Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Deal--And Haggadah's Repressed Anger

The Passover Haggadah, the short book of hymns, chronicles, and liturgical practices whose reading constitutes the traditional Seder, is thought to have been compiled as early as the second century—around the time the Talmud was compiled, just when rabbinic Judaism as we know it was emerging, a rival to Jewish followers of Jesus in coming to terms with the catastrophe of exile. The Haggadah is thus a book immanently at odds with itself: committed to the principle of emancipation—“from slavery to freedom”—and to symbolic rituals that celebrate deliverance, yet also replete with what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia”—a commitment to self-segregating ancestral commandments and barely repressed rabbinic defensiveness and rage.

At the opening of the Seder, the leader holds up a piece of matza, unleavened bread, and speaks in ancient Aramaic, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.” It is easy enough to imagine that for exiled, haunted Jews still living under Roman rule, the “land of Israel” was still a formative place, kept in the collective memory—and initiating yearly Seders helped to memorialize it. But, by the time the Haggadah was itself formative—certainly by the early Middle Ages, when anti-Jewish massacres had become common in Christian lands—the “land of Israel” seemed less a geographical fact than a place of messianic hope.

So the Haggadah also reflects the sense of grief, helplessness—and craving for retaliation—that many rabbis cultivated over the centuries. The divine, not any political figure (Moses, strangely, is hardly mentioned), liberated His chosen “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Early rabbis are quoted revelling, with a unself-conscious pathos, in plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, magnifying oppressors’ suffering like a wounded boy fantasizing about what his father should do to a bully. Rabbi Eliezer hypothesizes that the ten plagues were actually forty, because each plague was delivered with attitude: “ ‘Fury’ is one; ‘indignation’ makes two; ‘trouble’ makes three; ‘discharge of messengers of evil’ makes four.” These forty, plus the notional two hundred plagues inflicted at the Red Sea, make two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva then trumps Rabbi Eliezer, reckoning along similar lines that the plagues actually numbered two hundred and fifty. In every generation, the Haggadah exhorts us to sing, unnamed forces “rise against us to annihilate us.”

If there was always this tension in the traditional Haggadah—between valorizing what must be done to liberate all people in need and valorizing what must be done to liberate Jews as a particular people—this hardly mattered in the diaspora, where the Haggadah was composed and for which it was intended. The tension was alleviated, if not resolved, by an implicit knowledge that Jews were the outsiders—so that doing what prevented their persecution, or advanced their civic interests, also advanced social tolerance and the formation of civil society more generally. This is not the way the Haggadah reads today, however: the tension is more palpable and vexing for Israelis—and, increasingly, for American Jews. When you have the military or police power to act against others, or the political power to oppose others, you don’t have the arguable luxury of assuming Jewish interests to be coincident with those of every oppressed person. (As if to prove this point as grotesquely as possible, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—of all weeks, just before Passover—began the forced expulsion of many hundreds of the forty thousand of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who had crossed the Sinai to find asylum in Israel.)

Today, the land of Israel is not something poetic and hypothetical, nor is the survival imperative inherently free of bigotry or the hunger for revenge harmless. The last point seems particularly urgent this day of the Seder, the day after the announcement of the great power agreement with Iran; Israelis and American Jews will find it impossible to read the Haggadah tonight without thinking about the deal’s implications. It is worth observing that, already, Netanyahu is denouncing the deal as “threaten[ing] the survival of the state of Israel.” And his view is widely echoed in Israel, including by otherwise balanced observers like Ari Shavit, who argued yesterday in Haaretz that the Lausanne talks were something like Munich all over again; that economic sanctions on Iran should rather have been intensified until “Iran’s nuclear capability was entirely sterilized.”

