Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Jewishness of Israel


As we move forward through the next weeks, I hope to discuss many of the issues that I found the most interesting and the most controversial this summer in Israel. Some I have addressed already, but others are—at least in their current iteration—brand new. Some have aroused a lot of interest outside of Israel, while others appear to have garnered almost no attention outside the nation’s boundaries. And some strike me as truly crucial issues, while others appear to me—an outsider, admittedly, but a regular visitor and an informed observer—to me, at least, as a huge amount of ado about almost nothing at all.

And so, first up is the issue that has aroused the most controversy both inside and outside of Israel, the newly passed Basic Law, more correctly known as the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”  All, even the most vehemently outraged, seem to agree that this law was almost entirely symbolic and merely grants a level of official recognition to a situation that all know already to exist and that all observers have considered fully self-evident for the last seventy years. Even Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli author violently opposed to the new Basic Law, had to admit in his red-hot New York Times op-ed piece a few weeks ago that this summer’s bill simply makes de jure a situation that has been de facto reality since the founding of the State.
Defenders of the law have made the point, and sharply, that the Israeli Declaration of Independence formally acknowledged the Jewish nature of Israel at the moment of its national inception and that this summer’s bill merely ratified that concept and granted it a level of official recognition it has lacked from then to now. And, indeed, the opening lines of the Declaration could really not set out the concept of the Jewish nature of the new Jewish state in clearer language:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. 

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma∙apilim [that is, immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.

But, as Americans also know, a Declaration of Independence is just that, a declaration that serves as a kind of political statement of intent and of ideals by a nation’s founders, and not a bona fide legal document at all. (That is why the oath of office that the President of the United States takes at the inauguration ceremony references the obligation to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” and not, say, to uphold the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.) And this accurately mirrors the situation in Israel as well, say Israelis who favor the Basic Law: since Israel does not have a written Constitution akin to the U.S. one, the decision was made early on—in a 1950 decision of the Israeli Supreme Court called the Harari Decision—that in lieu of an American-style foundational document, the series of Basic Laws passed by the Knesset over the years would serve as the legal foundation for Israeli jurisprudence. This summer’s initiative, therefore, is merely an effort to translate the basic values of the Declaration of Independence into Israeli law, almost precisely in the way that the delegates to the Constitution Convention of 1787 took the task upon themselves to enshrine the values and principles that led to American independence in a legal document that would serve as the basis for future American law. And, they ask, should that be more controversial in Israel than it was in America…or in any modern country?
Furthermore, a nation’s right to self-determination and self-definition being basic to its sense of national self, this kind of effort to establish in law the values and principles that led to a nation’s founding is not seen in any other quarter as bogus or racist merely because the nation in question has citizens, even lots of them, who are members of minority faiths, ethnic groups, or language groups. Iran self-defines as an “Islamic republic,” for example, and the world seems to find it not at all troubling that there are non-Muslims among the citizenry. So do Pakistan, Mauritania, and Afghanistan, all three of which nations have non-Muslims among their citizenry. Nor do I notice people suggesting that Norwegian or Icelandic products be boycotted because their nations’ constitutions recognize a specific religion as the national one despite the obvious truth that among the nation’s citizens are people who subscribe to different faiths. The U.K. also has an official religion, by the way—and British law requires that the sovereign belong to it. But I can’t recall ever hearing anyone denounce the British for maintaining a formal relationship as a nation with the Anglican Church, much less suggesting a boycott of British products until the U.K. renounces its ties to its own national church…to which only a  minority of the population maintains formal affiliation. (It is true that a majority, 62%, of British Christians are Anglicans. But fewer than 60% of the general population are affiliated with any Christian church—a majority, to be sure, but not a very large one.)

