Samantha Power, Jews and Israel

III: Samantha Power (SP), Jews and Israel


Howard Adelman

In my first blog in this series, I tried to suggest what might have been some of the psychic influences on SP. In the second, I tried to indicate that, although she had been appointed Founding Director of a very prestigious school on human rights at Harvard, she did not have a profound respect for scholarly authority. She was an excellent writer, a great narrator of tales and anecdotes and a very moving moral voice. But her intellectual work was sloppy and she ignored, if she ever read them, scholars who offered different analyses than her own.

She certainly did not wrestle with those interpretations, a major point her husband, the legal scholar, Cass Sunstein makes about the importance of keeping a mind open to new ideas. As he wrote, “A democracy needs to ensure competing points of view. For example, it needs to provide accurate, not anecdotal or inflammatory, information about terrorism and other risks.” (Cf. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University Press: New York 2009.) The same principle applies to information about humanitarianism and the risks of intervening with military force for humane purposes. In that sense, her disposition seemed at first to be not very different from those who single-mindedly and actively pursued policies that ensured they would be mindblind about events that might disturb the preformed picture they had constructed of the world.

But that is NOT Samantha Power. She is not scholarly in her thought processes and habits, but that could be a good thing. Scholars usually do not make the best politicians. She is an excellent synthesizer and a very fast learner. As the reader will come to see, she does have an open and flexible mind. This is both true of her attitudes to Israel as well as the fundamental planks that she once articulated on foreign policy. Those views are subject to change because, though she communicates as a person of deep moral convictions, those convictions are malleable, perhaps depending on influences, on opportunities and even on encounters with reality.

In this blog, I want to talk about another dimension in SP becoming the UN ambassador that is mentioned briefly in Evan Osnos’ article, “In the Land of the Possible”. After depicting Samantha as “manipulating the targets of her lobbying without alienating them” and being a superb networker, a capacity which she exercises as U.S. ambassador to the UN in visiting the heads of other delegations in their offices, she used her extensive contacts and manipulative skills in preparation for her confirmation hearings in the Senate to put to rest, or, at least, shunt aside, her past stated views on Israel.

First, as indicated in an earlier blog, SP is married to a very prolific and original legal scholar, Cass Sunstein. She met him as part of Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Cass Sunstein’s parents were both Jewish, his first wife was Jewish and his second partner was the famous philosopher, Martha Nussbaum. There is no indication that I could find that Cass Sunstein had any connections with Israel or Zionism or any significant links to the established Jewish community. The evidence is to the contrary. Samantha Power herself tells the story that Cass had never heard the term, Shoah, (incredible to believe) and knew nothing about Claude Lanzmann’s film by that name until she educated him. “He looked at me with that smile of his when he has no recognition.” Cass added, “I find the Holocaust really upsetting.” Cass seems to have an emotional blockage about his own Jewish history.

There is another indication that her husband’s Jewish roots will have no influence on her approach to Israel. For Cass and Samantha were married on a very blustery and rainy American Independence Day, 4 July 2008, six months after they met. Perhaps the reason for the short engagement is that they believed that they had been blessed with Irish luck since, though they were 16 years apart in age – Samantha was then 38 and Cass was then 54 – they had been born on the same day of the year, 21 September, the first day of Fall.
The ceremony was a full formal wedding with Samantha in a long lace white wedding dress. What makes the wedding interesting is not the reception for 150 guests at the Waterville Lake Hotel and who were in attendance, but that they were married in the small wood frame Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Waterville, County Kerry, on the south west corner of the Ring of Kerry. My wife and I were in the Ring of Kerry this past June, and if Cass and Samantha wanted perfect weather, they should have invited Nancy to the wedding. Her Irish luck may not guarantee her a stellar political career, but it would have ensured a beautiful day for SP’s wedding.

Bad jokes aside, this story is odd in at least three ways. First, Samantha would have needed a church dispensation to marry a non-Christian in a Catholic Church. Second, Cass would be required to obtain an annulment of his first marriage before a Catholic priest could sanctify a marriage between a single woman and a divorced man. Third, Cass Sunstein is strongly intellectually opposed to any superior authority sanctifying marriage, whether it be the government creating an official license regime or the church. His opposition was publicized in an appearance before the Senate on 11 July 1996 when he challenged “The Defense of Marriage Act”. “Under our proposal, the word marriage would no longer appear in any laws, and marriage licenses would no longer be offered or recognized by any level of government.”

However, my concern here is not to point out any possible hint of hypocrisy let alone to get into greater depth in discussing the legal foundations of marriage. It is merely to point out Cass Sunstein’s tenuous connection to the Jewish community and his Jewishness. A fourth point makes it clear. The couple have had two children in probably what were the busiest and most pressured three years of both their lives – itself a testimony to their stamina and resilience. Their four year old son is named Declan. Declan means “full of goodness” and was the name of an early Irish saint in the fifth century who was beatified for converting pagans to Catholicism. As for their fourteen-month-old daughter, Rian, another name of Gaelic origin meaning king (perhaps the feminine form of Ryan), used for both boys and girls, is, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, a woman of the First House of the Edain in the First Age. Most importantly, she is gentle of heart, a lover of flora, a singer and a composer; she hated war.

Whether in rituals or in child naming, there is absolutely no effort to connect with Cass Sunstein’s Jewish origins even though the children’s last name is Power-Sunstein. All this means is that SP’s attitude to Israel is unlikely to have anything to do with personal attachments.

