Thursday, November 19, 2015


Last week, I wrote about the cui bono concept—the presumption that wrongdoers generally do wrong because they rightly or wrongly expect some benefit to accrue to themselves as a result—and I applied it to the spate of untruths that seem just lately to have been functioning almost as the stock in trade of several of our most prominent presidential candidates. Today, I’d like to apply that same principle to the perpetrators of the horrific events of last Friday evening in Paris, events that cost 129 innocents their lives and left 352 others wounded, some of whom have died in the last few days and many of the rest of whom are still hospitalized in critical condition.

Let’s start, however, not in Paris but in Israel, where Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his eighteen-year-old son Natanel were also murdered last Friday. The rabbi and his son were ambushed by terrorists as they were driving last Friday afternoon to Meitar, a small town of 7,500 just northeast of Beersheba on the always-Israel side of the so-called Green Line. Leaving out the horrific detail that a Red Crescent ambulance, the Palestinian equivalent of the Red Cross or the Magen David Adom, apparently sped past the scene of carnage without stopping, I’d like to focus Rabbi Litman and Netanel’s murder through the cui bono lens by asking what their murderers expected—or at least were hoping—to accomplish. Did they hope to bring Israel to its knees by murdering two innocents? Did they imagine that the settlers in Judah or Samaria would be so shaken by their dastardly deed that, cowering in fear, they would simply respond by packing up their things and moving back to pre-1967 Israel? Surely the answer to both questions is no…but that leads us to ask what they did expect to accomplish. Did they consider the murder of Jews simply to constitute its own reward? Or is there an even more sinister, or at least more calculated, motive lurking behind the latest spate of terror attacks in Israel on both sides of the Green Line?

Let’s hold that thought while we consider Paris. The basics, everybody by now surely knows. Seven coordinated attacks at several different locations in and around the City of Light. Names unfamiliar to most of us just a few days ago—the Stade de France football stadium, the Bataclan concert venue, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, the Belle Equipe  and Le Carillon bars, the Casa Nostra pizzeria, the Eagles of Death Metal band, the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris—are now so familiar that it seems odd to think that, with the exception of Saint-Denis (home to the famous Gothic cathedral in which all but three of the kings of France are buried), I myself hadn’t heard of a single one of those names just a week ago. The simple, unadorned words of the president of France, “La France est en guerre,” were still ringing in my ears when, to my semi-amazement, he went on to back up his words with deeds by actually by going to war and attacking ISIS bases in Syria vigorously and violently, then by invoking Article 42.7 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that requires every member state of the European Union to respond to armed aggression against any other member “by all the means in their power,” and then by ordering hundreds of strikes against potential terrorist targets within France. Clearly, when President Hollande unequivocally labelled the events of last Friday as “acts of war,” he meant that literally and plans to conduct himself accordingly. Where France and the rest of the world, including our own country and Russia, go from here remains yet to be seen. But that France means to deal with the threat against its citizens forcefully and meaningfully seems beyond doubt.

As all of this was unfolding, I was still in the middle of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission. (The author’s name is pronounced as though it were written “Wellbeck.”)  I’d read one other of the author’s books, his novel The Elementary Particles, which I found so vulgar as to border on the pornographic. (In my defense, I should mention that this is the kind of high-class porn that wins international literary prizes, not the kind they used to sell in midtown sleaze shops before Mayor Giuliani cleaned things up. But even so I’m still a bit embarrassed to admit that I read it through to the bitter end.)  Submission also has its share of crude passages, but is a bestseller throughout Europe—and particularly in France, Germany, and Italy—and is now available in our own country in an English translation by Lorin Stein published just two months ago.

The novel is set in 2023 and unfolds as the Muslim Brotherhood, evolved by the early 2020’s into a French political party, almost unexpectedly gains enough votes in a national election to make it almost impossible for the actual victors to form a government without them. This kind of parliamentary wrangling will be familiar to any who follow French (or Israeli or Canadian or British) politics, but what is truly shocking here is the easy plausibility of it all. The Socialists win the election, but are obliged to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood led by a fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes and the far-right Front National led by the very real Marine Le Pen if they wish to form an actual government. They weigh their options, but in the end determine that they will have a better chance of remaining in power if they choose the Muslim option, which they do. In a matter of weeks, Ben Abbes is the president of France. What happens next is both predictable and horrific. The unemployment problem is solved by eliminating most women from the work force. The national deficit is eliminated by ending mandatory education at age twelve. The problem of anti-Semitism is “solved” by encouraging Jews to immigrate to Israel. The university system is closed, then re-opened as a national grid of Islamic universities with exclusively Muslim faculty members (most of whom are merely the teachers from the previous system who have chosen to convert to Islam, a conversion that appears to require almost nothing at all other than a public declaration of willingness to embrace Islam). By the month, France grows closer and closer to re-attaining its nineteenth-century glory as other European countries install Muslim governments and as Morocco, Turkey, and Tunisia join the EU. French itself regains the supremacy it once had as the language of diplomacy and world trade.

Of course, the book’s premise is that France has been and still is so inept at integrating its Muslim population into the fabric of French society that if the Muslim Brotherhood were to become an actual party, the entire Muslim population of France—something like 4.5 million people—would vote en bloc for its list of candidates. (Of course, by 2023, the number of Muslim citizens in France will be that much greater, particularly if large numbers of refugees from Syria and other battle-torn Arab lands are admitted.) Whether that is a reasonable supposition or not is hard to say. Surely not every Muslim would vote for a Muslim party! But it is also true that the Muslims of France have not been well integrated into society and that very large numbers feel themselves to live outside of the intellectual and social milieu that non-Muslim French citizens consider their natural cultural climate.

Events like the last week’s horror in Paris constitute a major challenge for French society as a whole. If President Hollande’s war against ISIS goes well, then the nation will be able to unite behind that victory. But if it does not go well, and if large numbers of French citizens succumb to base prejudice and end up further marginalizing France’s millions of Muslim citizens, thus alienating them even more, then Houellebecq’s premise—that if and when a serious Muslim political party constitutes itself as a force to be reckoned with in French politics, the Muslim citizens of France will automatically and eagerly vote for them—then that premise, now the stuff of novels, may well become reality.

The challenge facing the French, therefore, is two-fold: to pursue its war against ISIS in the Middle East and in Europe and to pursue it relentlessly and with unyielding determination…but also to reach out to French Muslims and to invite them to join the battle against violent, Islamicist extremism. The time has clearly come for the Muslims of France to decide as a community where they stand and to what degree they are willing to stand by their countrymen in a battle against their own co-religionists. And that brings me back to the cui bono question that I asked earlier in this letter but didn’t answer: could the goal of this kind of horrific terror be specifically to goad non-Muslim France into creating the kind of illiberal atmosphere that could conceivably make the scenario presented by Michel Houellebecq in Submission a reality? That—and not the supposition that terror attacks against random civilians are undertaken merely to terrify—that strikes me as a rational response to the cui bono question that logic tells us must always be reasonably asked in the context of criminal acts.

