Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Two-State Solution

For as long as I can remember, the phrase “two-state solution” has been the foundation upon which all who would avoid the opprobrium of unreasonableness with respect to Middle Eastern politics wished to stand. In my letter today, I would like to revisit that phrase by reconsidering the fundamental political assumptions upon which it rests.

The “two-state solution” is an old idea with roots in the original Partition Plan of 1947, the U.N.-sponsored proposal to resolve the tension between the divergent national aspirations of the Jewish and Arab citizens of Mandatory Palestine by creating two states on the land that the League of Nations had awarded the British in 1923 when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and its bits and pieces parceled out to the various victorious parties in the First World War. There was a long backstory leading up to that plan, one filled with long-forgotten personalities and undertakings of various kinds, but the bottom line was simply that the land of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into three parts: a Jewish state in which Jews would constitute about 55% of the population, a larger Arab state in which Arabs would constitute 99% of the population, and a kind of international entity consisting of Jerusalem and some surrounding towns (including Bethlehem) in which Jews and Arab would be more or less evenly represented. The detail that the original British Mandate had included the 35,000 square miles of what then was called Transjordan (and which today is the Kingdom of Jordan), but that this land was specifically excluded from the plans for partition by the now long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, proposed by the British and ratified by the League of Nations and made irrelevant in any case once the British allowed the Hashemite family, originally from Saudi Arabia, to establish a kingdom east of the Jordan with themselves as its royal family in 1946—that detail remains to this day profound in the eyes of some and fully negligible to others. (Perhaps I should say that more clearly. To those who consider it an important detail, there already are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the ground of the original British Mandate: Israel and Jordan.  To those who consider Jordan so long off the table as to be a mere red herring in the discussion, the other state in any two-state solution would have to be a third state called Palestine.)

In the end, none of this matters because nothing came of the plan. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine declared independence on May 14, 1948. That settled their future, at least politically, but created one of the most vexingly perplexing what-if’s of modern history: what the world would be like today if the Palestinian Arabs had kept faith with the Partition Plan and had declared their own independence in the spring of 1948. That would have resulted in the desired two states west of the Jordan River, precisely as the United Nations had proposed. But, of course, that is precisely what didn’t happen. In the course of the few days following the declaration of Israeli independence, thousands of Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian troops swarmed across the border to prevent the Jewish state from really coming into existence. And the rest is history—the War of Independence ended rather inconclusively in the first half of 1949 with a series of armistice agreements Israel signed with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, but without a clear resolution of the Palestinian Arab question.  In a sense, the much-spoken-of “two-state solution” today is an attempt to recapture that missed opportunity of May 1948, that moment in history when the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine could have simply had their state by declaring their independence and then getting on with the work of self-governance.

Thinking about that alternate version of history is an intoxicating exercise in political fantasy. In my personal version, the two states would by now have long since settled the claims of each other’s citizens with respect to abandoned or lost property of real estate in the “other” state. Consequently, the world would have long ago come to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way that no one today seriously asks whether Brazil or New Zealand should exist as nation-states even though their national cultures actually were imported from elsewhere by colonialist settlers who had no prior relationship of any sort to their new land or its native culture, let alone the intense cultural and historical one that has linked the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for millennia. Would the Six Day War have happened? Would any of the wars that Israel has had to fight with its hostile neighbors over the last sixty-odd years occurred? By now, Israel and Palestine would have been each other’s chief trading partners for more than half a century and a lively cross-cultural artistic milieu would have created a sense in the world that Isaac and Ishmael can and do co-exist in the world, if not as full brothers, then at least as the two sons of a common father and as friends.

Oh well. That didn’t happen. But could it still? That’s the real question to ask as we consider the worthiness of the two-state solution regarding the elusive nature of which so many in so many different quarters endlessly wring their hands. In other words, the only reason to push for a two-state solution would be if such a plan could yield results something along the lines of the fantasy outlined in the preceding paragraph.

There’s no question that Israel would benefit mightily from a free, independent, liberal democracy to its east, one with which Israel would share a clearly-defined set of common goals and regional aspirations and in which Jews who wished to live, say, in Hebron would be welcome to settle. I can’t see why anyone would argue against that thought…but addressing the corollary question of whether it is a mere pipedream or a reasonable goal towards which rational people might choose to work—that is the real question to consider.

The prospects are not encouraging. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led directly to the establishment of a terror-state in that place under the malign governance of Hamas. On the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has fostered a culture that rewards terrorism, valorizes the murderers of Israeli civilians, and promotes a particularly virulent version of vicious and violent anti-Semitism among the children who attend its schools. The chances that an independent Palestine sandwiched in between Israel and Jordan would be nothing at all like Gaza feel, to say the very least, slim. And for Israel to create the possibility for a second Gaza to emerge on the West Bank would be sheer folly.

And that brings me to a different question, one broader and more challenging. Are nations capable of change? Are people? We say all the time that change on the micro-level of the individual is possible, that people absolutely do have the ability to abandon negative behavior patterns, to jettison unwanted and unsavory attitudes, to self-alter in accordance with a specific image one wishes to attain and feels called up to try to attain. We say that and, for the most part, we mean it. But is change possible on the national level? An entire generation of Palestinian youth has been raised to loathe Israel and hate Jews. (That’s a strong statement, but one I believe to be fully justified. Click here for more.) Can national cultures be led forward to finer versions of themselves, versions that repudiate negative traits and stances that have been consciously and purposefully bred into the consciousness of a people over scores of years? That seems to be the relevant question to ask as the Obama administration ends and the Trump years dawn.

When I consider the changes in our own national culture that have taken place over the years since I was in high school, it feels astounding—and all the more so because these changes appear to have occurred naturally rather than as a response to outside stimuli attempting to force us to grow in a certain direction. Same-sex marriage was unimaginable when I was in high school, for one important example. But an African-American president would have seemed equally impossible to me back then, as would any of a dozen other things that now seem commonplace, or at least unremarkable, but which once would have seemed revolutionary to the point of being truly unimaginable. But how exactly to foster that change is a different question. Yet, for all it is difficult to answer easily or simply, it is the issue at the heart of the matter: a two-state solution in the Middle East will require the Palestinians to embrace a level of tolerance, liberality, and progressive broad-mindedness of which the Gaza example is the precise antithesis.