Hyperbole of this kind is safely conformist in today’s Israel—also among Jews supporting AIPAC in America. Its champions view themselves as stiffening spines against foes who, the Haggadah didn’t need to remind us, are real. Yet it is hard to hear the talk without thinking tonight of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, cowering and in mourning, defaulting to a frame of mind in which the only response to Jew-hatred is multiplied plagues. If this is Munich, then the alternative, as President Obama justly observed, is “another Mideast war.” But would war, or even the threat of war, really force Iran’s most authoritarian leaders to back down—or would it entrench them? Would increased sanctions really weaken Iranian hardliners as much as the integration of the country’s isolated, restless entrepreneurs and professionals into the global system? Rabbi Akiva, the Haggadah doesn’t bother reminding us, also inspired, early in the second century, the catastrophic Bar Kochba wars.

At tonight’s Seder, I would suggest that the cautionary words of Thucydides, who predated the Haggadah by six hundred years, be added to Rabbi Eliezer’s and Rabbi Akiva’s imaginings of plagues. “A moderate attitude,” he lamented in his “History of The Peloponnesian War,” “was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything.” He added, dismissively, “One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful.” The Haggadah supposes that, in every generation, we should imagine that we ourselves stood at Sinai and assumed the burdens of law. We should imagine that we stood also at Amphipolis, and assumed the awkwardness of moderation.

Read in The New Yorker

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Netanyahu's Compromised Victory

This morning, the Times proclaimed a “crushing victory” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over Zionist Union challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, in yesterday’s election. But crushing victories don’t usually look like this one. In the last national election, in 2013, the five parties that make up Netanyahu’s hard-right “national camp” won sixty-one of the hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset. Yesterday, it won fifty-seven. It’s true that Netanyahu’s Likud surged to thirty seats, nine more than projected by last Friday’s final poll—the Zionist Union, by contrast, was expected to get twenty-four, and finished with exactly that—but Netanyahu’s gain was not really at Herzog and Livni’s expense.

What happened, as the Times of Israel’s editor, David Horovitz, points out, was that Netanyahu “desperately cannibalized” the most strident right-wing parties in his camp, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu repudiated the two-state principle, promised Bennett a prominent place in his government, and appealed to Bennett’s supporters to vote this time for his own Likud party. He insisted, plausibly, that the national camp as a whole could be forced out of power if the Zionist Union, not the Likud, won a plurality of seats and was granted the mandate, by President Reuven Rivlin, to try to form a majority government. He warned that "Arabs were voting in droves." Rightist voters, it turns out, obliged Netanyahu in droves. Bennett was polling at thirteen seats last Friday and finished with eight. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had ten or more in previous elections, ended with six.

Two new centrist parties, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, finished, as predicted by the polls, with ten and eleven seats, respectively. These results confirm the steady drift of younger Likud voters toward centrists like Kahlon (who served as a government minister under Netanyahu); as I wrote on Monday, Netanyahu cannot reach a majority without him. Yesterday, it seemed possible that, if Herzog and Livni had a plurality of seats, Kahlon would side with them. His senior partners, General Yoav Galant and the former Ambassador Michael Oren, are not sympathetic to Bennett’s settlers, embraced the two-state formula in their platform, and focussed mainly on economic inequality. But Netanyahu’s strong plurality almost certainly precludes Kahlon’s feeling emboldened to make a majority for the Zionist Union. That majority would have included the Arab Joint List, which would not have been an easy partnership for Kahlon, given his history with Likud.

The vote has fallen in favor of Netanyahu, but the country remains divided, even with centrist parties aiming to create a consensus around economic equality, social liberalism, and diplomatic skepticism. In greater Tel Aviv, Herzog’s center-left (without Kahlon) garnered about sixty-three per cent of the vote. In greater Jerusalem, Likud’s national camp (again, without Kahlon), got about eighty per cent. Today, at the Western Wall, Netanyahu told the press, “I deeply value the decision by Israeli civilians to choose me and my colleagues, against all the odds and against major forces,” suggesting the solidarity he wants and the enemies he needs. He does not yet have Rivlin’s mandate, but he pledged to form a government “within two to three weeks.” We shall see if Kahlon and his partners—who promised voters economic reforms and transparency, but, in a coalition with Likud, would first have to agree to sweeten pots for settlements and yeshivas—will oblige Netanyahu’s timetable. Kahlon may not have the conviction to make a majority for Herzog, but he might summon the rage to deny one to Netanyahu. Anyway, he has the power to force surprises on the coming coalition negotiations—and he just might.

