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

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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.

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice

by

Howard Adelman

Eye in the Sky is a 2015 British thriller that applies the laws and ethics of just war theory to drone warfare. Whether in the ceilings of gambling casinos or in weather helicopters above our cities, whether the pictures are taken by satellites flying above the earth or by tiny robotic flies entering a house through a window left ajar, these ubiquitous surveillance cameras are now omniscient and omnipresent. In the Torah, God is the eye in the sky who can attend even to the pecking of a tiny sparrow.

One can, of course, be absorbed in this all-pervasive point of view and the technology or theology behind it. But one can also find it captivating and totally absorbing to use the eye in the sky to reveal dilemmas of justice in the lives of humans. The latter is the real purpose of the 2015 movie and of this week’s Torah portion.

In the movie, surveillance cameras from satellites zero in on a house in Eastview, the Somali section of Nairobi and also enter in from within the house using a surveillance camera is a mechanical flying insect. I had problems personally with the scene being placed in Eastview since, though I have not been back to Nairobi since the real rise of fanatic Islam began to spread all over the world in this century, I found it hard to believe that the Kenyan army would permit armed fanatics to control the streets and entry to a villa in the Somali part of Nairobi. But the movie quickly made me suspend such sources of disbelief. For the issue was credibility, not truth. The issue was a moral and legal issue and not the empirical reality of the dilemma. The situation merely needed to be plausible; it did not need to be credible.

The film opens with a Somali Muslim father who works repairing bicycles. He has made a hula hoop for his ten-year-old (???) daughter who is delighted by her present. Her father is also pleased and overjoyed watching his daughter play – that is, until a strict Muslim enters the courtyard to redeem his repaired bike and remonstrates the daughter and the father for allowing his daughter to play in such a provocative way – the swinging of hips, one presumes. This is important because we can identify with the daughter forced to conform in her play to a very strict interpretation of Sharia law, a stricture to which her own father agrees given the intimidating environment in which they supposedly live.

The girl will be the focus of our concern throughout the movie as Hawkeye missiles are to be shot at a house in which there are two leading terrorists and, as a bonus, two martyrs preparing to blow themselves up and sacrifice themselves for their fanatical belief in Islam. The young girl is selling her mother’s baked bread outside the walls of the compound that is being targeted. She is the potential and likely collateral damage with which the military officers concerned with military urgency are wrestling as they try to take advantage of a rare opportunity. The Attorney General and lawyers from the justice department are there as well, focused on the interpretation of international law concerning the conduct of war. There are also politicians concerned with the issue of how the collateral damage of the death of the young girl will be viewed by the media, quite aside from the importance of military action even for humanitarian reasons. To top it all off, there is a holdout moralist who, in addition to her concern with the perception of the public, goes beyond that and finds the potential killing of a girl to be beyond the pale, even when the targets are terrorists and the threat is imminent.

Key issues of law and morality, military necessity and moral considerations, weigh on contemporary society in the context of warfare. So too in the Torah. Ethical questions always arise in such life-and-death situations. However, in the film and in the Torah, the ethical outcomes are radically at odds. In the movie as the urgency of this situation grows, ethical necessity dictates a willingness to sacrifice the innocent daughter of a Somali bicycle repair man in the interest of advancing the war against radical Islam. From the legal perspective, once proper legal procedures have been followed and the responsible authorities authorize the decision, the lawyers from the justice department advising on the law applied to the terms of engagement can be persuaded to authorize an action in the name of military necessity.

But the politicians take longer since the perception of how the action will be weighed, how the death of one girl will be weighed on the scales of justice, against the likely but still only possible large number of deaths from the vest bombs of the fanatics weigh heavily. And then there is the moralist. She will never be persuaded that the possible loss of the life of one young girl by a deliberate action with knowledge aforethought should not outweigh the highly probable but still uncertain deaths of many more sometime in the very near future. The tension of the movie is built around these conflicts.