And that brings me back to Rabbi Litman and his son. Why would anyone choose a car at random and murder its driver and passenger? Could the “real” goal of those attacks not be to kill this or that person, but to make the Israeli public even less likely to see the Palestinians as worthy partners in peace…or even the kind of people with whom one even could live peacefully in adjacent nations? The mood in Israel is grim these days as random violence against civilians is on the rise. How could it not be?  But the real challenge in these acts of random terror is not to find a way to legitimize the demonization of an entire people, but to find a way to combat the bad guys and to encourage the “regular” Palestinians to seize the reins of leadership and to negotiate a lasting, just peace with Israel.

Terrorist acts are not random acts of natural violence like hailstones or earthquakes, but focused, intentional deeds intended to make less likely the kind of peaceful coexistence between nations and peoples that extremists fear the most. France is entirely justified in its decision to go to war with ISIS. The question is whether the effort will make France stronger by making ISIS weaker…or whether it will just weaken ISIS in Syria or wherever, but leave the millions of disengaged, disenchanted Muslims in France more than ready to make real Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian fantasy. That is the question that churns and roils deep within as I contemplate the events of last Friday evening against the background of having just read Submission and internalized its dark, frightening message.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cui Bono?

Those of you who like a certain old-fashioned style of mystery writing will be familiar with the words cui bono, the Latin for “to whom the good?” or, more colloquially, “to whose benefit?”  It’s an old expression, going all the way back to Cicero who once praised a contemporary judge for insisting that all the evidence adduced in his court be focused through the prism of those two words, basing himself on the assumption—as true then as now—that when people break the law it is always because they perceive some benefit for themselves in doing so.  And thus should it logically also be reasonable to travel that path in the opposite direction by considering the crime and asking who exactly benefited from it because, at least in most cases, the benefitted party will almost always be the instigator of the crime…and possibly even its actual perpetrator.

When applied to crime, the idea seems simple enough. Thieves steal things because they wish to possess those things and presumably have no other way to acquire them.  Murderers murder, even, because they perceive some advantage that will accrue to them upon the deaths of their victims and are willing—at least in some jurisdictions—to risk the death penalty to derive that benefit. And the same feels as though it should be true about lying, that people tell lies because they see themselves profiting in some way by doing so. It’s certainly true of perjury: there are very grave penalties for willfully lying in court while under oath and it only seems reasonable to imagine that a citizen would risk those penalties solely because of some huge potential benefit imagined likely to come from passing off some lie as the truth. Why else would anyone risk huge fines and years of incarceration by lying in court? Surely not because they don’t see any advantage in doing so!

Often, applying this principle of cui bono (the first word is pronounced in one syllable to rhyme with “twee”) to lying outside of court is a no-brainer as well. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, the Volkswagen Group in effect lied to the world by programming the diesel engines featured in many models of its cars to detect when they were being tested and to change the performance read-out regarding the actual level of emissions being given off. Who stood to benefit is too obvious a question even to ask out loud—they themselves did, of course, managing to sell eleven million of such cars worldwide, including half a million in the U.S., by giving the false impression that those vehicles met standards that they in fact did not meet…and did not meet by staggering amounts. (In some cases, the vehicles in question actually emitted forty times the amount of nitrogen oxide than the test indicated.) In a different context entirely, one could say the same thing about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who went on Israeli television just last week to insist that neither Solomon’s Temple nor the Second Temple ever stood atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He may have overplayed his hand just a bit by insisting that there has been a mosque on the site since “the creation of the world,” but the lie itself—a theory supported, contra the New York Times, by no legitimate historians, scholars, or archeologists, and with no exceptions at all—clearly responds well to the cui bono test: by insisting that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount, the whole concept of Jerusalem being the holiest of holy cities for Jews becomes a meaningless concept founded on self-serving myth rather than on historical reality…and it doesn’t take much insight into Middle Eastern politics to know whom that lie benefits. Why the mufti imagines anyone would have built the Western Wall if there was nothing atop the mount for its massive stones to support is hard to say. Perhaps the Kotel doesn’t exist either!

I could give lots more examples, but I’m actually more interested in the kind of lie that specifically does not respond well to the cui bono test. These lies do not seem to work to the advantage of those who tell them, but rather bring their tellers into disrepute and thus impact upon them solely negatively. So why would anyone tell them? That’s the question I’d like to write about this week.

I can think of lots of examples.  In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson writes as follows:

At the end of my twelfth grade I marched at the head of the Memorial Day parade. I felt so proud, my chest bursting with ribbons and braids of every kind. To make it more wonderful, we had important visitors that day. Two soldiers who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Viet Nam were present. More exciting to me, General William Westmoreland (very prominent in the Viet Nam war) attended with an impressive entourage. Afterward, Sgt. Hunt introduced me to General Westmoreland, and I had dinner with him and the Congressional Medal winners. Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point. I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going.

It’s a good story, but it’s at best sort of true. For one thing, General William Westmoreland, who had just completed his command of U.S. troops in Vietnam, was apparently not present in Detroit on Memorial Day in 1969.  For another, there is no record of West Point offering Carson a full scholarship, or any sort of scholarship.  It’s true that there is no tuition at the nation’s five military academies, and it really is easy to imagine someone using the term “scholarship” to describe what students “get” at schools with free tuition. (And it’s also true that West Point itself has occasionally used the word “scholarship” to describe its free tuition policy.) But the reference to not refusing the offer outright certainly implies that an actual offer was made…and that’s the part that seems not quite to be so. It is surely possible that young Ben Carson met General Westmoreland somewhere, perhaps on one of the general’s visits to Detroit earlier that year. And it surely sounds reasonable that the general might have touted aloud the value of a West Point education. But the story as told—and as repeated in others of the doctor’s books as well—seems at best to be true-ish, but not precisely accurate. But Dr. Carson is a very accomplished man—a highly respected neurosurgeon, for many years the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. He hardly has to tell a fib about his acceptance to West Point to gain the respect of would-be voters…yet tell that story he apparently did. But why? Cui bono? He couldn’t possibly have imagined that a story that seemed so unlikely wouldn’t be checked and rechecked by investigative reporters eager to make their careers on the ashes of someone else’s reputation!

Nor is this a Republican issue per se. Hillary Clinton herself was caught in a lie back in April when she made the bogus claim that all of her grandparents were immigrants to the United States. She can’t not have known that that isn’t true—one of her grandparents, her paternal grandfather, was born in England, but the other three were born in this country, one in Pennsylvania and the others two in Illinois. She can’t not have known that, yet she said it in public, apparently not expecting anyone to notice. She thus joins Senator Rubio (whose oft-repeated story about his parents’ flight from Cuba when Castro came to power is apparently also not precisely true as repeatedly told) and Dr. Carson as candidates for our nation’s highest office whose fibs do not respond at all well to the cui bono test. Mrs. Clinton, with a life-long record of service to our nation, needs immigrant grandparents to make her appeal to voters? Senator Rubio, who has also devoted his entire career to public service and who surely has the Cuban vote sewed up anyway, needs to fib about his parents’ experiences leaving Cuba? Isn’t it enough that they fled life under communism to seek freedom here?  And, as noted above, Dr. Carson needs to link himself to West Point to earn the respect of Americans? His many strange positions and bizarre theories about the universe will either make or break his campaign…but it’s hard to imagine anyone specifically not voting for him because he wasn’t accepted by West Point.  For the record, in fact, only two of our presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, actually were graduates of West Point. (The sole president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was also a grad.) So it’s not like a connection to West Point is crucial for someone who would be president. So why the lie? What’s the point? And where’s the gain?

