Jews & Power
The old Jewish joke goes: It is Berlin in the early 1930s, and Simon bumps into Isaac. Isaac is sitting on a bench reading the Nazi daily, Der Stürmer. “Isaac!” Simon exclaims. “How can you read that trash!” Simon puts down the paper. “Well, I’ll tell you. I used to read the Yiddish press, but all it talked about was Jews getting beaten, expelled from their homes and having their businesses burned down. It made me feel miserable. But here in Der Stürmer I read that Jews are powerful and in control of the world, and it makes me feel great!”
A second story: Around the same time and place, two young Jewish men found themselves walking up a street late at night. They saw a pair of dark figures moving toward them. One Jew turned to the other and plaintively asked: “What are we going to do? There are two of them, and we are alone!”
Here is no joke: The perception of Jewish power — and of Jewish powerlessness — tends to be greatly exaggerated.
Throughout their entire history, Jews have represented a small population existing in the midst of much larger, stronger and more populous cultures and societies. King David’s kingdom might have represented the greatest reach of Jewish national power before or since (including the modern State of Israel right after the 6-Day War), but it was a rather tiny monarchy compared with Egypt to the west or Assyria to the north. Yet, at no time have the Jews been wholly powerless. Through the utilization of strategic skills, talents, financial wherewithal or location, Jewish communities have successfully bargained much greater powers in order to survive or to preserve certain rights and prerogatives.
Figuring out just how much power a particular Jewish community has is very difficult to do. In general, however, gentile society often overestimates Jewish power, while Jews themselves tend to underestimate it. The two jokes related above do point to underlying truths.
The problem with assessing Jewish power has been brought to bear by two recent books and the reactions they have engendered. In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter produced Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a rather astringent assessment of Israel’s role in the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Around the same time, two academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published a long essay in the Times of London Literary Supplement that has subsequently been expanded into the recently released The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. While Carter takes aim at the State of Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt examine American Jews. Both books generated large howls of outrage claiming the authors were definitely anti-Israel and probably anti-Semitic. All in all, I believe, both the books and the reactions have produced more heat than light.
From my standpoint, Carter and Mearsheimer/Walt have produced deeply flawed and problematic theses. Neither work, however, is either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, but they do greatly miss the mark regarding assessments of Jews and power. I wish to say more about the Mearsheimer/Walt book. It is more recent, and the object of its concern is you and me rather than the Israelis. I also wonder about the timing of these books, and believe that they are very much the product of the middle of this decade; that neither would necessarily have even been contemplated ten years earlier.
Who are These Two?
John Mearsheimer is a professor of political studies at the University of Chicago. Stephen Walt teaches international relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Both have published a number of books and articles in the area of US foreign policy. This is their first collaborative effort. It is evident from their earlier writings that the two were drawn to each other by their philosophical attachment to an approach to foreign policy known as Realism. Their devotion to this concept is an underpinning to their attitude toward the Lobby.
Realism is a policy-generating mechanism that focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on a country’s national interests. Decisions are made regarding one’s relationship with other nations based on what is best for one’s own. Considerations such as the nature of other country’s government, societal structure or economic system are essentially bracketed out of one’s consideration. If the other country is a dictatorship, weak in human rights or socialist, for instance, but an alliance would nonetheless serve American purposes, then it probably behooves the US to forge that alliance.
Neither Mearsheimer nor Walt is that cold-blooded. They recognize the limitations in their approach, and recognize that considerations of standards of behavior must modify pure narrow state interest. They preach caution, however, in establishing too rigid criteria for appropriate or inappropriate state behavior. Human nature, in their opinion, is flawed. No national system is static, nor does any nation live up to the ideals and standards it sets for itself. Alliances should therefore be instrumental in the pursuit of national interest, and not entangling.
You might be able to infer already a few positions that Walt/Mearsheimer would take. For one, they were quite opposed to the US military effort to topple Saddam Hussein. Second, they would feel that the US is too consistently allied with Israel. Both professors would contend that Saddam was a tyrannical and cruel despot. And both have expressed mostly admiration for the State of Israel. The focused issue for them, however, has been whether either actions or relations are fully in America’s self-interest. The case with Iraq entails, among other things, whether US foreign policy requires an evaluation of the morality of another country’s leadership. The case with Israel is whether American foreign policy should be so engaged with a defense of the Jewish State that it constrains all other options in terms of diplomacy and action in the Middle East.
A Good Friend
Walt/Mearsheimer’s book is about the Israel Lobby, of course. They have relatively little, however, to say about Israel itself. What they do say is mostly complimentary, particularly from the Realist perspective. The Zionist enterprise, in creating the Jewish State, followed a Realist approach: forging alliances, carrying on public and secret negotiations and developing a military strategy that has been marshaled in pursuit of developing and preserving Jewish interests in the land of Israel. Equally impressive to the two is the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy; how it maintains and even encourages the public expression of a broad range of ideas on how the nation should deal with the Palestinians, the territories, its neighbors and the world. For Walt/Mearsheimer, there is very little not to like about Israel.
Liking a country, however, is only a partial factor in the forging of a Realist foreign policy. Yet, the US relationship with Israel is not only extraordinarily close, the professors contend, it is politically monochromatic. As Prof. Walt put it in a published interview from 2005, the range of acceptable discussion in the United States regarding Israel “runs from A to A-.” A vibrant debate on policies and initiatives — from unconditional return to the 1967 borders to the forced expulsion of all Arabs — that occurs daily in the Israeli media and even the halls of Knesset, is reduced to platitudinous remarks on the American political scene — from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican — of how we need to stand by ‘our good friend’ Israel.
Consider this circumstance. In American public discourse, opposition to Israel, its policies and actions, is politically lethal. One cannot say the same about any other nation: not Canada, Japan, Germany, the U.K., France (especially France!), even though all are democratic nations with a long history of alliance with the U.S. By any standard, Israel has a uniquely special place in the American body politic. Some observers have joked about Israel being the fifty-first state in the Union, but even states can come under public criticism without engendering a universal uproar!
Walt/Mearsheimer duly marvel at this situation. They wonder how such a non-critical circumstance arose, and also why it should persist even when, in their opinion, it is not good for American foreign policy goals. Their answer, needless to say, is the Israel Lobby.
Power . . .
One would be hard pressed to suggest that the two professors are wrong. Howard Morley Sachar, a leading scholar in modern Jewish history, once compared the case of Israel to that of Armenia. In the aftermath of World War I, Armenians pressed the victorious Allied powers to grant them an independent homeland. They had a number of factors in their favor. They were Christians living in an area predominated by Muslims. They had the sympathy of the Allied world after suffering genocidal losses at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who had been on the losing side of the War. Armenia itself was a large parcel of land, nestled between Turkey and Iran to the south, Georgia to the north. It was well protected by mountainous terrain. Thus, in August 1920, Armenia became an independent nation. By December, it had lost half its territory to Ataturk’s Turkey, and by 1922, the nation disappeared altogether, swallowed up by the Soviet Union, and not to appear again until the USSR’s break-up in 1991.
In comparison, Sachar notes, the Jews had no natural allies and relatively little in gained sympathy following the Holocaust. The land they pressed for, also in the midst of predominantly Muslim territory, was rather tiny and had no natural defenses. Yet, in stark contrast to Armenia, it fended off serious military pressure at its birth in 1948, and again in 1967 and Yom Kippur 1973. Sachar suggests that the chief critical difference is the presence of an organized and supportive Jewish Diaspora.
There is no mystery in this assertion of Jewish ‘power.’ As early as biblical times, Jews recognized that the vulnerabilities of their small population and command of few resources required a strategy by which they would leverage whatever assets they possessed in order to nudge far greater powers into respecting their interests. Through these means, Jerusalem survived the onslaught of the Assyrians, Nehemiah received Persian support in rebuilding the Temple, the Jews retained their status as an official nation within the Empire, even after two failed revolts against Rome, medieval Jewish communities maintained some measure of protection and autonomy from Christian and Muslim authorities, and the Zionist project of building and maintaining a Jewish State could be achieved. Whatever power Jews wield today comes from nearly three millennia years of practice in learning how to wield it.
. . . And its Limitations
Walt/Mearsheimer recognize this form of Jewish power; marvel at it, and then proceed to overstate it. They err in two ways: first, by exaggerating the strength the Israel lobby and the Jewish influence behind, and then (perhaps as a result) by misreading the relationship between the US and Israel, and what impact that makes on American Middle Eastern policy. On one account, however, they are right: US public opinion regarding Israel is monochromatic and simplistic. Alas, they are as guilty of oversimplification as anyone else.
We will take these objections in order: The Israel lobby is indeed powerful. Walt/Mearsheimer’s observation of the limited nature of public debate regarding US Middle East policy concerning Israel is a case in point. It is not, however, all-powerful. Walt/Mearsheimer particularly err when they suggest that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the work of the lobby.
Yes, there is certain prima facie evidence that would point toward the lobby: Saddam Hussein had been a cheerleader for the more violent aspects of the intifada, including providing financial support for families of suicide bombers. Further, the action in Iraq moved US policy and resources away from a focus on Israel-Palestine and toward the concept of a democratic Iraq as a linchpin for achieving stability in the Middle East. This is a rather thin reed on which to suggest that the removal of Hussein was done principally for the sake of Israel.
The authors apparently felt justified in pushing this notion on the grounds that there were so many Jews in key policy positions who pushed for action against Saddam. The usual suspects are recited: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, and cheering on from outside the Administration, Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol. In addition to ignoring the considerable number of non-Jewish promoters of the Iraq invasion, Walt/Mearsheimer ignore any differences among these individuals. Wolfowitz, in particular, who is often identified as one of the most vociferous supporters of “regime change” in Iraq, has expressed support for positions on Israel-Palestine similar to the so-called Israel Peace Lobby, such as Peace Now.
Walt/Mearsheimer employ one more argument, namely the vocal support given by Israel’s leadership for the invasion. Well, yes and no! With this contention, we move into the second error mentioned above, the misreading of US-Israel relations.
The late political scientist Daniel Elazar once noted that David Ben Gurion and Menahem Begin each learned a lesson from the failed Jewish revolt against Rome that ended in the destruction of the Second Temple. Begin learned that the Jews must never allow philosophical and political differences to become divisive with regard to national purpose. Ben Gurion learned that the Jews cannot afford to cross a great power regardless of principles. Ben Gurion and Begin represent the two sides of Israel’s body politic from before the founding of the State until this day (well after their deaths), and the lessons they learned have persisted as underlying motivations in Israel’s political culture.
For our purposes, the Ben Gurion lesson is the most important. Israel has never and will not do anything that is truly not in America’s interests. While US and Israel concerns are not completely aligned, and Israel will occasionally veer in careful and relatively safe ways from expressed American wishes, for the most part the Jewish State knows the obligations and responsibilities of having a good and powerful friend. Obviously, Israel had no reason to be averse to an American upending of the Saddam regime. Thus, if the Bush Administration wanted to pursue this policy, the least Israel’s leadership could do was express public support. Walt/Mearsheimer had it backward. Israel was not pushing the US into Iraq, rather it was responding with friendly expressions of support to what the US intended to do!
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is a tendentious, sloppy and simplistic work. It’s strong book sales might provide a nice nest egg for its authors, but I do not see how it will further their respect and credibility in academic circles. Be this as it may, we need to deal with the one thing that Mearsheimer and Walt got right: the relative strangulation of debate regarding Israel in the US. Let me suggest a few reasons for this situation.
1. Sheiv Al Ta’aseh! [Sit and don’t do anything] The Middle East is a maddening brew of competing traditions, peoples and interests. There is oil, the geopolitical nexus of three continents, and the religious centrality for three faiths. The area is awash in money, armaments, resentments, radicalisms and nihilistic violence. In foreign policy terms, the most precious commodity is stability. Israel, whatever its faults and weaknesses, is a stable society. Moreover, it is a stable democracy; the only nation in the region that has experienced a peaceful transfer of leadership without a death or a coup. US Administrations might not like its growing settlements in the West Bank — nor do they like Egypt or Saudi Arabia’s absence of democracy — but they value their stability. In any calculation, abandoning support, which is both financial and political, is far more problematic than enduring charges of hypocrisy or the abandonment of ideals.
2. It’s Their Country. For American Jews, discussions of Israel’s political and military decisions tend to be muted by the overriding reality that we live here, not there. I think that most American Jews favor acknowledgement of Palestinian national ambitions and territorial compromise (including a substantial withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank). But, the American Jewish community is also conscious of Israel’s security concerns, and feels that the country has a vibrant enough democracy that it will move in the direction of its best interests without undue foreign (i.e. American Jewish) influence.
3. Minority/Majority. Israel is powerful. It is undoubtedly the strongest military presence in the Middle East. Even when it handles a military operation poorly, as it did in 2006 against Hizb’allah, or in the initial battles of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, its armed forces inflict considerably more damage than the opposition. While the Jewish State overwhelms the Arab Palestinians in the immediate vicinity, Israel is tiny in land, resources and population within the context of the Middle East. Like an optical illusion, Israel is alternately an immensely powerful juggernaut (with a nuclear arsenal, no less), and a tiny beleaguered country in the midst of an implacably hostile enemy. For many American Jews, and Americans in general, the latter fairly balances out the former.
4. Follow the Money. The Israel lobby, however, is much more conservative than the American Jewish community. For instance, no more than 20% of the Jewish electorate supported George W. Bush in 2004 — a drop from roughly 25% in 2000 — and in great part over dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. The leadership of the Israel lobby was among the more vocal defenders of the 2003 invasion, and remained at best silent over its disposition since. The lobby has clearly promoted issues of security and defense over those of reconciliation and compromise.
The Evangelical Christian component of the lobby is probably as much anti-Muslim as it is pro-Israel. The Jewish component, I believe, is more pragmatic. It is easier to garner support for Israel if it can also be tied to the possibility of material benefits to a Congressperson’s district or a Senator’s state. Simply put, there is much more money in security than there is in diplomacy.
Why Now . . .
I do not believe that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been merely engaging in a scholarly enterprise. All of the features I have listed above regarding the conservatism of the Israel lobby and the uniformity of public expression on Israel and the Middle East, have been in place for decades. The book could have been written in 1977. [One difference between thirty years ago and now is, of course, the fall of the Soviet Union. In American discourse, this has mostly meant replacing the term ‘Communist’ with ‘Islamist extremist’, and then carrying on business as usual.]
The last few years, however, have been marked by worsening conditions between Israel and its neighbors, the disastrous mess in Iraq, and the substantial fall in American prestige throughout the world. One reasonable explanation for this negative turn of events is the monumental failure of the current Administration. Perhaps for Walt/Mearsheimer, this reason does not go far enough. They appear not to believe that Bush could preside over such an intellectually lazy, morally arrogant and strategically incoherent policy all by himself. And perhaps it is especially unbelievable that the hard-headed realism of Bush Sr., who developed a broad international coalition to stop Saddam, and who nudged Israel and the Palestinians toward Oslo with his Madrid Conference in 1991, could deteriorate so badly during the reign of his son, especially when he had so many of the same advisors. I believe that Jimmy Carter betrayed a similar streak of resentment, disappointment and anger within his book.
. . . And What Now
When, in 1982, the Lebanese Phlangists massacred Palestinians in the refugee camps of Shaba and Shatila, Israel’s Prime Minister Begin sourly remarked: “Christians slaughter Muslims and everybody blames the Jews.” Begin was partially right. Nobody, least of all Israeli forces who had pushed as far north in Lebanon as Beirut in an effort to drive out the PLO, made the Phlangists attack the camps. The Israelis, on the other hand, made no effort to secure the camps, and the invasion itself freed the Lebanese to attack. One could not lay all the blame for the massacre on Israel, but neither was Israel free from responsibility.
Contra Walt/Mearsheimer, one cannot place all the blame for the mess perpetrated by the US on the Israel lobby, but the lobby — and the American Jewish community (you and me!) — is hardly free of responsibility, either.
The loudest voices with respect to Israel and the Middle East, have been the more conservative ones, suspect of Arabs and Muslims, most comfortable with the projection of American military might, most willing to assert Jewish hegemony over territories captured in the 1967 War. As a group, this component of the Jewish community is a minority. In the case of its neo-conservative outlook, it is a tiny minority. Yet, they are the loudest voice, and the entire Jewish community is painted by their brush. Walt/Mearsheimer took pains not to identify the Israel lobby with America’s Jews, but the connection is too close and too uncomfortable.
The situation will almost certainly get better after January 20, 2009, with the inauguration of a new President. Administrations in the first year of their terms have the most freedom with respect to foreign policy, and are least effected by any lobby however powerful. (I am assuming that any new Administration would not want to continue along the same path of the current one. I concede this might be an unwarranted assumption.) At any rate, one year is a small window of opportunity, particularly if the White House turns over to a new Party, and there is a time-consuming changeover in key personnel. The new President will have to achieve — at very least — the clear expectation of successful diplomatic breakthroughs in forging an Israel-Palestine agreement, otherwise the conservative pressures represented by the Israel lobby will build up.
I am pretty confident that this is a fairly accurate prognosis, because it has been the immutable pattern for forty years. There have only been two significant breaks in the pattern: Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem in 1977 (the fortuitous and unexpected result of the Yom Kippur War and the fall of the Labor Party, after being Israel’s unchallenged leader since well before the founding of the State in 1948), and the Oslo Accords (brought about by Iraq’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, the first intifada and the Madrid Conference).
Maybe some unforeseen set of events and circumstances will disrupt the pattern again. We should not bet on it. More likely the status quo will hold: Palestinians will get poorer and angrier. Arab leadership in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will have to use more force and violations of human rights in order to maintain power. Israel will feel increasingly beleaguered and become fortress-like in order to preserve the safety of its population, including the West Bank settlers. The UN and Europe will express their powerlessness to alter the situation with useless and excessively one-sided resolutions which will only stiffen Israel’s defensiveness and US support. No one will be better off, except maybe arms manufacturers and merchants around the world.
The Lobby vs. the Jews
We, the entire American Jewish community — you and I — become complicit in this sad status quo, as we essentially cede the Israel debate to our more conservative elements. We are stuck in a downward spiral; one that has been confirmed in recent years by opinion surveys. The American Jewish connection to Israel has been getting weaker and weaker. The alienation has been created, I believe, by two factors: the emotional and spiritual exhaustion brought about by the ongoing crisis of the occupied territories, and the domination of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel’s Jewish society, so oft-putting to a more religiously progressive American community.
These two mutually reinforcing factors tend to push Israel to the margins of American Jewish awareness, thus leaving the field to those who are not uncomfortable with a religiously Orthodox “Fortress” Israel. Then, of course, as these voices become the dominant public expression of support for Israel, the rest of the community is pushed away further. The problem is not only “AIPAC and the Jewish neo-conservative establishment do not speak for me on Israel,” it is that “no one speaks for me on Israel!”
In the iron-clad rules of American political discourse, the simplistic always trumps the nuanced, and the hard-line turns everyone else into ‘soft.’ In the end, everyone — including Israel — loses.
There are indeed a number of American Jewish organizations and institutes that promote a less simplistic and thus more — to use the Walt/Mearsheimer term — realistic relationship between the US and Israel. They recognize that Israel’s control of the territories is an albatross for the Jewish State, but also one that cannot be lifted without some palpable sense of continued security after the settlements were dismantled. Israel cannot do this alone, and actually needs the US in order literally to force a negotiated settlement.
These organizations — Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom [A Just and Peaceful Settlement], are among the more prominent — are relatively small and weak. They not only do not have the high profile of AIPAC, they also lack stature among a large number of American Jews who substantially agree with their aims. Neither of these groups, nor similar associations, can effectively claim that they have the support of the “silent majority,” even if this might well be the truth. Silence only supports those who have power, and currently the more conservative groups of the Israel lobby have the power.
Jimmy Carter and Walt/Mearsheimer have expressed their own frustrations and betraying their limited comprehension of the Jewish State and of US-Israel relations, and in the process have accomplished at best nothing toward their sense of a balanced American policy in the Middle East with a secure and just State of Israel. In the absence of another Sadat or Rabin, the way forward rather requires an energized and reengaged American Jewish voice.
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Medicine & Politics
The congressional debate on Medicare led me to think about the nature of politics in the United States. On the surface, the issue has been health care, whose costs rise much faster than the general inflation rate, and for whom an increasing number of Americans are no longer protected with insurance. Let’s face it; all sides of the debate profess an interest in seeing to it that all citizens have the benefit of medical services at a reasonable cost both to the individuals and the nation as a whole. Further, I accept the sincerity of these claims. The other side (I know most of you lean toward liberal, so this means Conservative groups and institutions) tends to be demonized as heartless, malevolent and only interested in rewarding its supporters. I think this characterization is unfair. Someone can be wrong without being evil. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt; they really want to do what is best for the country. Then, what is wrong with it?
The (George W. Bush) Administration’s approach to solving the health crisis is to rely on competition—the market—both to find a way of extending service to everyone and to capping the excessive rise in costs. The first question to ask is whether competition will really have an effect on service and costs. A Jewish story tells of a man going to the top specialist in the city. The specialist gives the fellow his bill. The man chokes at the cost, and proceeds to bargain the doctor down to a figure only a fraction of the original bill. The exasperated doctor asks why the man came to him in the first place, knowing that he was going to be so expensive. The man replied: When it comes to my health, cost is no object!
The truth of the joke is that while markets are pretty effective at establishing value, good health tends to resist the setting of any price. Competition and health policy probably do not sufficiently mix.
The second question is why there is so much pressure to apply a market solution? I spent a few years in Canada where there is universal single-payer health insurance. International surveys have confirmed that Canadians are substantially healthier than Americans with a system that in aggregate is considerably less costly. Canadians, however, complain vociferously about their system. There are long waits for certain specialized services. Pressure is constantly exerted by different constituencies to allow individuals to pay more for faster care (they call it ‘jumping the queue’). When on a CBC interview program a few years ago, the Minister of Health was asked just what is wrong with a two-tier system, his answer was revealing. The Minister replied that if two tiers—extra pay for extra service—were introduced then people like the interviewer would tend to opt out of the basic system, and spend the money they could afford on what they wanted. The result would be that a very important constituency—those who are especially concerned about good quality health care—would no longer place pressure on the politicians and managers of the national system. The net result, he suggested would be poorer overall care and greater overall costs. (Something akin, I suppose, to the American experience.)
We see here, I think, a fundamental difference in approaches to political decision-making. The Canadian minister sees the public issue of health care as a constant and ongoing concern for the political system. The managers of health care, who are the elected members of the legislature, must continuously grapple with pressures placed on them by all constituencies, and make not-always-propitious decisions regarding changes in the system. In contrast, a strain of American thought seeks to move the issue out of the political arena, and rather into a more objective (read: impersonal) decision-making apparatus; hence, the faith expressed in the wonder-working powers of the market.
This fundamental distinction in attitudes toward decision-making is raised in an essay by Martin Buber, Plato and Isaiah (found in his collection of essays on the Bible, Moses). Buber compares Plato’s Republic to Isaiah’s call to prophecy. Plato felt that the well-ordered society was one run in accord with the transcendent ideals that reside in the real world of Ideas. A properly trained philosopher-king should be able to access that world and thus insure a good society. Later in his life, Plato had an opportunity to see his concept implemented when a student of his became the prince of Syracuse. In a brief while, the prince was assassinated, and the experiment came to naught.
Isaiah, on the other hand, also imbued with transcendent insight as a result of his prophetic vocation, is not called upon to take control of the kingdom. He is only expected to preach his divinely ordained truths before those in power. Moreover, from the start he is informed that his efforts will substantially fail!
Buber therefore compares two failed programs. Plato’s, however, leads not only to failure, but also to acute disappointment. The ideal is there. It can be known. (By the way, Aristotle, who opposes Plato’s metaphysical realm of Ideas, nonetheless, also poses that an ideal society can be achieved through prudence and observation. For him, politics is the achievement of the well-ordered polis.) Yet, efforts to establish it somehow tend to fall short. Isaiah represents not so much a system doomed to fail, but rather one whose expectations are well short of ideal. Human society will always be beset by imperfections, and God, the embodiment of perfection, will remain elusive, at least until the time of redemption. Thus, God tolerates, even over Samuel’s objections, the placing of a king over Israel. That king, as Deuteronomy makes clear, must nonetheless be constrained, so that even a relatively powerless prophet can censure his performance.