Of course, this is a totally false picture of the doctrine of just war and the terms of military engagement applied to such a situation, for this is an open and shut case militarily, legally, politically and even morally. The sacrifice would certainly be permitted under the laws of necessity and proportionality, under the laws of proper authority and procedural regularity of just war theory. But, after all, this is a Hollywood film even if made by the Brits. For though the decision is British, the implementers are Americans. It helps that the British military officers are played by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman to allow even me to set aside my incredulity at the overt manipulation of my emotions for such a distorted moral dilemma. I know better, but I was totally sucked in. Aaron Paul, the pilot of the drone, may have tears in his eyes, but I actually wept as I, in my mind, berated the legalists, the weak-kneed politicians and the ideological moralists who stood in the way of military necessity and a just decision – with one small qualifier which I will not reveal lest it spoil the movie for those who have not seen it and may want to.

What has this all to do with this week’s Torah portion? Well the latter is also all about justice, even though the norms of justice are totally at odds. They are the other extreme of the situation in the film cast in the context of political and moral correctness which is portrayed as such a heavy handicap on the military carrying out its duties of protection. Look at the series of moral issues raised in chapters 32-37 of Numbers:
1. With the background of Jephthah and the insistence that he must keep his vow to sacrifice his daughter because he did make the vow to sacrifice the first one who greeted him if he achieved military victory, chapter 30 explores the same issue from the perspective of the daughter, that is whether she was obligated to follow through on the vow to carry out the terms of the contract made by her father; chapter 30 takes up that issue and permits reversion of the vow under very specific patriarchal conditions – the father (or the husband if she is now living in his house) hears the vow and immediately takes action to revoke it; unlike Jephthah’s vow that he alleged could not be reversed, the vow in such circumstances can be revoked.

2. The decimation of all the Midianites, men, women and children, with the exception of female children who have not reached the age of sexual maturity – like the girl in the movie; this genocide is not only permitted, but authorized by God. On what spurious grounds? Because Balaam blessed rather than cursed the Israelites? The real reason is given since the men, including all male children, had already been slaughtered. Moses became angry that mature women had been spared for, lest we forget, the real outcome of Balaam’s blessing was that he, with his blessing, cursed the Israelites by allowing cohabitation between Israelite men and Midianite women. Moses insisted that these mature women had to be killed as well. According to Rashi, God authorized such action lest the preservation of his chosen people be endangered by ethnic intermixing, yet Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman and, as I have said many times before, King David would descend from the loins of one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the Moabite Ruth.

3. The issue of what plunder was acceptable, under what conditions and how it was to be justly apportioned between the military and civilians, between the priestly class and other civilians. (I wanted to write a separate commentary on this, but not enough space and time.)

4. The next issue was the just allocation of lands to the different tribes of Israel and the lands to be set aside for the priestly class.

5. The fixed boundaries of the nation and the setting up of a sufficient number of cities of refugee (6) within that land for unintended murders (what we now call manslaughter) from family members who would otherwise seek and be entitled to vengeance.

6. The restrictions preventing the daughters of Tzelafchad from marrying outside even their tribe when there were no male heirs lest the lands they inherit be allocated to another tribe upon their father’s death since there was no surviving male heir.

The Torah in this section, with God’s imprimatur, sanctions genocide and ethnic cleansing, never mind when it is moral and proper to allow an innocent young girl to be sacrificed is collateral damage in an operation driven by military necessity. This is the other extreme of the moral universe than the one presented in Eye in the Sky. Other than a universe totally free of moral and legal constraints, this is about as close as you can get to a totally morally debased world portrayed as belonging to a moral and legal worldview and sanctioned, indeed instructed, by God.

One can only hand one’s head in shame and offer retrospective apologies to the Midianites (and the Amorites).

I will end here because I have to prepare to be a witness at a wedding of a couple who are Seventh Day Adventists. Yesterday afternoon I spent with a former graduate student who now directs a unique program in diversity studies in an American university and his wife chairs another program at a different nearby university. They also had their grandson with them whom we made an effort not to become collateral damage to a discussion about intolerance and Donald Trump.