When taken in the context of other nations’ foundational documents, formal constitutions and otherwise, the situation seems even stranger to me. The Basic Law makes Hebrew the official language of Israel and grants Arabic special status and guarantees that the level of official Arabic usage will be maintained. (Arabic is the native language of about 18% of Israelis.)  By comparison, the Latvian Constitution recognizes Latvian as the national language of Latvia despite the fact that about a third of the citizenry speaks Russian, not Latvian. The Spanish Constitution makes Spanish the nation’s national language, and requires that citizens conduct their affairs in that language regardless of their actual native language, be it Basque or Catalan or any one of several lesser-known native tongues spoken by Spanish citizens. And many other nations, particularly ones that are the homes to unusual languages that are not widely studied or known elsewhere than in that single country—nations like Estonia or Armenia—have enacted laws designed to promote the use of the national language regardless of the fact that some of the citizenry grew up speaking different languages and continue to speak them. About these laws, however, no one seems much to care.
Regarding immigration, the Basic Laws specifies that the “ingathering of the exiles” concept will remain fundamental to Israeli immigration policy and that, as a result, Israel will remain permanently open to Jewish immigration. Given the fact that the 1950 Law of Return declares unequivocally that “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh,” that is, “as an immigrant,” the response to this part of this summer’s Basic Law seems particularly surprising. Nor is there any lack of international parallels: the laws of many nations, including such Western democracies as Italy and Ireland, grant special status to would-be immigrants who belong to the nation’s ethnic majorities. There is an American parallel to this as well, as Eugene Kontorovich pointed out in an essay in the Wall Street Journal  last July: the State Constitution of Hawaii specifically authorizes the state government to create policies that will facilitate land acquisition by native Hawaiians by enacting preferential policies openly favoring ethnic Hawaiians over the rest of the state’s citizenry.

So the short answer is that nothing has changed and the Basic Law largely codifies policies that have been in place  for well more than half a century.  And yet, the level of real anger—expressed both inside and outside of Israel in massive demonstrations and petition-signing campaigns—seems to me rooted in something more basic than the decision formally to declare Hebrew the national language of Israel or to create a legal basis for the Law of Return almost a cool seven decades after it was voted into law by the Knesset.
In an age of rising nationalism, many people—myself included—are at least on some level wondering what the whole concept of nationhood should mean in the post-colonial world.  The myriad issues relating to immigration here and particularly in Europe are part of this as well. As is the cardinal question of what it could or should mean for a nation to embrace a specific culture and to promote that culture to the exclusion of others. Sometimes, the issues involved are benign or, at the very least, not oppressive. (I have no clear idea why Christmas should be a federal holiday in a nation that has no state religion, but I’ve long since stopped fretting about it.) But other times the effects of enshrining a national culture in law are profound. So the larger question is really whether the concept of a national state with its own culture—and the attendant baggage that culture brings along in its wake—whether that idea is something that deserves a place at the table, so to speak, in the twenty-first century…or whether it should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with its malign offspring: ultra-nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobia. Or should the idea be specifically not to pitch out the baby with the bathwater and so to attempt thoughtfully and rationally to pursue a policy that promotes the healthy growth of a nation’s chosen identity without allowing its policies to veer off into intolerance or prejudice?

In the end, there are nations and there are nations. Some, like Israel, are the sole nation-states of an indigenous people whose land has been occupied over long centuries by a long list of foreign invaders and colonialists. Nations like that—Armenia, Finland, South Korea, or Estonia would be good examples of others—have, it seems to me, a reasonable right to promote their national heritage as long as that formal effort does not result in untoward discrimination towards citizens merely because they self-define culturally differently. Our own nation promotes American culture in countless ways. So do most countries. To single out Israel for opprobrium because of its wish to see itself as the embodiment of the national aspirations of the Jewish people is to deny it a right easily and almost automatically offered to every other nation. And that, it seems to me, is defensible solely by arguing that ultimately the Jewish people has no right to its own nation, its own national culture, or the pursuit of its own national aspirations. I’m sure there are people out there who think just that. But I’m far less sure why anyone who does not feel that way would be enraged by the Knesset’s decision to ratify as law the principles that have guided Israel since 1948.  The timing may have been controversial. There may even have been no specific need to undertake this specific action at this specific moment in history. But, in my opinion, the Basic Law itself seems a reasonable attempt to enshrine in law values that have been part of Israel’s national sense of purpose and identity for the entire length of its history as a modern state.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Strangers and Citizens, Parents and Children


Because we are all different people coming from different backgrounds and carrying along different kinds of cultural baggage, we Americans are naturally going to respond in different ways to the phenomenon of families caught trying to cross the southwest border illegally being separated when parents are incarcerated in prison and their children are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services to be watched over or, at least ideally, placed in foster care until their parents’ cases are adjudicated. And even thought the President’s executive order of earlier this week appears intended to ameliorate the situation with respect to future families, there are apparently no plans to reunite families already separated. Nor is it clear precisely what the effect of the President’s order will be even if the courts to uphold its legality with the respect to the now-famous Flores decision of 1997 according to which children may only be kept in detention for a maximum of twenty days. In other words, the fire is slightly less hot than it was earlier in the week, maybe, but the pot is definitely still in serious danger of boiling over.
For me personally—as well, I’m sure as for all Jewish souls like myself whose lives are lived out against the backdrop of the Shoah and its aftermath, the sight of crying children being forcefully taken from their parents and sent off to be detained in special facilities set up to house them is not only emotionally upsetting but viscerally repugnant.  More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since the zero-tolerance program went into effect in May. Some, the fortunate ones, have been placed in foster care. (This number includes 239 children, some as young as 9 months of age, who have been sent to the New York area.) Of some of the less lucky, we have heard lots: the 1500 boys housed in that Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas, for example. But of the others of those being housed by the government, we have heard almost nothing other than some vague references to at least three “tender age facilities” where babies and toddlers are being kept.