In a sense, we all write our own biographies. We remember what we remember of the past, fill in the blanks by listening to our parents’ stories, by looking at photographs taken by ourselves and others, by inspecting the various documents that bear witness to our histories…and then trying to piece it all together into a flowing, cogent narrative. What really happened as we grew through childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, who can say with absolute certainty? And, speaking frankly, which of us truly knows his or her parents…as opposed to the mythic identity they take on in the larger context of family histories and individual relationships.  So in a sense it’s all mythic, what we say we know of ourselves and how we conceptualize our families’ stories. But is it true? That’s a complicated question, one that most of us—thankfully—do not have phalanxes of reporters evaluating intensely scrupulously with an eye towards identifying the slightest inconsistency or deviation from actual reality. I imagine that Mrs. Clinton herself somehow stepped into a mythic version of her family’s history, then made the huge error of judgment by allowing others in as well.  The same must be true of Senator Rubio and Dr. Carson—not that they told lies without understanding the harm that surely would (and did) come from getting caught with their pants on fire. These are not naïve people, and Mrs. Clinton perhaps least of all! I suppose I should self-righteously now be doubting their probity and wondering about their fitness for office based on their inability to distinguish reality from fantasy in their own backstories. But I can’t quite bring myself to think of it that way—without the cui bono test suggesting real benefit to the storyteller, statements about family that do not appear to correspond to actual historical reality are merely pieces of the great inner pageant of identity forged not in the crucible of verifiability, but in the mythic cauldron of self-awareness seasoned with just enough reality to make the myth believable and appealing…to ourselves and, when we lift the curtain—as we all occasionally do—and let others in, to the great world out there as well.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Just Religion

You can’t eat food. Or rather you can’t eat “just” food. You can eat a steak or a yam, obviously. But even though both are examples of foods people eat all the time, there isn’t anything that is “just” food without it having to be some specific kind of food. The same is true of languages—you can speak Finnish or Yiddish, but you can’t speak in “just” language without speaking in some specific one of the 6,500 languages that are spoken in the world today. You can take this idea into all sorts of other realms as well: you can’t “just” sing a song without singing some specific song any more than you can “just” read a book without reading some specific one. It’s not such a complicated idea. But does it apply to religion as well?

Can you adhere to a religion without adhering to a specific one of the world’s religions? The answer feels like it would have to be no, and for the same reason that applies to singing and speaking—because there is no such as “just” religion, only the thousands of “actual” religions to which people in the world today adhere. But if I pose the question slightly differently and ask if it would be possible to be religious or to be a religious person without adhering to any specific religion, the answer feels less obvious. If I choose to leave the words “religion” or “religious” out of the mix entirely and instead ask it’s possible to be a spiritual person—a person with a meaningful spiritual dimension to his or her life—without belong to any specific religious group, the question seems less easily answered. But the question itself remains worth pondering as asked: if religion is the language of the spirit, can you embrace “just” it without concomitantly embracing any specific religion? 
Or is the notion that you can be religious without actually embracing any religion just self-serving fantasy that makes such people feel less guilty about their lack of “real” religious affiliation?

I was moved to ponder this issue just last week while reading a very interesting essay by Los Angeles-based journalist Tamara Audi that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Tuesday. The essay itself was based on a recently released study by the Pew Research Center that concluded that Roman Catholic Americans, until recently the largest group within the Democratic Party to self-define by religious affiliation, have now been outnumbered among the Democrats by the so-called “nones,” people who, when asked, respond that they have no religious affiliation at all. Indeed, the “nones,” the Pew Center study concluded, now number about 28% of Democrats, compared with only 19% as recently as 2007. (Catholics, who numbered 24% of the party in 2007, are down to 21%.)

On the other side of the aisle, the situation is both similar and dissimilar. The largest religious group within the G.O.P. have traditionally been evangelical Christians, who number about 38% of the party, not Catholics. But the “nones” are growing in Republican ranks as well, up from 10% in 2007 to 14% now.  And all of this mirrors the trend in the general population as well: in 2007, only 16% of Americans declared themselves to have no religious affiliation at all, but today the figure is 23%.

All of that is interesting enough, but the specific detail that caught my eye was that the Pew Center study lumps together as fellow “nones” both people who self-define as atheists or agnostics and people who profess belief in God but who lack any specific religious affiliation. In other words, according to one of America’s leading research institutes, the answer to my question is that no, you cannot be a religious person if you don’t adhere to a specific religion. Just believing in God is not enough to pry you loose from the “nones.” To be counted as a religious person, you have to self-define as belonging to a specific religious group, exactly in the same way that you can’t be “just” food without being a steak or a yam...or some other edible thing. But is that really true? That is the question I’d like to address in my letter to you all this week.

In the eighteenth century, many of the founding fathers of our nation subscribed to a school of thought called Deism, generally defined as belief in God unencumbered by any ancillary beliefs in divine revelation or in prophecy. God, thus demoted to the level of philosophical principle and specifically not acknowledged as the active agent in the governance of the universe, is real…but not in the sense that human beings need to do anything too much about: like gravity, God is imagined really to exist but invisibly and uncommunicatively. The world, for its part, is as it is because it has as the ground of its existence and at its ethical core a Deity who, by virtue of existence alone, grants order and morality to all that is; but the mythology that the world’s religions promote can be dispensed with as so many ancient fables and the notion that human beings must conform to the whims and wishes of that Deity or face dire consequences can be safely set aside. Deists believe in God as the great Clockmaker, as the Creator who has no ongoing relationship with creation any more than the clockmakers have ongoing relationships with the clocks they build and sell to others. The clockmakers exist. The clocks exist. But their relationship exists solely within the realm of history, not in the province of day-to-day reality.

There were lots of Deists in our nation’s past, although it is true that not all specifically embraced that term to label themselves or their beliefs. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all used terminology in their writings that, despite their formal affiliation with various Christian denominations, make them sound far more like Deists than like orthodox Christians. It is true that all of the above-mentioned founders had complicated relationships with organized religion, particularly Thomas Jefferson, yet history has comfortably labelled them all as at least strongly influenced by Deism and its basic beliefs. To give a sense of what this feels like in the works of the founders, I will only quote from one book, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, written in 1794 as a defense of the French Revolution while the author was in residence in Luxemburg. There, he writes openly about his beliefs:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy…I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

That, in a nutshell, is Deism in its plainest guise.  Is it religion? It’s hard to say. But I think I can say with near certainty that Thomas Paine would have been flabbergasted to find himself lumped together with atheists and agnostics by the Pew Research Center researchers as a “none.”  Certainly George Washington and James Madison, both life-long members of the Episcopal Church, would have rejected the label both as Episcopalians and as Deists.