There are so many times I feel so blessed to live in the present, when diversity is so valued and in a country like Canada that has made such a value central to its very being.

VI: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

VII: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

by

Howard Adelman

Evan Osnos’ New Yorker pre-Christmas piece on Samantha Power provided me with a window into the priorities and workings of the Obama administration and an opportunity to comment on one of the most high profile figures in that administration. These series of blogs have not been an analysis of Osnos’ essay. Rather, I have used the essay to discuss much of what he did not say. For example, he not only did not discuss the doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), he did not even mention it once. Yet R2P is the doctrine with which Samantha Power has been most closely identified by both her friends and certainly her enemies. In this blog I want to discuss Samantha Power’s understanding of and commitment to the Canadian originated doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) that was so conspicuously absent from the article. As a follow-up in subsequent blogs, I will first explore the credits she claimed for the USA related after chairing the ABD, President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board, set up in 2011 and subsequently discuss the application of R2P to specific cases.

At the beginning of this century, Tom Axworthy, when he was Foreign Minister of Canada, initiated a commission to study and make recommendations on how countries should behave when there are indications that wide-scale atrocities are or may be taking place or even about to take place. Formed in September 2000, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) delivered its massive two volume report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” in 2001. Its goal was to develop a global political consensus about how and when the international community should respond to emerging crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity. The report pointed to the central challenge – the primacy of the doctrine of the sovereign state as absolute. It outlined how that could be overcome by limiting sovereignty and creating a doctrine of intervention as a trump when states failed to fulfill their responsibilities to protect their own citizens. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the doctrine was to include both a “Responsibility to Prevent,” endorsing early warning systems and root cause analyses, and a duty both to respond and rebuild, although the overwhelming public image has been on intervening within a sovereign state. In 2005, the doctrine was endorsed by the United Nations unanimously.

In the doctrine, a state has a responsibility to protect its own population. If it fails to do so and mass atrocities seem immanent or underway, the international community assumes the responsibility of, in the first instance, assisting a state unable to provide protection on its own. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has a right to use a variety of tools at its disposal to ensure protection of those citizens. Coercive military intervention could be used as a last resort.

The uptake of R2P by the international community in a very short time is very instructive. Contributing to a Safer and More Secure World. (2005-05-12) and its complementary International Policy Statement were issued at the very beginning of 2005 by the Government of Canada (GofC) followed by “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World” that set forth the principles of R2P, how Canada would implement it, and the steps Canada would take to get the international community to buy in. One part of the last document reads: “While diplomacy remains the preferred tool in the pursuit of international peace and security, our country must possess the hard military assets necessary to achieve our foreign policy goals.” Coercive military means would be used to back up diplomacy in the traditional realist mode. However, the policy document also stated that, “the Government has made clear that it intends to engage members of the United Nations in moving forward with the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ initiative.” In fact, that process was well underway.

The UN High Level Panel on Treats, Challenges and Change wrote “A More Secure World, our Shared Responsibility;” the document was released by the Office of the Secretary-General of the UN in 2004; R2P was endorsed in 2005. The objective was to develop new rules to enable the international community to protect civilians from extreme harm when their own government is unwilling or unable to do so.   In 2005 at the UN World Summit, when the UN unanimously endorsed the doctrine, it was already clear that it was a stillbirth. China, for example, was just one of many countries that put caveats on their support. That country was quite clear that it was voting for motherhood; anytime the issue came up and R2P was to be applied, it was to be subordinate to the absolute sovereignty of a state. Sovereignty must always trump R2P. A nation’s permission to intervene would still be required. The doctrine was only to be applied with the consent of the nation targeted, a principle that the doctrine was intentionally designed to overcome. The United States under George Bush’s administration also voted in support of the doctrine while making quite clear that decisions of multilateral bodies, such as the UN, would be subordinate to the decisions and interests of the United States. Sovereignty still ruled.