Of course, children in our nation are routinely separated from their parents when their parents are incarcerated after being sentenced in court to prison. But in such cases the parent facing incarceration has the time to arrange for the child to be looked after and cared for, and the possibility of the government losing track of where exactly that person’s child is being housed is nil. Yet that appears too to have happened in this case, as admitted the other day by Steve Wagner, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services, when he testified in the Senate in April that his agency had lost track of 1,475 children who had been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on their own and subsequently placed with adult sponsors of various sorts. These are specifically not children taken from their parents. But it does not bode well for those who have been taken from their parents’ watchful supervision in these last weeks since the zero-tolerance policy has gone into effect.
The whole situation feels intractable. But while some aspects of the situation feel like details in need of working out—how exactly to determine any specific individual’s application for refugee status, for example—the question of whether the enforced separation of families, including families with very young children, should be permitted under any circumstances does not feel that way at all to me. In the end, either we are a nation that can countenance doing irrevocable harm to children or we aren’t.

One of our Shelter Rock physicians, Dr. Steve Goldstein, showed me a remarkable essay the other day published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University under the directorship of Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the center. The essay, entitled “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,” explains how subjecting a child to toxic levels of stress can actually affect the child’s brain in ways that may well be irreversible even should the child be eventually restored to a stable, caring environment either with his or her own parents or in some other setting. You cannot, it turns out, simply subject a young child to traumatic levels of stress and then suppose that the child will return to normal later on when things calm down. Some damage, it turns out, risks to be permanent.
I have to say, I felt bowled over by reading this—amazed both at how little I knew about the topic and also by the fact that this information, at least so far, has largely failed to inform the whole discussion about the question of separating children—most of whom don’t speak English and who barely understand what it happening to them—from their parents and incarcerating them in facilities that were neither built nor designed to house children and which are staffed by overwhelmed officials unable to communicate even poorly with most of the children  in their charge. (To read the essay, click here. It’s only seven pages long and it will affect your thinking on the matter dramatically. For Dr. Shonkoff’s most recent statement about the potential damage to children forcibly separated from their parents, issued just the day before yesterday, click here.)

And then there was Attorney General Sessions’ remark the other day that he perceived himself to responding to, of all things, a biblical mandate in pursuing the zero-tolerance policy that leads to the separation of children from their parents.
The Attorney General was speaking to a group of police officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he first mentioned the biblical passage that he identified as the source of his motivation to punish the children of illegals (or, more precisely, would-be illegals) with separation from their parents, specifying to the officers that he had in mind the passage from the New Testament that opens the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Leaving aside the question of why a federal official would base himself on a passage from Christian Scripture rather than the Constitution when determining policy, the choice itself is an interesting one. The text in question reads as follows:  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Those lines have their own place in our nation’s history. They were used by loyalists to argue against the colonial Americans who were preparing to go to war to gain freedom from Britain in the eighteenth century. And they were last cited in Congress in 1850 in support of the Fugitive Slave Act, possibly the most odious piece of legislation ever to be enacted by our American Congress. But my question for the Attorney General is not about his grasp of history but, since he opened the door himself, about his personal beliefs: does he really believe that there are no governments at all other than those that God in heaven has established? I don’t think so. I doubt any of my readers do, particularly those who endured life under the Nazis (who did not, after all, seize power violently but who came to power after winning the most seats in the Reichstag in the election of 1932). And I can’t believe Attorney General Sessions thinks that either.