Jewish thought as reflected in Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture)—and one can make a case from the rabbinic literature as well—views politics as the everyday decision-making of communities and their leaders; inspired, yes, by God’s will, but ultimately left to their own imperfect devices. This is in opposition to the Greek notion of politics as the identification and implementation of ideals for the well-ordered society. The Jewish approach is messy and incremental. It evokes passions, arguments, recriminations, and is wearing on leaders and representatives. The Greek approach is therefore very attractive, even though it fails at least as often, with attendant accusations of betrayal, and occasional violence.
The late philosopher Walter Kaufmann coined the term ‘decidophobia,’ that referred to more than the reluctance to decide. The root of the term means “falling off,” as in a deciduous tree. Fearing to decide is fearing to risk falling over into one position or another. Choices, however, need to be made, so decidophobia is the effort at having someone—or something—else make the decision. One turns to the rules, the strong man, nature (human and physical) or God. Greek thought, and its manifestations in Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church’s natural theology) and most orthodoxies of every stripe, is decidophobic. I think one can see the decidophobia that runs through the most recent Medicare legislation, as with all efforts to reduce governmental deliberations in face of the mechanisms of the market.
Being a faithful Jew, if my analysis is correct, is permitting oneself to be consigned to the messy, mostly faulty and frustrating process of politics. It is also, I believe, the only way to move toward the society that God wishes for us.
A Tortured Response
The confirmation of Michael Mukasey as U.S. Attorney General appeared to be an unusually non-controversial issue, until he refused to take a specific position regarding the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Mukasey has been confirmed and sworn in as Attorney General, but the issue of waterboarding and torture is hardly going to go away.
What’s the Problem
Waterboarding is a technique by which water is forced into a person’s lungs, causing the intense sensation of drowning. The process is apparently not life-threatening, but rather deeply anxiety provoking and extremely uncomfortable. Is this torture?
Viewed in one way, torture is an inherently subjective notion. While everyone would probably agree that stretching a victim’s limbs on a rack is definitely torture, only some people would concur that—say—watching a few hours of the Shopping Network is as well.
At some point, for the sake of both law and civil order, we wish to draw the line between torture and coercion. The classic television show “Homicide,” would often depict the protagonist detectives drawing a confession or valuable information out of a suspect being held in the interrogation room. They used a variety of methods: “good cop/bad cop,” repetitive questioning, brow-beating, sweet talking, veiled threats, among others. It is possible that the suspect might have felt tortured. At no point, however, would the detectives think that they were inflicting torture, nor would that have occurred to us, the viewers. If, on the other hand, the detectives began to slam the suspect’s head against the wall, or put a cocked gun against his forehead, we would probably agree that they were crossing some line.
In his testimony, Judge Mukasey characterized waterboarding as repugnant. Further, neither the White House nor any of the Senators who supported his confirmation made any effort to suggest that the technique was otherwise. The question at hand is not waterboarding, or any other technique that might fairly be described as torture. The question is whether there is a circumstance in which it can be defended for being employed.
While, in the end, I wish to state that torture techniques such as waterboarding are indefensible, I need to work through this concern. Otherwise, all I will have done is express a firmly stated feeling, and not an argument. Let us first agree that the sort of “torture” of interest here are the techniques for which there has been consensus that they are impermissible. We can argue about playing loud music or shining bright lights in the middle of the night, for example, or of forms of intense humiliation, such as the pictures we saw of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib. There are indeed indistinct lines where some action moves into torture. Waterboarding, however, does not fall into that nether region. It has been recognized as a form of torture for decades.
Can, however, a non-lethal torture technique, such as waterboarding, be condoned in some circumstance? This is the question proposed over the years by the esteemed law scholar Alan Dershowitz. His thinking on the subject has most recently been forwarded in an opinion piece published on November 7 (2007) for the Wall Street Journal.
In brief, Dershowitz believes that torture in certain narrowly defined circumstances is warranted. He is highly critical of the current Administration for, among other things, not being clear and forthcoming regarding a probative use of certain techniques. And he is equally critical of the Democratic opposition for being so unyielding in their condemnation of the technique.
In his WSJ article, Dershowitz notes the apparently unlikely success Rudolph Giuliani is enjoying in his effort to become the Republican Presidential nominee, a success Dershowitz places mostly on his aggressive foreign policy stance. While he does not believe Democratic contenders ought to emulate Giuliani, he neither believes that they can afford to be so dismissive of the dangers that are being highlighted.
To this end, Dershowitz approves of a position he ascribes to former President Clinton: that of a strictly monitored and narrow exception to the prohibition against torture. He cautions that the use should be limited to “ticking bomb” situations, in which the physical assault on a suspect is measured against the lives that can be saved. He further suggests that the President would have to take personal responsibility for the act, particularly if it were to be found unwarranted after the fact by a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) court.
Prof. Dershowitz is a thoughtful individual. He is attempting to combine both legal and political insights and social realities into crafting what he would hope to be a pragmatically moral policy. Although I disagree with him, one cannot dismiss his argument out of hand. To begin, he notes that, while the American public might not require the Rambo/Dirty Harry attitude of a Rudy Giuliani, they want assurances that their President is interested in protecting them from foreign attack. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers was truly unnerving. We simply do not want that to happen again, and thus, the concept of a judicious use of some otherwise repugnant torture technique seems not only acceptable but wise.
I would add that Dershowitz’s contention here is not merely political; it is also moral. You might want to assert that waterboarding is torture (to which Dershowitz would say ‘yes’), and torture is torture, and therefore should never be employed. The rejoinder is: on what grounds. The argument is, to this point, a matter of aesthetics or feelings. A torture technique such as waterboarding offends my sensibilities—to use Mukasey’s term, it is “repugnant”—but does one determine ethical stands on feelings? Of course, waterboarding causes pain, but do not all forms of punishment, whether execution, incarceration, or even the proverbial “slap on the wrist”? Dershowitz is employing a classic moral argument of balancing costs and benefits. He is convinced that the cost of utilizing waterboarding, or some similar technique, is more than balanced by the benefit of all the damage that would be forestalled.
In order to argue against this position, we must assert that this is not the case; the cost is indeed greater than the benefit. Dershowitz anticipates this response. Countering the notion that torture never yields useful information (a torture victim, the line goes, will say about anything, in order to make the pain stop), he gives two examples. The first is the success of Nazis in getting information out of members of the French Resistance. The second is a reputed case in which Israelis extracted information regarding the intent of a suicide bomber who was planning to blow himself in a synagogue on Yom Kippur.
The examples are strange. Appealing to Nazi activities in order to support one’s argument! Well, actually, if one is going to claim that torture can be successful, then the empirical evidence has to be drawn from an entity that actually engaged in torture. We can recognize that Dershowitz is hardly endorsing the Nazis in any shape or form. Yet, the example remains highly suspect. The Nazis, while certainly eager to learn the identities of other members of the Resistance, were not dealing with a ‘ticking time bomb.’ Further, they were not particularly interested in surgical operations. Their torture almost certainly yielded the naming of names—some, but probably not all, were actual members of the Resistance. The Nazis would have had no compunction against treating everyone named as enemies. Yes, one can concede, there is valid information drawn from the application of torture, but it remains very difficult to determine how to distinguish it from any invalid revelations.
The case of the Israelis is problematic as well. Dershowitz concedes that he has no idea what techniques they employed. Whatever they were (more on this below), they were successful, but I find it to be a stretch for Dershowitz to assume that the Israelis must have employed some form of torture. Dershowitz is undoubtedly right when he suggests that one cannot claim that torture never works. The considered opinion of people with long experience in interrogation techniques is, however, that torture is singularly unreliable as an information gathering tool. The examples given serve in no way to counter this considered opinion.
Why (Not) Torture?
It should be emphasized that Dershowitz’s argument is very narrow and focused. He believes that there are occasions when the US government is going to feel constrained to employ a technique like waterboarding, and that it should be open and above-board about the possibility of this circumstance. The impetus behind this position is that, while such techniques are vile, they might work. Note, as suggested above, this is mostly an article of faith. The two circumstances Dershowitz provides come nowhere close to supporting his claim in the viability of some form torture in a ‘ticking bomb’ situation. Why does he have such faith?
The answer might be that, if torture does not work, what would? If, indeed, a suspected terrorist ringleader were to be captured, and there was reason to believe that in a day or two, a major operation was about to be launched, can anyone provide a more reliable method of extracting critical information that does not involve such unpalatable means of inflicting pain? So, here is the nub of the problem. Torture might not work with respect to the information that is being sought, but nothing else probably will either. In a situation filled with only bad choices, the pain-inflicting technique might well be the least worst.
In the final analysis, the position Dershowitz is espousing—as careful and as finely honed as he is attempting to be—represents an act of desperation. Since all else has failed, we might as well try a little torture. This, I would suggest, is a very slender thread on which to hang a policy. The benefits are simply not worth the cost. For the uncertain possibility of acquiring useful information, one pays both politically and morally. It becomes increasingly difficult for the U.S. to assert uncivilized or inhuman behavior on the part of another nation or entity. Once any circumstance of torture is legitimized, short of Nazi-like cruelty, any circumstance can be rationalized. The important and valuable weapon of international condemnation is lost.
Torture is fundamentally a method of discharging anger, satisfying revenge and asserting absolute domination over a subject, rather than being a method of extracting information. Its purpose is to belittle and degrade a person, to establish in no uncertain terms who is boss and who is powerless. The technique might provide a brief sense of superiority and its attendant feelings of satisfaction and pleasure, but ultimately it demeans both the ‘interrogator’ and the subject. Think of the American military jailers at Abu Ghraib. Everyone—the personnel, the army, the nation, as well as the prisoners—lost.
Fear is a Strong Forte
I think that one should understand sympathetically Prof. Dershowitz’s position. He recognizes all the negative aspects of torture. In particular, he argues that when a nation is not forthright about its use of certain extraordinary techniques, such as waterboarding, it only reaps the worst of both worlds: it is assumed to be using them, and further, it permits speculation that the use is more widespread and indiscriminate than it might be. In this circumstance, if there were indeed a probative value in utilizing the technique, it is overwhelmed by the political and moral condemnation that arises from the appearance of malfeasance.
Dershowitz, moreover, appreciates the domestic political ramifications. We, as individuals, families and communities, want safety. There have been explicit threats from foreign quarters, such as ‘Al Qaida, and on September 11, 2001, those threats were made good. We have no choice but to take any further threats quite seriously. The terrorists must be stopped! In the shadow of the falling towers, we crave assurances that it will not happen again. The Administration (any administration!) thus concludes that it must wring information out of suspects, by whatever means necessary. And even if it actually does not work, they would not be held accountable, because at least they tried.
I would counter that once a situation progressed as far as relying on the interrogation of single suspect, no matter what techniques are used, it is probably too late. Extracting reliable information from one person is problematic without already having a good idea what constitutes reliability. Counterterror intelligence probably requires the development of multiple sources of information. It is labor-intensive, slowly developed, and certainly expensive. Waterboarding is purchasing satisfaction on the cheap.
[As an aside, while knowing nothing more than Dershowitz does, I would tend to believe that Israel did not employ any technique that would be considered torture in the example provided. Israeli intelligence works hard at developing multiple levels of information gathering so that resort to something like torture is not contemplated. In the recorded cases where there has been unnecessary infliction of pain, they have been more connected to resentment and frustration—and probably not a little bit of hate—with captured suspects, than with any need for information. The Israeli courts have been quite clear in their condemnation of these actions.]
Attorney General Mukasey might have thought he was being prudent and judicious in his response to the question about waterboarding. And Professor Dershowitz might be attempting to formulate a careful policy in the face of obvious political and psychological pressures brought about after 9/11. I, for one, believe they are simply wrong.
Notes for the Silly Season
Jewish Thought, Governance and Politics
I. Politics and Religion
Judaism is a political expression. So is Islam. Christianity is not. And, in general, this has been good for the Jews.
These broad declaratory statements will make better sense if I provide some definitions, most particularly a definition of ‘politics.’ The word is derived from the Greek ‘polis,’ and survives in English in a number of forms. In addition to ‘politics,’ there is ‘polity,’ and terms like ‘metropolis.’ You can sense that the term has at its root the notion of a gathering of people. This idea becomes most clear when we move from Greek to Latin and wind up with ‘public.’ Politics is essentially the activities of the public.
As a result, it is a very broad and amorphous term. It encompasses issues of order, economics, security, privacy and planning. I have left out issues of ethics or morality. Politics is a human activity, engaged in by people in groups or communities. It is only as ethical as the people choose to be.
Obviously, a great deal of everyday living is touched by political concerns, but not everything is political. Politics comes into question only when the individual is operating within the context of a larger community. Further, politics is only important in life itself, the ongoing activity of the material world. Individual action and otherworldliness reside outside of the realm of politics. Christianity focuses principally on individual salvation—one’s place in the world-to-come—and therefore has little to say about politics. Judaism (and Islam), on the other hand, focuses on the individual within a community, and thus politics is intrinsic to its thought and practice.
Yet, as I said, Christianity’s indifference to politics has been mostly good for the Jews. While Christianity itself is apolitical, Christians live in a political world. Order, security, welfare and governance have to come from somewhere. Throughout the Middle Ages, the source of political organization was external to religious thought. “Render unto God what is God’s, and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Indeed, the source of governance was mostly Roman: a ruling class—nobles—often led by a hereditary monarch. The Church followed the same rough hierarchy, with its highest orders—the Archbishops, Cardinals and Pope—almost always being drawn from the noble class. The Church was therefore political, and often attempted, not entirely successfully, to exert influence on various national courts.
The medieval feudal structure began to crumble, and the Church was challenged by the Protestant Reformation. Protestants in particular, searched for alternate methods of creating polity. They turned, quite naturally, to the Bible. The Christian Scripture was not much help, but the Hebrew canon served as an excellent guide. The result, over time, was the institution of the notion of “Judeo-Christian” values. Thus, the path was cleared for Jewish involvement in the political life of a community.
II. Society and Culture
“Judeo-Christian” is a fraud. It is a useful fraud, but a deception nonetheless. What does the ‘Judeo-‘ mean in the expression? It is exclusively a reference to the use of the “Old Testament” (Hebrew Scriptures) as well as the “New” (Christian Scriptures) in establishing the roots of contemporary society. As noted above, this contention is quite true. But, what part of the Hebrew Scriptures is not Christian? It is an inseparable part of the Christian Bible, and segments of it are regularly recited and studied within churches.
Let me turn the question around: what is Jewish about the Hebrew Scriptures? The answer is Scriptures’ place in the Jewish tradition, and this is a tradition that incorporates Midrash, Mishna, Talmud, and medieval commentary. Only in this context, and in this context alone, is the “Old Testament” Jewish. Yet, none of these sources are employed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Once more, however, the fraud is useful. While Protestants turned to the Hebrew portion of the Bible in order to establish an authentically Christian form of governance, Jews were looking for ways of separating culture from society. This distinction is very important, especially since it is more the norm than the exception that societies and cultures are co-extensive. Where, for instance, does British culture end and British society begin? Or vice versa? Yet, they are not precisely the same.
Culture is a combination of non-codified practices and activities that tend to establish the identity of a certain social and historical group. Society, on the other hand, is made up of the rules (at least some of them are actually codified) that give shape and order to a community. Culture usually contributes something to the formation of a society. And where a society is sufficiently homogeneous, the practices of the culture often become the laws or rules of the society.
Jews have a culture, but must live in a non-Jewish society. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were mostly able to organize their own society, although always under the authority of the larger Gentile authority around them. This circumstance was good for allowing them to preserve their own culture, but their material lives were often disrupted by persecution or exile. Even in the best of times, the fate of the Jews remained subject to the whims of authorities against whom they had very little protection. For some individual Jews, they way out of their materially precarious lives were to abandon their culture.
Modernity brought secularization and the development of a concept of society that was distinct from any particular culture. When given the opportunity, therefore, Jews embraced modernity. And in those countries, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, were modernity was resisted by the traditional authorities, Jews readily participated in revolutionary movements that would try to upend the old order.
The revolutions mostly failed. Even the successful upending of the Tsar turned into a failed revolution. Jews turned substantially in two directions: the U.S. and the land of Israel. Israel, through the Zionist project, allowed Jews to build a society that preserved Jewish culture. The U.S., on the other hand, was a society with no definitive culture, and therefore more hospitable than virtually anywhere else to Jewish immigration.
III. Jewish Values
Politics is essentially public decision-making. Decision-making, in turn, is founded upon a range of considerations from purely pragmatic to narrowly ideological. All of these considerations are dependent upon a set a values. What values? And how they determined?
The word ‘values’ is often preceded by an adjective: American values, Christian values, old-fashioned values, Jewish values. At first blush, however, this construction seems odd. When we hear the term ‘value,’ we tend to think about how much something is worth. Is gold, for instance, worth more to Americans than Europeans, to liberals than conservatives, or to Christians than to Jews? When it comes to values, does it matter what one’s national origin, religion or political proclivities might be?
Then again, it does seem to matter. Values do seem to vary in importance based on material need—which is more valuable to a starving person, a gold coin or a tuna sandwich or cultural tradition. Consider one’s attitude toward the American flag as opposed to the flag of Albania.
In contemporary political-cultural debate, an argument rages about values either being fixed or relative. It they are fixed, then tradition or material concerns are nearly irrelevant. If they are relative, then how can we employ the word ‘value’ in any meaningful context?
We can note first that the issue of fixed versus relative is a false dichotomy. There are some things that individuals value, a family heirloom or a personal keepsake, that would be of little or no value to anyone else. There are things that different communities value. Sociologists call them sancta, referring to both religious objects (a mezuzah, crucifix, Hindu cow, sheik’s tomb, etc.) and national/ethnic items such as flags. And then there are the more abstract values: peace, truth, human life, stability, creativity, daring, prudence, and so on.
I need to make one more distinction here, and that is between a value and a virtue. Virtues (thrift, compassion, attentiveness, courage, generosity) are ‘habits of the heart.’ They are universal qualities residing in the human mind or soul that generate certain sorts of actions. (Even though they are universal, they are not easy to determine. When, for instance, does thrift turn into miserliness, or courage into being foolhardy?) Values, on the other hand, are measurable, at least in a comparable sense. Everyone values peace, yet may be willing to disturb it for the sake of some other value. In the final analysis, this consideration is true for all values—abstract, symbolic and material. They are given to being measured against something else.
All values are thus correlative; capable of being compared one to another. Does that mean there is really no such thing as a fixed value? We are now perilously close to a slippery slope. If values cannot be fixed, then they may be relative, in which case, they may be nothing at all! At this point, I wish to bring in Jewish thought and the concept of Jewish values.
Let me start with the Jewish wedding. At the end of the ceremony, a glass is broken. There are a number of explanations for this action. Folklorists will note that a sudden loud noise is employed to scare away evil spirits. Sermonists will point out that one careless move can break something that will never be put back together again. Conventional Jewish practice relates the breaking of the glass to remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Why, however, should one need to remember the Temple at a wedding?
The Temple was the location of the Holy of Holies, the direct nexus between God and humankind. It was also the house of the divine weights and measures, the basis by which values could be fixed. In the wedding ceremony, we are made aware of the notion that values are real. They are weighed and measured according to the will of God. Then the ceremony also reminds us that the Temple is no longer, and that those fixed values have disappeared from the earth as well.
Thus, as a marriage commences, the husband and wife are reminded that they are suspended between the knowledge of real, divinely appointed values, and the disappearance of those values. The decisions and determinations of married life must be made by a mutual—and necessarily imperfect—effort at trying to obtain what cannot be reached. Hence, Jewish values exist, not in their presence, but rather in the striving!
[Note: You might want to look at my essay, Medicine and Politics, on this website. There, I cite a valuable work by Martin Buber, Plato and Isaiah, which leads to a similar conclusion.]
IV. Lives Like Episcopalians, Votes Like Puerto Ricans
It is hardly a secret that American Jews tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates. It is also hardly a secret that American Jews tend to be materially comfortable. Since the late 1960s, Jews have had the highest per capita income of any American religious or ethnic group. (They beat out Episcopalians for this honor.) Only American blacks vote Democratic in higher percentages than Jews.
A teacher of mine would regularly proffer the slogan, “no one votes themselves out of business.” Analysis of different identifiable communities in the U.S. has borne out this proposition; namely, as the community became wealthier, they also became more politically conservative. Jews resolutely defy this trend. Indeed, recent surveys suggest that have become increasingly supportive of Democrats over the past four years!
One could argue that the liberal tendencies are in response to liberal trends in Judaism. Is Judaism however really liberal? This question cannot be answered with any certainty. Yes, there are definite liberal trends in Jewish thought, but there are definite conservative ones as well. Jewish tradition comprises literature that extends from the Bible to modern thinkers: over three thousand years and many thousand authoritative writers. The economic philosophy of the early rabbis (the age of the Mishna), for instance, tended to be communistic and egalitarian (at least with respect to men). The Talmud and later material, however, tends to introduce capitalistic and entrepreneurial concepts. As I have asserted before, Judaism is the ‘ism’ of the Jews. It is a conservative religion to those who are personally conservative, and a liberal religion to those who are liberal.
The liberal tendencies of American Jews therefore cannot be explained by resort to a particular understanding of Judaism. This is true not only because there is no definitive political theory in Judaism, but moreover because American Jews generally do not refer to their religion as a basis for their political attitudes. If it is not Judaism that leads to liberalism among Jews, then what does?
I think we need a practical meaning of ‘liberal.’ One political scientist, Jean-Luc Nancy, has provided a clear and succinct definition. He wrote: ‘Liberal’ means, at very least, that the political is receptive to what is at stake in community. On the other hand, ‘conservative’ means, at least, that the political is merely in charge of order and administration.
It is not only that this definition strikes me as true, but it also serves to explain the Jewish persistence in remaining liberal, even when more conservative policies might be in the interest of many Jews. Being Jewish—religious or secular—lead most individuals to be acutely aware of their minority status. Further, most Jews are aware that no amount of material comfort or personal identification with the mores and history of the society (in this case, the U.S.) reduces that primary awareness of being a minority. When politics is conceived primarily in terms of order, Jews recognize that the order being considered is not Jewish order. Community, on the other hand, is everybody, Jew and Gentile. The narrow self-interest of an economic policy that helps preserve wealth, is therefore forsaken for the larger self-interest that preserves the Jews’ place in society.
Of course, there are politically conservative Jews. The minority status of the Jews is discounted, either because the idea of the individual is so much more important than the idea of any community, or because the eternal conflict between Jew and Gentile is considered to be so ingrained and permanent that no community beyond that of a Jewish community can be contemplated. Jewish conservatives, of course, continue to represent a relatively small minority among America’s Jews, but please note that there is nothing inherently natural about being a Jewish liberal. Throughout history, Jews did tend toward conservatism, precisely because there was no hope or expectation that they could or should be integrated into a larger community. It is the pluralistic promise of America that induces the Jewish liberal spirit.
V. Special Interests
The science of economics exists—as any economist will note—because there is scarcity. If there were enough goods and produce to satisfy fully the needs of every person, there would not be a need to discuss how to distribute them. Since there is not enough to go around, at least to the satisfaction of every single person, we have economics. The science of politics exists because the world is unredeemed. If we lived in a world where both our material and spiritual (psychological, intellectual, emotional) needs were met, we simply would not need politics. Politics comes into our lives precisely because some things are missing and we wish to have them, or some things are threatened and we wish to preserve them.
The ‘things’ we wish to have or keep are particular to ourselves, our community or our tradition; they are a “special interest.” All politics, thus becomes a mediation of special interests, and all identifiable constituencies become, virtually by matter of definition, special interest groups. The Jews, as one would suspect, are a special interest group. What then is their special interest?