What about her personal pronouncements on Israel? On this subject, Samantha made some early missteps explaining the strong need to line up rabbis in support of her nomination referred to in Osnos’ article. In fact, she did far more than Osnos suggests. But first her early gaffes.

Early in her career as a public intellectual, in 2002 she was asked a fairly straightforward question about monitoring the potential for genocide in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. If she were to be appointed as a political advisor on foreign affairs, if either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared to be moving towards genocide of the other, what action would she advise the President to take?

SP could have answered by insisting that it is perilous to deal with hypotheticals. She could have prefaced an answer by insisting that the likelihood of such a scenario was so low, it was not worth considering. She could have insisted that universal monitoring, including the Middle East in general and Israel-Palestine in particular, was necessary because otherwise countries like Rwanda, and later the Central African Republic, fall through the cracks, as she continued to insist. She could have strayed into the issue of intervention, even if that was not the question, by answering in a generality: wherever there appeared to be a drift towards genocide, and not specifically the Middle East, the response anywhere should be first to verify what is taking place. If she just had to throw in intervention, she could have said that any action taken should be proportionate to what is taking place on the ground. She could even have said that if either side seemed to be making such a move, a highly unlikely prospect, the first obligation would be to check and double check one’s information and then warn that respective party that if that side did not desist immediately, the United States and its allies would be giving serious consideration of the options available to the international community to stop the genocide.

But SP has a restless tongue. To complicate and bastardize the metaphor, she once had a strong propensity to put both her fists in her mouth. Here is the precise question Harry Kreisler, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Berkeley, asked: “Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine–Israel problem, let’s say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?” It is a question clearly about monitoring, not about intervention.

How did she answer? Samantha welcomed the opportunity to express her views, for the United States needs to make the Middle East safe for the United States. Further, that obligation exists even if it means “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import [that could only mean AIPAC] or investing…billions of dollars, not (my italics) in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.”

She had not simply dropped a bombshell; she had dropped a barrel bomb. First, the long-understood obligation to defend Israel was not in the equation. Nor was there any sensitivity that genocide was a real existential threat to Israel given Iran’s moves to acquire nuclear weapons. Third, her suggestion stirred up images of rich and powerful Jews throwing their money around even to prevent any USA actions against Israel if Israel was, in fact, on the path to committing genocide. She threatened U.S. military intervention against that party – and one could only presume the party to be Israel, given the reference to the rich and powerful domestic constituency. Finally, she suggested that the USA was propping up Israel’s military when that money could be used preferably to help the downtrodden or strengthen Palestine.

These were her precise words in jumping from a question about monitoring to an answer about intervention. She called on the United States to put itself on the line even if it meant “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean…investing literally billions of dollars not in servicing Israeli military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.” Further, that investment of billions of dollars might entail “a mammoth protection force…a meaningful military presence” even when that intervention is fundamentally undemocratic.

Her statement was not an aberration of her usual views. In a 2004 review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, she pointed to the sins of America’s allies as compromising the war on terror. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan included in that list of sinners, so was Israel. In a 2007 interview, when she was already working for Senator Obama, Samantha claimed that American foreign policy decision-makers deferred “reflexively to Israeli security assessments” and replicated Israeli tactics. As a result, the USA had brought terrorist attacks upon itself. Why? America had aped Israel’s violations of human rights.

These were not one-off comments, even though she herself later depicted them as “weird”. Though she is clearly not an expert on either Israel or the Middle East, and never pretended to be, and has never, in fact, been outspoken and vociferous on the subject, nevertheless these comments form a pattern and reflect widespread left liberal views of Israel. In addition to its concerns with her past anti-Israel expressed views, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) expressed fears that Samantha’s endorsement of humanitarian intervention could be used to interfere with Israel’s self-defence. ZOA feared that international norms intended to protect innocents could be applied to situations like Gaza (where civilians were inadvertently and unintentionally being killed) to stop legitimate Israeli self-defence military action.

So why, in spite of these widely publicized comments, especially by the ZOA, did the few rabbis in Evan Osmos’ article endorse her for her appointment as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations? Further, there were many other prominent Jews and others who came to her defence. And they did so in spite of comments made immediately after her nomination, such as those of Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that she had been “sharply critical of our nation’s strong support of Israel.” In contrast, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insisted that she would be “a strong supporter of the United States’ close ally, Israel.” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, insisted that Samantha had “experienced first-hand the hostility faced by Israel and the abuse of the U.N. bodies to promote anti-Israel bias” and that she understands the injustice of those who “target Israel’s legitimacy.” Josh Block, the Director of the Israel Block, argued that “Samantha has made a commendable effort to build ties with the pro-Israel community and develop deeper appreciation of the issues vital to our interests in the region, Israel’s security, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

However, recognizing a UN bias against Israel, opposition to those who undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and superb networking with supporters of Israel, does not mean that she either understands Israel, assesses that country’s policies fairly or has adopted reasonable policies in relation to Israel. Perhaps the most insightful comments were made by Martin Peretz and Max Boot back in 2008, long before she would have ever been considered for such a lofty post. Peretz, writing on 4 December 2008 in Commentary, confirmed that Samantha was a good friend and even “uttered some phrases about Israel that I did not like and that I thought were erroneous,” but insisted that, “she truly, truly loves Israel and the people of Israel.” Earlier that year in the same magazine, in the 29 February issue, Max Boot chastised those who accused Samantha of harboring hostile views of Israel. She is not hostile to Israel; she even loves Israel. But what policies does she endorse with respect to Israel?