So what happened to Deism? It still exists. (You can visit the website of the World Union of Deists at But it doesn’t exist as a driving force in the world of religion, as the Pew Center report blithely demonstrates by lumping together in one single category people who profess faith in God by without feeling drawn to affiliate with any specific religion and atheists who deny the existence of God entirely. Whether that was fair or unfair is a debate worth undertaking. On the other hand, to say why exactly Deism declined isn’t that hard to say at all.

Philosophical principles are interesting ideas, but hardly anyone since Socrates has willingly or unwillingly accepted a martyr’s fate because of them. To engage the soul, to transform the spirit, to draw people to a life infused with and informed by faith, to inspire people to embrace morality and to turn away from evil…religions need more than ideational substructures of sound philosophical principles. In fact, they need two specific things to make them flourish in the world of actual people: rituals and rites able to grant physical presence in the world to the ideas that rest beneath them something like the way the steel girders that support tall buildings exist invisibly yet also indispensably deep inside those buildings outer walls, and a warm, thick fabric woven of myth, history, biography, and sacred legend in which people eager to adopt those principles as their own can wrap themselves and, in so doing, find comfort, confidence, and the inner strength necessary to persevere in a world in which living a life devoted to spiritual ideals is almost always an uphill battle. From the Jewish point of view, this couldn’t be more true. Indeed, it is precisely the way Judaism brings together ritual shell and ideational core in the context of mitzvah, of sacred commandment, that makes it such an engaging lifestyle for so many people seeking to give physical stature to dogma and reality to the core concepts they have embraced as the truths that guide them forward in life. I’m sure other religions have their own way of making their foundational principles real in the world. But I speak of what I know…and for me personally it is precisely that combination of moving idea embedded deeply within repeating ritual that makes of Jewish life a spiritual journey not only that satisfies, but actually that leads somewhere.

I disagree with the premise of the Pew study mentioned above. I believe that people who are possessed of faith in God are far more like the religiously-affiliated than they are like people who have consciously divested themselves of the trappings of belief. We should acknowledge that reality, with or without reintroducing the name Deism into our national vocabulary, and accept that the divide between those who believe and those who do not is far greater and more profound than the one supposed to exist between people who merely believe and those who have formally chosen to affiliate with a religion that has a name.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nostra Aetate, Fifty Years On

I have not participated actively—or even inactively—in the effort to foster interfaith understanding since I left Canada more than sixteen years ago. But before that—and for at least a decade—I served as on the provincial executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, now very regretfully defunct but for almost a full century the Canadian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, and my specific bailiwick was representing the Jewish community in its effort to reach out to other faith groups and to respond to efforts to be reached out to by at least most of those groups. It was an occasionally frustrating, occasionally exhilarating, experience, one I don’t regret at all, yet also remember in a complicated way. I think—I hope—I did some good. I’m proud to have served in that specific capacity for as long as I did.  But what I learned from the experience was both positive and negative, both simple and complex, both reassuring and challenging.

I am remembering that whole part of my life today because this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption by the Roman Catholic Church of Nostra Aetate, also called the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.”  Passed by an overwhelming majority of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops (2,221 to 88) and subsequently promulgated by Pope Paul VI as formal church policy, the declaration so changed the face of the relationship of the Catholic Church with Jews and Judaism that it is hard after half a century even to remember what it was like in the bad old days that proceeded the formal adoption of the declaration as official church policy.

This was the mid-1960s. Just twenty-two years earlier, the Holy See, after centuries of teaching and preaching about the devil, failed to recognize him when he finally did come calling and instead chose to negotiate the agreement known as the Reichskonkordat, a treaty that granted legitimacy to the Nazi Party and, by extension, to their policies. Just four years later, Pope Pius XI was angered enough by the degree to which the Germans had not upheld their end of the bargain to issue a second encyclical, this one in German (as opposed to Latin, the usual language for such church-wide letters) called Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Worry”)…in which the pope somehow again forgot specifically to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, which by 1937 had reached a feverish pitch of violence and viciousness of which all, certainly including all concerned Catholic officials, were fully aware. Martin Rhonheimer, a teacher at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and himself an Opus-Dei affiliated Catholic priest, sums up things neatly: “The general condemnation of racism [in Mit Brennender Sorge] of course included the Nazis’ anti-Semitic racial mania, and condemned it implicitly. The question, however, is not what the Church's theological position with regard to Nazi racism and anti-Semitism was in 1937, but whether Church statements were clear enough for everyone to realize that the Church included Jews in its pastoral concern, thus summoning Christian consciences to solidarity with them. In light of what we have seen, it seems clear that the answer to this question must be No. In 1937, the Church was concerned not with the Jews but with entirely different matters that the Church considered more important and more urgent. An explicit defense of the Jews might well have jeopardized success in these other areas.” What else is there to say, really? The Church could have gone to war with the Nazis; instead they chose to be enraged not about Nazi anti-Semitism or the horrific prejudice promulgated against other groups within Germany society but rather about the degree to which the peace treaty (which is what “concordat” means) they had signed with the devil wasn’t being honored in all of its detail and to which, therefore, their own best interests were not being served in the way they had hoped the Reichskonkordat would guarantee.

The war ended. It felt in the best interests of everybody to move forward without dwelling on the past. The Catholic Church never apologized for its inaction during the Shoah, choosing instead to publicize isolated instances in which Catholic clergy or laypeople saved Jewish souls who would otherwise have died. For most, that was good enough; Jews too wanted to move on and the effort to convince the Vatican to recognize the State of Israel seemed like a far more worthy task to take on than endlessly and fruitlessly to focus solely on the past. It took forty-five years for that to happen—diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel were finally established only in the last days of 1993—but in the mid-sixties that effort had yet even to appear remotely likely to bear fruit, let alone actually to bear any.  And so most of the Jewish world was fully unprepared for the sea-change in Catholic-Jewish relations that Nostra Aetate signaled.

The Latin words nostra aetate mean “in our time” and are simply the first words in the text, but the first version, as commissioned by Pope John XXIII, was specifically called Decretum de Iudaeis (“Decree Concerning the Jews”) and was specifically about Catholic-Jewish relations. (The final version was expanded to include material about the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions as well.) In the meantime, Pope John died. Most imagined the initiative to reconcile with the Jewish world died with him. But that turned out, to the surprise of many, not to be the case. And in 1965, Pope Paul promulgated Nostra Aetate as official church policy.

It’s hard to grasp today just how far-reaching these changes in policy contained in that single document actually were. In a single stroke, the document undercut the Church’s own anti-Jewish argumentation in one fell swoop. Neither the Jews of Jesus’ own day nor the Jews of today were to be considered responsible en masse for Jesus’ execution.  The Church formally and forcefully rejected its own prior teaching that God has rejected or cursed the Jewish people for not wishing to abandon their own faith. Anti-Semitism, Nostra Aetate says clearly, is by definition morally wrong and thus wholly unacceptable for Catholics. The language used to express this last notion is so strong as to make it worth quoting here verbatim: “Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”  Those words should move anyone, but only those—like myself—who have read and reread books like Rosemary R. Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, Daniel Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning, and Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews will be able to appreciate just how remarkable a statement they constitute, and just how utter a repudiation of beliefs that have plagued the Catholic Church not for centuries but for millennia.  I recommend all four of those books, by the way, and think all readers who don’t know them will find them fascinating and insightful, if also chilling and disquieting. There are many books on the topic to look at, but those are the first four I’d recommend to anyone interested in understanding the history of Western anti-Semitism.