Monday, March 16, 2015

2015: Victory For The Democratic Center?

Israel’s last pre-election poll shows that Isaac Herzog, the head of the Zionist Union—a center-left coalition of the Labor Party and former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah—is likely to win twenty-four seats or more, opening a four seat lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Neither is remotely close to winning the sixty-one seats needed to form a government after Tuesday’s election—leading parties build coalitions with smaller parties—but the Zionist Union’s surge has inspired excitement among liberals that is harder than usual to restrain. Although about ten per cent of voters are still undecided, Herzog seems to be trending up, with Netanyahu trending down. President Reuven Rivlin is required by law to award the mandate—the right to attempt to cobble together a government—to the leader who is most likely to succeed. Unless the ten or more parties that are expected to win seats declare a preference for prime minister in advance, and Netanyahu emerges as most likely to make a majority, Herzog’s projected plurality should be enough to compel Rivlin to award the mandate to him.

Netanyahu could still emerge triumphant; Israeli polling is not as reliable as one might hope. Even if the polls are accurate, Herzog will need support from some uncertain sources—most importantly, from Moshe Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu party, who came from Likud. Yet Herzog’s likely strong showing, and the new coalition he represents, portends some long-term shifts in the political map. Netanyahu has polarized the country, much as the former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did in the early nineteen-nineties. Netanyahu has declared Likud the anchor of the Israeli right, repudiated the feasibility of a two-state solution, brazenly defied the White House (Likud robocalls refer to “Hussein Obama”), and rallied mainstream conservative voters to identify with ultra-nationalist settlers and ultra-orthodox communities. Netanyahu assumed, when he called for this early election, back in December, that, like Shamir, he could rely on Likud’s traditional base. Manifestly, he cannot. Instead, Netanyahu and Herzog are enacting an enormously significant battle between two political camps: the parties of Greater Israel and the parties of Global Israel—and the latter has the social momentum. Even if this election does not produce an immediate change at the top, it will almost certainly be pivotal.

Since 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud first won power from the Labor Zionist parties that founded the state, Israel has had twelve national elections. Likud has won eight times, and Labor just twice. In 1984, even after former Prime Minister Begin’s failed war with Lebanon and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s forced resignation, and with inflation at four hundred per cent, Likud still pulled out a tie. In all, Labor leaders have commanded Knesset majorities for just about six years out of thirty-eight. Meanwhile, Likud seemed to have assembled a near-permanent conservative majority. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a far-right law student, in 1995, liberals felt that they were witnessing an unfolding tragedy, in which time and rage were working against them. They struggled to compete with Likud’s self-reinforcing ideology: occupation produced violence, and violence strengthened Jewish xenophobia, which resonated with Likud’s hawkish rhetoric. Likud’s neo-Zionist orthodoxies gave rise to a rapidly expanding West Bank settler population, whose towns many began taking for granted. Likud also benefitted from inescapable identity politics, which ran in families, and largely reflected resentments against the once dominant Labor Zionist parties for the centralized way that they ran the state in the fifties and sixties. If (as I’ve written elsewhere) Israel were to be divided into five roughly equal demographic voting groups—pioneering Zionists from Europe, Arabs who became Israeli citizens, Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, national-orthodox and ultra-orthodox theocrats, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union—Likud has appeared to have a lock on the last three.

This election suggests that globalist liberals are now at least in contention. One important change has been the full emergence of the Israeli political center, once considered a passing political force, but now clearly the product of younger, more cosmopolitan voters who have come into their own—connecting with peers abroad through entrepreneurial ventures, cultural and scientific networks, and travel—and who have not remained altogether loyal to the party identities of their parents. These centrists tend to consider themselves socially progressive: distancing themselves from settlers and theocrats. They are economically liberal: positive about global markets but wary of both capitalist oligarchs and socialist tinkering. And they are diplomatically skeptical: open to the peace process, but indignant about terrorism and the criticism of the Israel Defense Forces by the world press. Yair Lapid, the former minister of finance, leads Yesh Atid, the first centrist party to draw large numbers of young voters; he will almost certainly support Herzog over Netanyahu. Moshe Kahlon, the former minister of communications under Netanyahu, who is largely credited with opening the cell-phone market to new competitors, reportedly resents Netanyahu for reneging on a pledge to make him the head of the Israel Land Authority, and he refuses to rule out joining Herzog. Together, Lapid and Kahlon are likely to win at least twenty seats, nearly as many as the two major parties. They are drawing votes especially from young people in Russian and Mizrahi families—votes the Likud was counting on.