I have already suggested that one interest is the general concern of being able to participate in American society while preserving a particular Jewish culture. Beyond this issue, which is so abstract that it defies articulation in specific or practical political agenda, Jews tend not to be a special interest group, except for one overriding interest: Israel.
Since Harry Truman had the U.S. vote in the U.N. for the creation of the Jewish State, all American Administrations have been more or less consistent in their support of Israel. (Dwight Eisenhower’s pressure placed on Israel, along with Britain and France, after their action in 1957, against Egypt’s nationalizing the Suez Canal, is a rare exception.) Of course, Jews have their varied opinions with respect to which Presidents have been really good for Israel. In this regard, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and perhaps the current George Bush, are usually given high marks. Johnson and Nixon, whose administrations were overwhelmed and tainted by Vietnam, are not as esteemed. Ford, Carter and the first Bush tend to be treated with suspicion.
These assessments are created by impressions we have developed regarding these men as personalities. The first four had (and have) been expansive in their expressions of admiration of the Jewish State, and relatively harsh on the Arab nations. Johnson and Nixon have always been perceived as dark souls. Ford, Carter, and Bush pere appeared to be cool regarding Israel. Appearances do not always comport with reality.
I personally believe that the best measure of an administration’s performance regarding Israel is not in the President’s rhetoric or demeanor, but rather in the fortunes of the Jewish State itself. Undoubtedly, the United States hardly controls everything that happens in Israel or the Middle East, but it is such a dominant presence in the region that over the course of a presidential term, the general drift of Israel’s well-being can be associated with American policies.
[An aside. The late political scientist, Daniel Elazar, talked about the influence of American policy on Israel in this way: The State’s founders—particularly David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Menahem Begin—were greatly influenced in their thinking by the Jewish defeat to Rome in 70 C.E., which brought an end to independent Jewish nationhood until 1948. They drew two lessons from that event. One was that the Jewish people must always strive for some general unity of purpose. The second—and most germane—was that a Jewish State must never run afoul of a dominating major power. Since 1967, when the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel (even though its Labor government was a member of the Socialist International well into the 1970s), the Jewish State has been careful in assuring that its foreign policy never strays far from the interests of the U.S.]
In the last thirty years (since the Yom Kippur War), then, when has Israel enjoyed general good times? The answer is during the Carter and Clinton administrations. During those years, Israel had net immigration, a growing economy, relative peace and increased diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, for all of their genuine positive feelings toward the Jewish State, have had administrations in which Israel mostly lost what gains it enjoyed in the previous years.
VI. Jewish Influence
Israel, however, has not been a dominant issue in Presidential campaigns for years. Actually, the question of the Jewish vote—while of great interest to Jews—has not been a particularly compelling factor in over twenty years. There was a time, I would suggest from FDR to the first Reagan administration, that Jewish influence was a factor. Jews, I have noted, have been substantially Democratic since Roosevelt. For many years, however, Republican campaigns would give thought to how large a proportion of the Jewish vote they would need to win in order to assure overall victory. Ethnic campaigning and explicit appeals to their record or attitude on Israel thus represented an important element of both parties’ strategies. All this, however, has changed.
The Jewish vote in America is no longer as influential as it used to be. Before describing this circumstance, let me note one area where Jews continue to have some strategic importance. Jews, as an overall community, are not only wealthy, they are politically active and generous. Political donations by Jews remain way out of proportion to their slice of the electorate. To this extent, attention to the Jewish community has not disappeared altogether.
The past disproportionate influence of Jews in Presidential elections, however, drew from electoral politics. Jews have never been much more than 2-3% of the total population. Since they have been considerably more attentive and involved in elections than other groups, they might represent closer to 4-5% of the actual votes. This is still a pretty small figure.
The influence was rather drawn from the concentration of Jews in large States. Through the 1970s, Jews mostly lived in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and California, where their representation in the popular vote could be 10% or more. These States provide a large chunk of the electoral votes. Indeed, it is very difficult for a presidential candidate to win without capturing at least a few of these States. The percentage of Jews one candidate or another could garner in any one of these States could spell the margin of victory. And campaign staffs were well aware of this circumstance.
Since the 1980s, however, the demographics have changed. Yes, Jews still vote in percentages disproportionate to their population, but they are not longer as concentrated in the critical large States. Jews have become more scattered throughout the nation, and thus their influence has been diluted as well. Ronald Reagan drew nearly 40% of the Jewish vote in 1980, but his success dropped rather dramatically in 1984. He won more handily in that year. Campaigns, neither Republican nor Democratic, need take special care in attracting Jewish voters any longer.
* * *
As a group, American Jews will continue to have two overriding concerns within the American body politic: the maintenance of a society that accommodates multiple cultures, and well-being of the State of Israel. Fundamentally, they are actually the same issue, as both represent the safety and security of the Jewish community, both here in America and world-wide. Sometimes religiously and/or politically conservative Jews decry the ongoing liberalism of the Jewish community as an abandonment of particular Jewish interests in favor of universal human concerns. In reality, Jewish liberalism has essentially been a strategy for ensuring a fundamental Jewish self-interest; namely, the preservation of an identifiable Jewish community within a world that so easily slides into the attitude that Jews are superfluous. Liberalism is not necessarily the only strategy; some thoughtful Jews may even argue that it is not the best. It is, however, the method that the vast majority of American Jews have chosen, intentionally or not.
The waning of the Jewish influence, at least in presidential politics, should give us pause. As a community, we certainly still have a voice in national public affairs. Increasingly, however, in order to maintain that voice will have to include coalitions with like-minded groups. As long as the community tends to be liberal in their political outlook, the coalitions should be with other liberal-minded groups: blacks, portions of the Hispanic community, mainstream Protestant churches, a segment of the Catholic Church. Coalition building is, however, difficult, time-consuming and often fragile. It is a political-sociological-theological discussion for another time.
A Jewish Approach to Homosexuality
What do we do when we disagree with a sacred text? What are our choices of action? We can stifle our criticism. The text states one thing, we believe (or should I say, feel as if we believe) something else. The divine will, however, is in the text, so it must be our position that is wrong. And how could our intuition be wrong? We have indulged in personal (and less than noble) desires, or we are misled by some popular but ultimately faddish line of thought. Faithfulness requires discipline; not giving in to fleeting wishes or political correctness.
We can, on the other hand, reject the text; assert that it is a misstatement of God’s will, or an artifact of a more primitive past, and that we know better!
Or we can follow another path. I want to examine the issue of homosexuality as a prime example of an apparently clear scriptural assertion running counter to our admittedly liberal attitudes. Could our tolerance of homosexual behavior—certainly a phenomenon of the last few years—actually be an indictment of the excesses and superficiality of liberalism? Is Torah simply wrong? I want to suggest a reading of Torah that does not simply mediate between these two poles, but rather places all of it—our attitude, Scripture, and the very act of reading—on a different plane.
A Personal History
In thinking through how I wish to present my case, I have concluded that there is no good place to begin; or rather, there are too many reasonable places in which to begin. We have three concerns to investigate: the Scriptural text, which I pose to be in some way the word of God, a social and political history of communal attitudes toward homosexuality, and myself (yourself), who is bringing a particular intuitive mindset to the issue. Certainly, all three are interrelated, and to follow the assertions of any one requires attention to the others. We must nonetheless begin somewhere, even if it appears to be in the middle. I have chosen to begin with myself, then describe in a brief and schematic fashion the relevant history, and finally turn to the text. It is important, however, to recognize that each of the sections constantly refer forward and back, almost as if they were to read as laid one on top of the other. The concern narrowly before us is the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality. The broader overarching concern is the interplay between among personal sensitivities, contemporary social and political trends, and a timeless and sacred text.
First, about myself:
In the neighborhood where I grew up, the operating dictum might have been called “malice toward all.” It was a community of wealth and modest means: of Jews, Irish, Italians, blacks, and WASPs. On the playgrounds, derogatory epithets were thrown around liberally. They were meant as insults, but were so frequently (and mostly inaccurately) used, they had no sting. Hence, I was introduced to, among others, “fag,” and “queer.” Being gay or lesbian was, of course, a major ‘no-no,’ but in the cloistered suburbs of the late 1950s, early 60s, we did not know anyone who actually was homosexual. The insults were vague and ultimately meaningless, as were all the ethnic and racial slurs. The net experience of my growing up in this atmosphere was a remarkable lack of animus or discrimination toward anyone.
Homosexuality remained distant and abstract through all of my school years, undergraduate and graduate. Contacts with professed gays or lesbians were extremely rare. Contact with non-professing gays was far more common. I remember a number of acquaintances, classmates, teachers and others—some of whom seem to display the stereotypical gestures of a gay or lesbian person and others who did not—for whom I only learned later were indeed homosexual. Even at the assertively liberal and diverse University of Wisconsin, gays tended to prefer to remain in the closet.
Through college, however, the issue of homosexuality remained a non-issue for me. It was not brought forward until it began to be debated on occasion at the rabbinic seminary. Confronted now with having to take some sort of a stand, I developed a mostly civil rights position. Gay and lesbian Jews ought to be accorded as individuals the same rights and privileges extended to all other Jews.
This position was created principally out of reigning notions of human rights, and also out of the developing scientific attitude toward homosexuality that no longer treated it as a curable disease. I chose to read the traditional condemnation of homosexuality as being predicated on it being a volitional act: individuals choosing a same-sex liaison when they could have chosen otherwise. If, however, a homosexual attitude was more fundamental and ineluctable, the tradition, I believed, could be set aside as mistaken.
While I hardly had a condemnatory attitude toward homosexuality, it was not particularly accepting either. What I had done was divide out an accepting approach toward any particular gay or lesbian Jew from a lingering discomfort with homosexuality itself. The focus in my mind, therefore, was on the gay or lesbian as a Jew—could one join a congregation, have an aliya to the Torah, be ordained a Rabbi—in other words, there should be no distinction among Jews, regardless of sexual orientation, in public Jewish life. What one does in the privacy of the bedroom could be bracketed out of my considerations. Thus, while I had come to grips with gays and lesbians, I had essentially avoided the issue of homosexuality altogether.
This turn was not unintentional. I simply considered homosexuality irrelevant to Judaism. As a colleague remarked to me, “we simply do not need gays.” The colleague, by the way, had impeccable liberal credentials as a person who had been in the forefront of many campaigns from civil rights, the ERA and opposition to the War in Vietnam. The remark was rather a hardheaded determination that homosexuality as a concept simply operated outside of Jewish religious life.
In addition to a vague discomfort with a homosexual lifestyle, I was restrained in going beyond a civil rights stand by the tradition itself. While I believe we could discount classic disapprobation of homosexuality as relying on a faulty understanding of the non-volitional character of sexual preference, I was not prepared to disregard the totality of a tradition that promotes monogamous and heterosexual family structures.
This is no longer the stance I take. How I arrived from my thinking that characterized for most of my first twenty years as a rabbi, to where I believe today, comprises a complex of changing personal attitudes, understandings of the concept of sexuality within a religious context, and a re-reading of the texts. Each element contributes to other: could I have seen something new and surprising in the sacred text if my overall personal attitude had not begun to turn? Would my attitude have changed if I did not learn more about social and historical approaches to sexuality? Would my understanding of social history have had any impact on me if I had not revisited the tradition?
My current understanding of history and my reading of texts are presented below. As for my personal attitude, I began to become uncomfortable with my discomfort. I will admit that the discomfort regarding homosexuality still abides, and I will comment briefly on that near the end of this essay, but I became dissatisfied that this element of my psyche should hold up any further investigation of the place that homosexuality might hold within Jewish religious thought.
It is easy to conclude that I am not the same person I used to be. Accumulated experience has that effect on a person. Yet, I am not radically different either. I have told this story because nothing else that I have to say about Judaism and homosexuality makes sense without it. Since I expect to go on living, learning and experiencing for a number of years to come, perhaps the position enunciated here is only contingent, and will change substantially some time from now. We will see. At this point, we move on to cultural attitudes and to the text.
A principled opposition to homosexual behavior is ancient. I do not think, however, that we should assume that this opposition was obvious or natural. Homosexuality, after all, is not unnatural. It can be observed in nature. Some animals engage in same-sex coupling, and of course, there is a population of human beings who are more attracted to people of their own sex. These observations were as readily available to our ancestors as to us.
Moreover, there is no obvious reason to dismiss homosexual behavior out of hand. We know, for instance, that ancient Greek society ritualized sexual intercourse among men. The reason for this activity was to permit the release of sexual urges without a risk of procreation. Indeed, ancient societies, including Israel, utilized a variety of strategies in order to manage sexual activity. The Bible makes reference, for instance, to cultic and other prostitutes and formal relationships between a man and his wife’s handmaidens. A controlled employment of homosexual activities should be seen as one of the strategies.
I think we can surmise a rationale behind these cultural norms. Societies considered the sex drive essentially irresistible. For the sake of a well-ordered community, and also with concern about control of population growth, they needed to promote ways that allowed for sexual release that were not disruptive, either to personal relationships or to the overall needs of the community. In this context, the promotion of same-sex contact was prudent.
I do not know how widespread or common tolerance of homosexuality in the ancient world was. Such tolerance, however, was clearly not unknown. And it is against this backdrop that we should view the developing opposition that would occur within early Jewish thought, and then also become a central element of Christianity and Islam. Some observers have suggested that the three Western faiths were “pro-natalist;” that is, they promoted child-bearing to the extent that sexual activity not for the sake of procreation was suspect.
This position can certainly be defended. Unlike the Greek city-states, for instance, that were more well-developed urban societies, ancient Israel would have had much more concern about promoting population growth. Having children, both for the sake of the development of the society and in combat against infant mortality, was a high priority, and sexual activity should not be wasted if it was not fulfilling this priority. I think, however, that this approach is too narrow, and too insensitive to the theological dimension.
Israel was similar to other societies in wishing to maintain good order, and even to provide some control to population. The most striking difference, however, was in its belief in a single all-encompassing deity who loved humanity and was worthy of love in return. The possibility of relationship with God, therefore, provided the possibility of channeling the otherwise irresistible sex drive into another activity. For Judaism, the outlets of sexual desire did not have to be controlled as much as the desire itself.
A careful reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that this attitude toward the control of sexual desire did not spring fully formed within ancient Israel. One can track a developing understanding of the power of faith in God and the role it could play in disciplining one’s urges. Thus, bit by bit, the realization that an intense relationship with God could mitigate even one’s deepest and most uncontrollable feelings, led to the unmistakable conclusion that with these desires under control, the sex act could be directed exclusively at procreation. Employing the same notions of love of God, Christianity and Islam developed and promoted—perhaps even deepened—a similar attitude toward sexual behavior. Over and against the Hellenistic approach, which otherwise was so influential in the creation of Western civilization, European and Middle Eastern societies developed a sex ethic that effectively eliminated the possibility of homosexual behavior.
What Has Changed?
Some observers will point to the Stonewall riot of 1969, as the beginning of the gay and lesbian rights movement. New York City police were engaging in one of their periodic raids of a bar, the Stonewall, in Greenwich Village, that catered to a homosexual crowd, when the patrons decided that they could not take it anymore. The flurry of shouts, resistance, some violence and arrests announced that something profound had changed; in the way gay men chose to view themselves, and subsequently how a significant portion of society would view their lifestyle.
The context for this change is easy to see. The decade of the 1960s had been one of protest and revolution. Gay and lesbian movements had been preceded by Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation. There had also been a dramatic freeing of sexual restraints. The decade witnessed the Griswold decision of the Supreme Court that placed the sale and purchase birth control products under the protection of privacy rights; the Pill was developed and distributed, and in 1970, New York State passed a law permitting women to get an abortion.
If we were approaching the subject from the point of view of social scientists, we would simply note the dynamics creating a movement for homosexual rights, and leave it to the political and social forces to bring about its outcome. I, for one, am not serving in the role of a detached observer. A challenge has been made to religious sensibilities, and a moral value whose truth has been essentially uncontested for over two millennia is being defied. It is not enough to say: that’s the way it is! Let us consider a thoughtful traditional religious response to the events of the past few decades.
Homosexuality is, and continues to be, a component of the larger sexual revolution; one that entails a greater tolerance of sexual activity independent of procreation. Homosexual behavior, more than the options of birth control and abortion, remains the best guarantee of fulfilling sexual desires without producing children. The very pressure toward non-procreative sex has been reinforced by a general sensitivity to overpopulation in the world. We all would be better off with fewer children.
A traditional religious thinker might concede that population control is a good idea, but would still have serious objections to the methods employed. At heart, they are pagan. Not only do they echo those utilized by ancient Greece and other heathen cultures, but they further represent a fundamental denial of faith. In the love of God and in devotion to the divine will, the bodily urges can be controlled without having to resort to other means in order to control procreation. When one gives in to one’s desires, it is because one has given up on God!
I believe this to be a strong, and for many, a compelling argument. Within the context of a faith community, it is a matter of spirit versus carnality. The issue goes deeper than some puritan notion of morality. For a faithful person, faith is important. What can it mean to be faithful to some of God’s demands on us involving care, compassion, righteousness, justice and seeking peace, if we so readily dismiss the demand regarding discipline in our intimate relations with others? If we are going to take our faith seriously, even—especially!—our liberal faith, we cannot go about saying, this I will believe in and that not.
Our attitude toward homosexuality, especially our intuitive tolerance (admittedly a tolerance that has been impressed upon us only in the last few years) demands careful consideration. Can we be both faithful to the divine will and accept the possibility of a homosexual lifestyle?
To the Sources—but with a Detour
If there is a flaw in the traditionalist argument, it could potentially be in the assertion that homosexual behavior is a violation of the divine will. But why do we assert in the first place that God opposes same-sex liaisons? The obvious answer is that Scripture says so. This is the obvious answer, but not necessarily the best answer. I am going to illustrate with an example from the Bible that has nothing to do with homosexuality.
The passage is found in I Kings, Chapter 22. The last section of I Kings is given over to the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. In this chapter, however, Elijah is replaced by a prophet called Micaiah ben Imlah. This otherwise unknown prophet, however, acts sufficiently like Elijah in order to be him.
The story begins with Jehoshaphat, King of the southern dominion of Judah, coming to visit Israel, apparently after a period of tension between the two kingdoms. Ahab asks Jehoshaphat to join in an alliance with him in order to retake the region Ramot-gil’ad from the kingdom of Aram. Jehoshaphat is ready to commit, but wants assurance: “I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops; my horses shall be your horses`Please, first inquire of the Eternal.”
Ahab brings together all the prophets in the kingdom. They are unanimous in their support of the invasion. Jehoshaphat, however, wants further assurance. Ahab admits there is one more prophet around, Micaiah, but warns that this fellow is never positive about anything. Sure enough, Micaiah, after a little prodding from Ahab, declares: “I see all Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd.” He then adds that God planted a false vision of victory in the spirit of the prophets just so Ahab would march to his doom. The chief of the prophets is so incensed at being called false he slaps Micaiah. Micaiah merely responds that the truth of their respective prophesies can only be borne by the subsequent events.
Ahab and Jehoshaphat ignore Micaiah and march out toward Aram. There Ahab meets with an inglorious death and his army is scattered.
The story serves to bring to an end the wicked reign of Ahab, and to fulfill the theological stance regarding reward and punishment. In doing so, it creates a number of interesting issues. First, there appears to be no difference between a true and a false prophet. (As an aside, perhaps the story names the prophet Micaiah rather than Elijah in order to reinforce this issue. The reader would have readily accepted Elijah’s oracle, but does not know this Micaiah.) The upset prophet in the tale is named Zedekiah, a name that refers to God’s justice. We may surmise that he is a good man, even a good prophet. He is absolutely certain that he has heard correctly God’s will, and indeed, according to Micaiah, he has! Yet, his prophecy is manifestly wrong.
Second, God seems willing to lie, or at least to mislead. What does this revelation portend with respect to God’s will as expressed in the commandments and other divine pronouncements?
Finally, there is the skepticism of both kings. Ahab assembles four hundred prophets, and Jehoshaphat wonders if there is anyone else they should hear from. Micaiah initially agrees with the assessment of the other prophets, and Ahab presses him: “How many times have I had to demand of you that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Eternal.” Why did Jehoshaphat want to hear from someone else? Why did Ahab not accept Micaiah’s initial statement?
I believe that the narrative is pulling together a number of related points. For one, there is a difference between a prophet and a seer. Micaiah was a true prophet, not because he predicted accurately the outcome of a war between Israel and Aram, but because he could correctly discern God’s will. For all I know, Micaiah received the same vision as the other prophets. He differed from them in being able to understand the vision was misleading.
Yet, Micaiah was not the only one to see through the fog. Ahab and Jehoshaphat were also hesitant regarding the oracle of victory. Perhaps they had an advantage over the prophets. They did not have to deal directly with the force and power of the vision, but rather, with distance and perspective, were able to evaluate its significance. In the end, however, Ahab proves that even when he senses what is right, he goes ahead does what is wrong.
This story sets up two conflicts. There is the dramatic conflict involving the two kings, the prophets and Micaiah. And there is the theological conflict between an apparently clear vision of God’s will and the intuition—gut feeling—of people. It is the gut feeling that turns out to be true. Thus, what can we conclude about the prophetic vision? I, for one, would conclude that the divine revelation received by all the prophets—all the prophets; should we not read the narrative as suggesting that Micaiah received from God exactly what the rest of prophets obtained?—was not false or even misleading, but rather elusive.
I believe the narrator is playing a joke here; actually, a double joke. The first joke is on Ahab, who is so estranged from God that he is willing to march to his doom, even when he knows in his own heart this is where his actions will be taking him. The second joke is, however, on us, the readers. We are whipsawed by the notion of God lying to the prophets, but it is we who jump to the conclusion that God is deceiving, and not what the narrator says.
What is missing in our reading is what is missing in the reading of every text: the intonation. On the lifeless sheet of paper before us, we can read what was said, but we cannot read how it was said. When Micaiah first responds to the kings’ inquiry regarding a war on Aram, he answers (v. 15), “march and triumph. The Eternal will deliver it into your hands.” With little trouble, we can hear the sarcasm in his response, his intentional parroting of the words of the other prophets. Thus, Ahab challenges Micaiah. Even he can tell it is not a straightforward answer to his question. We have little trouble assuming that the contentious prophet would put on such a tone of voice, but we would never assume that God could do the same!
Of course, neither can the prophets themselves. In the narrative, Jehoshaphat senses something is amiss. Was the oracle from the four hundred prophets delivered in too flat a voice? Micaiah, in receiving what the other prophets received, heard something amiss as well. Maybe it was the same flatness, or an arching of a few syllables that unmistakably suggested “what you are hearing now is not quite the truth.” You and I know these cues when we hear them. Alas, in reading the text (or worse, in chanting it according to the cantillation tropes), we hear nothing at all!
And here is the point of this detour into an examination of a story at the end of I Kings. The words of Torah as they lie on the paper are toneless. When we read them—publicly or to ourselves—they are imbued with a tone, an inflection, which rounds out their meaning. We can imagine just how they were originally spoken—by Moses, by God, by the unknown writer—but ultimately the intonation is ours. And the intonation we choose can make all the difference in what meaning we derive from the text.
These conclusions are critical for my discussion of homosexuality within a Jewish context. From the start, I have contended that one needs to take Torah seriously; all of Torah, and not just those texts and verses that fit a preconceived understanding of proper thought and action. It will not do, at least for me, to aver an acceptance of homosexual conduct (if that is what one wishes to do) by simply ignoring or dismissing those Scriptural references that appear to reject the conduct. We must confront Torah in all seriousness. It is teaching us something, and if we open ourselves up to its lessons, we might be very surprised by what we learn.
Torah and Doubt
References to homosexuality in the Bible are exceedingly sparse. Actually there are only two direct mentions of lying “with a man as with a woman,” and they are essentially the same. Leviticus 18 asserts a prohibition of such behavior. Leviticus 20 then states the same thing, adding that the penalty is execution. Rabbinic literature is also relatively silent. There is an interesting colloquy in the Mishna (Tractate Kiddushin 4:14): “two unmarried men may not sleep under the same blanket. The Sages, however, permitted it.” Clearly, the mishna begins with a concern about homosexual relations, but the rabbis seem to have had enough confidence in the sexual discipline of Jews that they did not consider the exigency of two fellows trying to keep warm at night with only one blanket between them, as an invitation to immoral behavior.