Last year (Huffington Post, 6 June 2013), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote an article entitled, “Defending Samantha Power on Israel.” Though the rabbi erroneously believes that Paul Kagame ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and though he did travel to Rwanda to see for himself and talk to Kagame personally, he may not be an astute observer. Shmuley, an Orthodox rabbi, is a celebrity. He hosted The Shmuley Show on The Oprah and Friends Radio Network and was a Republican nominee for Congress in the 2012 el
ections in New Jersey.
Shmuley is no left liberal. He has a daughter serving in the IDF, champions rather than just defends Jewish “communities” (not “settlements”) in Judea and Samaria, argues that the United States must move its embassy to Jerusalem and should declare Jerusalem to be the undivided and eternal capital of the Jewish people. Though he has policy disagreements with Samantha over Israel, he strongly supported Samantha’s nomination.

The reasons are several. First, when he wrote something critical of Samantha, she reached out to him through a common friend, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark who, as a Rhodes Scholar, was in contact with Shmuley who was president of a Jewish student organization at the University of Oxford in 1994. On Shmuley’s request, Mayor Booker initiated a closed-door meeting of a wide spectrum of 40 American Jewish leaders. After Samantha presented an overview of American policy in the world’s troubled regions, she took on the accusations that she harboured animus toward Israel. In the process, she became deeply emotional and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Will the real Samantha Power please stand up?

In fact, there is really no contradiction. There is NO evidence that Samantha Power is antithetical to Israel and every reason to believe she both appreciates and loves Israel and its people. She is truly and deeply committed to the security of Israel. But she can still share in the left liberal view that Israel is an outlier in attention to human rights, that the country has abused Palestinian rights and has disproportionately mistreated Palestinians far beyond the needs required for its own defence. These perspectives are not incompatible. They are held by many left liberal Israelis. But they do suggest a policy orientation that not only runs antithetical to the direction of the current Israeli government, but reveals significant faults and offers a deformed portrait of Israel.

On the other hand, Samantha is a fast learner. She has mastered the art of diplomatese. She has learned to deflect or disguise her deep beliefs in order to remain within the acceptable norms in Washington in dealing with Israel. She is a fantastic networker. She has both cognitive and emotional appeal. Yet I, who do not support the settlements, who believe that East Jerusalem should be made part of a Palestinian state, am also very critical of her left liberal viewpoint that sees Israel as a significant human rights abuser. I adamantly defend Israel against wholesale and erroneous charges of war crimes, even though Israeli soldiers have committed some. I have become more and more concerned about the contradictions in the progressive approach, an approach that genuinely and truly loves Israel and defends Israel’s security but, at the same time, is quite unjust in weighing Israeli actions when Israel acts in defence of its own security.

So is Samantha Power good for the Jews and good for Israel? Read the rest of the blogs on Samantha and you decide.


Religion, Art and Human Rights

Religion, Art and Human Rights


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we did not go back to the Museum of Anthropology as planned. Instead, we had an easier day with far less walking. Further, Nancy was getting very impatient to visit the restored Nidje Israel Synagogue in the very old part of Mexico City at 71 Justo Sierra two blocks to the north and several blocks to the east of the National Palace. Nancy had been in continual correspondence with the woman behind the restoration, Mónica Unikel. We understood she would not be available to conduct any public tours this week, but, by chance, just when we arrived at the synagogue, she was conducting a tour for Mexican museum specialists and a Mexican Ministry representative. (If you are interested in a tour, email sinagogajustosierra@gmail )

Preserving Nidje Israel is akin to preserving synagogues in the Kensington area of Toronto, such as the St. Andrew Synagogue (Anshei Minsk or Minsker Shul) that I attended as a young boy when we lived on Kensington and then on Baldwin. Like the St. Andrew St. Synagogue, as we ironically called our synagogue, Nidje Israel is best known by the street name on which it is located – the Justo Sierra Synagogue. As kids, we never caught onto the irony of calling a synagogue by the name of a Catholic saint. Calling the Nidje Israel Synagogue the Justus Sierra Synagogue had a different irony since the street on which it is located was probably named after the famous nineteenth century Mexican politician and writer, Justo Sierra Méndez, or his father, the novelist and historian, Justo Sierra O’Reilly, a Mexican historian and novelist. Trust Nancy to trace down a synagogue called after a transplanted Irishman.

Nidje Israel, unlike the Minsker Shul, has been restored much as another synagogue in Toronto in the Kensington Market has been restored, the Kiever Synagogue on Denison Square. The Nidje Israel Synagogue was restored starting in 2008 and completed in April 2009 at a relatively modest cost of US$400,000 as Mónica told us, though, in Mexican terms, this was probably a much larger sum than when calculated in American (or Canadian) dollars. The synagogue was officially opened to the public in January of 2010. A poor quality video of that opening can be found at and very good photos of the restored Romanesque-styled synagogue can be found at: and

Nidje Israel is a much newer synagogue than the Kiever Shul since it was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico founded in 1941 by European Jews who had escaped the Shoah. As in Toronto, These Jewish immigrants to Mexico started tailor and other trade shops in the neighborhood. As in Toronto, as these Jews became more prosperous, they moved into better areas of Greater Mexico City in Polanco, Lomas de Chapultepec, Santa Fe and Huixquilucan and built new synagogues and centres of Jewish cultural life. As in Toronto, the old synagogues were often abandoned or torn down.