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Netanyahu's Misuses of Purim's 'Book of Esther'


For those who cringed listening to Benjamin Netanyahu's invocation of the 'Book of Esther,' here is the corrective.  Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University--also my wife--shows us that the text (and what he ignores in it) exposes Netanyahu's mind, and his plans, in ways, alas, he cannot see. This is adapted from her article in today's Haaretz.       

Benjamin Netanyahu chose the day before the holiday of Purim on which to deliver his speech to Congress, and made the most obvious analogy: As in ancient times, the Persians intend to annihilate the Jews. Now, as then, the Jews will prevail over the villains and foil their genocidal plots. It doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of the text behind the festival, The Megillah ("Book of Esther,") to see that Netanyahu’s comprehension of scriptures is about as slanted as his apprehension of nuclear strategy and international relations. Although the holiday has become over the years an excuse for innocuous masquerade and revelry, the Megillah itself is problematic, revealing as much about our wounded psyches as our procession of enemies.

The first eight chapters, the crux of the Megillah, are an exercise in what might be called orientalist fantasy. King Ahasverus rules over an empire of 127 multilingual satrapies with Persian and faux-Persian names; he has an entourage of eunuchs and simpering officials who do his bidding, facilitating drunken revels lasting 180 days and punishing disobedient wives and instructing their husbands in the art of tyranny. The villain Haman is a grotesque counterpart to the virtuous Mordecai; the beautiful Esther is the damsel who will win the beauty contest.

Parody, masque, commedia dell‘arte: what this text reflects in its early chapters is the comic impulse, nourished, as some scholars contend, by the rather beneficent conditions in which Jews lived in the Babylonian, Persian and even the Hellenistic diaspora (depending on where and when you date the composition of the text). Clearly, although Netanyahu implies otherwise, the Book of Esther is a fantasy – not recounting any historical event. The only real “historical” reference is to Mordechai, who is presented as a fourth generation descendant of the Jews exiled from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylonia [2:1 – a verse singled out in public readings to be chanted in mournful tones].

The book’s middle is the part we – and the Israeli prime minister – know best: Mordechai, making the most of his luck, positions his niece Esther to become the queen in order to influence the hapless king to override Haman’s genocidal intent. But by the end of the book we might be too drunk to pay attention to the ways in which comedy has turned into revenge tragedy, an explosion of blood-curdling violence — not by Persians against innocent Jews, but by Jews against innocent Persians.

Esther, having thwarted Haman’s evil plot, is not satisfied with the public hangings of her arch-enemy and his 10 sons – but is granted permission to preemptively slaughter all who have received the order to kill the Jews. There is no textual hint that these Persians ever took up arms – “no one dared to stand up against them, out of the fear that they instilled” [9:2]. Yet the Jews go ahead and slaughter 500 innocent people in the satrapies that belong to the King. Then sweet Esther, the beguiling descendant of Babylonian exiles, wife of the clueless Ahasverus – whom little girls will emulate in gauzy costumes for centuries to come – asks for, and is granted, another day of slaughter: in the capital city of Shushan alone, 300 people are slaughtered, and in the surrounding satrapies 75,000 are slaughtered [9:15-16].

That is the text that all those Congressmen and women – who leapt to their feet with every platitude and oath Netanyahu uttered – should read. The prime minister of Israel, showing a pathetic lack of self-awareness, is valorizing the mind of Esther. The text he cites is the chronicle of how a people, shocked into seeking to thwart the evil decree, wind up using the excuse of preemption to justify vengeful, rampaging violence. (It is a universal story in this sense, not just a Jewish one: what genocidal act is not justified as retribution for some great or imagined grievance?) The historic persecution of the Jewish people has been real enough. But Jewish suffering has also engendered a fantasy of demon-enemies, of Jewish attacks as nothing but deterrence.