We can conclude that the prohibition concerning homosexual activity was so clear and unmistakable that it was not particularly the topic of any discussion, or even for the need of discussion. The fact that it was immoral was taken for granted. About the only issue under consideration was whether the instance or opportunity of homosexuality was to be construed as a prospect for engaging in such behavior. For the most part, the answer throughout Jewish legal sources tends to be no.
Is the Torah’s attitude toward homosexuality so uncompromising? We need to take a careful look at the section provided in Leviticus 18. Indeed, since the whole formal Jewish attitude regarding homosexual behavior seems to stem from this critical section of Torah, we are going to return to it over and over again in the coming discussion.
The critical verse (22) is embedded in a series of commandments that adjure specific forms of sexual relations. The section itself is introduced with the warning that the Israelites must take care not to follow the practices of either the Egyptians (whom they just left) or the Canaanites (among whom they will reside). Then, at the conclusion, this warning is made more emphatic by suggesting that it is specifically for these offenses that the Canaanites are about to lose control of the land, and such would be the fate of Israel as well if they do not take care in their sexual relations. Lest we miss the point, the same warning and threatened punishment is provided once more at the end of the similar list in Chapter 20.
Could it be that sexual immorality, as defined in this set of commandments, is so offensive that it should be the basis for banishment from the land? The passages from Leviticus are explicit, and appear to lead to no other conclusion. We need to address this concern, but at this point we can surmise that the framing passages to these chapters emphasize just how serious violations in sexual conduct are to be treated.
This chapter attests to the observation I made earlier, that the issue is not in condemning homosexuality itself, but rather in establishing a code of discipline regarding the restraining of all sexual desires. The list can be broken into two parts. First, there are the incestuous relations. This includes sexual contact with blood kin and relatives of blood kin. The prohibitions are given in apodictic form; no qualification, no explanation, just don’t do it!
The second part includes homosexuality, bestiality, adultery (sleeping with one’s neighbor’s wife), relations with both a woman and her daughter, and “offering one’s offspring to Molech.” Something is added here: an indication of just what is wrong. Thus, sleeping with both a mother and a daughter (or granddaughter) is called zimah. The act of men or women sleeping with a beast is described as tevel. Men sleeping with other men is a to’evah. This language is nearly identically applied in Chapter 20.
Tevel (perhaps best translated as “perversion”) is a noun derived from the term for ‘confusion’ [balal]. Bestiality is a category error, a confusing of the divine order as established in creation. Zimah, derived from the word meaning ‘to traduce’ or ‘plot against,’ is mostly translated as ‘depravity.’ It is used in Torah only in the case of sexual relations with both a mother and daughter, and its occasional occurrence throughout the rest of the Bible tends to be limited to inappropriate sexual encounters. To’evah, in sharp distinction, is a relatively common term. Of all the inappropriate sexual relations, only homosexuality is a to’evah, and for this reason it should give us pause.
To summarize briefly, we have sexual prohibitions that apparently require no explanation or characterization, that are simply and self-evidently wrong. These are the relations with blood relatives or the close kin of blood relatives (such as one’s brother’s wife). Why should they be treated as self-evident? I think this is a worthwhile question, but it also takes us away from the issue of homosexuality, and thus should be approached in another forum.
We then have prohibitions for which a characterization is given. We note three in particular, zimah, tevel, and to’evah. What makes having relations with both a mother and daughter something to be called ‘depravity?’ It is not a form of incest. Consider that the practice of levirate marriage (a man marrying the childless widow of a deceased brother) obliges a woman to have sexual relations with two brothers. (Note that Lev. 18:16 specifically forbids a woman from marrying his brother’s wife. The instance of the levirate marriage is thus a specific exception.) It is not, on the other hand, a type of perversion [tevel]. Unlike bestiality, sexual relations with other human beings cannot be considered a violation of God’s order of creation. The depravity of relations with both mother and daughter strike me as being a form of cruelty, heightening the tension between women in a family and needlessly causing rivalry.
Finally, and most important, we come to to’evah, conventionally translated as ‘abomination.’ At the end of Chapter 18, the term is used four times when the text reinforces just how wrong these sexual couplings are to be perceived. All impermissible sex acts—the forms of incest, and that which are considered depravity or perversion—are abominations. This observation does not imply that an abomination is also depraved or perverse. The term to’evah only occurs in this section of Leviticus, but it shows up frequently in Deuteronomy, particularly in connection with foreign gods and idolatrous practices. The prophet Ezekiel also made extensive use of the term, reminding the people that it was precisely because of to’evot [abominations] that God’s anger flared.
At its heart, however, to’evah is an emotion. It is first introduced to us as readers of Torah, in Genesis, during the story of Joseph. Jacob’s sons return to Egypt for provisions during the seven-year famine, this time bringing Benjamin, just as the Vizier (the unrecognized Joseph) had commanded. Joseph orders a feast in their honor: “Serve the meal.” They served him (Joseph) by himself, and them (the brothers) by themselves, and the Egyptians who with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be an abomination to the Egyptians [ki to’evah hi l’Mitzrayim] (Gen 43: 31, 32). With the employment of the term to’evah, we learn that the Egyptians could not abide sitting with non-Egyptians as they ate.
Must this sense of abhorrence exist? Do Egyptians still have problems eating with foreigners? If they do not, are they violating some cosmic law? Clearly, ancient Egyptian dining arrangements represent a particular aesthetic. It was an attitude created out of the contingency of certain historical and cultural factors; factors that could and did modulate over the years. Can we therefore also conclude that the Torah is implying that a negative attitude toward homosexuality is also nothing more than a contingent aesthetic judgment bound by certain historical and cultural factors?
Abominations and Not So Abominations
It would be simple and satisfying to give an unqualified ‘yes’ to this question. The Torah is a living document, living in each of the eras and historical conditions in which it is read and followed. It spoke one way to the agricultural society that settled the land, in other way to the more urbanized and dispersed community centered in academies in Palestine, and then along the banks of the Euphrates River; and it speaks in still another way to a modern, self-conscious community today. In each case, however, it is not so much the Torah that has changed, but rather the human community – Israel—that is reading it. It is as if God smiles upon the people and whispers: I will teach you one thing now, but later, when you are wiser and more experienced, you will understand better and learn something quite different from the same words.
We see this sort of pointing toward the future in the way subsequent generations came to understand capital punishment and slavery, both tolerated in the text. Or in the rabbinic interpretation of the possibility of reward in the world-to-come, which seems so absent in a plain reading of Scripture. Or in the greater tolerance extended to individuals with physical handicaps who were treated more severely in Torah. Perhaps we can apply the same argument to the hint supplied by introduction of the word to’evah to the prohibition of homosexuality.
I think we can—we should—but not without first considering some basic questions. Why is the possibility of a society in which homosexuality is tolerated (if my analysis is correct) hidden in the first place. Homosexuality, as noted earlier, is not unnatural, nor has it been universally reviled. There were human communities that allowed for homosexual encounter. These societies could have been known to ancient Israel. The Torah, however, in my reading of it, teaches that this behavior was not to be tolerated then, although it might be permitted in some future time. What is different between then and now?
We need to return once more to our text. Leviticus 18 frames the prohibitions in sexual relations with a stern admonition against engaging in the practice of the Egyptians or Canaanites, and an admonition that doing so would lead to forfeit of the Land. Deuteronomy will also take up the theme of the severe consequences that are obtained for not upholding God’s commands. This segment in Leviticus, especially due to its framing—the warnings that both precede and follow the prohibitions—appears to be especially emphatic in warning of the results of impermissible sexual contact. Exile—the forfeit of God’s promised land—is a punishment almost as bad as death!
[The later rabbinic tradition then re-emphasizes the severity of the sexual prohibitions, by having them be the Torah reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Israel is already in exile, so the reinterpreted threat, as we read in the scant hours before the day comes to an end, that in defying these commands we risk a forfeiture of divine forgiveness. This may well be a fate worse than death!]
Why should sexual relations be taken so seriously? I would suggest that they go beyond personal morality, or even the concern of disruption of the community. In the references to the Egyptians and the Canaanites, these sexual liaisons are connected directly to idolatry. With the exception perhaps of intentional homicide, no sin could be direr, either within the biblical or rabbinic mind. I have no interest in discussing idolatry within the purview of this essay. Rather, I want to stress that homosexuality and other sexual taboos took on in Jewish history an outsized sense of immorality precisely because they were intrinsically connected with one of the strictest prohibitions: that which the Sages referred to as kofer b’ikar, a denial of the principle of God’s sole divinity.
I commented earlier on the strategy of ancient cultures to ritualize sexual activities. In Leviticus, the inevitable connection between these rituals and the worship practices of these cultures is cemented. Certainly, homosexuality, a sexual ritual that would ensure the elimination of an unintended consequence of procreation, would have been perceived by biblical Israel as among the most prominent idolatrous activities. Unless we wish to belittle classic Jewish concerns about idolatry, we should be quite cognizant and sensitive to how abhorrent homosexuality has been in traditional Judaism.
Yet, is this not the point? I do not believe that even the most traditional Jews relate the impermissible acts in Leviticus to idolatry any more. With the disconnection between sexual act and idol-worship, an important and central source of disapprobation has been removed … but not completely. We must ask an additional question about the biblical attitude reflected in our verses in Leviticus. We have noted that the prohibitions were considered severe because of their connection with idolatry. Now let us ask, why were they connected to idolatry in the first place?
With this question, we complete a circle. All of the ancient cultures sought to control sexual desire—all of them! They recognized that human desire, particularly carnal desire, is possibly the most uncontrollable element of the human psyche. And this is very powerful indeed! Perhaps, it is more powerful than any other human trait, more powerful than reason, obedience, or even hate; powerful enough to be a god! Ancient Israel knew of the fertility cults in the cultures that surrounded it. They knew as well of the carnal appetites that were assigned to the gods in the stories these societies told. Sexual practice not strictly limited to family and procreation could not be considered other than idolatrous imitation.
Those ancient societies with their fertility gods and sex-related rituals have passed into history. The power of sexual desire has not. It continues to cause extreme discomfort, and remains at the heart of many of the cultural and societal divisions we experience in national and international arenas. At the end of the twentieth century, millennia removed from the texts we have been reading, an extra-marital affair led to the impeachment and near conviction of a President of the United States. Sexual desire remains unalterably an intense source of both attraction and fear.
It is precisely that intensity, however, that distorts the whole issue of sex. For ancient Israel, the problem was clearly not sexual relations or sexual desire, but rather idolatry. When, in a Moslem and Christian world, the fertility gods recede from consideration, all that is left is a memory of prohibition and a new morality that treats sexual relations as intrinsically evil. Yet, it was never the sex per se. Sexual relations do, however, both literally and emotionally lay a person bare. It is the most primary of interpersonal encounters, and therefore embodies the most basic values: compassion, promise-keeping, honesty, and perhaps above all, justice. Sexual relations, after all, highlight inequalities in power, strength, and economic well being, and therefore can either be exploited in order to reinforce the inequality, or be a path toward mutual acceptance.
When we return one final time to the text, the term to’evah begins to take on new meaning. Four times at the end of Leviticus 18, the prohibitions listed in the chapter are declared abhorrent. What is abominable: the power we give over to sexual desire that it takes on the characteristics of a god. What is abominable: the masking of our deeper moral concerns by our obsession with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex. What is abominable: our acquiescence as individuals and a society to have the debate over permissible and impermissible sexual relations to cover a continuation of the injustice of unequal power between men and women. Finally, what is abominable: our anxiety over our own sexuality tends to make us uncomfortable, suspicious or even angry when in social situations.
In the midst of the chapter is the one act called a to’evah. I hear the word as if spoken by two voices. On one pitch, it cautions against the abomination of ever considering an encounter as intimate and personal as sexual interaction to be without consequences. (The scourge of AIDS aside, we hear the plaint arising: what wrong could come from fulfilling sexual desire without the possibility of procreation? We then hear the response: whenever two moral beings are in contact there are always consequences.) And on the other pitch, it warns us of all the abominations we create when turn sexual activity into a moral category in and of itself.
Final Words: A Living Text
I look over my analysis and realize that I could not possibly have written it as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago. The obstacle was not insufficient study or knowledge of the texts. Yes, there may be texts—mishna, gemara, commentaries and/or response—of which I am currently ignorant although they would deepen my understanding. There is always more to learn. In this case, the sources appear to be relatively limited, and I have known them for many years. Something else changed, and what it is that changed is all the difference.
What was it? The simple answer is: everything. I have more experience of the world about me and the ideas and emotions that rattle around inside me. Society is being transformed by social and political movements. Those without voice in the past, have found a way to speak out, say “We are here, take note of us,” and be heard. And the text—words printed on a page, whose letters and vocalizations have not been disturbed in over two thousand years—the text has changed as well. It is not the sight. Ink on paper could just as well be markings chiseled into stone. It is rather the sound! The text reads as it always has, but it says something different. Why? Because, I am different, and the world around is different.
Thus, I began my discussion of the sacred literature on sexual practices with the strange story from the conclusion of I Kings. The account of the prophet Micaiah (Elijah) and the kings of Judah and Israel, serves on one important level as a soul-satisfying tale of the come-uppence of the irredeemably wicked King Ahab. On another, more important, level, it is a lesson about the need to hear God’s voice—or at very least try to listen—even when all we have is the printed page.
So often, we can only hear, however, what we are prepared to hear. This comment, please note, is not the same as asserting that we hear what we want to hear. In the story of Micaiah, neither Ahab nor Jehoshaphat were satisfied with the oracle they were receiving, even though it was quite favorable. Moreover, while Micaiah might have wished ill to Ahab, he did not necessarily want defeat for the kingdom. They were not looking for approval or affirming words, nor did they want to know just what was said. They knew the truth was to found in how it was said as well.
I was not looking for vindication in Scripture for an evolved position either. I did not think I needed to find one, nor did I believe it existed. Moreover, I continue to remain personally uncomfortable with the notion of same-sex intimacy. I did not want to hear an ironic voice in the pronunciation of to’evah with respect to homosexuality, but I was prepared to hear it. This, in the final analysis, is the measure of a living text. It does not just reside before the reader as a mute testimony of certain facts, opinions and/or literary expressions. It rather enters into a conversation with its reader, teaching, cajoling, always bringing to bear its sublime wisdom and insights, but never simply overwhelming the reader with power and authority.
Evolving—not evolved! Even as I have discovered that the Scriptural attitude toward homosexuality is not as condemnatory as has been assumed throughout the history of Jewish thought, I must also concede that no firm conclusion is possible either. This is the measure of a living text as well. The to’evah of “a man lying with a man” continues to be multivocal. We are dealing with thousands of years of cultural assumptions—the echoes of a not-altogether vanished world in which the near irresistible forces of sex and idolatry were intertwined—and our hardly-neatly-arranged understanding of our own sexuality-the unpacking of eroticism, homo-eroticism and auto-eroticism that rattles around in most of our psyches.
The sacred text therefore speaks. It points toward a path, and also cautions that the path is not so obvious, self-evident or easily trodden upon as some might wish.
Evolution in the Schools
A number of years ago, I led a study on the Book of Genesis for a number of University graduate students. We began at the beginning, and took about two years of gathering nearly weekly in order to get to the end. A fascinating transformation took place over that time. The students came from a number of disciplines: law, medicine, psychology, and history, among others. As we began with the account of creation, the discussion was dominated by how could one possibly take such a text seriously. At the end of the two years, they were asking how they could engage more of their colleagues in biblical studies.
The initial difficulty with respect to a study of Genesis came, as you can guess, from the early stories found in the Book: six days of creation, an earth-covering flood, and impossibly long age spans. In essence the problem is, if you cannot take these stories seriously, how can you be serious about the rest of the book!
For many contemporary Americans, this is exactly the problem, although in reverse. Since they insist on taking the Bible seriously, they therefore feel obligated to take the first chapters seriously as well. Thus, they feel no choice but to accept the biblical account of a divinely created world that was produced somewhat less than six thousand years ago.
There are all types of individuals in the world. The concern that there are some who cling to the notion of biblical creation would not be so great if the numbers were not so large and their influence on the American education system were not so great. News reports in early 2005, noted that a surprisingly large number of public school science teachers simply avoid teaching about evolution. It is not worth the hassle.
The controversy regarding evolution is quite amazing. It has been fully eighty years since the famous (notorious) Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, which had sufficiently embarrassed enough people that anti-evolutionism remained quiescent for a while. Yet, here it is again, attacking so-called ‘Darwinism’ in every which way, including a very sophisticated notion that has been dubbed “Intelligent Design (ID).”
Why evolution? Why is the opposition to it so forthright and persistent? Why is this a predominantly American phenomenon? Finally, what should a faithful and religious Jew think about Darwinian evolution, creation and ID? This essay touches on issues of biblical literalism and inerrancy, American anti-intellectualism, the tension between science and religion, the problem with science, and modern Jewish thought.
The Heart of the Matter
Warning labels were pasted in textbooks in a county in Georgia, stating that evolution is only theory, and therefore need not be treated with the seriousness of proven fact. Of course, the labels could have said that the intelligence of the Cobb County Board of Education is only a theory, and such a statement would have been no less valid! Indeed, the assertion that the earth revolves around the sun is no more or less a theory than evolution.
The warning labels betray the attitudes behind the anti-evolutionists. First, and perhaps foremost, is that evolution itself is the touchstone of the debate. All of science is, and has been throughout history, controversial. Science itself is an attempt to describe nature, but nature is incredibly elusive and complex. Hypotheses are put forward, experiments are devised, and a theory is created that seeks to explain growth, movement or chemical change. The theory is a mirror of truth; a contingent statement that such-and-such is the way the world works. The key word here is ‘contingent.’ Scientific assertions are only approximations of reality. They get modified all the time. What appeared to be true today turns out not to be as true tomorrow.
These general statements about science and scientific truth cover every element of inquiry, from physics to astronomy to chemistry to botany to geology, and, of course, to biology. Evolution, however, is the singular component of the scientific endeavor that is fiercely questioned. This privileged position is worthy of consideration. (Before Darwin, there was Galileo. Note, that the opprobrium that was brought upon the fifteenth-century Pisan by the Church has virtually completely disappeared. The loudest opponents to the notion of evolution, even those who stick stubbornly to the idea of a universe that is less than six thousand years-old, are nonetheless at peace with the idea of a sun-centered planetary system, and of moons revolving around Jupiter.)
The ideas and feelings behind the opposition to evolution are somewhat complicated. I rely for my own understanding on two works: Martin Marty’s Modern American Religion (in 3 volumes, covering the years 1893 to 1960), and Richard Hofstadter’s seminal Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
The idea that more complex life forms might have evolved out of simpler forms precedes Darwin by a half-century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had determined that there had been an evolutionary process. Lamarck’s observation was generally accepted in the scientific community, and had little impact on the religious world. There were two reasons for this circumstance. First, while scientists were able to observe the evidence of evolution, they made little effort to explain or describe the mechanics behind it. Thus, those religious thinkers who became aware of Lamarck’s work had little trouble incorporating it into an interpretation of the Genesis account. After all, the Bible does portray creation as taking place in a roughly evolutionary fashion: from fish and birds to landed animals and finally to human beings. I will touch upon the second reason in a moment.
When Charles Darwin set out on the H.M.S. Beagle, he was already quite well versed in the notion of evolution. Darwin’s great contribution was to determine a mechanism by which the evolution took place. He theorized that life forms persist as a result of natural selection, based on mutations that allow for survival in the face of changing environment circumstances. The key word here is ‘natural.’ Evolution, in Darwin’s estimation, occurred exclusively as a matter of physical and chemical forces. Hence, God had nothing to do with the creation of Man!
With the publication of The Origins of Species, a shot was fired across the bow of traditional religious thought. Darwin was suggesting that God played no direct role in the creation of human beings. The lessons of Genesis—particularly the account of God breathing life into the clump of earth and producing the first “Adam” (Gen. 2)—were being stretched to the limits of interpretation.
America the Exceptional
Darwin’s finding created a flurry of controversy throughout the world, but the reaction could hardly be more strident and condemnatory than in the United States. A high point in this opposition coalesced around the prohibition to teaching evolution in Tennessee High Schools, enacted in 1925, and challenged in the famous Scopes Trial a year later.
Darwin had published his work over fifty years earlier. Why did it come to a head in the 1920s? The answer is that evolution only began to show up in high school science texts in the first decades of the twentieth century. Up through the beginning of the century, only a tiny percentage of Americans attended college or university, and a substantial number had no education past an elementary level. Average Americans did not have to confront the issue of Darwinism until high school education became more prevalent.
Underlying the American experience was a thoroughgoing ambivalence regarding education, an ambivalence that persists to this day. The U.S., from colonial days to the eve of World War I, was substantially two societies: the settled dwellers in towns and cities, and the frontier pioneers. The towns and cities allowed for the creation of institutions that in turn produced striations in society, in particular economic, political and intellectual elites. The frontier was too scattered and too unsettled to permit anything but the most rudimentary institutions. Hierarchies did not form, and the population tended to look upon elites with suspicion and innate dislike.
One positive ramification of the frontier heritage has been an egalitarian and aggressively democratic spirit. The United States has been mostly free of ruling elites. On the other hand, American culture has always, and continues to endure a persistent streak of anti-intellectualism. Pioneers had little time and energy for formal education. Rather than treating this circumstance with regret, there has been a tendency to consider it a virtue.
To this day, the notion of just what education is in the United States remains a highly contentious debate. Conservatives rail against the liberalism of the university, deeming it somehow a conspiracy—hatched undoubtedly in the ‘radical’ 60s—that has served to deny all but left-wing thinkers faculty appointments and tenure, particularly at the more select institutions of higher learning in the country. They are right, of course. Universities are places where Liberal Education takes place. While the word has a somewhat different meaning from the more conventional political connotation, colleges tend to promote open-mindedness, sophisticated and nuanced thinking; in general, an anti-orthodoxy.
Counterpoising liberal education, many conservatives promote practical learning; education not as exploration and mind-expansion, but rather as skills acquisition for participation in the economy. Real truth is already given, either by the revelations of Scripture or by the practical reality of everyday life. The ‘truths’ discovered in school, whether in history, mathematics, literary analysis or science, are immaterial, or worse, they are dangerous. They lead to a breakdown in traditional authority, to confusion, and thus to a debilitating weakness that could affect the security of the nation.
Opposition to the teaching of evolution, therefore, is not an exercise in willful ignorance. It is a sacred crusade for the defense and protection of the country!
The Real Problem with Darwin
The 1920s was an era of particularly virulent religious and political fundamentalism. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its zenith in membership. Immigration policy formally cut off the flow of new Americans from the ‘non-white’ regions of Southern and Eastern Europe and East Asia (Northern and Middle Europeans were warmly welcomed.) Isolationism restrained American participation in international affairs, and kept it out of the League of Nations. And, of course, the teaching of evolution was fought everywhere.
By the end of the decade, however, the tide began to turn, and with the coming of the Depression, religious evangelism was more wedded to liberal causes, such as support for the social and economic policies of the New Deal, than with conservatism and reaction. Yet, the spirit of opposition to evolution, as well as many of the attitudes that defined the special brand of American anti-intellectualism, hardly disappeared. The backlash to the New Deal was embodied in McCarthyist anti-communism of the 1950s, and in the latter part of the 1970s, the Moral Majority was gathering as a renewed political force. And once more, anti-evolution—now in the form of creationism—was a centerpiece of the New Right.
Anti-intellectualism has remained an unbroken and unshakable element of American culture. It is often delusional and self-defeating, but that does not mean it is altogether wrong. Anti-intellectualism entails a reflexive suspicion of expertise, and often experts are indeed deserving of that suspicion, especially when they insist they are right, but are not. Scientists occasionally promote (or, at very least, do not disabuse) the notion that they have a God-like access to the truth. Yet, their claims and assertions turn out simply to be incorrect or unverifiable. Further, science, which so often is harnessed by society for its benefits, is also capable of unlocking destructive forces.