Nidje Israel is particularly interesting because it has a totally nondescript exterior. However, after you pass by the entrance and the offices of the synagogue, you enter a large interior courtyard in which a very attractive synagogue has been built as a totally separate building. Clearly, Jews in Mexico City wanted to be discrete – more because of their experiences in Europe than anything taking place then in Mexico City at the time. Though Judaism has had a notorious past before the 1860s when the first arrivals from Spain in the sixteenth century were Marranos or Crypto-Jews forcibly converted by, but in flight from, the Spanish Inquisition, and though the Inquisition was more feebly enforced in New Spain, by and large the Marranos were allowed to live and thrive. Eventually they more or less assimilated, but it is interesting, as I mentioned in a previous blog, that Diego Rivera’s mother was a descendent of conversos and he personally was very conscious of his Jewish past. In spite of a few incidents in the 1930s, the persistence of persecution is more part of non-conscious inherited stereotypes rather than any policies or practices in daily life. For example, when we attended the Mexican Folkloric Ballet on Wednesday evening, in one segment there was a cartoonish Shylock character (as well as a Black Sambo, much to the embarrassment of a West Indian fellow sitting next to Nancy).

In colonial Mexico, the laws of the Inquisition were followed and Jewish immigration was not permitted until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The equal status of Jews in Mexico was confirmed by laws passed under the Benito Juárez government. Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews began migrating from Europe and Sephardic Ladino-speaking Jews from the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth century. The community grew from a few hundred at the beginning of the twentieth century and 21,000 in 1930 to the 40,000-50,000 Jews in Mexico today, 90% in Mexico City. There are also a small number of descendants of conversos who deliberately returned to Judaism. Further, unlike the USA and Canada, the percentage of intermarriages in Mexico is very low.

After our visit to the synagogue, we went around the corner to eat at a very colourful table outside a very tiny restaurant facing a small park. The restaurant had been suggested to us by one of the museum curators we met at the synagogue who had just weeks before been in Toronto for a tour of Canadian museums. The full course meal at the restaurant cost 55 pesos, less than CAN$5. However, Nancy ordered enchiladas. She found hers to be delicious but, after a few bites, I abandoned the effort to eat as I remembered that I don’t like enchiladas and Nancy was too full to save us from embarrassment. I simply indicated to the proprietor that I was too full. Instead of finishing my meal, I sat there imaging the park, like the Denison Park in the Kensington area of Toronto in the very same period, crowded with Jews speaking Yiddish and either socializing, gossiping or conducting business as little boys like me were playing tag. There were Delancey streets in many other cities besides New York.

After lunch, we went to visit a number of art galleries adjacent to the National Palace. There were a number of contemporary Mexican artists showing their paintings, sculptures and installations. I am not a great fan of contemporary installation art, but we did see some interesting work by contemporary Mexican artists, including one artist who painted like my daughter, Shon, in blocks of pure colour in the pop tradition, only what this artist painted were two dogs (or wolves?) in a vicious fight. There was also an interesting piece with a photo cut-out of a woman’s head atop a massive, very massive, body. I do not know why it was so striking. Another painting that caught our eye was of a Mexican cowboy with a lasso in his hands and the other end tied around the wrist of a very tall young woman. In the immediate background, a child was squirming in his seat and in the far background a crane held aloft a roped cow. The rapid changes in life and society were well represented in the art, but, more often, Mexican art was oriented towards the surreal, the grotesque and the theme of death. One fascinating room displayed various shocking portraits of children that were either dead or portrayed as dead.

After tripping through these galleries in beautiful buildings on the interior with exquisite courtyards, we crossed the street to try to get into the National Palace to view a number of Diego Rivera’s murals. Unfortunately, the palace was surrounded by hundreds of police, most armed with bullet proof vests and even a cluster of riot police with helmets and shields on a side street at right angles to the palace. There were also two very large buses, one black the other white, parked on the street north of the palace where vehicles were not normally permitted. In spite of the overcast day and our first sense of pollution in the city, the motors of the buses were running. The black one seemed to be covered with armour plating. We were told that we could not have access to the building because the president was then in residence, but as we also learned, the real reason for the closure of the palace to the general public until January was the fear of riots that could develop from the protests distributed around the city. On the way to the synagogue visit two blocks away, we had passed one group of protesters and a very large police presence. I wanted to return to talk to the protesters, but we went to the art galleries by a different route.

We did not go back to talk to the protesters. I also did not get in contact with Sergio Aguayo, who had been my host on my previous visit in the late nineties. Sergio Aguayo had written a book with my co-author, Astri Suhrke, along with another expert on refugees, Aristide Zolberg, called, Escape from Violence. Sergio was then, and may still be, a researcher at the Colegio de México and a teacher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) at the National University in Mexico and a very prominent public intellectual in Mexico. We had lost contact over the past decade. In any case, I wanted this to be a normal tourist holiday in Mexico City and not just another indulgence in my academic interests where I never get to see any of the normal tourist attractions. But Sergio or the protesters could have filled me in on the protests.

When we came home by taxi, the traffic was smooth sailing for rush hour, in radical contrast to the day before. It was indeed likely, as the driver had suggested yesterday, that the total blockage of traffic flow had been as a result of the protesters. I longed to learn more, but I am getting long in the tooth. I have sat in with protesters through the sixties, including in America and in Sweden in 1967, and had been a leader of many myself. Protests attract me like catnip for a cat. But perhaps, in addition to my age, I have become slightly disillusioned by the significant number of protesters who have become ideologically anti-Israel. Many if not most have forgotten, if they ever knew, Octavio Paz’s arguments that communitarianism as well as universalism must both be upheld and supported as complementarities rather than as contradictions.