From there, finally, interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews was able to take off. The sense that it was somehow wrong, or at least suspect, for Catholics to encounter Jews as their spiritual equals was gone; the feeling that Jews were somehow behaving perversely by not allowing their own religious civilization to be supplanted by its self-appointed successor faith was no longer hovering over every interfaith meeting. Slowly, things moved forward and I personally participated in many such efforts to create dialogue where there had earlier only be suspicion and mistrust.  Other Christian denominations, although regretfully not all, adopted the Catholic Church’s basic stance and abandoned the notion that Christians have some sort of moral obligation to be insulted by the mere existence of Judaism. The arena of Christian-Jewish dialogue became a rich, interesting place in which the need endlessly to tiptoe around the various elephants in the room was replaced by openness and a level of friendliness that would once have been considered unimaginable.

As I process these thoughts on this fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, I wonder how possible it would be to forge some sort of dialogue with Muslims that would allow for a level of respectful dialogue that hasn’t existed, if it ever truly did exist, for a thousand years. (My fantasies about the level of Jewish-Muslim cooperation during the so-called Golden Age of Iberian Jewry were mostly laid to rest by reading Hillel Halkin’s biography of Judah Halevi in the Schocken Press’s Jewish Encounters series called simply Yehudah Halevi, a book I can also recommend to you all very highly.) It feels impossible even to contemplate—Jews and Muslims respectfully discussing their issues and coming not merely to understand each other but truly to appreciate each other’s position. Wouldn’t Middle Eastern politics poison the well even before either side ventured a first sip? Wouldn’t the need to blame supplant the need to speak honestly and clearly? And with which Muslims should the Jewish world enter into dialogue? Surely not with violent Islamicists…but then with whom? And what could come of it anyway, a mere dialogue, a mere conversation, a mere sharing of viewpoints unruined by vituperation or the need to assign blame? When such encounters are announced, I tend to shy away from them for fear that participation itself will signal a kind of betrayal of our core values. And then I remember back to my years in British Columbia, to which province I moved a full two decades after Nostra Aetate, when the fertile ground for Catholic-Jewish dialogue had already been plowed and prepared and all that remained was for well-meaning people to plant seeds and then to nurture them.

Could that be possible for Jews and Muslims? How would Israel fit in? Wouldn’t the specter of Islamicist terrorism cast too cold a shadow over the whole effort for anyone in the room to remain comfortably in place for more than a minute or two? Wouldn’t the first reference to Jerusalem end the conversation before it even got started? To exclude Israelis would be unacceptable to any rational Jewish person, but would not including them doom the enterprise to failure even before it got off the ground? None of these questions has an obvious answer to me. And yet…when I think that the Catholic Church, not a quarter century after choosing tacitly to acquiesce to Nazi anti-Semitism for the sake of safeguarding its own interests, unilaterally coming to the point at which Nostra Aetate was approved almost unanimously by the bishops of the Church and then promulgated as official policy by the Pope himself…then I find myself wondering if interfaith dialogue can ever truly be doomed to failure other than by the absence of will on both sides to engage honestly, to recognize and endorse the best in each other, and to accept as basic the right of a partner to speak as an equal and, at least potentially, as a friend.  And if the presence of those things means that such dialogue would not a priori be doomed to failure…then I have to ask myself why it is that we engage in it so little (and, speaking honestly, really not at all), and why it is we shy away from the kind of simple, honest dialogue that can foster understanding even between people whom everyone knows cannot possible come to know and like each other.

In 1937, Nostra Aetate would have seemed like a fairytale that could never actually exist in reality. Surely, one could say the same thing today about dialogue with Muslims. But Nostra Aetate does exist….

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Last week I wrote about that horrific, biased article about the Temple Mount that appeared in the New York Times and explained, I hope convincingly, why it seemed to me not merely to be supportive of an alternate point of view than my own, but to constitute something darker and more sinister bordering on almost overt anti-Semitism.  And now, just a week, later, we see the trend to question even the most basic aspects of the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel brought to the fore for public debate as though this were a reasonable issue for normal people to discuss. I am thinking, of course, of the disgraceful behavior of UNESCO this last week and its shameful aftermath.

I would have thought that there was no way I could be moved to think less of the United Nations than I already do. But I was wrong! This week’s debate, dressed up as a serious motion being discussed by rational, thoughtful people, was even more unabashedly prejudiced and at least as overtly anti-Semitic as anything I’ve ever seen published in a major American newspaper. And the end of the matter—which, to be fair, was marginally less bad than I expected it to be—only proves the degree to which UNESCO, an organization that theoretically exists to foster educational, scientific, and cultural (those would be the E, S, and C in its name) cooperation between nations, has given itself over to the general mandate of its parent organization: the ceaseless condemnation of Israeli policies and activities, the bolstering of an almost overtly anti-Semitic worldview, and the denigration of the Jewish claim to its own homeland.

Up for discussion at UNESCO was the question of whether the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem are Muslim or Jewish shrines. At face value, the whole notion itself is ridiculous: these sites have been revered by Jews and by Muslims not for centuries but for millennia. Whether our patriarchs and matriarchs are really buried in those places is a question for archeologists and historians of antiquity to ponder. But that these places have been venerated as sites of special sanctity by Jews since antiquity cannot be seriously doubted by anyone at all. Moreover, to frame the question in terms of archeology is to miss the point entirely, something like asking a Christian worshiping in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem how he or he knows that that is actually the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The answer, obviously, is that no one knows, that no one can know. But that too is beside the point: the point is not whether someone can say with absolute certainty that something that happened thousands of years ago happened in that specific place—although it can’t have happened far away even if that isn’t the precise place—but that uncountable numbers of pilgrims have sanctified the spot with their presence as the site of their savior’s death…and that the satisfaction a modern-day Christian pilgrim feels in that place derives from joining those countless others in seeking faith and solace in that specific place, not from having secret knowledge about the geography of ancient Jerusalem that no one has or will ever have.