Still, being naïve and being hopeful are not the same thing…and so I choose the latter while attempting to avoid the former and will close by offering a bit of visual encouragement with respect to the future of the two-state solution.

At the end of the eighteenth century, just when our own nation was starting up, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans, his Court Superintendent of Buildings, to create a massive monument to peace in the form of a decorative gateway leading into Berlin. The result was named the Peace Gate, but later became known as the Brandenburg Gate because it was built on the site of an earlier gate that marked the beginning of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel. It was and is one of the most well-known architectural monuments of Germany, possibly even the best known.

Here it is shortly after its construction, when Napoleon celebrated his defeat of the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806, in an artistic rendering of that moment in history by the noted French painter of historical scenes, Charles Meynier:





So the Gate of Peace got off to a bit of a rocky start, but no one—and certainly neither Friedrich Wilhelm nor Napoleon—could have imagined the horrors of Nazism and the way the Gate of Peace would one day appear festooned with the ultimate symbol of human depravity and moral corruption:



But just as surely as neither Napoleon nor Friedrich Wilhelm could have imagined Hitler, so could surely Hitler and his Nazi savages have never imagined this photograph, taken just last week in the wake of the horrific murder of four young Israeli soldiers out for a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem:





To say that Germany, the nation that brought the world the ultimate in moral depravity, could respond to the murder of four young Jewish soldiers by turning the Brandenburg Gate into an immense Israeli flag…but that the Palestinians cannot turn their back on terrorism, on Islamicist fundamentalism, on anti-Semitism, and on a self-wrought culture of implacable hostility to Israel—to me that seems, to say the least, an unlikely proposition. It seems impossible to imagine Palestinian growth in that direction and on that level, I admit. But to say that the picture reproduced just above would have seemed “unlikely” to Jews in the Lodz ghetto—that seems ridiculous almost the point of obscenity.


If someone had asked my father when America was going to be ready for a black president, he would have said—regretfully but with certainty—never…and he only died in 1999, a mere nine years before he could have seen with his own eyes just how wrong he was. If someone had asked a “regular” German citizen in 1944 when Germany would be ready to turn its most famous architectural monument into a symbol of national grief over the deaths of four young Jews killed by extremists, he would surely have given the same answer. But he too would have been wrong.  Will they one day say that of those among us who feel that there simply is no solution to the Palestinian question, that the Palestinian Arabs will simply never be able to renounce the parts of their national culture that make peaceful co-existence with Israel an impossibility or, at best, a pipe dream? Perhaps it’s the advent of a new year or maybe it’s just the way impending grandparenthood is already instilling a sense of uncharacteristic hopefulness in me, but I want to hope that that is exactly what they will say of those who feel that there is no solution in the Middle East, that no amount of negotiation or national growth could lead to reconciliation and peace. I can’t say that with certainty—I’m a rabbi, not a prophet—but it is my (secular) New Year’s prayer for us all.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Abe at Pearl Harbor

I was very moved—and unexpectedly so—by the remarks that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered at Pearl Harbor last month on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day FDR said would “live in infamy,” the day that Japan bombed our naval base in Hawaii in a surprise attack that took the lives of 2,403 Americans and left another 1,178 seriously wounded.

Pearl Harbor was a watchword for perfidy in my parents’ home. My father would never have considered buying a Japanese car because, as he repeated to me a thousand times, to do so—in his mind, at least—would have been to betray the memory of the thousand-odd American servicemen whose remains rest, even today, inside the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona on the floor of the sea. And to do business with their murderers—my father was not one to mince his words—merely because we are technically speaking no longer at war with Japan was simply not something my Dad was prepared to do or would ever have considered doing.

My father once commented to me that 12-07-41 was the 11-22-63 of his generation, the day that everybody always recalled, that no one forgot, that even decades later could prompt any American adult alive at the time to say exactly where he or she was when news of the attack came over the radio. I can see that and, indeed, it’s hard to think of a period of just a few days that changed the history of the world as conclusively as the ones following the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, Japan declared war on the United States and the U.K., and also invaded British Malaya and Thailand. The next day, the United States and the U.K. declared war on Japan. The day after that, China declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, which was followed later that same day by the United States declaring war on Germany and Italy.  Within four or five days, the fate of the world was materially altered from what might have been to what eventually was. But although there is surely some truth to the theory that Germany might well have won the war in Europe if our nation hadn’t ever joined the fray—and thus that, at least in some convoluted way, the Jews in Europe who survived wouldn’t have escaped the Nazis had the Japanese not forcefully and violently brought the U.S. into the war—that was not how Pearl Harbor was remembered in my parents’ home. It was, in both my parents’ estimation, an act first and foremost of unprovoked barbarian butchery, a day of infamy and perfidy that should live on forever as an example to future generations of why the American military simply cannot be too strong…or too prepared. To find a silver lining in the horror by drawing some sort of direct line between Pearl Harbor and V-E Day would have struck my father as beyond grotesque.

So that was the background I brought to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, which was, of course, intended to complement—and also to compliment—President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last May. (To review my thoughts about that visit, click here.)  Technically speaking, each man was walking in at least some of his predecessors’ footprints. President Obama was preceded at Hiroshima by Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office, but no sitting president had ever gone. Prime Minister Abe was following in the footsteps of the three of his predecessors (including his own grandfather) who had previously visited the memorial at Pearl Harbor, but those three visits all took place in the 1950s, and none was made in the company of an American president. Both men’s visits were, therefore, not something unprecedented but nevertheless something new.

No one apologized for anything. President Obama spoke eloquently and movingly at Hiroshima, but his speech was crafted specifically to make it impossible for anyone to construe his remarks as an admission of guilt. Indeed, a neutral listener who didn’t know who actually dropped those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have found out by listening, even carefully, to the President’s comments. (You can decide for yourself by clicking here.) Nor did Prime Minister Abe apologize, not even obliquely.