Later that evening back in our apartment, we heard seven large explosions in quick succession. When I lived in Jerusalem I had learned to listen to sirens immediately after explosions were heard to tell whether they were just by-products of construction or of destructive protests. There was no wailing of sirens, so we had a pizza and went to bed.

The Visible and the Invisible, the Hidden and the Reveale

The Visible and the Invisible, the Hidden and the Reveale 


Howard Adelman

Simon Schama is the famous British historian now at Columbia University who, when he was at Oxford wrote his famous book on the French Revolution, Patriots and Liberators that won him the Wolfson History Prize and instant recognition. His 1978 second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, turned him into the famous historian of the Jewish people. His 1987 volume on the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, The Embarrassment of Riches, though primarily about the golden age of the Dutch republic sewn together into a state of the lowland Protestant cities dominated by a new rising middle class, also gave that Jewish history great depth. The great Dutch thinkers in international studies and politics at the time, such a Hugo Grotius, were readers of Hebrew and were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Hebrew nation-state that so influenced the creation of the modern political order.


Last night on PBS I watched one episode of Simon Schama’s famous BBC series The Story of the Jews that first aired on BBC last year. The episode I saw was called “Over the Rainbow”. It covered the history of Ashkenazi Jews from the shtetls and cities of Europe until their rise in America from the lower east side in New York to become kings of song and music and the dream factories of Hollywood. The title is taken from the 1940 Oscar winning song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the musical, “The Wizard of Oz” with lyrics and music by Edgar Yipsel (E.Y.) “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen, two Jewish boys from New York’s lower east side, the latter the son of a renowned cantor.  Yip wrote the lyrics for such classics as “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” that became the anthem of the American depression and featured in Schama’s documentary. Among other classics, Yip wrote “April in Paris” and “Its Only a Paper Moon”. 

The episode in Schama’s BBC series opens with Schamas standing in an empty and crumbling but once very impressive synagogue in Košice, Slovakia built when Košice was the European capital of culture that competed with Marseille in France. As seen in the documentary, the pews are all gone, the plaster is crumbling and the brilliant reds and blues have all faded – though the exquisite quality of the stained glass windows have remarkably survived. Schama briefly and succinctly tells the story of the once prosperous Jewish citizens of the town, almost all of the over 17,000, who perished in the Holocaust. As Schama says at the very beginning of the episode, they are gone, they are absent, but he can feel and experience their presence by standing in that shell of the synagogue 

For, as Schabas sees it, the meaning of that core moral imperative of Judaism, tzadakah,  does not just mean obligatory charitable giving or even justice, but fairness rooted in a Jewish sense of solidarity with one’s fellow Jews and with the community at large. In Yiddish, according to Schama, there is no word for “individualism” for the Jew is a Jew because he or she is first and foremost a member of a community with obligations to that community. That presence of the community is what Schama experienced in the forlorn emptiness of the Košice synagogue.

Absence and Presence. Schama explored those themes in his earlier work, Landscape & Memory that literally touched on the intimate relationship between one’s physical environment and folk memory. This is why his famous TV documentaries touch us even as they gloss over the historical narrative. But there is another dimension to the foundation of life in the struggle to survive and the tactile relationship with all of that which supports life – earth, air and water. It is ire. It is hope, the dream of a better future, It is desire and the passion to create that future, for oneself and one’s community.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

Simon Schama’s message in the series comes out loud and clear in the episode I watched – Jews retreat inward into Hasidism when they are rejected and, when accepted, embrace the external world and want to be fully a part of it. Schama tells the story of the universality of the Jews while offering the full flavour of their unique particularity. It is a lesson Pauline Marois would do well to learn and perhaps she would abandon her Charter of Values. For instead of celebrating the greatness of the French reality in Canada and in Quebec in particular, that charter attacks the particularism of the various minorities in Quebec and legislates what they cannot wear.

In our Passover Seder, as I mentioned already, for the first time all six of my children will be home for Passover, including all nine grandchildren, two returning all the way from their home in Israel. We will have thirty-six members of our family and friends celebrating this festival of freedom. As is usual, our seder is run as a Greek symposium, the original inspiration for the most famous dinner in the cycle of festivities of the Jewish year. The theme this year is Absence and Presence, the hidden and the revealed, the invisible and the visible. We will explore the meaning of each of the fifteen sections of the seder and all its themes in terms of that dichotomy. Everyone, especially the children, will play a part.

The seder begins with the Kadesh. Kadesh is about presence and bonding, of family and friends, of old and young, of linking past and future. But most of all it is about a call to service to a hidden God, an absence rather than a presence. Further, this is not a tale of progress, of how the present is an improvement on the past, but a tale of resurrection and re-enactment, of remembering and redemption, of reliving the past as if it were the present. We are present; we try to make the Past present; and we experience God’s absence, and it is that absence, that which is missing, that we emphasize when we try to make the past Present.

The ceremony shall be observed throughout the generations for all times. This is a never ending project. Yet the pledge is regarded as a mitzvah, a commandment, but also a mitvah in Schama’s sense, a blessing freely taken up as a duty to be executed to be a moral agent to contribute to the well being of the community. So to celebrate Passover is both to obey an external command of God and, at the same time, to observe a ritual as an expression of freedom as self-legislating for oneself.