Samantha Power’s first book was not A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide published in 2002, which traced the history of genocides in the twentieth century and government responses to those atrocities as they developed, but a co-edited volume with Graham Allison the previous year called Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact. The order of the books and their titles are instructive. For her focus was not to provide a scholarly understanding of why genocides take place nor why governments stand by and do nothing. The book was intended to inspire action, initially by ensuring that warning information was collected and analyzed and a box of prevention tools developed, including military intervention.

This coincidence of timing led to the close identification of Samantha Power with the R2P doctrine rather than any role she played in its development or getting the UN’s endorsement in unanimously adopting the doctrine while gutting it of any meaning, though undoubtedly the fame of her second book, combined with the aftermath of the failure to prevent atrocities in both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, helped in both publicizing the doctrine and linking her name closely with it. Samantha Power had no significant role, even in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), which was organized to ensure the doctrine was implemented.

The New American, as a very loud voice on the far right in America, has insistently contended with the original R2P doctrine and insisted that U.S. sovereignty and interests had to be protected against the insatiable hunger for power of the UN, the globalist government-in-waiting. Right wingers claim that the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, with its commitment to make human rights principles central to the formulation of U.S. public policy, and, more particularly, Samantha Power as its founding executive director, participated in the advisory board of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty established by the Canadian government. In fact, Michael Ignatieff, at the time Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, was on the commission, not Samantha Power. The Carr Center itself, however, is not included in the index of the report. Further, in the supplementary second volume of the Responsibility to Protect Report edited by Thomas Weiss and Don Hubert, to which I contributed an essay and which includes an exhaustive bibliography, Samantha Power did not contribute to any of the thematic essays. Nevertheless, these facts never stood in the way of the right in the United States linking her intimately with the doctrine or for branding Samantha as a “worldwide leader” in the promotion of this “sovereignty-stealing” doctrine that Samantha Power allegedly worked to develop in partnership with The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCRtoP).

How does this have any significance since Samantha Power unequivocally endorses R2P? It is significant only in pointing out that anything the right says about Samantha Power, both generally and with respect to R2P, is not to be trusted. Unfounded comments from the right make Samantha Power an epitome of scholarly accuracy and acuity. Ramesh Thakur, when he was director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, published an op-ed in a number of Canadian newspapers on the new world order. The right wrote that Thakur in his article quoted Samantha Power as “pushing for a “global rebalancing” and “international redistribution” of power that would usher in a “new world order.” Contrary to their claim, Samantha was not even cited in the article.

What really bothered Marco Rubio (R-Fl) at her inauguration hearings for her appointment as UN permanent representative to the UN was not Samantha’s threat to the supremacy of the absolute sovereignty of the USA, but her call for the USA to confess its past sins, for a collective public mea culpa, a public equivalent to the secret confessional in a Catholic Church. In her article, “Force Full” in The New Republic in 2003, Samantha had criticized George Bush’s use of “illiberal power.” “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought…We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States. This would entail restoring FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] to its pre-Bush stature, opening the files, and acknowledging the force of a mantra we have spent the last decade promoting in Guatemala, South Africa, and Yugoslavia: A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” Samantha favoured humanitarian intervention and opposed imperial military intervention. Samantha’s response to Marco Rubio’s query, however, was an exercise, not only in sophistic political side-stepping, but in turning a challenging political question into an exercise in obfuscation. Further, she used the question to exclaim her vaulted view of the United States.

In this blog I focus on words and ideas rather than claimed deeds, such as Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) of September 2011 declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be a “national security interest and core moral responsibility” of America and directing the National Security Advisor to conduct a comprehensive review assessing U.S. government capabilities and needs in this area.