The heart of the problem is that science is value-free, but some scientists and promoters will claim that science itself is a value. I think a most apt example is the image of two graduates of a program in Chemistry. One finds employment concocting methods of masking the detection of steroid use, and the other works for a lab that refines detection methods. What restrains them, say, a year later from switching jobs? Underpinning the intense opposition to evolution, I think, is the reaction to the arrogance and dominance of science in a society that is mostly alienated from the incredibly complex skills and knowledge set that make up contemporary scientific investigation.
There is a second critical objection that may be made with respect to Darwinism. It is not with the science, but rather with the social and political inferences that can be drawn from a theory of natural selection that is based on the concept of the survival of the fittest. When survival of the fittest is applied to human communities, it justifies the oppression of the powerless on the part of the powerful. Social welfare, even compassion, one can argue, need not be exhibited in a society because it is unnatural. William Jennings Bryan, the populist Democratic politician who argued the State of Tennessee’s position in the Scopes Trial, came to his firm opposition to evolution from his revulsion to the social inequity enshrined in Darwin’s doctrine.
Actually, it is quite unfair to tar Darwin with what has come to be known as Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer began to promote his ideas on the natural rights of the powerful a few years before The Origin of Species was published. Darwin’s work, however, gave (unintended) scientific legitimacy to Spencer’s ‘enlightened cruelty,’ thus opened evolution itself up to attack.
Darwin, Intelligent Design and Judaism: Opportunities and Limits
The objections I have described to the theory of evolution have been psychological, social and political. In what way are they also religious? The first chapter of Genesis does indeed describe the creation of the world that not occurs in six days, but also that each element of creation is produced discretely by God. This is what the text says, but what are we as faithful religious Jews obligated to believe?
First, we must distinguish between ‘inerrant’ and ‘literal.’ When asserting that the Bible is inerrant, one is stating that nowhere is the text false. To accept the Bible literally, one must argue that the plain meaning of each word is also true. Faithful Jews may profess the inerrancy of the Bible, but cannot avow to its literal truth. All the words have depths of meaning that defy any particular plain meaning. The text must be interpreted.
Thus, a Jew hardly has to accept the literal truth of Genesis, chapter 1. OK, but then, what does a Jew do with it? Traditional Jewish thought—that is, the ideas put forward by the classic rabbis—proposes these lessons: Creation is the exclusive work of the Creator, the sole God of the universe. Creation was intentional, designed and coherent, but it also contains inherent contradictions, a condition that inevitably leads to the existence of evil. Finally, Creation is complete. When God rested on the ‘seventh day,’ everything that was to exist in the world had come into being, including those phenomena that would not become manifest until sometime later.
These general statements serve to establish a Jewish attitude toward scientific investigation. Those who engage in science should expect the world and all its elements to be organized and coherent. Further, science is an act of discovery, not invention. The universe is all there, although some of it might be hidden or very elusive. When something previously unknown is discovered, scientists should be able to explain it within the context of God’s overall design. Most important, however, is that God is finished creating. God’s activity is no longer to be found in natural history, but only in human history.
Where then does Darwin’s theory of evolution fit in? The brief answer is completely. It is based on a rational and coherent universe. And, it engages in observation and discovery. God is bracketed out of consideration of the truths of natural history. Finally, its conclusions—that more complex organisms are the products of evolution from simpler organisms – are manifestly indicated by the description of unfolding creation in the biblical text.
So, Darwin is not a problem for Jews, but Darwinism can be! First, as noted above, Darwin’s theory is a theory, not absolute truth. The mechanics of evolution continue to be elusive. Both the doctrines of natural selection and survival of the fittest have been attacked by observable counterexamples. The reality of evolution is undeniable. Just how it works is still open to investigation.
Among the more intriguing critics of Darwin are those scientists and their supporters who have promoted then notion of Intelligent Design. ID proponents highlight the weaknesses in Darwin’s classic theory, and then suggest that these problems can best be solved by positing an overall intelligence that has directed the development of organic life.
Many critics of ID have charged that it is a backdoor way of teaching biblical creationism. I personally think this attack is too extreme. ID proponents seem to accept the overall concept of evolution: more complex organisms have their origins in less complex ones. Their argument is in the details. We might nonetheless ask two questions: Is ID wrong? Is ID science? I believe the answer to both questions is no, and in this answer we might come to appreciate the possibilities and limits of science.
ID is not wrong because, in the final analysis, it does not posit anything about evolution that is not already inherent in Darwin. Darwin, as most scientists, began with the assumption that nature is rational. It behaves according to certain rules, and it is the scientist’s calling to determine just what those rules are. Evolution, therefore, takes place in the context of a design, a design that is intelligent as opposed to random or haphazard. ID tells us nothing that we—scientists or observers—do not already assume. (Is nature really rational? That is a question for some other forum. In the history of human inquiry, the rationality of the universe has mostly been taken as a given.)
On the other hand, ID’s assertion of an external intelligence is not science. Science is the analysis of observation that is justified by observation. It is admittedly a closed system, but when the scientist is engaging in science, metaphysical considerations must be bracketed out. If a question is asked for which no answer is known, the scientist is obligated to look for the answer, and not to stop the inquiry by suggesting that it will never be known. ID finds gaps in the current understanding of evolution, and then jumps to the metaphysical realm for an answer, essentially abandoning science.
Yet, at this point, we become aware of the limitations of the scientific enterprise. Science simply cannot answer everything, even as it searches for that answer. Go back to the question: I just posed: is nature really rational? Science simply cannot answer this query. If it is going to be answered, it must be by some other means. As geneticists and biologists go about attempting to solve and resolve the outstanding difficulties in current understandings of Darwin’s theory, they will never be able to get to the bottom-line issue of how this design (the overall mechanism) was determined in the first place.
Anti-evolutionists, whether they are creationists or proponents of ID, have misdirected their attacks, but they have nevertheless tapped a central and critical concern. Science—and the teaching of science—ought to be free and fearless, but it also must be placed in context. So often, assertions regarding nature, because they are done with due regard for precision and objectivity, are turned into assertions about values. William Jennings Bryan certainly went overboard, but he was hardly mistaken in his fierce opposition to the damage that could be brought upon society by Social Darwinism.
Science, in the end, is only science. It tell us a lot about the human form, function and origins, but it can tell us virtually nothing about who we are, or what God (or our highest hopes and values) require of us.
Vouchers and the Jewish Problem
The old joke goes: A class is given an assignment to write an essay about elephants. Students write about its habitat, mating habits, anatomy, diet, etc. Sammy Goldberg’s essay is entitled, “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.”
Somehow, there is a Jewish issue connected to every topic. Twenty-five years ago, I was asked to participate on a number of panels discussing the Supreme Court decision regarding Michael de Bakke. The case, you might remember, had to do with a student suing for a place in a University of California medical school, and established the Court’s position on the line between affirmative action and quota. De Bakke was not a Jew, yet it struck many sectors of society that no discussion of affirmative action could take place without a Jewish participant.
Now there is the Supreme Court decision regarding the State of Ohio’s voucher program from Cleveland inner city students. Virtually no Jewish students or parents are affected. There might be some Jewish teachers and administrators involved; probably considerably less than a generation ago. Yet, vouchers are a Jewish problem. Jewish organizations have publicly expressed their reactions. Most have denounced or stated their disappointment with the decision. The Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, for example, issued a statement that said: “Sadly, today’s decision undermines the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our nation unique. In upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program, the Court abandoned the judiciary’s traditional interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as meaning that the government will not fund parochial education.”
Not all Jews, however, are opposed to the Supreme Court decision. Some see a potential opening to eventual state support for Jewish Day Schools. Vouchers are indeed a Jewish problem, as the issue speaks to Jewish values and Jewish interests.
Not Your Father’s Public School
From the founding of the Republic, there has been a debate about education, and about the separation of Church and State. The two are, of course, not the same, but they do occasionally intersect. Why do these debates persist? In part, it is because they are impossible to resolve. Both issues are founded on competing and contradictory values. The United States is an egalitarian society that values and rewards excellence. We cannot both treat every student equally as having their own individual potentiality and intrinsic worth, and at the same, work to promote the efforts and talents of some over the others. American ideals envision a wall disentangling the State from the private and personal religious convictions of its citizens. Yet, those convictions continuous bleed over into areas of public policy, from abortion to land management.
A second reason the debates persist is because the grounds constantly shift. The United States is a dynamic society. Conventional wisdom is overturned regularly by technology, discovery, demographics, mobility, or events that take place away from our shores. Sometimes we find ourselves taking for granted ideas that we would have considered far out a dozen years ago. I think this is the case with respect to education. The change in the role, purpose and composition of public schools has been dramatic over the past thirty years. We often confuse the present day reality with realities and ideals of the past. The debate over vouchers has been caught in that wash.
What is the purpose of schools? We all tend to agree that it is to teach. Teach what? One answer is knowledge and skills, for which there ensues a debate regarding which knowledge and what skills? (Think about Evolution and Creationism, states’ rights vs. slavery as a cause to the Civil War, Sex Ed., phonics and whole word methods to learning how to read.) Let us leave that aside, and consider the other purposes for schools; very important and relevant purposes that are usually not thought about at all.
One of these purposes is to keep children out of the work force and off the streets. There is not only a moral objection to child labor, but our economy is predicated on the modulation of the work force, particularly of unskilled workers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, farms and factories could absorb workers, and a public education through grades four or eight—sufficient to teach basic reading and computing skills—was deemed enough. After World War II, a high school education became the norm, as much a reflection of the changing economy as a response to the ideals of a learned society. The demands for longer periods of schooling, starting earlier and continuing on into college, have continued to grow.
We have an economy that is less and less dependent upon unskilled labor, and this fact has brought about a second subtle but unmistakable change in the purpose of schooling. It has to do with the value we place on the schools as a source of socialization. When I was in school in the 1950s and 60s, the class subjects were English, Science, Math and something called Social Studies. In seventh grade, the school combined history and literature into a class called Citizenship Education! I would guess that these class titles are familiar to many of you. They speak of a time when a primary purpose for public education was to create proper American citizens.
We need not delve into what exactly constitutes a good American citizen, and may also note that this purpose has hardly disappeared. It has been, however, crowded by a new emphasis on schools as the source of job training. When one talks about “excellence in education,” “leave no child behind,” “preparing for the twenty-first century,” and decrying failing schools, the heart of the concern is whether schools are adequately training children to be productive—that is, job holding—members of society. I hardly wish to demean this goal, but I believe it is also an unprecedented connection between education and the economic fabric of our society.
You might think that the purposes of reinforcing good citizenship and facilitating better job skills should not be conflicting. Ideally, I suppose this is true. Good citizenship is not economically productive in the same sense as a good course in computer programming. Liberal education (the term is not meant politically), often at the heart of citizenship education, is also substantially what Jews would call Torah l’shma [study for its own sake]. It is my observation that schools are neither financially nor emotionally prepared to offer too much of this.
Why Vouchers . . . ?
Profound changes have been brought to bear on the American education system. Some of them are for the better, some not. Some have occurred as a result of venality, ignorance, good intentions and careful planning, and some are the by-product of larger forces in the society. You have all seen, no doubt, the classic slapstick stunt of someone trying to close a drawer in a chest, but each time he pushes one drawer shut, another pops open. The crisis (I’ll use this word, everybody does!) in American education has all the earmarks of being part of that shtick. Thus, I think of vouchers as a good solution for a badly analyzed problem, or a bad solution for a real problem. Either way, it is not particularly good for the Jews.
What is the problem for which vouchers have been promoted as a solution? Simply put, inner city schools in Cleveland—and most other impoverished areas of the U.S.—fail their students. Why do they fail? The reason promoted by supporters of vouchers is that these schools have no competition. Because they are freed from market forces, they have no incentive to improve. By making alternative schools—by definition, those outside of the public system—more available to parents and children, a form of competition is created, and everyone will benefit.
The solution either willfully ignores or brackets out the issue of adequate funding. Per student funding in failing school systems is by-and-large way below that of relatively successful systems. Critics of vouchers point out the obvious: when the State allocates funds for alternative schooling, it is generally reducing its support for the failing system. This argument is fundamentally based on the proposal that more money (obviously spent with a modicum of thoughtfulness and competence) makes for better schools.
What is the response? Critics of vouchers assume there is no response, because they believe that the promoters of vouchers are simply uninterested or actively opposed to public education. There certainly are systemic critics of public education (possibly including one or more Supreme Court Justices), but that does not mean there is no response possible.
Regarding funding: yes, poor communities tend to have poorer schools. This is lamentable, but perhaps impossible to fix. School funding is mostly a local responsibility, which inevitably leads to the disparities in per student spending. More equalization might be possible, but push close this drawer and you pop open political and social headaches. Cleveland will never be able to fund its schools at the levels enjoyed by Beechwood or Shaker Heights. Money cannot be the sole solution. We must try something else.
Further, the amount of money expended on vouchers is only a drop in the bucket. The Cleveland program, for instance, utilizes about $8 million for vouchers, out of a total school budget of a few hundred million dollars. Would restoring or adding that eight million really make all that much of a difference?
Funding is only a piece of the response. We may ask, are the students of Cleveland—both those who use the vouchers and those who do not—better or worse off as a result of the program? I have seen a few articles and news reports that describe studies done of the fortunes of students who have utilized vouchers, and of those who did not. From what I can glean, there is not an appreciable change. This means that predictions of greater success as a result of escaping these poor performing schools has not materialized. On the other side, public schools that have lost students as a result of a voucher program have not been adversely affected. It appears that neither the claims of success nor the cries of disaster have really come to pass.
There has, however, been one significant benefit. The private and parochial schools that have participated in voucher programs are much more integrated than the public schools. Perhaps, on the strength of this last finding, we should consider voucher programs for inner city schools at least a marginally good thing. Put another way, if vouchers are eliminated, what other solution is there to the clear re-segregation of the schools that has developed over the past three decades?
An Aside on Schooling and the Market
We might wonder why the evidence does not reveal much improvement in students who escape poor performing schools. I admit; I am surprised by this information. Even if one thought that on balance, vouchers and its concomitant reduction of support to public education is a bad idea, one might still expect students to improve once they get into private education. Even in supporting public schools, there is consensus that some of them are quite poor; not only in resources and funding, but in their ability to provide sound learning. Why is there not anything more than modest improvement, if any, in results.
I can think of a couple of logical answers. First, the study sample is small and the time frame short. The voucher program takes place in only a few cities, and has been in place for only a few years. All evidence at this point might be premature. Further, the students who take advantage of vouchers are the products of the more motivated homes. The parents are sufficiently concerned about their children’s education that they will make the extra effort—tuition, as the voucher rarely covers all of the cost, possibly more travel, uniforms, etc.—to make the move. That motivation, however, was already working when they were in their old schools.
And I would add with some caution a second reason: the new school a voucher student is attending may not be better than the old one! One of the most strongly asserted arguments for extending vouchers is the following: Public schools fail because they have no real competition. Competition—the market—improves products even as it drives down, or at least, restrains costs. There is only so much money that can be thrown at schools. We must think of a better way to get a bigger bang for the buck. Hence, let us have the market do its part.
It is a great argument, and might very well work in the areas of toothpaste, cereals and automobiles, but it is not so good for schools. Do two or three alternative schools make up a market? Are public and private, particularly parochial, schools in competition? There is ample evidence that when only a few vendors are offering the same service in a large enough population, there is greater incentive for them to cooperate (or, if you wish to be more cynical, collude) than to compete. The old joke goes: one lawyer came into town, and did not do very well. Then a second lawyer came, and they both did wonderfully.
Let us assume, however, that a few vendors did represent a competitive market. Do schools actually compete? I will draw from my own experience. Both of my children are the products of private school education. They attended Jewish day schools. This was not an ideological decision on the part of my wife and myself. We had just moved to Buffalo, NY, and discovered that the Jewish community day school was one of the few places with more than a half-day nursery program. We enrolled our son, and then stayed with the school as he progressed into kindergarten and first grade, and in time, we enrolled our daughter as well.
We came to appreciate what a Jewish day school did in the areas of providing Hebrew and Judaica learning, and in reinforcing the Jewish identity of our children. This was, after all, the primary purpose of the school. The schools also offered quite adequate secular learning. Was it better or worse than the local public schools? It did not make a difference, as long as it was good enough.
Public and private schools need only be ‘competitive’ in the sense that their educational offerings need to be roughly comparable. For the most part, private schools do not exist in order to give ‘superior’ learning, but rather something else. In the case of parochial schools, that something else is religious instruction.
. . . And Why Not Vouchers?
You can see I am highly skeptical of the claim that vouchers are good for public education by providing poor performing schools with competition. Please note, however, that vouchers do provide some very positive things. I have already mentioned that they offer an opportunity for learning in more integrated classrooms. They also offer choice. The studies that show that voucher students are not necessarily performing better in their new schools, also show that on balance they are happier. Dropout rates are much lower.
What do we want as an American people for education? We want all school age children to receive an adequate education. We want them to remain in school through graduation. We want them to have an opportunity to continue their schooling through college. We also want the students to be good and productive citizens of the nation. Many public schools meet or approximate this objective. Virtually all of them are in relatively high-income districts where there is adequate funding for personnel and facilities. These districts also have something else: a motivated population who expects good quality from their schools and are willing to pay for them.
Poor performing schools are often relegated to a Catch-22. They are both under-funded and have a less than supportive population, who are cynical and despairing about their schools since they cannot afford to bring them up to a standard of quality that might make them more hopeful about a good education for their children in the first place. Some parents, however, have not given in to despair, and for them, vouchers appear to be the only way out of the bind.
A case can be made for vouchers. What is the case against? I believe that in the long run, vouchers would do more harm than good. Vouchers ultimately fulfill two valuable goals: integration and choice. These goals can be achieved in other fashions, though admittedly more expensive and politically harder to attain.
Vouchers, however, are not being promoted on the basis of diversity and choice. They are supposed to be the answer to failing schools. The evidence suggests that neither the students nor the schools are being significantly impacted. I think I have indicated why. This misdirected argument suggests that there is a hidden reason for the promotion of vouchers. It is one that goes beyond other political factors: protection of the suburbs, cutting or restraining budgets, or opposing the teachers’ unions. Vouchers are a way of attacking the perceived godlessness of public schools.
The Cleveland system technically is neutral regarding the schools to which vouchers might be used. As a matter of practical reality, the system is overwhelmingly weighted toward students choosing church-supported institutions. I have no doubt that the underlying concern of those who fashioned the state statute was precisely to create a granting mechanism to these parochial schools that had a good chance of passing constitutional muster, particularly with this Supreme Court.
There is a widespread belief that values have been drained from American education. School prayer was eliminated in the early 1960s, and everything has gone to hell since. The public schools are a lost cause, so the best thing to do is get as many students as possible into church-based education.
There are a plethora of weak points and contradictions in this argument. Equally “godless” suburban public schools are unaffected, even protected. A romantic and highly debatable notion that schooling was better back in the “good ol’ days” is promoted. Most problematic, however, is what is to be understood by value. The language, once more, is neutral, but the practical reality is that the values being promoted are those of mainstream, mostly conservative, religious institutions, that are Christian.
Church and State
We should now return to the issue of the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause. This is where the decision by the Supreme Court started. I noted before that the so-called “wall” between government interest and religious conviction cannot be impermeable. The courts have called upon time and again to decide on a balance between what can be two competing interests.
In recent years, legal observers have suggested three basic approaches to the Establishment Clause. They are: accommodation, neutrality and non-denominationalism. The last one allows for the most interpenetration of Church and State interests, and is currently promoted by a relatively small number of proponents. In essence, this position suggests that the Establishment Clause was designed in order to assure that no one Church is “established” as an institution of the State. The government can therefore favor and promote religion, as long as its statutes and practices are purely non-denominational, showing no partiality to one religious institution over another.
The second notion, neutrality, held sway in the 5-4 decision of the Court. It holds that government can further a state interest with a practice that does not distinguish between religious and secular institutions. The current effort to have the Federal government support faith-based agencies along with non-sectarian ones doing the same type of work, is based on this interpretation of the Clause.
Finally, there is accommodation. The notion here is that the First Amendment restrains the government from promoting religion, and also bars it from impeding religious practice. Having chaplains in the military and in prisons is a good example of the State accommodating religion. It also accommodates when it decides that personal religious conviction can occasionally serve as a basis for avoiding doing what others might be required to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, were released in 1943 from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
After over two hundred years of experience with the Bill of Rights, it is clear that separation between Church and State must entail accommodation. Yet, the experience also underscores both the difficulties and the wisdom of the Establishment Clause. In The Culture of Disbelief (an important, earnest and inevitably muddled examination of constitutionally secular government in a religious society), law professor Stephen Carter quotes a colleague, Kathleen Sullivan, who had noted that at no time in American history has a mainstream Christian Church needed to approach the Supreme Court for accommodation. In other words, the Christianity of American culture and society is so ingrained and natural, it requires no affirmative action on the part of the government in order to protect its practice.
Church/State issues arise precisely at the point of conflict between public policy and private religious conviction. When the overwhelming majority of the populace adheres to a religious conviction (whether deeply held or virtually secular, such as buying gifts for the “Holidays”) that is fundamentally Christian, then the conflict arises essentially when the public policy abuts against a non-Christian or eccentrically Christian practice.
Consider some of the better-known cases: The Mormon Church and the ban on polygamy. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the obligation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (back before the words “under God” were inserted). Christian Science and medical intervention for sick children. The Orthodox Jewish army doctor who could not wear a yarmulke because it violated military dress regulations. Haitian Santeria and issues of cruelty to animals. Oregon Native Americans fired from their jobs as drug counselors because they participate in their religion’s peyote ritual. Finally, the Muslim woman in a chador and her picture on a state’s driver’s license.
In some of these cases, the religious practice was ultimately accommodated. In others, it had to give way to consideration of a larger public interest. In every case, the problem arose from a “minority” religious practice.
The Establishment Clause, in the final analysis, erects a relatively porous wall between Church and State. Its importance and success is not derived from the sturdiness of the wall, but rather from the expanse of space it has carved out in the American psyche that establishes a realm of religious conviction that is inviolate of public policy. This, I think, is less a matter of law or politics than it is one of psychology. Of all the issues and concerns that could arise in public debate, we as a society try to be relatively insensate to those that arise within the walls of our churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, etc.
When the doctrine behind the First Amendment moves beyond accommodation to concepts such as neutrality or non-denominationalism, it opens up the doors of the houses of worship to the realm of the public interest. Some people are all in favor of this, as they are confident the results will be that religious conviction will more affirmatively affect public policy, especially when they are so certain that the policies are devoid of positive moral value. It never occurs to them that the opposite dynamic might happen, that the secular policy would affect religious practice. If they are mainstream Christians, of course they would be right! The historical evidence suggests that if they are not mainstream Christian, religious conviction could very well give to a perceived public interest.
Does this assessment include Jewish institutions? Given the overall notion of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, Jewish concerns tend to be less impacted in Church-State issues than other religions, including the smaller Christian sects. Judaism is nonetheless a minority religion whose practices and doctrines could easily fall outside the vision of Christian policy makers. Yes, Jewish interests, I believe, are placed more in jeopardy by a weakening of the wall between Church and State. And yes, vouchers are a Jewish problem.
A Final Word on Schools
The demands on schools are unprecedentedly high, and it will probably continue to get worse. In an economy where skilled labor is a necessity, education must provide training beyond elementary learning. More school-age children have to go to school, and for longer periods of time. In a post-civil rights era, issues of equality and pluralism have been brought to the fore. Inferior education or lack of opportunity for people of color or for women is unacceptable. Schools are expected to do a better job of teaching whole populations of students society comfortably ignored a half-century ago. Increased study and analysis of education itself has revealed a greater understanding of the diversity in learning development among children. Schooling, in order to be more successful, has had to become more individualized, and subjected to greater local scrutiny. All in all, more children require more education with greater sensitivity to their individual differences. Little wonder public education is in crisis!