God who commands is invisible. He is hidden. Not only are we to accept this hidden and invisible God as the source of our categorical commands, but the God is the ONLY source. Further, that God is One. The Divine is not contained and manifested in the many different spirits that characterize ourselves or that are often equated with animal totems. The Divine Absence is the One and Only source. As the story of the escape from Egypt is told, we are commanded to both love and fear this One and Only Divine absence.  Why both love and fear?

These commandments insist that this is the only way NOT to be governed by either the attractions of our sensibilities OR the passions of our heart. Why obey a source that insists that it will rule over the flesh whether found between your legs or in your breast and heart? Why let an invisible being that gives priority to reason, or thought, or reflection and places the passions, like empathy, and feeling cum sensibilities – like the great tastes we will experience in this meal – possibly in second place? But they are NOT

In second place. Life and sensibilities are the foundation. Desire, passion and compassion are on top. Judgment is sandwiched between them.

If we can come close to understanding our own hiddenness, we might come close to answering the Big Question. Whatever the answer, the extent we get closer to an answer comes in telling the story of when WE went forth from Egypt, from a house of bondage and the story of HOW God delivered US into freedom using a “mighty hand”. Quite a trick for someone who is invisible! Further, note that the arm is outstretched – perhaps for an embrace. The arm is not said to be mighty. The hand is. The hand that writes. The hand that carves. The hand that paints. The hand that cooks. This is where might is to be found. The hand is not there for a mere handshake. That requires an outstretched arm that can embrace you.

So we embrace one another at the Passover table, Jew and gentile guest alike, in one community. And we do so drinking four cups of wine for different stages of redemption. God who pronounces that, “I shall be who I shall be” gives us a sense of absence, of invisibility by taking us back to the place from whence we came, from a place of oppression and impossibly arduous labour, wine as the symbol of blood and physical sacrifice. During the seder we will travel through the rescue from this time of toil and trouble and drink a second cup of wine in gratitude to our escape and physical redemption. We will later in the seder drink a third cup of wine, to remind us how redemption came with an outstretched arm and with great judgment and with the fourth cup of wine how we were knitted together as a people to live with and among the other great peoples of this world. 

In addition to the wine, among the other symbols of the seder is the other great symbol, unleavened bread or matzah, “the bread of affliction”. In the fourth stage of the seder service comes the Yahatz, the important point where three pieces of matzah, one piled on top of another and each separated by a cloth and all three covered. We reach in and break the middle layer. The leader of the seder, takes the larger half, the Afikomen, and hides it. An important part of thee seder is when children twelve and under search for the missing and hidden Afikomen. The rest of us are left to explore the meaning of this hidden half.

For the pile of three matzahs symbolize the different parts of the self, not the id, ego and superego of Freud’s individualistic construction of the self, but the eating and drinking and sleeping that the bottom matzah represents, the basic struggle for survival. The basis of everything is chaim, life, my own Hebrew name. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof

Here’s to our prosperity. Our good health and happiness. And most important,
To life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life
Here’s to the father I’ve tried to be
Here’s to my bride to be
Drink, l’chaim, to life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life

Life has a way of confusing us
Blessing and bruising us
Drink, l’chaim, to life

God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor
How much more can we be joyful
When there’s really something
To be joyful for
To life, to life, l’chaim

To Tzeitel, my daughter
My wife
It gives you something to think about
Something to drink about
Drink, l’chaim, to life

As Schama shows in his documentary, even in the dismal depths of the pogroms of 2005 in the Pale of Settlement,

It takes a wedding to make us say
Let’s live another day
Drink, l’chaim, to lif

So the seder is a celebration to life, l’chaim, to joy and happiness and the delights of our sensibilities. But there is more to human existence than life and physical joy, the foundation of our being, the bottom matzah. There is desire. There is passion. And mostly there is compassion, that which allows us to understand and empathize with another, that which allows us to feel a part of a community and humanity. It is that top matzah during the seder that will be shared among the guests at the table as each takes the haroset, a mixture of fruits and nuts and wine eaten as a sandwich, but unlike in Plato’s symposia, eaten with the bitter herbs in memory of the arduous and forced labour in erecting monuments to supposedly an after-life. Haroset was the mortar that bound those stones together.

If life is the bottom matzah and desire and passion and compassion is the top matzah, but matzah that must never forget the bitterness of our lives just as the bottom matzah never forgets its joys, what is the middle matzah? As in Freud, and unlike the Greeks where reason sits on top of the passions and the appetites, reason as judgement sits between them, mediating between our sensibilities and our desires. The middle matzah does not govern by repression. It understands both the need and greatness of the sensibilities and the importance of the passions to give flight where troubles melt like lemon drops and bluebirds fly, not to the end of the rainbow for a pot of gold, but over the rainbow. 

But that is the smaller half of the matzah that stays between life and desire. What about the Afikomen that is taken away and hidden? When we find it, we eat it together at the end of the seder. But what is the invisibility of this spirit in which we partake when we truly break unleavened bread together? What is this geist that draws so richly from our past and projects us into the future? Simon Schama finds the presence of that invisible spirit when he visits the Košice synagogue in Slovakia, the glory of the divine presence, the shechina, that we can only find when we search to make the invisible visible rather than to keep it a hidden secret. For we must not become a Dorian Gray. We must rediscover the divine feminine spirit of the world as its quintessential quality even as we use our understanding and judgement to reconcile our survival instincts with our passions and desires 

So have a great seder, everyone, not just Jews, for the Passover seder is a feast which everyone should enjoy and celebrate as we unite l’chaim with a creative and community enterprise in the task of leading reasonable and prosperous lives, but lives that must not lose touch with the hiddenness, the mysterious, the invisible, the quality that will allow us to become more than human. But never gods.