And so was the stage set by the President and the Prime Minister for a new way to think both about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor—as each other’s moral equivalents, as bookend events not because one initiated the war between Japan and the United States and the other ended it, but because, presumably, both were ghastly acts that seemed justified at the time but now, after all these years, we can see for the acts of barbarism they truly were. 

Does that sound right to you? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they wanted to guarantee that the United States would not interfere in the establishment of an empire that already included most of China and all of Korea, but which they clearly intended eventually to include all of southeastern Asia, presumably including Australia and New Zealand, regardless of whether the lands on the “to be conquered” list were independent nations or overseas territories of the U.S. or any of its allies.  Indeed, on the same day that those 353 Japanese fighter planes and bombers attacked Hawaii, the Japanese also launched air attacks against the American-held territories of Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and against the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. So there really wasn’t any ambiguity about the point of the attack. At least, Prime Minister Abe didn’t fall back on the traditional argument that the attack was justified by the oil embargo placed on Japan by the U.S., the U.K., and Holland in the wake of the “protective” Japanese occupation of French Indochina and by FDR’s decision to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States, particularly given the fact that the attack occurred while negotiations between the U.S. and Japan were ongoing. On the other hand, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended not to initiate a war, but to end one.  And, for better or worse, it worked: Japan offered to surrender conditionally the day following Nagasaki, and then finally surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945, a mere six days after the bombs fell on August 6 and 9.

All that being the case, I was completely primed to be offended by Prime Minister Abe’s remarks…and, even more so, by the expectation that they would somehow end up equating Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima as gigantic errors perpetrated by similarly benighted parties unable to understand the depths of their own moral depravity. But that wasn’t how I responded, and no one was more surprised by that than I!

Abe spoke from the heart, and these were his opening remarks:

Even 75 years later, the USS Arizona, now at rest atop the seabed, is the final resting place for a tremendous number of sailors and marines. Listening again as I focus my senses, alongside the song of the breeze and the rumble of the rolling waves, I can almost discern the voices of those crewmen. Voices of lively conversations, upbeat and at ease, on that day, on a Sunday morning. Voices of young servicemen talking to each other about their futures and dreams. Voices calling out the names of loved ones in their very final moments. Voices praying for the happiness of children still unborn.  Each and every one of those servicemen had a mother and a father anxious about his safety. Many had wives and girlfriends they loved. And many must have had children they would have loved to watch grow up. All of that was brought to an end. When I contemplate that solemn reality, I am rendered entirely speechless. “Rest in peace, precious souls of the fallen.” With that overwhelming sentiment, I cast flowers on behalf of Japanese people, upon the waters where those sailors and marines sleep.

By framing his remarks as a kind of eulogy for the dead, he struck a note that I found deeply resonant. Like President Obama, Shinzo Abe was born years after the war. He hardly had to note that he had personally played no role in the deaths of the thousands of Americans who died at Pearl Harbor, but that he chose to begin his remarks by focusing solely on the dead themselves—and that he signaled his personal understanding of the depth of tragedy that their loss entailed not solely for their nation but for their own families, for their own people—that seemed to me precisely the right note to strike.


And then he went on to talk neither about blame nor guilt, but about reconciliation as a sacred undertaking, as the almost holy framework—he didn’t use religious language in his remarks but that’s somehow how I heard them—in which enemies can turn from enmity to live in peace. He observed, entirely correctly, that his nation and ours cannot be compared in terms of the challenge this prospect of reconciliation posed in 1945. Japan lay in ruins, its economy in tatters and its right to a place among its former enemies in the forum of nations uncertain even to its own citizenry. It did not take much, therefore, for the Japanese to yearn for reconciliation. But it did for our nation. We were the victors, they the vanquished. We dictated the terms of surrender and we had it in our power to make Japan a vassal state, to deny it a place in the world community of post-war nations, to find in the national humiliation of the Japanese a way to see a brighter future for our nation and for the world.  But we did not take any of those paths forward.

Abe said this as well:

The Japanese people managed to survive and make their way toward the future thanks to the sweaters and milk sent by the American people. And it was the United States that opened up the path for Japan to return to the international community once more after the war. Under the leadership of the United States, Japan, as a member of the free world, was able to enjoy peace and prosperity. The goodwill and assistance you extended to us Japanese, the enemy you had fought so fiercely, together with the tremendous spirit of tolerance were etched deeply into the hearts and minds of our grandfathers and mothers. We also remember them. Our children and grandchildren will also continue to pass these memories down and never forget what you did for us.

I found those words moving and satisfying, partially just because they are so true…but also because they reminded me just how remarkable—and how remarkably noble—our nation has the capacity to be, using the fantastic might of our military not to dominate but to make peace, not to bend other nations to our will but to create a world in which even the most dastardly of former enemies can move forward to a better future. And that was the Prime Minister’s wish as well. “It is my wish,” he concluded by saying, “that our Japanese children, and President Obama, your American children, and indeed their children and grandchildren, and people all around the world, will continue to remember Pearl Harbor as the symbol of reconciliation.”


One of the things I admired the most about my father was the fact that he continued to grow morally and intellectually throughout all the years of his life. Very late in life, he became a vegetarian. His political views also morphed forward throughout the years, partially because of his supple intellect but also because he considered ongoing ethical growth a badge of honor not a sign of mental instability. I mentioned above that he never bought a Japanese car, but I’m not sure he ever bought a Japanese radio either. He felt that Pearl Harbor was a symbol of barbarism and inhumanity, and of militaristic depravity. But I think he would have responded warmly to Shinzo Abe’s remarks and found some sort of closure in them. To no one’s surprise more than my own, I felt the same way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

As a New Year Dawns

I suppose rabbis are supposed to nod at the arrival of a new secular year without endorsing the concept overly.  And partially I do feel that way. Rosh Hashanah is in the fall. Some years, like this one, the Jewish year actually begins after the autumnal equinox. For us—and for me too—the whole concept of a new year’s holiday is evocative of Indian summer, of leaves not yet quite ready to begin changing colors, of still walking to shul without a coat. And yet…the secular New Year does mean something to me. I may have been born in 5713—I actually was born in 5713—but that is not the year that springs to mind when someone asks me for the year of my birth. Nor do I think of 5726 as the year of my bar-mitzvah or 5740 as the year of my marriage. Those numbers are correct. But, for all I feel myself steeped in Jewish culture in most ways, I still find it far more amazing to think that we’re about to cross the line to 2017 than it seemed remarkable to me last September to think that the world had made it to 5777 without blowing itself up or ruining its climate irreversibly (if it has, that is).And so, as we prepare to cross the line yet again, this time into 2017, I’d like to offer my readers a reverie on the passage of time…but in a specific key.