As it happens, I know a few biblical verses myself. My Bible imagines a slave escaping from a brutal master and says, “You may not return a fugitive slave to his master after he has escaped from that master and sought refuge with you.” My Bible imagines people naturally inclined to mistrust foreigners and says, “You may not oppress or make anxious the stranger for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” My Bible features two Egyptian midwives, women with neither power nor status, refusing to harm Israelite children merely because the king of Egypt has commanded them to do so, and says of them, not that whatever the government commands is by definition just, but that “God granted great favor to the midwives and made them the matriarchs of their own burgeoning clans” in recompense for having resisted the government’s command to harm children.
That “…for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” trope repeats over and over in the Torah. All instances are interesting, but one stands out in particular to me: “The stranger shall be to you as the citizen, and you shall love the stranger in your midst just as you love your fellow countrymen for you were strangers in the land of Egypt just as surely as I the Lord am your God. Do not pervert justice!” I suppose we all have our favorite verses.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

King Whoever




Who are you, little man? I look into your sad eyes…and see only resolve not to share your secrets. But you’re out in the open now, in the sunlight. You won’t understand what the Internet is just quite yet, but you’re well featured on it…and that means that even though you obviously can’t see any of us, we can all see you. It’s sort of hard to explain. But it’s a good thing, mostly.
You haven’t been out there in full view for all to admire for long. I know that, and I can imagine how disorienting this kind of unsought-after publicity must be for someone your age—you have, after all, spent the last three thousand years buried under a huge mountain of dirt and debris—and it’s clearly going to take a while to adjust to the modern world. But you’ll like it here once you get used to it. Or you mostly will.

You really do look good for someone your age. What? Yes, of course I understand that the end part your nose is just missing-in-action and that your nose didn’t really look like that when you were alive. Your chin too, obviously. But you still cut a rather dashing figure, even without the bits and pieces that have fallen away over the millennia. Nice hair, too! I like the cornrows on top and the ringlets on the side. (In our world, only hasidim and the women in Jane Austen novels wear side ringlets like that. On me, they wouldn’t look that good. But I like them on you.)  I have a beard too, by the way, although mine reaches all the way up the side of my head to meet my sideburns and yours looks like it just stops halfway up your face. But it’s actually sort of cool that way, now that I take a second look. A little pasted-on looking maybe, but still appealing.
While we’re being frank, your mouth is a little crooked too—but maybe that was just the sculptor trying to make you look regal. Yes, obviously, regal: you are wearing a golden crown, aren’t you? Even I know what that means! And your crooked mouth is more than made up for by your soulful eyes, my little friend. (Okay, okay, I’m done with the little guy stuff—I know you weren’t really 2 inches tall, or that your head wasn’t.) I suppose it’s unlikely we would have been friends had we been each other’s contemporaries. (I don’t actually know any kings in this world I inhabit and I suppose I probably wouldn’t have known any in yours either.) But maybe we could have just hung out together sometimes anyway. When my daughter Lucy was about eight or nine, she taught me how to braid hair. I was pretty good at it too! So I’m sure I could learn how to do cornrows. You know what, I bet we could have been pals.

*
He really is two inches tall. Or at least his head is. And he really has spent the last three thousand or so years underground, buried deep beneath the ruins of biblical Abel Beth Maacah, a tel located just south of the Israeli-Lebanese line near the border town of Metula, until he was unearthed just recently by a team of archeologists from the Hebrew University and California’s Asuza Pacific University under the supervision of Professor Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University. And his story clearly goes back that far as well. No one can say for sure who he is. But that he was someone—that goes without saying. To read more about the excavations that led to his discovery, click here.

Based on the datable detritus amongst which he was found, it seems certain that King Whoever lived in the ninth century BCE. In its day, Abel Beth Maacah was the Trieste of its day, sitting at the spot where the borders of three powerful kingdoms met: the Kingdom of Israel to the south, the Phoenician kingdom of Tyre to the west, and the kingdom of Aram (with its capital at Damascus) to the east. The town is mentioned a few times in the Bible, most notably in the Second Book of Samuel, where it is the setting for the decapitation of one Sheva ben Bikhri, a Benjaminite who unsuccessfully tried to stir up a rebellion against King David and who then, having sought refuge in Abel Beth Maacah, was rewarded for his efforts by having his head cut off and tossed over the wall into the waiting arms of David’s general Yoav, who, delighted, promptly called off the siege of the city and sent his troops home instead. What he did with Sheva’s head exactly is not recorded. (For readers who can’t get enough, this story is retold in detail in my novel, Heads You Lose.)
This, however, is definitely not Sheva ben Bikhri’s head. For one thing, the crown guarantees that we are looking at a king. For another, why would anyone make a bust of Sheva ben Bikhri, a failed malcontent? So, a king. But which one? Presuming a ninth-century monarch doesn’t cut down the field as much as you’d think: without going outside the Bible, we have several reasonable possibilities to choose between. The little guy could be King Ethbaal of Tyre, the father of our own Queen Jezebel and father-in-law of King Ahab of Israel.  For that matter, he could be King Ahab himself. Or he could plausibly be one of Ahab’s two sons who reigned after him, King Ahaziah or King Jehoram. Or he could be King Jehu, who seized power from the House of Omri (to which Ahab and his sons belonged) by, among other things, shooting an arrow through King Jehoram’s shoulder blades with such force that it pierced his heart and exited his chest on the other side. Or it could be King Ben Haddad or King Hazael of Damascus. All would be reasonable choices. We’ll never know. The thought, though, that this is what an ancient king looked like and probably an ancient Israelite one (the tel is the site of an ancient Israelite city, after all)—that thought is remarkably attractive to me. I’ve read about these guys my whole life. I’ve written about them too…but who ever thought I would be able actually to see one of them?