The Kotel—the Western Wall—isn’t in that category, of course.  There is no serious question of any sort regarding what it is or why Jews have always venerated it: it is the last remaining portion of the support wall built around the Temple Mount to support the Temple that stood atop it. In dispute by no serious archeologist or historian at all, that point meant nothing to the representatives of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait as they submitted a proposal to UNESCO that would formally have recognized the Kotel as a Muslim shrine to be called Buraq Plaza. (Buraq was the name of the prophet’s winged horse whom Muslim tradition recalls was once tethered there.) The fact that Jews have always venerated the Wall as the last remnant of the Temple, and that the nineteen years that the Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan were the sole set of decades in millennia during which there was not a permanent,  ongoing Jewish presence in that place—what could that possibly mean to Arab diplomats eager to jump the bandwagon and insist in this specific way that the entire Jewish claim to Jerusalem—and to the Land of Israel itself—is a bogus fairy-tale made up by Zionists in the nineteenth century to justify their colonialist ambitions to seize someone else’s country and make it their own? Thankfully, this specific part of the Arabs’ initiative was withdrawn after world-wide protests by Jewish groups, by Israel itself, and even by Irina Bokova, the UNESCO chief who realized that passing such a motion would only inflame tensions in the region without accomplishing anything other than even further besmirching UNESCO’s reputation. So that ended up as less of a disaster than it could have been.

The outcome regarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was less good. King Herod the Great, who died in the year 4 BCE, was the first to build a structure over the site revered even then as the tombs our all our patriarchs and matriarchs except for Rachel (the story of whose death on the road to Bethlehem is told explicitly in the Torah). Later on, in Byzantine times, the Christian rules of the Eastern Roman Empire built a church over the ruins of Herod’s structure. Later still, in the seventh century, when the Land of Israel came under Arab control, the church was demolished and a mosque was built there instead. In the twelfth century, the Crusaders threw the Muslims out and refurbished the mosque, turning it back into a church. Nevertheless, the place remained a place of Jewish pilgrimage. In October of 1166, Maimonides himself came to worship there, praying inside the tomb and kneeling to kiss the graves he found there. A few years later, the great Jewish traveler and diarist, Benjamin of Tudela came to call.  Later on, the Muslims vanquished the Crusaders and turned the structure back into a mosque, formally forbidding Jews to come closer than the seventh step leading down from the front entrance to the street. And that is where things stood until 1967, when Hebron came under Israeli rule and the ancient Jewish right to worship at the tombs of our patriarchs and matriarchs was restored without the parallel rights of Muslims being abrogated. Indeed, the local Muslim Religious Council, called the waqf, was granted control over most of the property, with the Israeli authorities serving only to safeguard the rights of Jewish visitors to enter and prayer without being molested or bothered.  And that is where things stand. Or rather where they stood until UNESCO this week took it upon itself to declare the Tomb of the Patriarchs to be a Muslim holy site, thereby choosing not only to ignore the fact that it has been a holy site for Jews for centuries longer than there even were Muslims in the world (King Herod predated the Prophet by about seven centuries) but also to indicate clearly that the mere fact that Jews venerate a site means nothing to the United Nations if there is the opportunity to curry favor with Israel’s enemies by passing even the most outrageous resolution. Yes, Muslims have worshiped there for centuries. But the site was at its inception a Jewish holy site to which Jews have always flocked. And that was the detail UNESCO chose willfully to ignore as though it were an annoying detail rather than a crucial piece of historical reality.

Moving along, the Tomb of Rachel has been venerated by Jews for so long that none can say when the first Jews came to that spot to worship there. As early as the fourth century CE, though, Christian authors noted the presence of the tomb there. But the history of Rachel’s Tomb mirrors the history of the Patriarchs’: first made into a church, then a mosque, then a church again, then a mosque.  But ongoing Jewish presence is part of the story as well. The aforementioned Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) was there and found it to be a site of Jewish prayer and veneration. A century later, another great Jewish travelers, Petachiah of Regensburg, was there as well and noted the same thing. From the fifteenth century on, the building over the tomb was maintained by Muslims as a mosque. But the place retained its place in the hearts of Jewish pilgrims always. In 1830, the Ottomans formally recognized the place as a Jewish holy site. In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore actually purchased the site, renovating the building and providing Muslims and Jews with access to worship there.  Even during the years of Jordanian rule over the West Bank, non-Israeli Jews continued to travel there and to worship there. But what does any of that mean to the ideologues of UNESCO who, blithely ignoring centuries of evidence, simply voted this week—as though their pronouncement can change the place’s history or destiny—to recognize Rachel’s Tomb too as a Muslim holy place and nothing else.

All of these resolutions, meaningless on the ground but nonetheless deeply insulting to Jews and to all who respect the integrity of historical fact, have at their core the same impetus that motivated that New York Times article I wrote about last week: the slow, steady effort to deny the fact that the Land of Israel is the homeland of the People of Israel, and to affirm—insanely but also menacingly—that the millennia of Jews’ attachment even to the most sacred of Jewish holy sites can be wiped away by other nations voting on resolutions they’ve made up all on their own. That would be a laughable overstatement of the importance of an organization like UNESCO, which like its parent organization squandered whatever moral capital it still possessed years ago. But it is also indicative of a world-wide campaign to insist that history is not what it is but what anyone with enough clout might wish it to be, that the fact that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people can itself be voted out of existence, that the fact that Jews have venerated Jerusalem as their spiritual capital since the days of David is not an indelible historical fact, but part of the malleable reality that is history in the hands of fools.

I remember my first trips to all three sites. When I undertook my first trip to Israel in 1966, when I was just thirteen, all three sites were under Jordanian occupation. But eight years later, was when I was twenty-one and the Six Day War was history, I got a job as a counselor on an American Zionist Youth Foundation bar-mitzvah pilgrimage trip to Israel and so first encountered the Kotel and Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron with my fellow staff members and all those children in tow. It was a bit chaotic, as I recall, but I was overcome, particularly by the Kotel but also by the other sites…and not only with the historical importance of being in those place as a Jew in post-1967 Israel, but also with the almost palpable sanctity I perceived in all three sites. The Kotel will always be in its own category—how could it not be?—but these other sites are deeply engrained in the national consciousness of the Jewish people as well. That Muslims or Christians find holiness in any of them too doesn’t surprise or annoy me. But to use that fact to denigrate the millennia of Jewish connection to them is not to speak rationally or fairly, but to use phony history in the service of bigotry to sow mistrust and enmity in places that almost by definition should be places of harmony, peace, and understanding.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Grey and Yellow

I think probably all my readers know some version of the famous story preserved in the Talmud that features a would-be convert approaching the great first-century teacher Shammai and provocatively asking if the latter would teach him the entire Torah while the former—the would-be convert—stands before him on one leg only. It was obviously meant to be an annoying, slightly insulting question and the clear implication—that one could learn all there is of worth in Judaism in a matter of minutes—was not at all lost on Shammai, who as this conversation was taking place just happened to be holding in his hand a two-by-four which he then used handily to drive this nudnick off so he could continue his day in peace.  But that isn’t the whole story, of course. The would-be proselyte then approaches Shammai’s saintly partner in dialogue and debate, Hillel, who accepts him as a convert to Judaism despite his idiotic request and teaches him that, indeed, the whole Torah can be simmered down to one single principle—something akin to what philosophers sometimes call the Golden Rule—and that the rest of it is mere commentary on that single principle.  It’s a good story. It’s actually a great story—although I’ve always found it disconcerting how much more easily I find it to identify with Shammai‘s role in it than with Hillel’s—but it has a much less well-known parallel in a different ancient book, the collection of ancient sermons known as Kohelet Rabbah.