In 1995, Moonstone Press (then located in Goderich, Ontario) published my first book of essays, Travels on the Private Zodiac.  The idea of the lead essay was that the ancients were right and wrong in their astrological thinking. Wrong, because the specific lay-out of the planets and stars in the sky at the moment any of us is born does not really have any effect on the courses our lives subsequently take. But, albeit in an intimate, person-specific way that they themselves would have found unfamiliar, they were also right.

In my understanding of the private zodiac, we are influenced throughout our lives by the people into contact with whom we come. Some of these people are in close-by orbit—our parents and our siblings, then eventually (at least ideally) our spouses and children. In slightly more distant orbit is a different cast of characters—not the true intimates, but those others whose presence in our lives affects who we become and what we do a bit less irresistibly as do the people in the first group. These are our grandparents and our elementary school teachers, our neighbors and our parents’ best friends, our clergypeople and our camp counselors, our housekeepers and our coaches. And then there is a third group as well, this one populated by people who affect our courses through life not as meaningfully as our teachers or our neighbors, but whose influence is still discernible and real. These are our elected officials and our high school principals, the professors who lecture to us in college and the authors whose books we find the most moving and influential, the performers whom we only know through their artistry and yet whose work feels as though it affects us profoundly and, at least in some cases, mightily as we decide how to live our lives. Taken all together, these nearer planets and distant stars constitute our private zodiacs.

And then there are the comets.

At the end of August in 1998, I flew from New York to Vancouver via Montreal. I had come to New york to see  my ailing father and expected to find things truly grim, but the situation had improved in the day or two before I arrived and my visit ended up being far more  upbeat than I had thought it would or could be. By the time I flew home, I was in a relatively good mood. It was late in the evening. The flight from Montreal to Vancouver was only half-full. I had an aisle seat, so there was the window seat to my left and the aisle itself to my right. For a while, I thought I would have both seats to myself, but then, just before they closed the doors, a young man appeared and sat down next to me.

He looked hale and physically well enough, but also beaten down and sad. In my usual way, I smiled affably at him and then began to read. The stewardess demonstrated, presumably for travelers who had never been in a car, how to fasten a seatbelt. There was that helpful video outlining all the safety features of our aircraft (but which to me personally just serves as a kind of a catalogue of all the terrible things that can happen on airplane flights).  Eventually, we were in the air. The fasten-your-seatbelt sign blinked off. Beverages were served. I tried to read for a while, then gave in and, turning slightly to my left (and already sensing I was making a huge mistake), I said, “Heading to Vancouver?”

And so it began. He wasn’t going to Vancouver at all, it turned out, just going to change planes there for a JAL flight to Tokyo. He was, he said, planning to spend a year teaching English in Osaka, which experience he was hoping would help him get over the events of the previous few months. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. And talk about it he did. The story began with a young woman who had unexpectedly become pregnant. My seatmate, the future father, proposed marriage. She gratefully accepted. A date was set. And then, unexpectedly, she lost the baby. He stayed with her, not only accompanying her to the hospital but spending the night sleeping in a chair in her room and only returning home to wash up and put on clean clothes the next morning.  A day or two later, she was discharged from the hospital. And the day after that she broke off their engagement, making it clear that she had only agreed to marry him because she felt trapped by circumstance…but now that her “circumstance” had changed—apparently, in her estimation, for the better—she saw no reason to carry on with their engagement. Or, for that matter, with their relationship. The next week, the young man, a graduate of McGill with a degree in education, signed on for a year in Osaka.

This had all happened the previous March, two-thirds of the way through his first year of high school teaching. The young woman began dating someone new almost immediately. My row-mate carried on with his life as best he could, but slipped into a bad state nevertheless. He was, he said, drinking almost daily and smoking way too much pot. He had actually gone to school—he taught English in some suburban high school near Montreal, he said—he had gone to school stoned a few times, but hadn’t been caught. He stopped going to the gym, stopped sleeping well at night, began to put on weight. He stopped doing the laundry, just stopping off at the local K-Mart to buy more underwear and socks when he ran out. He was, he admitted, a mess.

I listened, prompting him every so often to continue by asking a pertinent question. It took him hours to tell the whole story. (Trust me, I’ve left out a lot of the details.) I wasn’t bored. I had no place to go. I listened and then, when he was finally done, I told him what I thought. I made some suggestions, pointed out that changes of scenery generally only solve problems related to scenery. I suggested “real” counseling (as opposed to the kind you get on airplanes from strangers), but I also tried to encourage him. He was, after all, only twenty-six years old and his entire adult life was still in front of him. I tried to be kind and encouraging. 
By the time we landed in Vancouver, he was my best friend.

I never saw him again. We didn’t exchange e-mail addresses. I didn’t give him my telephone number or encourage him to stop by for a visit the next time he flew home through Vancouver. When the stewardess said we could unbuckle our seatbelts and retrieve our baggage from the overhead bins, he shook my hand and thanked me for listening. I wished him well, offered him a final few words of avuncular advice. And then I turned and got my bag and that was that.

On the private zodiac, we were comets streaking past each other, each burning semi-brightly for a moment before vanishing forever into the darkness.  We didn’t need more. I thought I had behaved kindly. He seemed stronger and better for having unburdened himself. It was what it was, no more but also no less. I don’t need to know what happened. I hope he had a good year in Osaka, then went home, forgot how bad things had once been, found someone to love, settled down, built a life. I can’t remember his name. (Other than Halley’s, how many comets actually have names?) But he remains, even after all these years, part of my story. Just a tiny part, to be sure. If I were a book, he would be a footnote. Or part of a footnote. .But he is a presence, or a kind of a presence, in my life nonetheless. 