These demands, if not outright contradictory, certainly are in conflict with each other. I do not think they are going to be solved easily, unless there is a massive infusion of funding, probably on the level of the current defense budget, and with an equal toleration of waste and mismanagement that accompanies our defense spending. I am serious about the acceptance of waste. The purpose (or cross purpose) of our schools is to increase learning in knowledge and skills, which is universal and objective, and to instill self-worth, maturity, respect of differences and creativity, which is individual and subjective. To do both, the system must spend money that cannot be accounted for, or will be frittered away without measurable results.
How do I know? Consider one of the better school districts in a region. It is well funded, and tends to provide a good level of education to a majority of its constituency. Yet, these same school districts have a significant percentage of children who ‘opt out,’ by attending a variety of private institutions. While, I do not know for sure, I would guess that the higher the average income in a district, the greater percentage actually do not attend the local public schools. Per capita spending in these districts is rather high, but it is also a relatively lower portion of the available wealth. Parents who wish to provide their children with something different—whether it is in religious training, greater discipline, specialized learning programs, the proper connections to get into an Ivy League school, or whatever—will pay both their obligation to public education and the cost of private schooling. Thus, the parents are paying well above the actual cost for the right and privilege of having individual choice.
The voucher programs can be viewed as an effort to provide for those without means the choice that those with means take for granted.
The United States has been built—rather successfully—on a set of ideals that include: meritocracy, egalitarianism, personal choice and freedom of religion. As noted in the controversy over vouchers, these ideals do not fit together very well. The U.S. has also been built on the notion that problems can be solved. The voucher programs that heavily rely on parochial education is a misguided solution—one that cannot help but be detrimental to Jewish interests—to a real problem that goes beyond mere slogans about support of public education, and defense of the First Amendment. The crisis of schooling, particularly for the poorest strata of the country, does require a solution. That solution is yet to be found.
A Cold Spring or The Lead-Up to Summer
The Middle East in 2011
In June 2009, the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran began to fill with crowds protesting a clearly rigged election that had returned Mahmud Ahmadinijad to the Presidency. The demonstrations certainly rocked the nation and caught the attention of most of the world. In time, however, they dissipated. The rulers, Ahmadinijad and his sponsor, “Supreme Ruler” Ayatollah Khamanei, seemed to assert their authority and regained control. The “Revolution,” a little over thirty years-old, was not ready to give up, but a warning shot had crossed its bow. Some time in the next decade or so, the current theocratic/autocratic system will be upended, and Iran might settle into a form of secular democracy.
Of course, Iran has actually had a limited form of democracy for some time. It had peacefully turned leaders out of office in the past. The uprisings of 2009 represented both a popular refusal to allow the nation to collapse into an unaccountable autocracy, and a determination to challenge the theocratic authority of the Islamic Republic. A major change is underway, but not one that could not be predicted. Indeed, many observers had seen the signs, and had written about them prior to the uprisings. No one, however, saw what has swept the Arab nations from Morocco to Yemen.
In December 2010, a fruit stand operator in Tunis killed himself over frustration with the intrusive bureaucracy and corruption of the State. Within weeks, the dictatorial and corrupt President Ben Ali had to flee the nation. In short order, serious and widespread street demonstrations began to appear in Egypt — successfully leading to the resignation of President Mubarak — Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Morocco and Jordan also experienced brief expressions of discontent. As of this writing, Bahrain’s revolt seems to have been repressed. The battles continue in Yemen, Syria and Libya. The last bastion of resistance to democratic expression, the Arab Middle East (now often referred to as MENA — Middle East and North Africa), was crumbling.
This “Arab Spring” has been both utterly stunning and utterly expected. It is something akin to an elderly patient who has been in long decline, rallies briefly and then suddenly passes away. The end, we all know, is inevitable, and yet we are surprised when it actually happens. Sooner or later, the worldwide trend toward responsive and accountable governments was finally going to reach MENA. Most of us figured that it was going to be later.
A day of reckoning has come. As of this writing, fighting continues in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The new political configurations of Egypt and Tunisia have not been drawn. The kings of Morocco and Jordan have begun to implement reforms, and the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah, in the face of potential unrest, have signed an accord to unify once again as the Palestinian Authority (PA). Who knows what is going to happen in Algeria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates. Something will! MENA is entering a long tunnel — I need to emphasize the word “long” — and when it emerges, it will be a very different region from what it was just last December. Clearly, all this is going to have an impact on the State of Israel, but it will not be terribly profound.
The Agony of the Arabs
In 2002, a collegium of Arab intellectuals issued a report (the Arab Human Development Report) on the social-cultural state of the Arab world (Morocco to Iraq). It was sharply critical of states uniformly awash in repression and corruption. The study found that, even as state revenues had increased since the 1970s, as a result of oil production, the condition of the populace had deteriorated. The group issued a follow-up in 2009, and found marginal differences. The Arab world was lagging behind every other region of the world in personal freedom, intellectual development, and general well-being. This is the same region that, 700-1200 years ago, easily outdistanced or, at worst, rivaled the rest of the world in cultural, intellectual and technological achievements. What happened?
I suppose a book can be written on the subject. Curiously, if it has, I am not aware of it. Gleaning from various other works on Muslim and Arab society, I will venture a few guesses.
First, the initial success of Islam necessarily points toward its profound and significant assets. They include two elements of Muslim society that have been mostly suppressed in later years: egalitarianism and openness. Islam is fundamentally egalitarian in the social-economic sense. Muslim society tended to resist the establishment of relatively impermeable classes. There was always upward and downward mobility, and few of the so-called royalty (sultans, caliphs and sheiks) established longstanding dynasties.
Further, the Quran, as the foundational sacred literature of Islam, is not a particularly legal document. Muslim practice arose for the most part out of the hadith, the stories of Muhammad, whose actions would then serve as a model of behavior. Later, legal systems — sha’riah — were developed. Sha’riah has historically been mostly fluid and flexible. Moreover, it represented only a component of the exercise of authority in Muslim societies that were far more complex than a simple matter of rule of law.
In brief, Muslim society presented few barriers to individual initiative and creativity. Men (yes, Muslim society has been no less sexist than virtually any other system) from modest circumstances and means could aspire to both wealth and authority, and not be held back by the limitations of class. And scholars, writers, poets, artists and architects could pursue many avenues of inquiry and expression without feeling the heavy hand of authority over them. These qualities — egalitarianism and openness — are fundamental elements of Islam today. They have clearly been overwhelmed by other factors that have led to their suppression in Muslim, and particularly Arab, societies.
Let me suggest two factors. Muslim society has never been able to achieve the ideals of Islam itself. Muhammad imagined Muslims being drawn into a single ‘ummah, an extended family. As Islam expanded out of the Arabian peninsula, however, tribes and clans continued to maintain a primary allegiance to one another, over and against other tribes, Muslim or not. Society thus was forged out of a complex interaction between these groups, mediated by the principles of Islam. In time, this arrangement valued stability and control over innovation.
Further, putting additional stress on the well-being of the society was its geography. Islam reached out most successfully to the east and west, creating a Muslim world from the Iberian peninsula to India. This stretch of land is mostly arid, which has established a certain set of conditions for survival. Muslim society well adapted to its geographic limitations, and even flourished within it. The dramatic change in its fortunes seems to begin with Christian Europe’s development of sea power. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europe began to outflank and severely contain Muslim lands, ultimately leading to a thorough overrunning and colonization of virtually the entire Muslim world by 1900. Muslims, and particularly Arabs, have been playing catch-up ever since.
Islam, as a religious system, played a critical role in the early growth and development of civilization in the Muslim, and, to a great extent, the inability to sustain an egalitarian and open spirit inherent in classic Muslim thought, has led to its near eclipse in the modern world. Compounding the circumstances, influential forces seemed to have learned precisely the wrong lessons from this sad trajectory. Political leaders looked at Europe’s secular social welfare state and sought to impose a regime that repressed Islamic influence. Religious leaders determined that their nations’ failures were as a result of wavering from their Muslim roots, but then sought to recapitulate an anti-modern theocratic society. The result is a replay of the European Middle Ages: secular autocratic rulers, wholly dependent on the support of an army, clashing with tough-minded religious authorities over power and influence, while most of the population languishes in poverty and oppression.
Two large and economically strong Muslim powers have broken from this syndrome in recent years. They are Turkey and Indonesia (the most populous Muslim state in the world). Both nations have become democratic societies, in that they are capable of having mostly unrigged elections in which power might be transferred peaceably. Neither nation, however, has come by this current situation smoothly. Indonesia endured two long autocratic regimes. Turkey’s army regularly intervened and deposed leadership. Now, however, they are relatively free societies. I find it worth noting that both are outside the arid zone that characterizes most of the rest of the Muslim world.
And now, finally, the Middle Ages are drawing to a close in the Arab world as well. It is worth noting that when political and economic modernity came to Europe, it was accompanied by decades of violence. Wars that had, at least in part, a religious basis, usually pitting Catholic against Protestant, but also Protestant against Protestant, and Catholic against Orthodox, raged through the sixteenth century, all the way up to the end of the twentieth century! Consider how recently an accord has been worked out in Northern Ireland at one end of the continent, and in the Balkan States, at the other.
I think that the Arab world has now entered a tunnel which is going to be characterized as much by uncertainty and probably a good deal of violence before there is any discernable progress. At the end of the tunnel, however, is a modern secular democracy. The Middle Ages are drawing to an end.
Meanwhile, In the Middle of All This
Like the eye of a hurricane, the State of Israel sits mostly undisturbed in the center of all this upheaval. Actually, Israeli society roils with conflicts. A former President has been sent to jail for sexual misconduct; the Foreign Minister is likely to be indicted for embezzlement; the tension among various strata of society — the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox religious women, Israeli Arab citizens, Ethiopian immigrants, among others — is played out daily in the newspapers. All of this, however, is business as usual. Israel has severe socio-economic problems and it has an unprecedented weak and ineffective government. (Its popularity — support of about 38% of the electorate — is dependent upon no strong opposition.) Yet, its difficulties are only on the order of any advanced democratic nation.
I have maintained for many years that one of Israel’s most significant strengths within the International community has been its stable democracy — the emphasis on ‘stable.’ What Israel achieved even before it became a state, is now being sought by most the nations in its region. This is a circumstance that cuts both ways for the Jewish State. In due time, Israel will lose its unique standing in MENA. Given the pressures of other factors — trade, oil and other resources and investment possibilities — American governments might find it more in their interest to be even-handed in their relations with Israel and Arab countries. The longstanding privileged position Israel has enjoyed could well be reduced. I should note that democratic normalization in MENA is still a long way off. Revolutions are almost always upending. The unified opposition to the dictator gives way to intense, often violent, infighting. It may be decades before one can talk about Egypt or Tunisia — much less the rest of the Arab nations who populations are not nearly as homogenous — having truly stable democracies.
In the other direction, the Israel-Palestine dispute tended to disappear as a serious issue within the countries experiencing their revolutions. All politics is local. Civic engagement in each of the Arab nations puts foreign policy concerns that do not directly impact one’s society firmly on the margins. Saddam Hussein regularly addressed the plight of the Palestinians. How often have Iraqi leaders had anything to say about them since Saddam’s fall? There is a real but very remote chance that Egypt, Jordan and/or Morocco will consider revoking their diplomatic recognition of Israel. For the most part, however, Israel is a bystander.
I have written before, and still contend to be the case, that time is on no one’s side. The basic outline of a settlement has already been determined. It was mostly hammered out in the Israel-Egypt border town of Taba in 2001. However many more years the stalemate and conflict persists, the endgame will remain mostly the same. It will just come at increasing Palestinian deprivation and loss, and at increasingly higher costs to Israel. There are two fundamental principles that must be conceded by both sides, and all their supporters.
1. There can never be peace without a fundamental acceptance of Jewish national rights.
The principle is less axiomatic as it is pragmatic. Nearly 2600 years ago, the kingdom Israel lost its monarchy and its land, and then transformed itself into a people capable of transcending both. The land, however, remained vitally important. One can only speculate whether the exiled Jews could hold on a generation or two longer if Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonia did not fall to the Persians so quickly. In the first century C.E., the land was lost once more, and this time the people were prepared to continue indefinitely without the land. It was never severed from Jewish identity, but rather relegated to a messianic future.
In the late 19th century, however, the circumstances for the Jews, at least in the minds of some, had changed, and the assertion of a Jewish national entity on the historic land of Israel was revived. In 1948, a fifty-year-old task in state building was complete. At that point, and for the 63 years since, a reality has been established for which there is no going back. Jews have determined to be a free people “in Zion and Jerusalem” (as it is expressed in Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem).
For the 2600 years since the fall of Solomon’s Temple, Jews were mostly willing to accept an existence constrained by the whims of dominating powers. They negotiated their survival — with greater or lesser success — under Babylonia, Persia, the Greeks and Romans, and then in far-flung communities within Christian and Muslim worlds. That era is irrevocably over. No amount of romanticizing an ecumenical past, or attempting to shoehorn the Jews as being merely a confession of faith, will change the uncompromising reality of the present.
Any attempt, particularly on the part of Palestinians, and however liberal, secular and progressive sounding it might be, to deny Israeli Jews fundamental authority over their own lives, is going to be resisted. Too much effort has gone into developing and protecting Jewish sovereignty for it to be negotiated away. Further, there is no reason for the even the most egalitarian and secular Israeli Jew to have any trust that a predominantly Arab entity would actually protect their freedom and rights. The “one-state” solution is not only a fantasy, it is a dangerous fantasy.
2. There can be no security for Israel until there is peace.
Israel is a tiny country. Even at its largest, following the 1967 Six-Day War, its total landmass was roughly comparable to that of Jordan or Syria, and a good deal smaller than Egypt, Turkey or Iran. The 1949 Armistice Lines (the so-called Green Line that still tends to delineate the Jewish State and its “occupied territories”) encompass an area about the size of New Jersey, and only larger than Lebanon among its closer neighbors.
Much is said about the indefensibility of the pre-1967 borders, but the post-War boundaries, and especially the current functional lines (minus all of the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip) hardly provide that much more security. When it comes to security, size can be overrated. Russia, from the time of the czars through the reign of the Communist lords, constantly sought to push the western border further west. The reason is obvious when one looks at a map of Europe. The continent is shaped mostly like a triangle with its base in the east and its vertex in the west. Thus, the further west Russia (and the Soviet Union) could control, the shorter its border. The USSR nonetheless fell apart in 1989-91. The acquisition of satellite nations running from Poland to Yugoslavia, actually increased instability, and therefore insecurity.
The organization Peace Now, founded by Israeli reservists in the late 1970s, had a slogan, Peace is greater than Greater Israel. As with the first principle above, this is no platitude. There are no conceivable border lines that the State of Israel can draw — the Jordan River, Mt. Hermon, all of the Sinai Peninsula — that can give its population a sense of stability and security, if there is not also peace.
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Let me add a few more principles that strike me as significant.
Israel and the Palestinians are essentially alone in the matter of peace and conflict.
Isreal-Palestine is on the docket of most Foreign Ministries around the world. Every nation would like to have a hand in solving this chronic foreign policy headache. Rhetoric flies, mostly around Israeli imperialism and Arab terrorism. Resolutions are offered in the U.N., and road maps are drawn up. When push comes to shove, however, no country is going to commit its troops in support or defense of either side.
History, I believe, is a sure guide. Armies from Arab nations sought to invade and destroy the Jewish State in 1948. In 1967, they pushed the possibility of invasion past the brink of war. In 1973, Egypt and Syria coordinated an effort that was designed mostly to recapture the territory lost in 1967. That was the last time the standing armies of any Arab nation have participated in a military confrontation with Israel. In 1982, 2006 and 2008, Israel carried out massed military activity in Lebanon and Gaza. In 1988-89, and again in 2001-3, Israeli troops responded to Palestinian uprisings, the intifadas. Only the battle with Hizb’allah militia in 2006 involved armed opponents who were not Palestinian. It is possible to argue that at no time in Israel’s rather bloody history has any external armed force actually come to the aid of the Palestinians.
Israel, for its part, has never asked for such military support. Tellingly, it withdrew troops from the Suez Canal in 1957, along with France and the United Kingdom, when it received assurances from Eisenhower that the U.S. would protect Israel’s use of shipping lanes through the Straights of Tiran and into the Red Sea. When, in May 1967, Egyptian President Nasser blockaded that waterway, President Johnson decided to ignore Eisenhower’s promises. Israeli governments since, liberal or conservative, have determined that the most they can expect from even their closest allies is financial and materiel aid; no troops.
From the start, as a natural repercussion of the fundamental Zionist attitude of Jewish self-determination, Israel has been prepared to fend for itself. Unfortunately, too many Palestinians harbor a notion that others — fellow Arabs or Muslims — will lay down their lives for their cause. It is a dangerous and self-defeating fantasy. Palestinians will ultimately only succeed in acquiring a viable state for themselves, when they fully accept that they are ultimately on their own.
It is not our responsibility to solve the conflict.
Most of my posts over the past ten years on the Israel and Middle East have consisted of reasonably informed commentary regarding the political realities of the region. They have been exercises in attempting to frame the conflict, to recognize and articulate social, economic, political and — above all — religious forces that affect the present situation. I have tried to stay away from being prescriptive, at least in the sense of propositions of how the Israeli and U.S. Governments, or the Palestinian Authority should proceed. Oh, I have my ideas, but in the final analysis, I am not the U.S. Secretary of State, or Israel’s or the PA’s Foreign Minister.
Ultimately, only Israel and the PA can work out the deal that substantially ends the war that began before 1948. I mean by this, the Israelis and Palestinians (in both Gaza and West Bank) supporting a government who makes the territorial concessions that are necessary. External governments, like the U.S., can help or hinder the process. They can help by voicing their support for the solution whose general outlines have already been established. They can hinder by indulging either (or both) sides into believing that they can or deserve more from the deal than is reasonably possible.
Some governments are weak; some strong. Currently neither Israel nor the PA is particularly strong. Indeed, it is quite likely their mutual weakness reinforces each other, prolonging the stalemate. Until the situation improves, the U.S. can only patiently wait, and try not to make the situation worse.
And as for us who are not Israelis or high-ranking State Department officials, our task is to transcend the daily news. The Zionist enterprise has already been around for over a century. There is a long future to envision. There have been extraordinary statesmen in Israel’s past, as well as a number of knaves and fools (occasionally the same person at different times.) In 1989, as bombings and counterattacks presaged greater enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, who could imagine Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands just a few years later? Our responsibility is not to bemoan the present, but be steadfast in our hopes for the future. An Arab Spring may yet bring on an Israel-Palestine dawn.
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Every year since 2001, I have written an essay on the Middle East with the expectation that I will take the following year off. Every year has rather brought about significant events that seem to require comment and response. I truly hope and pray that another essay is not required in 2012, unless it is to extol the conclusion of a successful peace.
Israel, Palestine, the U.S. and the Art of Unreality
Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism, quoted Franz Kafka (I have never found the original): “There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: impatience and laziness. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of laziness we cannot return. Perhaps, however, there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience, we were driven out; because of impatience, we cannot return.”
When Theodore Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897, he had two closely linked aims. One was that a Jewish homeland on the soil of ancient Israel would be established in fifty years. The other was that the success of the first would bring about the withering of the conditions that underpinned anti-Semitism in Europe. Herzl’s first aim proved to be remarkably prescient. In November 1947 —fifty years after that first Congress —the U.N. voted a Jewish State into existence. The second expectation; well, anti-Semitism has hardly disappeared, and appears to be a long way from withering away. The central question to ask is: was Herzl simply wrong, or are we being too impatient?
In 2010, many Jews, both in Israel and outside, seem to be opting for the former. Yom HaAtzma’ut [Israel Independence Day] was greeted with as much uneasiness as celebration. People are in a grumpy mood. I would like to examine the dyspepsia; suggest why it is happening, and then question whether it is warranted.
First, anything but a more joyous mood seems odd. Coming into its sixty-second year, the Jewish State is mostly prosperous and peaceful. The economy weathered the world financial crisis of 2008-9 relatively well, and has been growing. Rocket attacks out of Gaza have become more infrequent since the January 2009 military operation in the region. Terror attacks in general are very rare. On the whole, life is good. The less-than-sunny disposition appears to arise from an unnatural pessimism; a tendency to notice that with every silver lining there is a cloud.
Actually, the current mood is better summed up by the classic joke of receiving a telegram with the message: “Start worrying now — letter to follow.” The current good times somehow feel like a mirage; the calm before the storm. There are two reasons for this assessment: Iran and U.S.-Israel relations. I believe the first is truly worrisome. The second is nonsense.
Sometime in the future, Iran will not be a particularly knotty problem for either Israel or the rest of the world. The really big problem is how to get from now until then without experiencing a catastrophe. For a whole variety of reasons, Iran is truly dangerous right now.
I do not wish to engage in any extensive analysis. Rather, here are some salient points. As Persia, it is a very ancient civilization, but has not had any regional significance in over 2300 years. It is one of only three predominantly non-Arab nations in the Middle East (Israel and Turkey are the others). It is a Shi’ite Muslim country where the overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni. Further, it is a confessional state that gives dominant political power to a religious authority. And, of course, it is working on becoming a nuclear power. Put all this together, and you have a volatile and uncomfortably unpredictable society.
As non-Arab and Shiite, Iran has no natural standing in the Middle East. This marginality also feeds into a sort of bitterness born out of both the faded glory of a Persian Empire, and a theological position that wishes to raise Shiite thought to a dominant place in Islam. As a result, Iran has continuously asserted itself into the affairs of the region, particularly with its support of Hamas and Hizb’allah, much to the consternation of Egypt, the largest Arab nation, and Saudi Arabia, the most assertive protector of Sunni Islam.
The tension between Iran and the rest of the Arab Middle East is systemic, and mostly not dependent on the political orientation of any side. The situation is made worse, however, by the current crisis overtaking Iran’s political system. The 1979 Islamic revolution that swept out a corrupt and dictatorial Shah has now begun to run out of steam. The revolution set up a limited democracy in which political parties could compete for administrative leadership, but only within the bounds established by the unchallenged authority of a clerical council. The system permitted the rise of a reform movement in the 1990s, but not reformist enough.
In June 2009, a broadly unpopular Mahmud Ahmadinejad was re-elected under highly dubious election circumstances. Large-scale demonstrations in opposition have been put down, but it is extremely doubtful that the level of discontent felt through the Iranian electorate has dissipated. Iran is clearly going through a political transformation. A Canadian Muslim political scientist, Nader Hashemi, has drawn an intriguing parallel between the current upheaval, the England of the 1600s, when a 40-year interregnum of the Puritans served as the medium for a change from autocratic monarchy to a secular democracy.
I think Hashemi is correct in that the dynamics are in place for Iran to follow the same route that Great Britain did about 350 years ago. This change is not taking place overnight. The fraudulent elections of 2009 might be seen as a watershed in this second Iranian revolution, but it might be years before the transformation is complete. In the meantime, a beleaguered old guard is going to be trying to hold onto power. The nation’s nuclear ambitions are probably born out of a sense of national pride and honor the cuts across all political boundaries. The danger created by those ambitions arises from the level of desperation felt by an unpopular and increasingly illegitimate leadership.
In the spring (2010), Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, ventured that Israel and America were undergoing its worst crisis in thirty-five years. He quickly backtracked on that assessment, but the perception remains (and perception is so often reality!)
Oren was responding to the flap that arose when Israel’s Interior Minister announced a controversial expansion of a Jewish neighborhood in East (predominantly Arab) Jerusalem, just as Vice-President Biden was arriving for a state visit. That event is a vertex stemming out of relatively independent policies and considerations emanating from Jerusalem and Washington. We will consider Jerusalem later.