Two generations after the liberation of the concentration camps, Netanyahu brought Elie Wiesel to bear witness to his militant words. Another writer who survived the camps, the late Ilona Karmel, once warned about Jews like Netanyahu who have “scars but no wounds.” Netanyahu declares: Don’t make a deal. He may have said the alternative is a "better deal" but by alluding to the Book of Esther, what he really implies is that the alternative is war. Esther – or at least the people who live in the chimerical world conjured by her book – would no doubt approve.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech: What's Left Out

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was conceived as a political stunt, and it is hard to imagine commentators resisting the question of how the event is playing. We are likely to hear a great deal about how many Democrats show up, how often they applaud, and whether they stand when applauding. But Netanyahu will also be making a case to the American people. He will tell us that an Iranian bomb constitutes an existential threat to Israel, and that the U.S. and its allies should impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran, presumably to force the “dismantling” of its nuclear infrastructure. He will tell us that, in the negotiations that the U.S. and other leading powers are currently conducting with Iranian leadership, Congress should refuse any deal that, as he puts it, “cements” Iran’s place as a threshold nuclear power. To make this case plausible, there are certain facts that he won’t be able to admit.

Netanyahu will almost certainly begin by acknowledging, and claiming to regret, tensions with the Obama Administration, praising Democrats and stoking an old spirit of bipartisanship. Israel has gotten almost reflexive support—diplomatic cover and military assistance—from both Democrats and Republicans when its security has been at stake. Given the circumstances of Israel’s founding, no Israeli leader can appear to take this support for granted, and no American President would want to appear cavalier about it. (Yesterday, Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, was dispatched to the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to review the Administration’s record of support and promise a continuation of that support.)

But because both American political parties are so deeply concerned about the security of the state, Netanyahu has a permanent incentive—as does AIPAC, for that matter—to present Israel’s policies as necessary to fend off urgent existential threats. Netanyahu will claim that any Iranian nuclear capacity is proof of genocidal intentions toward Israel—we have heard the same argument about the Palestinian claim to “a right of return”—so why would supporters of Israel accept the reciprocal approach that may emerge from negotiations? This gambit should not work this time. Clearly, Netanyahu is representing one side of a policy debate, with supporters and detractors in both the United States and Israel, where American lives and regional interests are also at stake, and where the Obama Administration has taken a very different position.

Read on at The New Yorker


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Cohen's Montreal--And Ours



Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a hymn to souls too carnal to grow old, too secular to give praise, and too baffled to mock faith—recently turned thirty. Cohen himself, now eighty, came of age in Jewish Montreal during the twenty years after the Second World War, and those of us who followed him, a half-generation later, can’t hear the song without also thinking about that time and place, which qualifies as an era. The devotional—and deftly sacrilegious—quality of “Hallelujah” and other songs and poems by Cohen reflects a city of clashing and bonding religious communities, especially first-generation Jews and French Catholics. Montreal’s politics in the early sixties were energized by what came to be called Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which emancipated the city’s bicultural intelligentsia from Church and Anglostocracy. The pace of transformation could make the place half crazy; that’s why you wanted to be there.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Talking About The Election

A couple of weeks ago, I did a little video conference about the upcoming election--and more--for supporters of the New Israel Fund in Australia, organized (with my thanks) by Liam Getreu. You can watch the event here.  Also, if you missed notice of it, I discussed both the Netanyahu speech and the election with The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, on the magazine's weekly "Political Scene" podcast. You can stream that discussion here. Finally, for people in Princeton (and the New York area more generally), I'll be reporting on the election on Sunday, March 22. The occasion is the Amy Adina Schulman Memorial lecture, which will take place at at The Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, in Princeton, at 7:00 PM. My gratitude to the indomitable Ruth Schulman for the invitation.