In that book, the story is about Rav and Samuel, the Hillel and Shammai of third-century Jewish Iraq and two of the greatest of all Talmudic teachers. (Rav’s real name was Abba bar Aybo, but his pre-eminence in learning and scholarship earned him the respectfully generic title simply of Rav, Rabbi.) And it’s a great story, one more relevant for the topic I wish to write about today than the more famous one about Hillel and Shammai. In this tale, the would-be convert is a Persian man who approaches Rav and asks him to teach him the Torah. The latter agrees and starts with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Opening a book, he points to a letter and says, “This is an alef.” But the Persian responds rudely and asks, “Who says this is an alef? That’s just your opinion!” Rav moves on to the next letter, but the response is the same, “Who says this is a bet?” At that point, Rav has had enough and sends the man packing. And so the man now approaches Samuel. The set-up is the same. He asks to be taught Torah. Samuel too begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. And the obstreperous responses, no doubt intended to get his would-be teacher’s goat, are the same: “Who says that’s an alef? Who says that’s a bet?” Samuel, however, knows how to respond. Reaching out, he grabs the man’s ear and, twisting it in his hand, yanks it as hard as he can. The man, unprepared for that kind of response, cries out, “My ear! My ear!” Whereupon Samuel coolly looks over and asks, “Who says that’s your ear?” The man, falling nicely into Samuel’s trap, offers the obvious answer: “Everybody knows this is my ear!” To which Samuel responds, “Well, I guess that there are some things that really are common knowledge, things that everybody just knows. So are you ready to learn your letters yet or shall we continue the debate about whether an alef is an alef?”

I’ve always loved that story. And it’s the text that came to mind the other day when I read an article in the New York Times that was so egregiously hostile to Israel, so unremittingly willing to sink to a level of openly anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and almost anti-Semitic argumentation that, despite my growing disbelief over these last months and years in the Gray Lady’s evenhandedness or even pretense towards evenhandedness, I was shocked. I am referring to the article by Rick Gladstone published last week in which the reporter openly and respectfully interviewed people who seemed to think there was some historical debate swirling around the question of whether the Temple Mount in Jerusalem actually is the site of the ancient Temple.

There is no controversy in this regard among real historians and archeologists at all. The Dome of the Rock, built in the seventh century CE, was built in the spot in which it now stands precisely because the Muslims of the day were certain that it was the site first of Solomon’s Temple and then of Herod’s Temple, what we generally refer to as the Second Temple. The Kotel itself, the Western Wall—not actually part of the ancient Temple but part of a gigantic support wall built below the Temple to shore up the Temple Mount and prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the Temple, an enormous structure made almost entirely of stone—provides incontrovertible proof that the Temple stood where tradition has always maintained that it stood. As do dozens of other archeological finds—including not least impressively of all the actual sign, called the “Temple Warning Sign” currently in the Istanbul Archeological Museum in Turkey but originally discovered on the Temple Mount in 1871 by one Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, one of the premier archeologists of his day, that warns non-Jews from entering the Temple Mount beyond the surrounding balustrade intended to delineate the territory open to non-Jews from the inner precincts which only Jewish souls were permitted to penetrate. 

Added to the archeological evidence, which should be convincing enough to satisfy anyone, is the enormous body of literary evidence. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes the Temple Mount in detail, both as it was before and after the Romans’ successful effort to raze the Temple as punishment for the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 60s and 70s of the first century CE.  On top of that, a full tractate of the Mishnah, Tractate Middot, that has been part of our literary canon for almost two thousand years, describes the Temple Mount in detail, setting forth the various buildings and appurtenances that were part of the Temple complex with full reference not only to their height and width, but to their specific place on the Temple Mount.

Archeologists have made it clear that the Temple Mount is now significantly bigger than it was in antiquity and, as a result, the precise location of certain specific sites atop the mount is indeed a matter of scholarly debate. But none of that applies to the most important of them: the “rock” upon which the Dome of the Rock was built is the even sh’tiyyah that was once housed within the Holy of Holies. That it is taken by Muslims to denote something specific in Islamic history that is unrelated to its earlier history as part of the Temple is neither here nor there: the bottom line is that it exists now just as it existed in the time of the Umayyad Caliphate under which the Dome of the Rock was built and just as it existed in the days of the Second Temple and, for that matter, the First. An interesting letter from Professor Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, appeared in the Times just a few days ago. Identifying herself as one of the unnamed “experts” upon whom the Times’ reporter based his reportage, Professor Magness writes unambiguously, “I know of no credible scholars who question the existence of the two temples or who deny that they stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that!

Liel Liebovitz, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine, wrote a scathing review of the Times’ piece, the final paragraph of which I would like to cite in extenso to you:  “And so,” Liebovitz writes, “because the paper of record won’t put it clearly, permit me the pleasure: Denying that a Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount is not a form of historical argument. It is akin to denying that the earth is not flat. Or denying that global warming is real. Or that the evidence of human evolution is widely accepted by scholars. As far as history goes, it’s the equivalent of blowing up statues of the Buddha, or blowing up churches, or denying that the Holocaust ever happened. It’s a form of denialism, which seeks to obliterate evidence and basic standards of evidence in the service of some higher truth, which is rarely anything that the future is ever thankful for. It’s ugly. Paying lip-service to standards of historical proof while wildly mischaracterizing the views of scholars in the service of historical denialism turns the Times’ basic ignorance here into something much uglier.”

I couldn’t agree more, nor do I think I could have expressed myself more clearly. When a paper of the authority (self-arrogated, perhaps, but surely real) of the New York Times sinks this low in its journalistic standards, it’s hard  to imagine that this could possibly just be something that somehow “slipped past” the army of fact-checkers and researchers that exist specifically to guarantee that whatever the Times publishes is factually correct. What actually is afoot here, who can say? When Yasser Arafat declared that there hadn’t ever been any Jewish temples in Jerusalem, he wasn’t speaking as an archeologist or as a historian of ancient times, but as a demagogue interested in basing his denial of the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael on something that sounded vaguely like historical fact. But when the Times turns to this kind of yellow journalism to insult the Jewish people by questioning one of the most historically unimpeachable pillars of its self-conception as an ancient people tied not merely by faith but by deep historical roots to Jerusalem, the situation is entirely different…and far more upsetting. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

On the Death of Ali Salem

I found myself unexpectedly moved the other day to learn of the death of Ali Salem, the Egyptian author, playwright, and columnist. And because he is so little known here, I thought I’d write this week about him and his most remarkable road trip.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Egyptian literature, and particularly the masterworks of giants like Naguib Mahfouz. In fact, reading Mahfouz’s great trilogy, called the “Cairo Trilogy” and consisting of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, was one of the truly great experiences of my life as a reader. To know a country, and particularly one whose destiny seems so inextricably linked for better or for worse with Israel’s, not from newspaper articles or from the slogans loudmouths scream in the street, but from truly intelligent, thoughtful, deeply insightful writers capable of seeing the inner workings of a nation through the clever, slow, almost painful dissection of the characters in a novel—that is what it means for literature to have the capacity to serve as a vehicle for reconciliation and for understanding.  And I’ve also read another dozen or more of Mafouz’s novels, all of them (other than the ones set in ancient Egypt, which I couldn’t quite appreciate) windows into a adjacent culture almost totally unknown to those of us to whom the Near East is Israel only, with the occasional side-trip to Jordan to take in the ruins at Petra (but surely not to Amman or Aqaba to encounter any actual Jordanians).