Suspicion regarding the Obama Administration’s attitude toward Israel arose relatively early in the presidential campaign. Even as Obama sought the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, there were attacks on his perceived softness toward support of the Jewish State. Some of the concerns were the natural preference for the known (Clinton, whose bone fides regarding Israel were generally considered exemplary) over the unknown. Some of it was political posturing; attempting to gain more support for Clinton, and later McCain, by sowing concern regarding Obama. Finally, there were the pernicious attacks with the dark hints of Obama being a Muslim or a closet anti-Semite.
Needless to say, Obama survived both the attacks and the doubts, winning significant Jewish support in the primaries, and about 80% of the Jewish vote in the general election. He made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State, and Rahm Emanuel, who had actually volunteered for the IDF (Israeli Army), his Chief-of-Staff. The White House is littered with staff and policy advisors who have a long track record in support of Israel’s interests, yet nevertheless the attacks and the doubts have persisted.
The reasons for this unease remain mostly the same as during the campaign. Obama. Some observers still do not know or are confident about what the Administration’s foreign policy doctrines are, with respect to the Middle East and everywhere else. Obama’s studied caution and even-handedness just make them nervous. There is also the permanent campaign. Republican supporters will challenge the current President on virtually everything, and his handling of Israel-Arab affairs is certainly not off-limits. And then there are the pernicious attacks: Obama as pro-Arab, anti-Israel, secret Muslim, closet anti-Semite.
Finally, we may add the real tension that exists between a liberal American President and a conservative Israeli Prime Minister. Obama and Netanyahu are not on the same page. Such tensions have occurred in the past: Eisenhower with Ben Gurion over the 1957 Sinai campaign, Ford with Rabin, Carter with Begin, Bush (the elder) with Shamir, and Clinton with Netanyahu the first time around. The immediate interests of Israel and U.S. do not always align. In the past, however, the stress never came near to upsetting a fundamental level of mutuality and cooperation. I have described it in the past. The components for this alignment are:
Israel and the Camel
You know the old line: a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Israel’s political system is a camel; worse, it is a very old and seriously antiquated camel. Here is a primer on Israeli politics.
The State of Israel was born politically out of the World Zionist Congress. The Congress created a system by which voting delegates to the Congress were designated by proportional voting. When the Jewish State was born, individual parties were invited to create a list of candidates to sit in the Knesset. On Election Day, voters would vote for a single party. All the votes would be counted up, and seats in the Knesset would then be apportioned according to the percentage of votes a party had garnered. Thus, if Party A received 50% of the total votes, it would be able to sit the first 60 candidates (one-half of the 120-seat legislature) on its list.
Once the allocation had been completed, the organization of the government would commence in a parliamentary fashion. The head of the list garnering the largest percentage of votes would be called up to create the government; that is, become Prime Minister and assign portfolios for the heads of the various departments making up governmental administration. The parties themselves would be organized around certain political values, or focused single issues, or the personality and charisma of a particular leader. There are virtually no constraints, either systemic or pragmatic, on party formation. After all, a relatively small percentage of the vote (currently 2%) can assure at least one seat in the Knesset.
Due in good part to the proliferation of parties, no single faction has ever been popular enough to earn the 51% of the total vote in order to create a government out of members of its own list. Once Election Day has come and gone, therefore, the party with the largest share must carry on coalition talks in order create a unit controlling 61 votes (and preferably much more) in Knesset. This effort is accomplished by parceling Ministerial portfolios to the heads of smaller lists. The government, once formed, can stay in power for up to four years. It can, of course, call for a general election earlier. It can also fall apart if a coalition partner (or two) decides to pull out, dropping support for the government to under 60 votes.
In addition to Prime Minister, the three most important cabinet positions are Foreign, Defense and Treasury Ministers. Ideally the PM would like to have his (her) party control all the major portfolios. Handing out, say, Defense, to the head of a rival party’s list in order to bring that party into the coalition, risks losing control of that Department. If the Prime Minister attempts to dictate to the Defense Minister, the latter might simply take his (her) seats in the coalition and leave, potentially bringing down the entire government. When the Prime Minister’s party is dominant, holding 40 seats or more, the PM has a great deal of leverage to hold all the ministries in line. Dropping below 40 seats requires increasing political acumen and skill in order to make the government work.
Netanyahu’s Likkud party only holds 27 seats. In order to put together a working government, he had to hand out over 30 portfolios —and unprecedented large cabinet —and give the heads of Defense and the Foreign Ministry to coalition partners. Holding together such a large and unwieldy operation clearly requires great leadership resources. Netanyahu is nowhere near up for the task. The incident of the announcement of expansion of Jewish residences in East Jerusalem is a case in point. The announcement was made by the Interior Minister, a member of Shas, one of the Orthodox religious parties. Shas has been pressing to maintain its support among Israel’s Sephardi population, its natural constituency, and the Interior Minister regarded pushing to the increase in Jerusalem housing as a way of reasserting its popularity. He was clearly oblivious to the insensitivity of the timing of the announcement, and Netanyahu clearly did not have the skill or the political power to head it off.
Netanyahu’s leanings are more right-wing than left, but he is no hard-line ideologue. It is not his politics that exacerbate the tensions besetting Israel’s problems with the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world), it is the fact that he is no way near capable of dealing with an already difficult task. As a person, he reminds of the character of the father (played by Jeff Daniels) in the movie, “The Squid and the Whale.” He is articulate, erudite, worldly, and completely hollow; a person whose visions extend only as far as the nearest mirror.
You might guess that I do not have a very high opinion of Mr. Netanyahu. Make no mistake about it; holding together a working government in Israel’s fractured political system is a daunting prospect for any leader. I just think that the current Prime Minister is not merely up to the task, but is probably not up to any task. When I spent time in Israel right after the last election, a number of acquaintances confided that either they had actually voted for Likkud or welcomed a Likkud-led coalition. They felt that “only Nixon could go to China.” After all, Menahem Begin, founder of Likkud, had made peace with Egypt and withdrew from the Sinai. Hardliner Ariel Sharon pulled Israel out of the Gaza. What liberal Labor-led governments could not do in order to conclude a peaceful arrangement with Israel’s neighbors, right-wing governments could.
Begin and Sharon were indeed Nixons. So far, Netanyahu has been more a Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. As Presidents, they were immobilized in the face of the crisis of slavery and the South. All they could was “kick the can down the road,” leaving the issue —increasingly intractable —to be solved in a costly and bloody fashion under Lincoln.
I could be wrong. Secret negotiations are the norm in the Middle East, and maybe the Israeli government is indeed working out something with Syria. A deal regarding the Golan Heights and formal recognition is more likely than a Palestinian State. This could be in the works, but I doubt it. Much more likely, Netanyahu will continue to kick the can down the road, and leave it to some future government to deal with the difficult tasks of compromise and reconciliation.
The Politics of Time (I)
From the start of his administration, Obama has been determined to re-order the U.S.’s relationship with the Middle East. He has been drawing down troops in Iraq, continuing a carrot-and-stick approach to Iran, and assigned George Mitchell to be the American envoy charged with mediating talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority (PA). Mitchell is noted for his successful brokering of an accord among Great Britain, Ireland, and the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland.
Although there was a marked switch to uses of diplomacy and cooperation in the last two years of the Bush Administration, American standing in the Muslim and Arab world had been quite low, and the White House recognized that it had to build up its bona fides among the Palestinians and their supporters in order to have any possibility of success. Thus, it utilized a “both-and” approach; vocal and repeated reaffirmation of its special relation with Israel, and pressing the Jewish State to restrain growth of settlements in the West Bank.
This task has been complicated by another set of obstacles. There is Netanyahu’s unwillingness and inability to push his coalition forward. There is also the divisions and overall weakness of Mahmud Abbas as President of the PA. Actually, Abbas, and particularly his Prime Minister, Salim Fayyad, have had a measure of success in raising the economic and material well-being of West Bank Palestinians. The rampant corruption and inefficiency of the Authority during the Arafat years has been reduced dramatically. As the West Bank has increasingly withdrawn from being a staging area for attacks on Israel, the Israelis have increasingly withdrawn their own presence. Security checkpoints have been reduced, thus facilitating easier movement of workers and goods.
While this turnaround in the standard-of-living for West Bank Palestinians has been a positive development, the Palestinians as a whole remain deeply divided. In January 2006, Palestinians voted Hamas-backed delegates into a majority of the PA Assembly. Mahmud Abbas, leader of the formerly dominant Fatah faction (Yasir Arafat’s party), however remained President. Given the worldwide negative reaction to Hamas’ success, Abbas sought to maintain control and defiantly appointed the Fatah-backed Fayyad to be Prime Minister. In 2007, a mini-civil war broke out in Gaza, and Hamas forces thoroughly defeated Fatah militia. Ever since, Hamas has remained in control of Gaza, and PA has been limited to the West Bank. All efforts at creating a rapprochement between the two factions and regions (mostly attempted by Egypt) have failed so far. Hamas continues to be for the most part an international pariah, and Abbas is treated as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians for purposes of negotiations with Israel. At this point, however, he is either unwilling or unable (or both!) to engage in a process that requires compromise.
Thus, we arrive at a point in history in which the U.S. is willing to spend domestic and international capital toward brokering a stable arrangement between Israel and Palestine, and the two principal parties have neither the ability nor the will to participate in a serious fashion. One can make a reasonable argument that the White House should basically do nothing.
The conventional wisdom is that time is not on Israel’s side, and therefore it is better for it to work out an agreement with its neighbors sooner than later. This argument is based principally on demographics: the number of Arabs is growing much faster than the Jews. In due time, the former will represent a majority of the total population of the region (Israel plus West Bank and Gaza). Either security concerns or democratic considerations or both will swamp the Jewish State economically and politically.
Not taken into account in this contention are counter indicators. First, Israel as the Jewish State, has been increasingly accepted as a political fact in the world. In the mid-70s, it could count on only a handful of nations for recognition. In 1977, with President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the largest Arab nation, Egypt, acknowledged that, after 30 years, the Jewish State was not going to disappear soon. By 2002, Saudi Arabia, while not extending formal diplomatic recognition, nonetheless publicly stated its acceptance of the State of Israel within the 1949 UN Armistice borders. Today, only Iran regularly disputes its continued existence.
Israel, of course, continues to be condemned in international forums, and the rights of Palestinians are promoted around the world. The overwhelming majority of it is toothless rhetoric. The old joke —the Arabs are prepared to fight Israel to the last drop of Palestinian blood —tends to hold true. The sheer weight of time has been working in Israel’s favor. Today, the Jewish State as established at the end of the 1948 War of Independence, is taken for granted. In another generation, an expanded if not unified Jerusalem, and the large built up settlements of Ma’alei Adumim and the Efrat bloc, might well be accepted as part of Israel as well.
The Politics of Time (II)
Then again, one can cogently argue that time is on no-one’s side. Even if within the international arena, Israel’s normative status is increasingly taken for granted, it still is saddled with the domestic problem of resolving how to maintain being a Jewish State with a proportionally growing Arab population.
I think the notion of a population time bomb is overstated. Economically driven out-migration will somewhat moderate Palestinian population growth. The overall social stability of the region, however, will just become more fragile. Palestinians do not mix well into other Arab nations. Radicalism simply increases, and with it the increasing likelihood of mini-wars such as 2006’s encounter with Lebanon’s Hizb’allah, 2008-9’s operation against Hamas in Gaza. Israel, I believe, is in little danger of being seriously harmed by these blow-ups —casualties ran about 10-1 against in Arab losses —but each one of them is upsetting to all of the world’s powers, Europe, Russia, China and the U.S. in particular. It is very important to keep in mind that Israel’s political stability is a fundamental factor in maintaining a close relationship with the United States. That factor is greatly squandered if Israel’s policies are perceived as a root cause in regional instability.
When time is no advantage to either the Palestinians or the Israelis, the two sides can either choose to move toward reconciliation, compromise and the creation of a regional entity that is most in both their interests. Or each side can determine to hold out in the hope and expectation that the other will have to cave in before they do. This latter choice is overwhelmingly preferred, both by the two sides and their international supporters.
In the movie, The Magnificent Seven, the ironic gunslinger played by Steve McQueen tells a story about a fellow who jumps off the roof of a ten-story building. As he passes the windows of each floor, people can hear him saying “So far, so good!”
Both Israelis and Palestinians view the circumstances of their opponents as unsustainable. In another few years, a decade or two at the most, and the other side will simply disappear. The possibility that both are hurtling toward a crash is completely discounted. Hey, so far, so good!
From the point of view of both Palestinians and their supporters, they have been handed a raw deal. Beginning in the 1880s, Jewish settlers from Europe began to move into Palestine, initially buying up marginal lands (swampy tracts near the Mediterranean coast), and then more productive land from absentee owners. Long-time tenant farmers and shepherds found themselves being pushed out of. Efforts at fighting back —uprisings principally in Hebron —were violent but ineffective. By 1947, approximately 40% of British mandate of Palestine (west of the Jordan River; the east having been ceded to the Hashemite royal family) was firmly in Jewish lands. With the Israel War of Independence, the Jewish portion of Palestine had grown to near 75%. After the 1967 War, it was 100%.
The indigenous Arab residents of the land did nothing wrong in any moral sense to lose their land; they did nothing right either. For centuries, Muslim theology had sustained an attitude of justified control of all land inhabited by Muslims. They were obligated to be tolerant to non-Muslim residents (unless they were heretics or idolators), but those residents had to know that they were subjugated to Muslim rule. And during all those centuries, Jews also adhered to a theology that it was God’s will that they be exiled —either physically or spiritually —from their land, until God determined that the time for the ingathering of the exiles had come. Hence, Jews substantially submitted to Muslim rule.
Zionism upended this arrangement. Jews were no longer waiting for a signal from God. The Zionist movement, however, was wholly encapsulated within Europe, and the Jewish response was to a secularized Christian world. Both Islam and the Arabs were bracketed out of its doctrines and programs. Indeed, when Herzl came to Jerusalem in order to lay political groundwork for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, he specifically came to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm, who was the patron of a deteriorating Ottoman Empire. With only a few notable exceptions (Ahad Ha’am, chief among them), Zionists gave no thought to the upheaval their project was causing among the local population.
At the same time, that local population never came to grips with the profound change in Muslim-Jewish relations represented by Zionism. Jews were simply not willing to be subjugated, no matter how benign (and it was hardly truly benign). To this day (2010), the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and their supporters throughout the world remain willfully blind to the important changes that have occurred since the mid-nineteenth century. These changes have undoubtedly been a massive challenge in radically altering the centuries of socially reality. Yet, the very resistance has simply moved the Palestinians to greater marginality in their own land.
At every turn, they grasp at conceptual straws: charges that the Jews are merely colonists, and that their connection to the land is based on self-serving myth. They decry Zionist state-building —its fundraising, political lobbying and establishing institutions —as somehow venal, usually clinging to the mostly anti-Semitic notions of Jews wielding vast conspiratorial powers in order to accomplish their aims. In essence, they resort to anything and everything, except taking responsibility for their inflexibility and indolence in the face of the demands history was placing on them. The Palestinians will never achieve even their most modest aspirations until they are willing to play the hand that has been dealt them.
The Future of Zionism
Israeli Jews and their supporters are also given to a similar dream: that they will wake up some morning and the Palestinians will be gone. At the end of the day, however, Israel will be residing in the midst of a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim region. Moreover, at the end of the day, a significant portion of the citizens of the Jewish State will not be Jewish. These are, in my opinion, two unavoidable realities.
Let me be clear: nothing substantial regarding a final resolution of a just and stable peace between Israel and her neighbors can take place until the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular come to grips with the reality of an independent Jewish population who have an indigenous relationship with the land on which they reside. They might not like it, but the pre-Zionist asymmetric relationship between Muslim and Jew is gone forever. The past will not return, and short of wholesale self-destruction, Arabs will not be able to dislodge Jews from the land. Until Palestinians and their supporters make peace with this fundamental change in history, all negotiations, all compromises, all “risks for peace” will only be temporary and partial.
Israelis therefore have no choice but to wait for the change; but waiting is not equivalent to doing nothing. Palestinian national aspirations have to be acknowledged, not as a matter of some form of transcendent justice, but rather as a pragmatic reality. The West Bank and Gaza, and large neighborhoods of greater Jerusalem are Palestinian, and they are not going to pick up and leave. Israel’s well-being is dependent at least in part on a feeling of well-being by the Palestinians. Currently, ongoing military presence, intrusive checkpoints and expanding settlements do nothing to give even the most accommodating Palestinians peace of mind.
The broad outline of a stable solution to the conflict is well-known, and it is going to include the dismantling of Israeli Jewish settlements, some that were established over thirty years ago. The solution is not around the corner; it could be a decade or a generation or even longer in coming. It is not, however, going to be very different from what can be envisioned right now. Inevitably, the government is going to have to make affirmative moves in order to prepare for what must take place.
It would be nice if these actions came sooner rather than later. I have little doubt that the Obama Administration is currently try to nuzzle (not shove, not even push) Netanyahu in that direction. In the near term it will fail for reasons I outlined above. At some point, I am confident, an Israeli administration will respond, just as sometime afterward a Palestinian government will give up on its dream that the Jews will go away. The critical question, then, is what do we —you and I —do in the meantime?
The greatest danger to Israel, and perhaps to the Jewish people, in my estimation, is not anti-Semitism or Islamic radicalism. It is post-Zionism: an attitude found both within Israel and outside, that tends to separate Israelis from Jews. Post-Zionism, as the term implies, suggests that Zionism, as a movement and ideology, essentially ended with the founding of the State. Thus today, one can talk about Israeli interests and Jewish concerns as two separate entities. Post-Zionism frees Israelis to discuss and deal with matters of state without concerning themselves about the concerns and interests of world Jewry. And it free Jews living outside of Israel to explore modes of Jewish expression and identity that is completely independent of the land.
I do not think I need to map out the dangers inherent in a circumstance in which Israel and the rest of world Jewry drift apart. It is rather important to understand why this development might be occurring. For this, I return to the beginning: the matter of impatience.
Some Israelis are dismayed by the persistence of Jews to remain Jews in places outside of Israel. The founding of the State, they believe was to obviate the need of Jews to live anywhere else. For a while, Israelis could look at this “stubbornness” as a sort of willful blindness to the inherent fragility of Jewish survival in a non-Jewish society. In the past twenty years, anti-Jewish sentiment whereby the Jew was identified in the society as the eternal “Other” has receded dramatically. Even Israelis can see that Jews can live in relative safety and self-confidence in many places throughout the world. And so, the post-Zionist Israeli has simply given up: there are Jews who are primarily Israeli, and there are Jews who will never be Israeli, and one need not be particularly concerned about the other.
Among world Jewry, much of the same dynamic works. Living in relative safety and comfort, with opportunities to pursue one’s Jewish religious or cultural interests with almost no restraints, Jews feel exhausted by the efforts to defend and support a nation that is wealthy and powerful and does not really need much help from abroad. Israel’s problems with its neighbors —its constant security concerns that lead it to put so many social and physical constraints on a truculent Palestinian community —appear to be endless and intractable. The post-Zionists can conclude that Israel’s problems are their own to work out, and that their primary concern is the development and maintenance of the Jewish community in which they live.
Post-Zionism arises out of impatience, and leads to a form of despair; not for oneself —I am fine! —but rather for the other side. I contend that Israel yet needs world Jewry, and Jews need to be connected to the Land. This is not a reasoned argument. It is rather an existential stance; the totality of a Jewish identity that refuses to consider anything Jewish alien to me. Ultimately, it is a counsel against impatience. Impatience pushed us out of the Garden of Eden, and prevents our return.
The Six-Day-Plus-Forty-Year War
Reflections on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War
In the world of 20th century logic, the barber’s paradox is a classic:
The village barber (who is male) would shave everyone who lived or worked in the village, who did not shave himself. Who shaved the barber?
The barber, on the one hand, must shave himself because he worked in the village. On the other hand, he couldn’t do the shaving, because he only shaved those who did not shave themselves.
There is a logical solution to this paradoxical mess. The answer: there is no such barber! Remember this solution: There is no barber.
A Brief History to the Longest Short War
The first shots of the Six-Day War were fired on June 5, 1967. The story of the war begins well before then.
By the late 1950s, Israel began work on its ambitious National Water Carrier project that would bring the fresh water of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) down to the arid but fertile soil of the Negev in the South. Arab nations—Syria in particular—were quite upset by this development, and began guerilla operations to halt the project. Their efforts were not especially effective. In 1964, Syria came up with a different tack. They began to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, which were within Syrian territory.
Israel could not attack the diversion work without it being seen internationally as cross-border aggression. (The Jewish State had been slapped diplomatically by the U.S. following its coordinated invasion of Egypt in 1956, with England and France, in order to keep the Suez Canal open. It could not risk a similar crisis.) It hit upon a clever method, by sending tractors into the ‘no-man’s land’ that had been left unsettled on the border between Israel and Syria following the 1948 War of Independence. Syria shot at the tractors cultivating the disputed land, and then Israel retaliated by hitting at the water diversion equipment.
Within a year, Syria basically abandoned its Jordan River diversion program, but the border skirmishes did not let up. By the middle of 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been started by Yasir Arafat, and with Syrian (and Egyptian) financial and logistical assistance. PLO raids on northern border villages and kibbutzim became a regular fact of life in 1965-66.
The PLO was clearly launching its raids from Syrian and Jordanian territory. Israel’s response was both air strikes on PLO bases, and warnings that Syria, in particular, would be held responsible and thus liable to military attack on Damascus itself. Syria, for its part, took the threat seriously, and felt that it was taking the brunt of the confrontation with the Jewish State on behalf of all Arab nations. Egypt received most of the criticism for maintaining the status quo with Israel that had been in place since the Sinai campaign of 1956. A U.N. Expeditionary (peacekeeping) Force (UNEF) had patrolling the border since.
In December 1966, Egypt signed a defense pact with Syria, but the skirmishes—PLO raids and Israeli retaliatory strikes—did not let up. In early 1967, Syria began to claim—backed up by the USSR—that Israel was massing troops along its northern border. Israel categorically denied the charge. (Syria’s claim was indeed false. Was this due to faulty Russian intelligence, or more mischievous intentions?) An air battle in April, in which Syria lost a number of MIG fighters, plus some Israel leadership chest-thumping on Independence Day in May, reinforced Syria’s fears that an invasion was imminent.
Political pressure mounted on Egypt. What was Nasser going to do as a result of the recently-signed defense pact? On May 15, he sent two army divisions into the previously de-militarized Sinai, and the next day, he ordered the U.N. troops to leave. A week later, Egypt announced it was closing the Straits of Tiran, thus closing off Israel’s southern sea route from the port of Eilat. Israel first turned to the U.S. for support, as it had indicated to Israel it would have unfettered shipping access in return for its withdrawal (along with Britain and France) in the 1956 campaign. The U.S., for various reasons, could not help.
On May 30, Egypt signed a defense treaty with Jordan putting King Hussein’s forces under Egyptian command, and began to move troops onto Jordanian territory. For Israel, this was the last straw. In the early morning hours of June 5, the Israeli air force attacked air bases in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Four Days Plus Two
The attack absolutely neutralized the Arab air forces. Israel had complete freedom in the skies as it mobilized its ground forces particularly against the Egyptian army massed in the Sinai. Even as it was being routed on the first day of battle, Radio Cairo began broadcasting reports of great Egyptian victories! On the strength of these reports, Jordan began shelling Jerusalem and overran a U.N. camp on the border between East (Arab) and West (Israeli) Jerusalem. Syria, for its part, mounted an attack on a northern kibbutz that was quickly repulsed.
On June 6, with the Egyptian army mostly in retreat, Israel started a three-prong campaign through the West Bank. By the end of the day, Egyptian and Jordanian forces were experiencing a rout. The U.N. Security Council started to debate a cease-fire resolution on that day. When, on June 9, Egypt, Jordan and Syria pressed for a halt to hostilities, a resolution was voted on. Israel already had control of the Sinai Peninsula as far as the Canal, and all Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.