Ambassador Power told one interviewer that, in addition to the constraints around the moral imagination and budgets that she encountered, and the time required to convince others, she had to cajole and convince after understanding where those resistant others were situated even when she experienced herself as an outsider and an alarm went off, “intruder alert, intruder alert.” Although she had come to appreciate and understand those constraints, nevertheless she always felt blessed “to have the chance to bring these issues to the fore.” Barack Obama was not one of those constraints because he has had a longstanding interest in multilateral efforts to combat war crimes and genocide and supported a more constraining international legal regime on war crimes, even at the cost of national sovereignty even as he appears more the “realist” than an advocate of humanitarian intervention. So she had always been working with the imprimatur of the president.

At an International Symposium on Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Paris convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, Samantha Power, as Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, gave a keynote address on 15 November 2010. The conference focused on genocide prevention and policy initiatives, current threats of mass atrocities, and prospects for greater international cooperation. Samantha made four points.

To the question of what we should do differently as governments and members of civil society to reduce the likelihood of atrocities, she stressed the importance of strategic commitments to prevent mass atrocities in Obama’s National Security Strategy that go beyond a vow of “Never Again!,” beyond the UN’s endorsement of R2P, or even citing R2P in a Security Council resolution. The strategic commitment is one that sends a critical message throughout the government and to the world of American priorities in order for resources to be allocated and political will to be mobilized and harnessed.

In the Torah, there is a distinction between oaths, vows and promises. When one reads Samantha Power, a strategic commitment is not an oath which a higher authority will require you to fulfill, nor a vow where there are consequences if you fail, nor even a promise where your sense of self to yourself and others will be diminished if you fail to act. A strategic commitment is none of these. It is about symbols. It is about messaging. It is about enhancing and reinforcing a constituency. It is about creating an organization that can work towards a singular goal. But it is not about developing practical tactics on the ground and certainly not about delivering results. In other words, it is about politics. It is about spin.

Samantha went on to insist that the strategic commitment also had to be personal and embodied in an individual who will ensure a president’s legacy and an organizational structure that will guarantee that the information flows up and the options are available to the president. This is consistent with her misplaced analysis of what went wrong when President Clinton was dealing with Rwanda. It is not consistent with my analysis of that failure nor with my appreciation of the significant humanitarian successes by governments. Ron Atkey, when he was Minister of Immigration and was confronted with the Indochinese Boat people crisis, told his staff in the Ministry that he did not want to go down in history like those Canadian officials who turned their backs on the Jewish boat people in the thirties and said “None is too many.” Practical more than rhetorical leadership is required.

Look at the difference. In Samantha’s world view, underlings are required to ensure a legacy so “that the President doesn’t look back on his presidency and wonder why he wasn’t informed or presented with decisions.” In the Canadian understanding of commitment, that commitment is a will to act in a specific direction in a specific context faced with a specific problem. Whether it was Jack Pickersgill’s commitment to facilitate entry of Hungarian refugees into Canada or the Clark government’s approach to the problem of Indochinese refugees, commitment was not a strategy but an action, not setting up and devolving the problem onto an organization and making an impersonal structure responsible and simply appointing someone at the top committed to the same purpose. Those steps followed from a specific commitment to act, not as a condition for acting. For Samantha, what is required is governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass-killings. However, a prior requirement of genocide is the commitment of a few to destroy a group. The organization is simply a tool to accomplish the task.

Samantha simply demonstrated that she neither understood the source of the problem nor how commitments are formed to deal with them. Her approach is essentially bureaucratic and not action-oriented, concerned with general abstract propositions not specific deeds. Though it has some resemblance to mass lining in the Chinese political system, it lacks the key element of determination on the part of leadership to get something done.