I’ve read others too. Alaa Al-Aswany, a dentist by profession, is another author whose books have taught me about Egyptian culture to me in a remarkably arresting way. His best known book, The Yacoubian Building, is another one of those books that opened up for me a window into an entirely different culture. Clever, moving, and very candid, the book is one I can recommend to anyone eager to know what Egypt feels like to someone on the inside, to someone whose entire ethos is permeated with that nation’s culture. He is, alas, no friend of Israel—and he actually refused permission for The Yacoubian Building to be translated and published in Hebrew. Yet, the way we get to know our neighbors is not by pre-selecting the ones who already like us and getting to know them only; the path to peace lies in learning about people who are hostile to us…and then finding a way to let them to see the humanity in ourselves that we can easily see in them through the books they publish. I just bought Al-Aswany’s latest book, The Automobile Club of Egypt, and am expecting to enjoy it immensely. Perhaps I should send him one of my novels, then invite him to come see me in Jerusalem to talk books and see what happens. Probably nothing will! But who knows…stranger things have happened!

Ali Salem, however, was in his own category. Mahfouz, it is true, was banned in many Arab countries (at least until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988) because of his outspoken support for Anwar Sadat and the Camp David Accords of 1978. (He was later the victim of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by Islamic extremists in 1994.) But Ali Salem was brave in a different, more hands-on way. In the wake of the Oslo Accord of 1993, which Salem supported openly and loudly, he decided to do something even more daring for an Egyptian author even to consider, let alone actually to do: he got in his car and drove across the Sinai to Israel to see what was on the other side of the border.  The account of his trip, A Drive to Israel, sold a respectable 60,000 copies in the Arabic original and was eventually translated into English and several European languages, but it still got its author blacklisted in many Egyptian venues…and particularly those in which the notion that the political peace between Egypt and Israel might eventually become an opportunity for the citizens of both countries actually to encounter each other in the flesh and personally to experience each other’s humanity was anathema. Still, he stuck to his guns. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ben Gurion University of the Negev in 2005. He won the Train Foundation’s prestigious Civil Courage Prize in 2008. At least one playwright wrote a successful play about him and his trip to Israel. And then he died last week after a long illness. The English translation of his book by Robert Silverman is called A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors and is distributed in the U.S. by Syracuse University Press, partnering in the venture with the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and I recommend it highly to you.

I’ve always liked books about car trips. Up until just lately, my favorite John Steinbeck book was Travels with Charley. From sixteen on, my entire adolescence was filtered one way or another through On the Road. (I still occasionally go back to Kerouac to visit the adolescent me in the only practical way I still can.) I still think of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the most influential books—or at least one of the most influential books not by Abraham Joshua Heschel—I can recall reading during my years at JTS. (And I can remember exactly where I was when I read each part of it, although I read most of those parts many, many times before I finally had had enough.) And then there was, of course, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about which I’ve probably already said too much.

And so Ali Salem drove across the Sinai and entered Israel. It was theoretically possible, just untried and undone. The Israelis apparently couldn’t quite figure out why not to issue him a tourist visa now that Egypt and Israel were at peace and had established diplomatic relations. So they did…and over the border he went in one of those moves that feels like it can’t possibly have been that easy and yet which apparently was exactly that simple to manage: he drove up to the border, showed his passport, got his visa…and drove on into Israel. Eventually, he would visit six more times in later years.

The single thing that Salem found the most amazing about Israel was the civility of discourse between people holding wildly opposing political views, an idea that will surely surprise those of us to whom Israelis often seem anything but civil when debating politics. But, as a foreigner, Salem saw things that those of us more familiar with Israel would easily miss entirely. (That’s actually what makes this genre of travel literature—including classics like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad—so appealing.) In one vignette, for example, he takes note of a boy trying to hand out bumper stickers to drivers stopped at a traffic light in Netanya. 
Although he originally completely misunderstood the point of the slogan they featured—they were opposing any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but Salem took the Hebrew to mean exactly the opposite—what struck him was the way dissent was handled when a driver in front of him made it clear that he did not want such a sticker on his car’s bumper:
The most interesting point is that the young boy, in that brief moment after a driver told him he didn’t agree with the slogan, didn’t feel angry or frustrated. Instead he quickly moved on to another car. He didn’t scream: "You creep, why don’t you agree? You must be an agent of the Syrians and the Arabs.” 
Public debates here are not confined to the offices of political parties or newspaper columns. You see them transformed into banners held by groups of young men and women on street corners. Sometimes you find a demonstration of two persons carrying a banner announcing their joint political position. There is a well-known group that stands on a certain street corner in Jerusalem wearing black clothes and holding signs saying: "Leave the West Bank … Leave the Golan … Leave Gaza." You’ll find another group in the middle of Jerusalem raising signs saying: "The West Bank begins here," meaning that if we vacate the West Bank, we’ll wind up withdrawing even from Jerusalem. A single party and single ideology, especially when they are shining and idealistic, conceal sharp contradictions. These contradictions lead in the end to an explosion. They’re transformed into rockets, warplanes, tanks and casualties. People die and kill gratuitously, for no reason or for stupid ideas … ask Iraq, or Kuwait, or the people of Yemen. We must focus on this point in raising our children. It is a person’s right to hold differing views and ideas, as long as he doesn’t espouse violence or aggression. Let ideas do combat with each other, theory against theory, for the benefit of the nation.

The book is short, complete in 138 pages. It’s insanely expensive if you purchase it on-line—the cheapest copy I could find anywhere was more than $50—but it is available in many libraries and that’s how I recommend you read it. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see some interesting excerpts by clicking here.) You’ll like the book, but now that the author is gone from this world perhaps we can consider his legacy not specifically to be the book itself, but the courage, the daring…the personal willingness to undertake what he can’t not have understood would be a step that would infuriate many of towards the establishment of real peace between two nations that in the author’s lifetime had to date only known war. 

Could it be that easy? That is the question that I came back to in the wake of Ali Salem’s death and my recollection of his daring journey to Israel when almost all on both sides of the border would have considered such a journey to be impractical to the point of being impossible. He proved that not to be the case, and he did so definitively. But what lesson shall we who live on in a world so riven by enmity and international strife learn from him? That’s the question I write this week to pose….even without having a clear sense of what the answer could or should be. When I’m in Jerusalem and wouldn’t dream of walking down the road into the adjacent Arab village to buy a Coke or to sit down in a café and have a coffee…am I merely being prudent or am I allowing my own nervousness to deprive me of a chance to see who the people on the other side of the line actually are…and to allow them to see me not as a Zionist or as an American who owns an apartment in Jerusalem, but as a man among men, as a person, as a neighbor, as a potential friend? That’s the question!