That question is just a bit misleading, however. For example, there actually is  a portrait of King Jehu to compare our fellow with, although not a particularly flattering one.
One of the most amazing archeological finds of the nineteenth century was the discovery in 1846 by Sir Austen Henry Layard of the so-called Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, which he found at a place called Nimrud in northern Iraq and which contains the oldest known picture of a person mentioned in the Bible: none other than King Jehu himself. We can be fairly certain, however, that this is not the portrait the king himself would have chosen to be remembered by as it depicts him prostrate before King Shalmaneser of Assyria as he offers him the tribute that is listed in detail on the obelisk as well: “silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with a pointed bottom, golden tumblers, tin, a staff [fit] for a king, and spears.” (The concept of buying off superpowers with gifts to keep them from swallowing your country into their empire is a very old one.) And here he is, the king of Israel with his royal derrière higher off the ground than his royal head as he kisses Shalmaneser III’s imperial feet and attempts to buy him off with some really expensive presents:


Is that our guy? The hair is the same, as is the beard (although it looks like it meets his sideburns here—but surely that’s just a detail.) Why he’s wearing a smurf’s hat, who knows? But it certainly could be our guy. Maybe his head was cold when he took his royal crown off, which you obviously have to do when you beg the big guys to take the money and leave your people alone!
There are remarkably few pictures of ancient Israelites. In the throne room of King Sennacharib of Assyria, there is a famous frieze depicting the Battle of Lachish, which pitted the Assyrians against the Kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE and which the Assyrians won handily, taking these two Judahite soldiers captive.




What the story with their hair was, who can say? And how they got their beards to match seems even less easy to imagine. To people my age, they will resemble most of all those type-ball things once featured in IBM Selectric typewriters. (Kids, ask your parents about this: typewriters were something like printers, except you had to input each word separately and couldn’t make any changes without having to type the whole thing over again.) But, joking aside, there’s something serious here to contemplate: the Bible talks endlessly about the Israelites, but this is what they actually looked like. Does any of these guys look like someone you might run into at a UJA reception? If you ignore their remarkably thick necks, they somehow do. Also, nice moustaches!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Learning to Listen


The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has many unique features, by which I mean qualities that it specifically does not share with similar geo-political disputes and which are features particularly of the parties to it. But there are other features that it does share with other disputes between nations or peoples, into which category I would put those aspects of the problem that are specifically not especially unique to the players involved. I suppose there are probably many different aspects to the endless sikhsukh between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land that could be included in that second category, but I think probably the most prominent of them all—and paradoxically both the most difficult to resolve and, in other ways, also the simplest—is the inability both sides show with remarkable regularity to see the people on the other side of the fence at all clearly. Or to hear them when they speak. Or to listen without prejudice to what they wish to say.
There are circles, as I am well aware, in which even the suggestion that the responsibility for the situation as it has evolved to date could or, worse, should be shared by the involved parties is anathema. I have fallen prey to that line of thinking myself. And although I find some scant comfort in the fact that I was in excellent (and famous) company in that regard, the reality of the situation no longer affords anyone who longs for peace in the region the luxury of listening only to his or her own voice. To describe those willing to listen to dissenting opinions as terminally gullible seems beyond childish at this point: it seems counterproductive and morally indefensible to imagine that peace can ever be made between people who are not prepared even formally, let alone intently, to listen to each other and to respond honestly and genuinely to what the other party has to say. It is certainly so that lots of what people say about the Middle East is nonsense, their arguments baseless blather and their positions intellectually and morally indefensible. The problem is that there’s no way to weigh the worth of other people’s opinions without listening to them carefully, and doing so generously and without prejudice. To do that, however, requires that you at least occasionally stop talking yourself. But that inability to fall silent with someone else speaks turns out, more than slightly paradoxically, to be one of the major things Israelis and Palestinians actually do have in common.