Syria, following its initial unsuccessful raid on the first day of the war, had essentially stopped fighting. After being spurred to action by the Radio Cairo pronouncements, the government learned from Soviet sources that the reverse was true. Troops remained billeted in camps well north of the border with Israel, but artillery fire continued to rain down from positions on the Golan Heights. With the U.N. cease-fire resolution in place, the Israeli cabinet engaged in an intense debate about what do with Syrian emplacements on the Heights. On June 10, General Moshe Dayan ordered an attack on Syria, and within two days, the Golan Heights had been cleared of its “Maginot Line” set of bunkers and fortifications. The Six-Day War was over.
How Everything Went Wrong
Hindsight is a powerful vision. The Israeli victory over the armed forces of four nations (Iraq had forces stationed in Jordan) in functionally three days of fighting, that led to the reunification of Jerusalem, a five-fold expansion in territory, and a doubling of its population, seems both remarkable and inevitable. Since 1948, Israel had proven to be a superior fighting force in military discipline, technical accomplishment and strategic vision. Although having much larger forces, no individual front-line army could match up with Israel’s. Further, the years between 1949 and 1967, gave ample evidence that the Arab nations were quite incapable of forging the political and military unity necessary to mount a potentially successful attack on the Jewish State.
While there was a considerable amount of rhetoric boasting the Arab intent of driving the Israelis ‘into the sea,’ the evidence regarding Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian military actions in late 1966 through May ’67, indicates that none of these nations actually wanted to go to war. Egypt, particularly, with the largest army and population, was leery of a full-scale military encounter. Throughout all the low level fighting—guerilla raids and retaliations—that inflamed Israel’s borders with Syria and northern Jordan from 1964-66, Egypt kept its own lengthy boundary, including the Gaza population, quiet. It was prodded into a defense pact, first with Syria, and then with Jordan, by pressures mounted by Arab countries, and by its own self-image as the leader of the Arab world.
Syria and Jordan were beset more by internal pressures of displaced Palestinian populations and domestic sympathizers. Their leadership knew that they could hardly confront Israel directly—Syria’s complete failure to halt or appreciably slow down Israel’s National Water Carrier project in the late 50s, early 60s, was ample proof of that—but neither could they do nothing. The support and encouragement of the PLO was thus mostly a domestic policy rather than some serious effort at driving away the Jews.
No nation, individually or collectively—including the State of Israel—wanted to have a war in 1967. Yet, step by step, as a result of national pride, bravado, poor intelligence and wishful thinking, war came.
Ironies abound. Water precipitated the initial tension, specifically between Israel and Syria, but the causa belli were the actions of Egypt in removing U.N. troops and closing the Straits of Tiran. Nasser, however, never put his armed forces into an offensive posture. Up until June 5, he did not actually want to engage in a hot war. He nonetheless backed Israel into a corner. The status quo that had provided stability—if not real peace—in the Gulf of Eilat for the previous ten years, had been completely upset by unilateral moves on Egypt’s part. Egypt was not going to back down. The U.S., England, France and other interested parties were not going risk military personnel or diplomatic capital in forcing Nasser to do so. Israel was either going to have to accept the loss of Eilat as a port, or push the Egyptian army out of the Sinai.
In the end, Egypt lost the entire Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan, all of its holding west of the river. Syria, who had pulled both Jordan and Egypt into the confrontation, lost the least amount in territory and personnel.
… And Israel
Then there is Israel. The Jewish State clearly did not want war. It did want peace within the status quo of the 1949 Armistice. This meant secure shipping lanes through the Straits of Tiran, and the opportunity to develop internally through such projects as the water pipeline from the Galilee to the Negev. The creation of the PLO in 1964, did indeed present a new problem. Israel’s response could be characterized as compellence (the opposite of deterrence): it would retaliate tit-for-tat when attacked, but would also threaten to harm Syrian and Jordanian national interests, if their governments did not act to restrain military activity.
While Israel was pulled into full force military action by Egypt’s maneuvers, we can wonder just how long the low-level conflict on the northern border could continue without ultimately blowing up into a war. Syria and Jordan, while hardly wanting a direct military confrontation with Israel, could not pressure Palestinian guerillas without suffering serious political consequences. Israel, for its part, could threaten strikes at Damascus for only so long before its own integrity was questioned. Perhaps war within a few years of June, 1967 was inevitable.
The outcome of some other war would have been different, but I am confident (once more, basking in the glow of hindsight) that Israel would have experienced a victory. I can remember the months and weeks leading up to the war, and taking seriously, along with everyone else, the incessant Arab claims about destroying the Jewish State. It was nerve-wracking and not-a-little upsetting. Even when the war was over in a flash, the results seemed to be mostly miraculous, rather than what they obviously were: empty belligerent rhetoric from Arab nations who could not possibly defeat the Israeli armed forces. Nasser was quite right in his desire to avoid a full-scale confrontation. He simply got swept, almost irresistibly, into a disastrous escalation.
The war came, and within five days Israel’s territory increased five-fold, its population virtually doubled. Even amid the shouts of celebration and the powerful experience of being able to touch the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, many Israelis recognized that the war’s outcome was a mixed blessing. On the positive side, disaster had been averted, Jerusalem had been reunited, and the territories gave the Jewish State ‘strategic depth.’ It would be much harder to enemy troops to threaten the population centers of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
The negative side was both obvious and subtle. The obvious disability that arose from victory were the few million Palestinian Arabs residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the Sinai and Golan had small populations of Syrians, Egyptians, Druse and Bedouin). In a flash, Israel had become an occupying power.
The immediate response among Israel’s leadership was to negotiate a restoration of the territories (with some revisions) back to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, in return for a secure and stable peace. The concept was reinforced in the UN Security Council’s famous Resolution 242. The idea was virtually obvious; its implementation virtually impossible.
Following the war, the Arab nations wanted to have their lands restored, but they wanted to have them brought back in the fashion in which they were lost—by the sword. Negotiations were out of the question; sheer human pride dictated this attitude. The Arab nations, on the other hand, realized that they did not have the wherewithal, either in war technology or political unity, in order to mount a successful counterattack. The result was a paralytic condition: neither negotiations nor war. Israel’s great bargaining chip just sat there, becoming an increasingly heavy burden. If, in June 1967, the scorecard looked like Israel had won and the Arabs had lost, over the next few years, it would become increasingly clear that everyone had lost.
Still in the Wilderness
Forty years resonates as a time span in Jewish thought and tradition. It represents the sojourn in the wilderness, the number of years in which the Israelites were delayed in being able to settle in the Land promised them following their liberation from Egypt. Forty years have now elapsed since the lightning victory of the Six-Day War, and Israel appears to be nowhere near out of the wilderness. It is possible to argue that Middle East is no closer to some peaceful settlement than they were on the eve of June 5, 1967. Let us take inventory. What has changed since that fateful war? What has not?
I believe, on the whole, Israel is closer to being out of the wilderness than it was in June 1967. Although militarily sound and self-sufficient forty years ago, its diplomatic status in the world was mostly uncertain. It was a socialist country that was mostly shunned by the Soviet Union and the socialist world. Its relations with the US and Western nations was not especially firm, and obviously it had no relations at all with any Arab state. Today, not only does Israel have formal diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, but most of the world’s nations—including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia—have affirmed their acceptance and support for the Jewish State, at least within the 1967 ‘Green Line’ borders.
After forty years, therefore, the 1967 borders of Israel have become the de facto internationally recognized boundaries of the Jewish State. Moreover—and this is a critical point—many Arabs, both leadership and the general populace, no longer feel the need to win back the territories lost through war! Back in 1967, Israelis could imagine in the euphoria of their stunning victory that peace was at hand. This was fantasy. It is fantasy no longer.
Yet, the way out of the wilderness remains distant and uncertain. Over a forty year period, attitudes change, and sometimes harden. There have been a number of significant and complicating trends that continue to make the establishment of a stable solution daunting.
Politics By Other Means: The Apparent Role of Religion
Both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are secular movements. Following the Six-Day War, a Shofar was sounded at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and prayers of praise to God could be heard throughout the land, but the everyday considerations of the Israeli government (which was Labor/Socialist at the time), and most of the population were distant from traditional Jewish practice and thought.
From the outset, Israelis moved into occupied territories. Among the early settlements were the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a region southeast of Jerusalem called the Etzion Bloc, that had to be abandoned in 1948, and a string of military bases along the Jordan River. Settlers also moved up on to the Golan Heights and into border areas in the Gaza Strip and in the northeast Sinai. All of these settlements reflected historical or strategic concerns. The only settlement that clearly represented a religiously motivated reclaiming of the land was a small group that moved into Hebron.
The first significant change in settlement patterns occurred in 1976, when a religious community, Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], established a village in the north-central region of the West Bank. Gush members understood themselves as being the new wave of Zionist pioneers, now completing the work of the old wave that came to the land at the beginning of the century. They framed their activity in classic religious Zionist language; that the taking of God’s promised land was a vital step toward the coming of the Messiah.
The Labor government at the time voiced its disapproval of the new settlement, but chose politically to do nothing. A year later, after 29 years of continuous rule, Labor control of the government gave way to a right-wing coalition led by Menachem Begin. Begin was no more religiously observant than his Labor Party predecessors, but he was also less ideologically opposed to traditional Jewish religious thought. Further, as a matter of political philosophy, Begin’s Likud Party did not consider the territories as bargaining chips, but rather as land legitimately won in a war it did not seek to fight in the first place. The attitudes of the new ruling coalition and Gush Emunim were aligned, and settlement in the West Bank and Gaza began to grow. New neighborhoods were built on West Bank territory surrounding Jerusalem.
On the Palestinian side, the PLO strove to maintain a fundamentally secular approach. The coalition of clans and political sects that formed the PLO, and its deliberative federation, the Palestine National Congress (PNC) included Christians as well as Muslims. The proclaimed goal was a secular, democratic State in which no people—Christian or Muslim, Arab or Jew—would have special privileges. Indeed, throughout the Arab Middle East, religion was kept on the margins in favor of cultural-linguistic nationalism. Muslim entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were often severely suppressed.
The first indication of change took place in Lebanon, where a Maronite Catholic minority (but a plurality of all religious sects) was challenged regarding its political dominance. Explicit religious sensitivities—particularly on the part of a combined Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim coalition—fomented civil war in 1976. The major change, however, took place with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the fall of the Shah, an assertive (Shi’ite) Muslim Republic was formed, in which religious leadership (ayatollahs and mullahs) would have a privileged position of influence. Political Islam had arrived.
Islamization has now affected the entire Arab world. While only Iran (non-Arab) is explicitly Islamic, every Arab government has had to express Muslim bona fides, and work to make peace with Islamist elements. Among the Palestinians, Islamic Jihad and Hamas have become influential players within the community. Hamas, of course, took a majority of seats in the January 2006 Palestine Authority (PA) elections, although the Presidency has remained in principally secular hands.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has therefore been increasingly determined by opposing forms of religious nationalism: a predominantly Orthodox Jewish settler movement and the Islamist Hamas and jihadi movements. Fired by religious certainty and self-righteousness, they have posited maximalist solutions and made compromise appear to be more difficult.
The Sword and the Dove
Has religion been introduced into the Israel-Palestine confrontation in the years since the Six-Day War, and with it have opportunities for a stable, just and peaceful settlement receded? The answer to this contention is both yes and no. It is evidently clear that religious expression has played a greater role in the Israel-Palestine debate in recent years. One, however, must ask why this is the case? Further, why does the religious impulse seem to be associated with hardening of positions rather than with looking for areas for reconciliation?
There is no evidence that devotion to religious (specifically Jewish and Muslim) life has grown over the past forty years. The percentage of Israelis and Palestinians who consider themselves to be Orthodox Jewish or Islamist has remained a relatively small minority; perhaps 20-25% of the population. These numbers, however, have become more significant, and there are a number of factors for this development.
Although both Judaism and Islam have strong theopolitical traditions, religious observance through much of the twentieth century tended to be mostly personal. The political and sociological pressures of modernity, and particularly, of nationalism, had tended to push religion out of the public square. This circumstance had been especially true for conservative religion which tended to focus on individual devotion and spiritual purity as protection in an irredeemably immoral world.
We are well aware that toward the end of the century, conservative religion began to move outside its personal shell, and began to take its place as an influence in public debates. The twin— and perhaps coincidental—phenomena of the Iranian Revolution and the emergence of the Moral Majority as part of Ronald Reagan’s decisive presidential victory, heralded the change. The public religious message (both in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East) has been that some perceived moral waywardness in the society had to be stemmed. While religious devotion and observance might not have increased, the message could be popular beyond a core base, especially when there has been a perception of economic stagnation or of governmental corruption. Religious leadership carries a sense of purity with respect to an aura of incorruptibility, and a basically populist message that derides the expertise of so-called academic or professional elites. The success of Hamas among Palestinians is a clear example of this combination of anti-corruption and populism.
In Israel, the dynamic has been somewhat different. From the founding of the State through the Six-Day War and its aftermath, the Labor Coalition maintained a powerful grip on the electorate. Labor’s popularity was first assaulted by the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israel’s ultimate victory came at the cost of relatively high losses in personnel and equipment, particularly in the first few days of the Egyptian attack. A combination of ill will brought about by perceived government failures regarding that war, a minor financial scandal and the sheer longevity of Labor’s rule, led to ultimate defeat. In 1977, a coalition made up of nationalists and free market proponents, Likud, won a plurality of the seats in a general election. Under long-time leader Menachem Begin, the right-wing parties created a government that won re-election in 1981.
Likud’s predominance began to fade, particularly after the fallout from Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 1982. When elections were called in 1984, the two major parties were virtually equal. A power-sharing arrangement was set, but the divergent attitudes regarding foreign policy and the disposition of the territories inevitably pushed such a coalition apart. In order to create ruling governments, both sides turned to the ‘religious parties,’ particular the ultra-Orthodox United Torah and Shas parties [the latter represents Sephardi interests]. Although there was a pronounced reaction in 2003, to Orthodox influence that pushed the religious parties out of the ruling coalition, their roles as power brokers in the nation’s severe political split has begun to grow again.
Militant vs. Mediating Religion
Is religion an impediment toward creating a stable peace in the Middle East? I do not believe so. The brief against religion includes both the appearance of militant Islam and an association of intense Israeli nationalism with Orthodox Judaism. This is true, but it is also a rather small percentage of the populations on both sides of the line. One does not need religion in order to have ‘religious certainty.’
A much more important discussion regards what religious tradition brings to bear on the conflict. Many observers assume that Jewish dedication to the Land is based on the biblical narrative that describes God’s promise to Israel. This consideration represents a very superficial understanding of Jewish thought. For the most part, the divine promise is highly qualified. Israel’s hold on the Land is dependent not on strength of force or military security, but rather on internal justice. Post-biblical literature after the destruction of the second Temple is even more ambivalent. Thus, the most vociferous opponents to the State of Israel are also among the most fervently Orthodox Jews.
The Muslim attitude is equally ambiguous. There is no Muslim literature that refers to promised or sacred land. Of greater concern is the Muslim principle of the ‘ummah, the community of believers. This concept tends to privilege the hegemony of any place with a significant Muslim population. It is also a point in which religion and politics become intertwined. In domains such as the Indian sub-continent, Muslim and non-Muslim communities (Hindu and Buddhist) have negotiated arrangements that respected each other’s practices and beliefs. In brief, Islam does not demand control or domination of any parcel of land, assuming that land is ruled (by whatever authority) with justice.
Religious expression, particularly appeals to God in houses of worship that the ‘enemy’ be smite down, is nevertheless widespread. It is, for the most part, the appearance of religion given over to a primal sense of militancy, in which, inevitably, both sides are the victims in search of divine justice! Yet, there are also powerful counter-messages of showing compassion even to one’s enemies. Jewish and Muslim Arab groups regularly engage in outreach efforts to the other side as part of a religious imperative, even as they might insist on a maximalist solution.
In the final analysis, religious observance has become the source of profound contradictory attitudes and actions. As a very apt example, Hamas remains unalterably opposed to the continued existence of the Jewish State. At the same time, it has been mostly careful about maintaining a cease-fire with Israel. (Indeed, there has been more violence between Hamas and Fatah in recent months.)
Possibilities and Impasses
The outline of a final peace solution is pretty clear. It is roughly the borders that existed on June 4, 1967. Already the international boundary between Israel and Egypt has been restored, and the Gaza Strip, while not being returned to Egypt, has been removed from Israeli oversight. The Golan Heights continue to be offered as a bargaining chip. When serious negotiations were being carried on in the late 1990s, most Israeli experts noted that, with proper security agreements in place, the Heights no longer represented a serious strategic location for either Syria or Israel. Even Jerusalem, which has been dramatically altered over the past forty years by the creation of new Jewish neighborhoods in what was West Bank territory, remains functionally divided into Arab and Jewish sections. With some careful and creative urban planning, the city could formally be parceled out between Israel and a Palestinian State. Much more serious negotiations are required to re-establish the borders that used to define the West Bank, but the indicators of a workable solution are in place.
We know where ‘A’ is (the current occupation), and roughly where ‘B’ is (a realistic negotiated settlement). The daunting problem remains: getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. An Israeli scholar, Moshe Habertal, put it this way in a recent lecture: Polls have consistently shown that about 60% of both Israelis and Palestinians would accept a settlement roughly along the lines of 1967 Green Line. About 80% of that 60%, however, does not believe that the other side exists!”
The confrontation between Israel and the Arabs has come full circle to the circumstances leading up to June 1967. I mean by this more than a realization that the original armistice borders of the State of Israel represent a reasonable basis for an enduring settlement. The path to an equitable solution is fraught with such potential impasses that there is at least as much likelihood of further violence as there is for the creation of enduring peace. After all, no one—Israel, Egypt, Syria or Jordan—wanted there to be a full-scale war. They acted cautiously and defensively throughout 1966-early 1967. And yet war occurred.
Since then, there have been three significant military engagements and two violent uprisings: Yom Kippur (1973), Lebanon (1982), the first intifada (1988), the second intifada (2000-02), and Lebanon again (2006). [Only the Yom Kippur War, however, involved a full mobilization of armies.] In between these flashpoints, guerilla raids, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, rocket strikes and retaliations have continued virtually unabated. This state of affairs has been absolutely miserable for the Palestinians, and none too good for the Israelis.
Giant Steps Backward
First, the Palestinians. During the years of the Oslo process, while the Israeli economy grew at an annual rate in the double-digits, the Palestinian economy shrunk dramatically. This circumstance took place even as institutions such as the European Union poured billions of dollars into the Gaza and West Bank in order to facilitate the creation of an economically viable Palestinian State.
Part of the problem was due to a shift in Israel’s economy. Recognizing that West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were going to be engaged in their own nation, Israelis began to reduce its dependence on Palestinian day labor (predominant in construction and agriculture) in favor of importing workers from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The territories, however, could not absorb the excess labor. Corruption, weak leadership, the absence of planning, an inflexible social order—what have you—all contributed to making the situation worse. I have always felt that the intifada that erupted in September 2000— ostensibly in reaction to Ariel Sharon’s show of force on the Temple Mount—arose in good measure as a result of the intense frustration felt by average Palestinians to the strides backward that had occurred through the years of negotiating that ultimately ended up with nothing.
Yet, as bad as the Palestinians had it in 2000, it has only become worse. Investments and foreign aid has been reduced, particularly after the Hamas victory in January 2006. A virtual civil war between supporters of Hamas and of Fatah (the old PLO) has been patched up in a very fragile agreement mediated by Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Palestinians have a much better chance being killed or injured by another Palestinian than by an Israeli.
Israelis have fared much better than the Palestinians over the past forty years, but it has hardly been all sweetness and light. The administration of the territories has continued to be monumentally difficult, draining both morale and material resources. Although the U.S. has been consistently supportive and generally sympathetic to Israel’s situation, the Jewish State has had to endure regular condemnation from much of the world’s community of nations, at best, and outright isolation, at worst, for its ongoing occupation.
Over thirty years ago, an Orthodox rabbi (whose politics are moderate tending toward conservative) responded to a question about territorial compromise following the Yom Kippur War with the observation that “it is obvious that Israel cannot afford to lose a war; it should also be clear that Israel cannot afford to fight one either.” This has turned out to be a prophetic insight. While it has be demonstrated with every military encounter since the 1948 War of Independence that Israel is the dominant force in the Middle East, each clash since the Six-Day War has been profoundly upsetting emotionally and politically.
No ruling government, regardless of its apparent success in overcoming one attack or another, has been able to survive very long afterward. The Yom Kippur War greatly compromised the Labor government. Menachem Begin retired, and Likud soon lost control after the 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Likud was shaken again by the first intifada, and Ehud Barak’s Labor coalition fell with the second one. Now, Prime Minister Olmert is profoundly unpopular following last summer’s ‘rocket war.’
With each of these instances of violence (the last real “war” was in 1973, when Israel had to engage in a full mobilization of its forces), Israel endured relatively few casualties—particularly when compared to the other side—and short term setbacks to its economy. Yet, the costs in international standing, political stability, and any sense of well-being has been enormous. Over the past forty years—the past sixty years!—Israel’s existential security has not been seriously challenged; its psychic security, however, has taken a beating.
A Way Forward
The Six-Day War and its forty year aftermath is the very definition of paradox and irony. It was the war that no one wanted. It has been loss and humiliation for its losers; pain and isolation for its winner. One is reminded of the end of the classic 1980s film, War Games. The supercomputer is bringing the world closer to nuclear destruction, when it is convinced that the only way one can win that game is not to play at all.
The game, however, is being played. The paradoxes that assign misery to both winners and losers need to be overcome in some other fashion. Remember the barber’s paradox presented at the beginning of this essay? The only way to solve that dilemma was to question the veracity of the original premise (that there is a barber who shaves all those who do not shave themselves). This is no barber.
Israeli military and diplomatic policy has tended to operate on the assumption that there is a Palestinian entity that is capable of eliminating the Jewish State. This is Israel’s barber. It does not exist.
Are there Palestinians who fervently wish for the disappearance of Israel? Obviously there are. With Qassam missiles reigning down in the neighborhood of Sderot; with the ongoing potential of terror attacks, Israeli lives and property continue to be in danger, as they have been since the founding of the State. What is not in danger is the existence of the State itself.
The Israeli government—whichever party or ideology is in power—is obligated to do what it can in order to protect the lives and livelihood of its citizens. As long as there are cross-border attacks, there is going to some type of response. Yet, it is critical to recognize that no Palestinian attack will actually threaten the Jewish State, and further, that the only ones who can definitively bring these attacks to a halt are the Palestinians themselves! While internal politics will always dictate a response to attack, anything more severe than a greatly restrained retaliation is almost certainly counter-productive.
Is peace possible? Of course it is! Although it is probably in a more distant future than anyone wishes, the path to peace has already been drawn. The method to moving down that path is threefold:
Confidence—Israel is simply not operating under any serious external danger. Incidents, whether suicide bombs, Hizb’allah or Hamas missiles—however upsetting—should never be exaggerated into something that resembles a threat to the Jewish State.
Negotiations—For sixty years, Palestinians killed as a result of attacks on Israel have died thoroughly meaningless deaths. Not one bomb, rocket or rifle shot has brought them any closer to their vision of a Greater Palestine, or even to a return of the 1967 boundaries. The violence option has proven to be no option at all. Nothing positive will happen until both sides sit down to talk.
Realism—At the end of the day, Israel, whatever the contours of its international borders—returning precisely to the lines of June 4, 1967, or (far more probably) some trade-off of West Bank and northern Negev territory, or something else—the Jewish State will find itself in the midst of a large Arab population. Even before any steps are taken regarding a final peace agreement, Israel must take clear and definitive steps to assure the civil rights of its own Arab citizens, as well as find ways to treat the Palestinians more as neighbors than as enemies.
World War I formally began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in mid-August 1914. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, but many historians have suggested that the war really did not end until almost exactly seventy-one years later—November 9, 1989—when the Berlin Wall was breached.
A battle between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq began in the early morning hours of June 5, 1967. A cease-fire agreement was concluded six days later. In reality, we all know that the war has continued virtually unabated for the past forty years. We all look forward to the day when the Six-Day War is finally over.