Samantha’s third requirement to combat the prospect of mass atrocities focused on institutionalization. “Governments must work to systematize ‘prevention…to routinize our response to indicators of mass atrocities.” But indicators, as demonstrated in the developing East and West African early warning systems, do not connect with action but with the process for gathering and classifying information. Structures and organization do not necessarily make it easier to ensure early engagement. They just can help make it possible. Possibility should not be confused with engagement. Further, instead of announcing a new “Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention” that will “invite ideas–and award grants–for innovative technologies that strengthen the U.S. government’s capacity for early warning, prevention, and response with respect to mass atrocities,” why not, instead, recognize and enhance what is already in the field and is working by strengthening local capacity to anticipate the prospect of mass killing? It is not the American DOD that needs strengthening in its capacity to deal with atrocity prevention and response. The U.S. already needs to be on a weight loss program relative to its array of intelligence services. The military in Africa need to be strengthened. It is hard to imagine the American army being authorized to, let alone embarking on, an “atrocity prevention mission.”

Osnan’s article on Samantha was subtitled, “In the realm of the possible” with the implication that ideals had to be tempered with reality. But that is simply the result of construing idealism and realism as poles apart. In fact, they are complementary. The problem is to get the two into a dialectical embrace. Strategic commitments, in Samantha’s construal, structure and organization, and even institutionalization simply will not do. The focus has to be on decisions and deeds in responding to concrete challenges, not creating abstract general principles and a bureaucratic structure to enact them. Principles must be embodied in practices and not in abstractions. So all the convening of bureaucrats would not have led to the decision to take Hungarian refugees or Indochinese refugees into Canada. Decisions to act were crucial. “Whole of government” meetings focused on prevention are a crock, except as an educational tool. They do not and will not drive plans and responses. Samantha is just demonstrating her ignorance of the way governments actually accomplish anything.

Samantha’s fourth and final point in her address was to stress the importance of civil society and the value of social movements, such as the movement of which she was a part on the Darfur issue. I will take up that as an example in more detail tomorrow. But having been very active in many social movements rather than politics, from the nuclear disarmament movement to Operation Lifeline in the private sponsorship of the Indochinese refugees, it is my considered opinion, as a result of my research as well as critical reflection, that they are not a sine qua non, as Samantha contended. As both my involvement and research have tried to establish, civil society pressure can be complementary and enhance the ability of government to lead and act. But government has and must provide real leadership. It is not a graduate seminar for considering options. That leadership can initiate actions independent of social movements or, preferably, with their help, but the existence or non-existence of a social movement is not key.

Samantha’s involvement in the Darfur movement is a prime example. It has been a total bust as I will try to show tomorrow. Contrary to what she claimed, there was a movement dealing with Rwanda headed by Alison des Forges. The failure was not because of the absence of such a movement, but because the government was traveling in a very different direction with very different commitments. Her contention that, “it (a social movement) didn’t activate for Rwanda. However, because of Darfur, which reached its peak killing period around the ten-year anniversary of Rwanda, the movement has been broadened and institutionalized.” Indeed, but to what effect?  On Sudan, as I will try to show, what was needed was an accurate assessment of the problem and a commitment to action. To conceive of government working because of grass root and grass top pressure is just a fallacy. The top is not a pressure point but a centre of activity. Grass roots can help the centre; it cannot mobilize it.

President Obama’s endorsement of Samantha’s prophylactic recipes to strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to foresee, prevent, and respond to genocide and mass atrocities are misplaced. “Strong organization,” “a whole-of-government approach,” “bureaucratic monthly meetings,” “appropriate burden sharing,” “National Intelligence Estimates on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide,” as if genocide and mass atrocities were equivalent to climate change and anticipations of food shortages. Pap! Bureaucratic spin for doing nothing. Training peacekeepers and local capacity building are not new tools. Neither are targeted sanctions, even if the targets are tweaked somewhat. Nor visa bans. These, and lessons learned studies, have been utilized by both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past. Very economical initiatives on the ground have been underway, ironically largely financed by the American government for over a decade. These should be recognized and enhanced rather than concentrating on bureaucratic remedies. But I have not been able to find whether Samantha knows they exist.

Samantha’s fallacious analysis would not be so awful if it was not the prime cause for the impotence of the most powerful country in the world.