I wish the forty-five-year-old version of himself well as 2017 dawns, whoever he was and wherever he ended up. I always end up feeling a bit global, even cosmic, as new years begin. I think about the planets and the stars that I can see in the sky, those still there and those whose light is still there even though they themselves are long gone. I'm thinking about the distant stars too, the ones that are just pinpoints of light in the nighttime sky. And I'm thinking about the comets as well...and finding myself able to wish them all well even without knowing what trajectories they took after brushing up against me for a moment before continuing on into the night.



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Chanukah 5777

In a very clever analysis of the electoral college vote in the Times the other day (click here), Nate Cohn made passing reference to an obscure, long-since forgotten bit of American history called the Toledo War, an almost bloodless conflict in 1835 between, of all unlikely combatants, Ohio and Michigan over a strip of land that included (obviously) the city of Toledo. There were no deaths. Ohio won. Sort of. Not even really. It was more of a draw. Unless you’ve actually lived in Toledo, you’ve probably never even heard it mentioned. (Having said that, Cohn’s use of it is very clever.) But it got me to thinking about other wars, American and otherwise, that no one seems ever to remember even taking place. King Philip’s War. The Sheepeater War. The Jaybird-Woodpecker War. The Quasi-War. The War of Jenkin’s Ear. The Sonderbund War. The Anglo-Zanzibar War, known at least to historians as the world’s shortest war. The Syro-Palestinian War.

Come again? Syria and Palestine went to war? Well, not exactly. But forgotten though they may be, and more or less by all, the five Syro-Palestinian Wars still constitute the background to the events of the so-called Chanukah story to the extent that not knowing about these wars almost definitely means understanding the story of the Maccabean Revolt at least slightly incorrectly.  So, as Chanukah approaches and our thoughts turn towards the first third of the second century BCE (or am I projecting?), I thought I’d write about those specific wars and then point to their latter-day echo in the world today.  It was, to say the least, a long time ago.

When Alexander III of Macedon, known forever more as Alexander the Great, died at the ridiculous age of 32 in 323 BCE, he had managed to conquer more or less all of the civilized world that was known to him to exist, something no historical personality before or since has ever managed. And he was motivated, other than by the wish to be king of everything, by the specific philosophy of life today called Hellenism. In somewhat of the same way the British (and the French and the Belgians, etc.) felt they were doing something positive and reasonable by unilaterally establishing their empire by force and then forcing European values and practices on the lands over which they ruled, Alexander felt that Greek civilization—then at its highpoint in terms of the richness of its cultural output—was not merely the culture of a specific country (and, for that matter, not even his country), but rather the greatest expression of human creativity and industry the world had ever seen. And so he set himself to bringing that culture to the world…by conquering the empires and nations that got in his way or wished to resist his onslaught. His boyhood tutor, Aristotle, would have been proud!

And then he died, leaving behind no obvious heir. (He did eventually have a son, but the lad was born after Alexander died and both the boy and his uncle, Alexander’s half-brother—who was the only other possible heir to the throne—were murdered in the years following Alexander’s death.) And so the stage was set for violence. Whether it is true or not that Alexander, lying on his deathbed, answered merely “the strongest” when asked who should succeed him, the contest to see who exactly that was going to be began as Alexander breathed his last. The generals, called by historians the Diadochi (from the Greek word for “heir”), basically went to war with each other, each determined to assassinate the maximum number of Alexander’s other generals and thus, if possible, to become the emperor of is vast domain. The wars went on for years. When the dust settled—and we’re talking about a lot of dust—four of Alexander’s generals had acquired almost all of his kingdom as their personal fiefdoms: Ptolemy became king of Egypt, Seleucus became king of Syria (which included more or less all of what we would call the Middle East), Antigonus became king of Macedonia, and Lysimachus became king of Asia Minor, where Turkey is today.

The story of these wars is incredibly complicated. I remember trying to master all the details when I was preparing for my oral examination in ancient history back in graduate school and finding the sheer number of battles and personalities almost impossible to keep straight. Some details stay with me still. Others, I’m sure I’ve forgotten. But one particular figure, almost universally forgotten today, is a pivotal personality in the story I want to tell.

Seleucus, the first ruler in the dynasty that eventually led to King Antiochus IV ruling over the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, was an interesting personality: devoted fully to the Hellenism that had so potently motivated Alexander in his quest to rule the world, but famous for the tolerance and liberality he displayed with respect to the various cults and religions of the peoples over whom he ruled. And it wasn’t just a matter of tolerance either: Seleucus himself appears to have embarked on a policy of integrating himself and his people into the citizenry of the lands he ruled. He himself married a Bactrian princess (Bactria was roughly where Afghanistan is today) in 324 BCE and he encouraged his officers and officials to marry locals as well.  And he adopted and adapted local customs as well, making them part of Seleucid culture.

How the Jews fared under Seleucus is not known exactly, but we can assume that he pursued the same liberal policy in their regard that characterized the way he governed the rest of his empire. He himself was assassinated in 281 BCE, but he was replaced by his son, Antiochus, known to history as Antiochus I, who adopted and followed most of his father’s policies, even going so far as personally to sponsor the reconstruction of the famous Esagila Temple in Borsippa, about twelve miles south of Babylon.

Things went less well with the neighbors to the southwest. At first, Seleucus and Ptolemy, the newly crowned “pharaoh” of Egypt, got along. But that didn’t last and, by the time of Antiochus I, the neighboring kingdoms had undertaken a long series of border wars known to historians today as the Syrian-Palestinian Wars. It was basically a football game that lasted for well over a century…and Israel was the football.  And so began a period of great turmoil in which the Jews of Israel ended up living in a different empire every few years. Indeed, control over Israel changed hands five times in the course of the third century BCE, the decisive event finally being the Battle of Panium (fought at the foot of Mount Hermon, north of the Golan Heights), which marked the permanent end of Ptolemaic Egyptian rule and the formal inclusion, yet again, of Israel into the Seleucid Empire.  And there was a sixth war between the Seleucids and Egypt as well in 170 BCE when Ptolemy VI declared war on Antiochus IV, the villain of the Chanukah story.