Review: The Whipping Man

The Whipping Man


Howard Adelman

For a while, particularly at the end of the eighties, one of the scourges of anti-Semitism was the big lie that Jews were prominent in America and the Caribbean as slave traders and sellers or, at the very least as financiers of that trade and exchange. (Cf. The Nation of Islam (1991) The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews) During the nineties, research and a series of academic books and articles demolished this canard. (For one of the earliest, cf. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1992) "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars," The New York Times, 20 July, A15) Jews were involved in all aspects of the slave trade, but their role was relatively miniscule.

The same is true of slave ownership. Only 15,000 Jews, though some estimates go as high as 25,000 (Robert N. Rosen (2000) The Jewish Confederates), lived in the confederate states when the American Civil War erupted. Of those, Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly urban; they held slaves as domestic servants. However, 90% of the American slave population worked on plantations. Among plantation owners, of 11,000 significant slave holders, only four or less than 0.04% were recorded as Jews. Thus, of almost 4,000,000 slaves, 3,600,000 of whom lived on plantations, Jews may have owned relatively few slaves, but those numbers on the four plantations numbered possibly as high as fifteen hundred altogether. The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez directed by Philip Akin and a joint venture of two theatre companies, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Obsidian, a Black theatre company, is set on a fictional version of one of these four Jewish plantations. The play is currently on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Further, in the play, the slaves, though not converted to Judaism, were raised as Jews, a practice totally consistent with Jewish teaching. Deuteronomy 16:14 reads: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates." Servants or slaves (ebed) were expected to participate in all festivals and especially expected to honour shabat, an instruction many Jews in Toronto with nannies might find surprising. Further, there were specific rules laid down about their treatment. Slaves could not be overworked. On the other hand, they could be legally held as property and sold and bought. That in itself presents a conundrum for Jews celebrating Passover and their own escape from slavery.

Lopez` play is not the first work of fiction to take up this setting. Alan Cheuse used it in his novel, Songs of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild dealing with a slave girl growing up on a rice plantation and her involvement with a slave-owning Jewish family. Cheuse in interviews said that he got his idea from a period when he went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, joined a Jewish fraternity and met the President who was Black, Len Jeffries, who afterwards went onto a distinguished academic career. Cheuse set his novel in pre-Civil War South; Lopez set his play in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. There are no notes in the theatre program to indicate where Lopez got his very clever idea to juxtapose a Passover seder held by observant slaves on a Jewish plantation after the end of the Civil War.

The first day of Passover in 1865 was 11 April. It was a Tuesday. The Civil War had started four years earlier on 12 April 1861. After the decisive victory of Union forces at the Battle of Five Forks on 1 April, after desertions and casualties from the Confederate Army became massive after being attacked by Major General Philip Sutherland leading a Union army of 50,000, five times the size of his decimated and demoralized force, General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee surrendered in Northern Virginia on Sunday, 9 April at McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court to General Ulysses S. Grant, 36 hours before the first seder was scheduled to be held. Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on Good Friday, 14 April of that week. In the play, the Passover seder is held on the Friday evening when the shabat meal is also scheduled to accommodate the news that Father Abraham, as Simon calls him in the play, was shot.

One of those deserters from Richmond is fictionalized as Captain Caleb DeLeon, the son of a Jewish plantation owner who arrives at the destroyed plantation house at the opening of the play. 10,000 Jews served on both sides of the Civil War and they suffered casualties in the same enormous ratios as the rest of the population. Caleb has arrived home over a week after he was wounded. The bullet is still in his leg which has become gangrenous. In the opening of the second act, Caleb stands unwounded, an apparition of his previous existence as a soldier, to read one of his love letters sent home to his lover describing the horrors of the war in general and of Petersburg in particular probably drawn either from J. Tracy Power’s 1998 collection of Confederate soldiers` letters and diaries, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox or Robert Alexander`s more recent 2003 collection, Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy which intersperses diary and letter entries with the author`s own impressions.The Petersburg National Battlefield Memorial site which has diary entries and letters on display is well worth a visit to get a sense of the enormous horrors of that battle.

The opening battle scene of Stephen Spielberg`s movie is set at the Battle of Jenkin`s Ferry, one year earlier, to fit the timeline of the movie. Instead of the realism of Spielberg`s Saving Private Ryan depicting Omaha Beach on D-Day, this famous director offered a far more surrealistic and evocative portrayal of close-quarter fighting in the deep mud of battle, a vision that could only be hinted at in the play when Caleb read from the letter he sent. But it was the same vision and would helped us in the audience identify with Caleb`s suffering if the scene had come earlier in the play.

After all, the play is a juxtaposition of two sides of the Civil War, Black slaves who identified with the Union versus their former masters, in this case, the Jewish son of a Jewish plantation owner. The slaves are celebrating Passover and this year in Jerusalem for they have been emancipated by Father Abraham who was assassinated two weeks after the end of the Civil War near the end of the play. Caleb, on the other hand, has lost his faith after the horrors of the war as well as his status as the owner and commander of the behaviour of his former slaves.

