not permitted. His mandate had been taken away and transferred to Joshua.

But who is the greatest sinner by far? And He does not have to confess. For it is a promise that He has also already demonstrated that He can exercise on the east bank of the Jordan River. He now promises that He will do the same after crossing the river. Just as He destroyed the Amorite kings, Og and Sihon and the members of their tribes – men, women and children – so will he do after the Israelites cross the river.

גיְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ ה֣וּא | עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֗יךָ הֽוּא־יַשְׁמִ֞יד אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֛לֶּה מִלְּפָנֶ֖יךָ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֑ם יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ ה֚וּא עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֔יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָֽה:
The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will possess them. Joshua he will cross before you, as the Lord has spoken.

God promises to wipe out a nation, to kill every man, woman and child still living on the land. God promises to commit the ultimate in ethnic cleansing, genocide. Then the spoils will be divided among the nine-and-a-half other tribes. In accordance with God’s command, the Israelites not only will carry out these acts but they will not be “dismayed” in doing so – וְלֹ֥א תֵחָֽת. However, in spite of how God acts on behalf of the Israelites, in spite of His keeping His promise not to forsake Him, they will forsake God. God Himself makes this prophecy. God will keep His covenant with His people. But they will fail to reciprocate.

This nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. (31:16)

How will God respond? He already knows and so prophesizes. God will then abandon his people. God will hide His face from them.

My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us? (31:17)

What sin would they commit? They would become idolaters, self-evidently far worse than being a géenocidaire. It is the people’s duty to obey and participate in genocide. Is God punishing his people because they care more about public opinion than God’s will? Have they lost the faith and the courage to carry out His commandments? That is one possibility. I suggest another. God perhaps hides his face because he was ashamed of what He did. He is even more ashamed that he cannot own up to such a horrible deed. So he takes the irresponsible option and blames the other, his own chosen people.

Yom Kippur is not only the time to own up to one’s own sins, but a time of waiting, waiting each year to see if God will confess His own transgressions. That time will not come as long as biblical commentators ignore these damning sections of the text. Rashi, for example, says not a word about the genocide. He elaborates on the meaning of words but cannot even spend a bit of time on a horrendous deed. Rabbis have generally followed that lead and pivot to other much less troubling sections of the Torah.