Given the degree to which ancient history in general is either undertaught or ignored entirely in American high schools, it’s hardly surprising that these personalities and even the names of their empires are basically unknown to most today.  But just from my brief summary, it should be clear just how wrong it would be to tell the story of Chanukah in a vacuum, as though the only newsworthy events of the day had to do with the Temple in Jerusalem.

Antiochus IV, the bad king in the Chanukah story, was a megalomaniac and probably a bit unbalanced. On the one hand, he acclaimed himself as a god, shamelessly referencing himself as a divine being on the coins he had struck in his own honor. But he was also in the habit of showing up unannounced and unprotected in public bath houses to prove just how much of a common man he truly was. He also occasionally put his own name in when municipal offices were vacant and seeking applicants, something like the president of the United States applying for an open position in the Washington D.C. city hall.

I mentioned that there was a sixth war with Egypt, but not that it didn’t go well at all. And that really is to say the least: it ended up with the king’s public humiliation when he was met on his way to conquer Egypt (again!) by a single Roman statesman, one Gaius Popillius Laenas, who ordered him in the name of the Roman Senate to turn around and go home…or consider himself also to be at war with the Roman Republic. Antiochus, shaken, said he’d think about it. Laenas, unimpressed, unsheathed his sword, used it to draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and told him to make his decision before leaving the circle, whereupon Antiochus agreed to withdraw. That was in 168, a scant four years before Chanukah. And so, desperate for support at home in the wake of that kind of public mortification, Antiochus decided to curry favor with the peoples over whom he ruled, starting in Israel with those most likely to be supportive of him and his policies, those eager to embrace Hellenism and to transform the ancient religion of the Jews into something modern, something consonant with Greek values, something that would encourage Jews to feel part of the larger world and not apart from it.

And now starts the part of the story we all know. The Jews whom Antiochus chose to support had their followers. But the “regular” Jews weren’t with them. And when the Maccabees left Modin and embarked on a rebellion against the Seleucids that could conceivably lead to Jewish autonomy within the empire, they themselves were probably more successful than they anticipated being. And the rest, as we all know, is history.

So everything changes and nothing changes. Here we are, thousands of years later. The players back then other than Judah the Maccabee himself are all long forgotten, as are the names of most of their gods and their national states.  And yet…the world is still a huge football match and the Middle East is still the football. This is surely true of Israel. But it’s even more true of Syria. Indeed, when we look at the misery of Syria, what do we see if not millions of “regular” people on the ground paying with their lives (or, at least, with their sense of security and wellbeing) for the right to be the ball in someone else’s game? The key players in Syria, after all, are hardly the Syrians—whose leaders, including President Assad, are only stand-ins for the real players on the field: Iran, Russia, Turkey, and ISIS.  But no matter how many times the pendulum swings back and forth between potential victors and losers… it’s only the people on the ground who pay the price.



I wish you and all your families all a very happy, satisfying Chanukah.  We’ll be splitting our times between our family here and our family in Toronto, but we too are looking forward to lots of crispy latkes and lots of fun. I wish that for you all too!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gazing at the Moon in the Age of Trump

We instituted a new practice at Shelter Rock the other Saturday night, one I’ve toyed with introducing for a long time without actually taking any too decisive steps towards actually implementing. And then, suddenly, the ducks were all lined up—the right time of the month, the right time of evening, the right number of people, and the right shul president urging me forward—and so forward we went…in a new direction for, I think, all involved including myself. The ritual, called Kiddush Levanah (literally, “The Sanctification of the Moon”), can only be recited when the moon is visible in the nighttime sky and when it is still waxing (i.e., in the first half of any lunar month). There are other rules that pertain too, but the basic principle is that the congregation steps outside, takes note of the moon, then recites an ancient blessing preserved in the Talmud. The assembled then bless each other with peace, recite a few verses heralding the future redemption of the world and a famous psalm…and then, if ten are present, they finish with Kaddish. That’s it!

It is possibly the least popular of all communal Jewish rituals. I grew up without even hearing of it, let alone participating in it. I don’t believe it’s part of the prayer life of many congregations, and certainly not many non-Orthodox ones. There was every reason to find this whole idea burdensome—it meant Shabbat was over and we still weren’t going home, plus it was dinnertime and many of us had post-Shabbat plans for the evening to embark upon. So it was an unlikely venture at best…but there turned out to be something remarkable about the experience, something that more than made up for the time spent and the effort undertaken, something intensely alluring about the juxtaposition of the disparate elements involved: the cold evening air, the luminescent crescent moon clearly visible through the bare branches of the trees just outside the chapel door, the mysterious blessing with its clear/unclear references to the interpenetration of time and space in the context of history and destiny, the unmistakable messianism underlying the biblical verses pressed into liturgical service, and the strange feelings engendered by the psalmist’s ancient promise that “the sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.” I really was unsure how the whole thing was going to feel. But, in the end, it felt magical. I’d like to do it again and we will. But why the whole experience was so arresting is not the easiest question to answer.

Perhaps it had to do with the historical moment. For me personally, things have been feeling just a bit unmoored in the last little while. The sudden coming-into-prominence of the so-called alt-right has left me feeling, not quite afraid, but nonetheless ill at ease and anxious. The aftermath of the presidential election, which left our country basically riven into two giant camps that can barely see each other, let alone respect each other in the way that could possible lead to learning to live and work peaceably and productively together, has left me feeling apprehensive and fretful about our nation’s path into the future. And then, of course, there is the future itself—an unnerving exercise in iffiness in its own right—with its unresolved issues related to climate change, health care, globalization, race relations, reproductive rights, public education, trade and foreign affairs, LGBT issues, and dozens of other issues facing our nation that just a year ago felt more or less resolved and the rancor they once engendered behind us—the future itself is filled with uncertainty that only makes me feel even more nervous and more apprehensive. Regardless of where any of readers might find themselves on the political spectrum, surely we can all agree that we are about to enter almost wholly uncharted waters. And that the man who will be at the helm, whether history ultimately judges his election a stroke of national genius or an act of national insanity, has never held public office before and is facing a gigantic learning curve if he is to govern wisely and well…or effectively at all.