The play is totally plot driven so one cannot review the production adequately without giving away that plot. From the audience reaction at the end – they gave the performers a standing ovation – and the personal comments of friends whom we met coincidentally after the play, the audience loved the play and its production. I found Sterling Jarvis who plays Simon, the older Black Plantation quasi-manager, who saves Caleb`s life and initiates the seder, to have offered a stellar performance, though one individual after the play complained that it was difficult for her to follow all his dialogue because he tended to mumble into his chest rather than project. I myself had no such difficulty.

Robert Crew in his Toronto Star review of 20 March, after noting the oft-repeated notes of the publicity that Lopez`play has been one of the most frequently produced plays since it was first staged in 2006, comments that Lopez skillfully unveils "revelation after revelation. And director Philip Akin keeps the audience engaged to the very end, when a final skeleton exits the closet." That is indeed how the play works, not by character development or thematic exploration, but by plot revelation of hidden secrets around the central theme of remembering as a way of rediscovering and recovering freedom. Crew concludes, "It’s a solid piece of theatre, fast-moving and entertaining yet offering some knotty little questions to ponder." Though I did agree with his criticisms of the credibility of Brett Donahue`s performance of Caleb, I came away as a tiny dissenting minority about both the general quality of the play with a few criticisms of the production itself.

However, mine is clearly a very minority view. Gregory Bunker in his review, "Spinning Slavery" thought the play explored "the notion that a religion with the history and pride of escaping slavery could be kosher with imposing such chains on others," whereas I saw this as merely the clever occasion of the play while it tried to probe deeper into a notion of bondage tied to memory that both frees and ties one down. In Bunker`s view, the three players, "With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky…begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery." Instead, I saw the author as celebrating Judaism as a questioning religion and using that to probe deeper and raise even more questions about the after effects of slavery on the psyche as well as the body politic. Bunker concluded, "The Whipping Man is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play about overlapping identities, their complexities, paradoxes, incompatibilities, and their resolutions. For its polish and novel, well-written story, The Whipping Man is a drama to be seen." I would agree that the play is worth seeing, but not for the same reasons.

The director, Philip Atkin, from his remarks on line clearly understood that the play was not about resolutions. "I love plays that focus us inexorably on those crucial moments in time. That dive deep and open up big questions. I love that both of our plays this season do not dwell in the cult of the answer but reside firmly in the cult of the question. And it is with those questions that we bring who we are into the theatre and are forced to engage one on one with what is being asked." (The Charlebois Post, Atkin was clearly surprised by the reaction of a Jewish audience – which last night seemed to be overwhelmingly Jewish – that was so discomfited by part of their history that they did not seem to know when Blacks were enslaved by Jews. So how did they reconcile their discomfort with their enthusiasm for the play? Was that enthusiasm in part a liberal reaction to that discomfort?

In my own view, the play, as I said above, was plot-driven. The need to uncover revelation after revelation to drive the plot prevented the deeper exploration of the questions and themes raised – whether of lords and bondsmen, mastery and slavery, memory used to recall slavery and celebrate freedom and memory used to reinforce bondage and inhibit freedom, Judaism as a religion of questioning and Jews as a group who have the opposite propensity of denial and not coming face to face with their own past and even the injustices written into the Haggadah read at Passover.

Lynn Slotkin in her review on the radio on CIUT`s morning show on 23 March described the joint effort of two production companies "as a very fine production directed with tremendous style, energy and intelligence by Philip Akin…that echoes the plight of two peoples—Jews and blacks—and shows how they are so similar. The play is gripping in its story-telling; full-bodied in its characters; and compelling in what it has to say about freedom, choice, moral fibre and responsibility. Simon often asks John is he a slave or a Jew? I love that distinction and it reverberates in this play." I myself found the story telling to be predictable, the plot devices contrived, arbitrary and generally unnecessary, the characters left undeveloped and unaltered, and the themes pronounced but unexplored.

Sonia Borkar in her review may have grasped the source of enchantment of the play. As she wrote, "The show is so intense and sucks you in from the moment the lights go down.

I found this show interesting on so many levels because I don’t know much about American History or the Jewish culture and to watch something where they both intersect was fascinating to me." Gentile and non-Jewish audiences are evidently most fascinated by the makeshift seder in the second act. As Borkar wrote, "For me it was ironic to see an enslaved Jewish black man singing about the struggles of freedom the Jews had endured when they fled Egypt and the parallels to his own life. Simon’s faith now made complete sense to me. All these centuries later he was still a Jewish man fighting for his freedom. It’s also an interesting commentary on human nature to see a culture that survives slavery then enslaves another."


Borkar encouraged everyone to see the show. "The script is great, the acting and direction are fantastic, the set couldn’t be more fitting and the trek is more than worth it. And if you don’t know much about the subject matter you will still be moved to tears and definitely learn a little bit about an important slice of history." I found the script contrived and the set a representation of the interior of a Toronto home, except for one small Doric column, rather than of an impressive huge plantation home. However, the direction is indeed excellent. The acting of Sterling Jarvis is outstanding. Thomas Olajide tried mightily and with great skill to reconcile the scholarly and studious side of John with his scallywag character and huge repressed rage, but here I found the inadequacy lay in the play for, given the material, I could not imagine how to make these tensions into a coherent character – the studious John is sacrificed to the scoundrel with the memory of Caleb`s betrayal and John`s whipping as the explanation for an unstoppable rage serving as a cover to bottle up and then explode the perilous contradictions.

Finally, I do not expect plays or movies to teach us history, but they can induce one to look into history. The play certainly succeeds on that level. The program notes could have helped if a full page had been devoted to providing some historical background or even if a simple timeline of the two weeks covered by the play could have been included.