And then, in the midst of all that existential and political angst…there we were, letting it all fall away as we stood there looking up at the moon, thinking (or at least I was) that the same moon, looking exactly as it did the other night, has been hanging in the night sky since before recorded history even began, since before the first pharaohs ruled Egypt, since before any nation that now exists was born, since before God called Abraham forth from his father’s house and told him that kings would come forth from his loins.



The gorgeous painting by Polish artist Wacław Koniuszko (1843-1900) reproduced just above captures some of the otherworldly feeling I’m trying to describe.  The moon waxes and wanes, month after month. The liturgy pronounces it beyond our reach, something we can admire from afar without ever actually being able ever to attain, something just beyond our grasp but somehow not beyond our gaze. Participants in Kiddush Levanah actually say those words aloud too, addressing the moon as an object of intense but unattainable longing, but also as a heavenly friend and guide. The whole thing is both mysterious and romantic, just as the moon itself is somehow far off and close by at the same time. It strikes me that it is precisely in that paradox—the conjunction of opposites—that lies the key to the ritual.

The ancients looked to the heavens and found in the fixed permanence they saw on high a kind of symbol of God’s enduring presence on earth. But instead of making them feel insignificant and meaningless in comparison to the unchanging cosmos, it ennobled them and made them feel part of something vast and unchartable, something they could barely fathom. The nighttime sky filled them with wonder and made them awestruck at the thought that they too were part of a universe that appeared to exist as the conjunction of opposites: dynamic yet static, changing yet permanent, unfathomable yet familiar, material yet immaterial, temporal yet eternal, understandable yet incomprehensible, anchored in time yet somehow outside the endless parade of moments that characterizes life as we all know it and live it.  That sense of awe is something we moderns have jettisoned entirely too casually, I think, because in the ability truly to be awestruck by the inconceivable vastness of creation— and to do so while remaining fully anchored in reality, fully in the world and not merely part of it—lies the ability to transcend the moment, to ignore the bullies, to turn away from the cruelties and petty injustices of daily life, and to step into an existential framework possessed in equal parts of nobility, majesty, destiny, and eternity.  It was that specific idea that Kiddush Levanah awakened in me.

They say that the Romans forbade the Jews from fixing the new month in the traditional way in the times of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. The latter, not one to abandon his ways merely because some surly foreigner ordered him to, merely undertook to act discreetly rather than overtly and sent the rabbinic court to a tiny village called Ein Tov to declare the new month in an out-of-the-way place the Romans rarely, if ever, visited. But even clandestine messages ran the risk of being intercepted, so Rabbi Judah sent one of his pupils, the man later known to talmudists as Rabbi Ḥiyya, to follow along and then to send back the mysterious words, “David, king of Israel, yet lives” as a private signal that the new month had been duly declared.

Those words—david melekh yisrael ḥai v’kayyam—are known to us all, but their original context has long since been forgotten. But that the permanence of the moon in all its silvery splendor in the nighttime sky was deemed evocative of the permanent link between the line of King David and the House of Israel is not something any of us should step past too quickly.  And, indeed, those words suggest the basic theme of Kiddush Levanah by suggesting—subtly, but also clearly—that Jewishness is a road that leads through history to destiny…and that road is as little affected by the incidents that take place along its route as the moon itself is by the various theories people have evolved and continue to evolve to explain its place in the heaven and its role in the drama of the cosmos.



And what’s true for the House of Israel is also true for our nation. One way or the other, the republic will move through the next months and years and manage to navigate whatever straits through which we find ourselves obliged to pass. We will remain who we are even as we evolve into what our subsequent national iteration will be…and find the strength to persevere precisely by holding fast to our national values as we morph forward into the future. As our contribution to that future, we at Shelter Rock will continue to say Kiddush Levanah. And, as we take monthly note of the way the moon both wanes and waxes—always on its way somewhere but never quite getting there—and of its luminescent intensity in the nighttime sky, we will pray for a bright future. When viewed in this light—or rather, in its own silvery light—the moon stands both for tradition and for change, for permanence and dynamism, for evolution and for durability. That it is possible to embrace both and to be the stronger for having done so is the underlying message of Kiddush Levanah to the House of Israel. And it could and should be the message our community offers our nation as we move forward into whatever the future brings. The moon shines on, month after month after month, no matter what…and so do the virtues and profound principles upon which our republic rests. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Electoral Politics

It is amazing to me just how little everybody seems to know about the Electoral College. And included in that thought are a wide variety of derivative issues regarding which the public appears to be equally clueless: why the founders invented the College in the first place, what role it was expected to play, whether that role has evolved into something essentially positive or negative in terms of the democratic nature of our American republic, and  whether the electors are supposed to be marionettes who cannot and may not act other than in accordance with the instructions received on Election Day from the citizens they represent or if the whole concept of elector-as-unfree-automaton obviates the whole point of the Electoral College existing in the first place.

Those are a lot of questions! To prove me wrong, feel entirely free to answer them without looking anything up first. I thought so! And yet…I can’t remember ever reading more about the Electoral College, much of it expressing diametrically opposing opinions, than in the course of the last few weeks since the presidential election. Just the other day, for example, an elector from Texas, one Christopher Suprun, took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to announce his intention specifically not to cast his vote for Donald Trump despite the fact that the latter won in Texas by well over 800,000 votes. The response—at least by readers who took the time to post their responses on the Times’ website—was remarkable: over 6300 people posted responses on the day the article appeared and on the following day. And they were remarkable too in terms of the degree to which they showed just how unsure the populace seems to be about the role of the College and the electors who constitute its ranks. One reader addressed the author directly and wrote, “You are a faithless elector and a traitor to the republic.” Another, also speaking directly to the author, wrote, “Thank you for serving your country faithfully and bravely.” Both comments had, not hundreds, but thousands of comments supporting their positions. But which was essentially correct? And is the answer to that question different if we are discussing the best path forward for our nation or if we are discussing the essential nature of the Electoral College itself and the appropriate limits of its power?  Those are the questions I’d like to write about this week.

The first detail most American seem not to realize is that the whole concept of an electoral college is not a home-grown notion, but something with roots deep in extra-American history. Originally a kind of check against the inherent capriciousness of a hereditary monarchy (i.e., one in which the head of state comes to power merely by inheriting the office from the person who occupied it previously), the notion was essentially a way to guarantee that completely inept heirs-apparent could be kept from power. There were even examples in which the electors were free to choose anyone at all to reign without respect to that individual’s relationship to the former regent. But the principle behind the concept of an electoral college in both versions was the same: to guarantee that the national leader would be someone of merit and worth and not merely someone born into the right family at the right moment in history.

In our American context, the Electoral College was instituted for two basic reasons, one of which was to speak to that specific issue of worthiness to govern. Here, of course, the founders’ fear was not that the presidency would somehow become a heritable office that would pass from parent to child and that the presidency therefore needed to be protected in advance from an incompetent heir—even Alexander Hamilton, who argued before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the presidency should be a kind of elective monarchy in which the monarch would rule for life unless impeached, did not favor a hereditary system in which the office would remain within a specific family—but rather an analogous fear related to the gullibility of the public. 

The great flaw in the democratic system, as any student of history knows, is that it presumes the people capable of making thoughtful, mature decisions with respect to the choice of a national leader.  For the most part, this is a rational assumption that accords reasonably well with reality. But history is filled with examples of nations perversely, yet fully democratically, electing leaders whose policies were clearly inimical to the nation’s best interests. The Nazis, for example, won the German federal election of November 1932 with a comfortable plurality—winning more than 37% of the vote, to the Socialists’ less than 22% and the Communists’ less than 15%—which victory led directly to totalitarianism, followed by war, followed by total defeat. There are many other examples as well of nations making horrific errors by putting their confidence in leaders whom the electorate ought to have shunned. And it was to speak directly to the possibility of national error on that scale that Article II of the Constitution, later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-Third Amendments, called for the creation of an Electoral College. So that is the first of the two reasons that the founders instituted the Electoral College: to serve as a check against the poor judgment of the majority.

The second reason for an Electoral College was to create an electoral system that would encourage smaller states to join the union by lessening the possibility of elections being decided solely by the citizens of the largest states. Since the number of electors equals the number of representatives and senators who represent a state in the Congress, but only the number of representatives is tied to population (because every state has two senators), the result is that the electors from smaller states represent far fewer people than the ones from larger states. (To give an example of how this works, each elector from Wyoming represents about 70,000 citizens, whereas each elector from California represents about 179,000 citizens.)  On the one hand, this feels contrary to the foundational “one vote per citizen” rule upon which all democratic systems rest. On the other, it guarantees smaller states a voice in national decisions that would not otherwise be theirs. Whether that is a good enough reason to override the inherent unfairness of different citizens’ votes being weighted differently is an excellent question that goes directly to the heart of the matter.

The rest of the system is better known, at least to most. In forty-eight of the fifty states, the winning party appoints all the electors. (Maine and Nebraska allocate electors by congressional district, plus two at-large electors awarded to the party that wins the popular vote in that state.)  There is, however, no Constitutional provision or federal law requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won in their state. In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that states may require electors to take a pledge to vote for whomever won the popular vote in that state and twenty-nine states have instituted such a pledge. There are even fines in some states for so-called “faithless electors,” but the reality is that no elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.

It is, at any rate, not a huge problem. In our nation’s entire history, there have been a total of 157 such “faithless electors.” But seventy-one of them, almost half, voted for someone other than the victor in their state because the person who won the popular vote in that state died in the interim. So only the other eighty-six voted for someone other than the person who won in their state because they didn’t wish to see that person become president. None of these decisions has ever changed the outcome of a presidential election or even come close.

Asking whether the Electoral College is worth retaining is hardly worth the breath that the ensuing debate would require, since getting rid of it could only be by constitutional amendment and that is more or less universally considered a political impossibility in today’s America. What could happen, on the other hand, is that states could abandon the “winner take all” rule and allow the electors of any given state to mirror more precisely the vote in that state. That would go a long way to eliminating the possibility of one candidate winning the popular vote and another becoming president, which has now happened five times in our nation’s history, in 1824 (when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but John Quincy Adams became president), in 1876 (when Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, but Rutherford B. Hayes became president), in 1888 (when Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison became president), in 2000 (when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush became president), and now a fifth time in 2016 with the election of Donald J. Trump.

But, of course, if the rules were to be altered to guarantee that whoever wins the popular vote becomes president, then there really would be no rational reason to retain the Electoral College. On the other hand, if the whole point is to preserve the voice of the people while, at the same time, guaranteeing—and here I quote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers—that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” then “fixing” the system to guarantee that the College can never resist the popular results and elect someone who didn’t win the popular vote would work at complete cross-purposes with the point the College exists in the first place. And, of course, it would also eliminate the advantage the current system offers to the residents of smaller states.

To me personally, the whole “smaller states’ advantage” thing is hard to justify. (Isn’t the whole point of a democracy that no citizen is given a louder voice than any other, and particularly when it comes to voting on Election Day?) But the former point, the one about the College serving as a check against the gullibility of the masses, is something worth taking seriously. We don’t have a British House of Lords or a Canadian Senate here filled with learned, worthy statesmen charged with guiding the nation morally and intellectually forward while the lower house, the one actually elected by the people, makes the decisions that actually count. Our version of those august bodies of senior advisors and wise counselors is the Electoral College, a body specifically not populated by wise patriots far above the fray of partisan politics but by party loyalists chosen precisely because of the unlikelihood of any of them going rogue and voting for someone other than their party’s candidate.


Unless we, as a nation, are prepared to fill the ranks of the Electoral College with our nation’s brightest and most responsible thinkers and to charge them with endorsing or rejecting the people’s choice of a national leader, we should abandon the winner-take-all rule and require that electors be chosen in a way that mirrors that state’s vote.  I would favor the former approach, but could live with the latter. What seems ridiculous to me is for every three Californians to have the same voice in the choice of our national leaders as one single Wyomingite.