All this by way of introducing to you a very interesting book I finished reading earlier this week, Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Published just last month by HarperCollins, the book is remarkable in several different ways and I would like to recommend it as serious, thoughtful summer reading for anyone who wants to understand—and on a particularly intelligent, reasonable plain—the underlying reasons that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute seems so intractable.



Halevi has framed his book as a series of letters to an unidentified neighbor living in Iswiya, the Arab town on the other side of the separation fence that blocks access to French Hill, the modern Israeli neighborhood adjacent to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University in which Halevi lives. For readers unfamiliar with the geography of Jerusalem, the basic principle is that, with certain famous exceptions, most Arab villages—including ones inside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem—and the Jewish communities almost adjacent to them are sealed off from each other, if not precisely by law, then by custom: my own apartment in Arnona is not half a mile from the Arab village of Jabel Mukaber, but I’ve never been there and wouldn’t think of going there—it would be unsafe and unwise—and neither do I know anyone who has ever gone there. That’s just how it is. Yet I see Arab families all the time in the shopping malls in Talpiyot, the neighborhood directly to our west, and no one seems to notice or care. It’s all a little hard to explain, but Halevi’s idea—which I think he manages to carry through successfully—is both to notice and to care…and also to imagine that where people shop contiguously and eat at adjacent tables in restaurants, they could also speak to each other honestly and from the heart…if they felt that there was someone actually listening. A little bit, he’s tilting at windmills. But he’s also taken the remarkable step of having his entire book—this book that I’m writing to you about—translated into Arabic and posted for free download on a website that should be easily accessible to all Israeli and Palestinian Arabs.

The author writes frankly and from the heart. To the Palestinians, he offers the clear message that they are doing themselves a disservice and more or less guaranteeing that almost no Israelis will listen seriously (or even at all, really), when they speak as though the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel began in the nineteenth century and refuse on principle to take the preceding millennia into account, millennia which included centuries of Jewish autonomy in that place and of ongoing spiritual, emotional, and intellectual attachment to it. Indeed, when Palestinian leaders insist—passionately but ridiculously—that the entire Bible is a falsification of history, that there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount, that the Davidic kingdom never existed, that all the archeological evidence that ties the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is bogus and phony, they are more or less guaranteeing that no Israeli with any sense of pride in his or her nation will still be listening after the first sentence or two. But when Israelis, and particularly religious Israelis, wave away the Palestinians as mere interlopers because their ancestors only arrived on the scene a mere twelve centuries ago, they are guaranteeing no less surely that no thoughtful Palestinian born in that place and whose whole sense of identity is tied to his or her national sense of self is going to continue listening after the first few words either.
In other words, what both sides have accomplished magnificently is the discovery and honing of precisely the right kind of code words to use so as to be able to guarantee that no one will actually be listening when you finally do stand up to speak.

Halevi addresses painful, difficult topics in the course of his letters to his unidentified neighbor across the security fence. He talks openly—and passionately—about the way that terrorism has taken its toll not only on the specific individuals who have died as the result of Palestinian terror attacks, but on the national consciousness of Israelis as well. And he also writes, in my opinion remarkably openly, about the specific reasons so many Israelis do not feel themselves able to believe truly that their Palestinian neighbors wish to live in peace. Indeed, when he asks, not guilelessly but sharply and acidulously, why the Palestinians have turned down so many different offers of statehood—at Camp David and at Oslo, but also on other occasions as well—if they truly wish to negotiate a settlement and get on with the work of nation building, he is merely doing his part to hold up his end of the dialogue honestly and candidly.
One review I read suggested that the best way to read this book would be first to read an entirely different one: Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend, published in 1977 and still in print. I was in my final year at JTS when that book came out and I remember reading it and feeling both inspired by its argument, yet unjustly marginalized by its conclusions. The book angered me—which I’m sure was exactly the response the author hoped to provoke—but also challenged me to revisit my feelings about living in the diaspora and about my personal relationship to Israel. I recommend the book highly to all my readers, however: here is a truly passionate argument for aliyah that all who wish truly honestly to engage with the Zionist ideal should read. 




For most, it will not be pleasant reading. But political writing at its best is not meant to soothe, but to irritate—somewhat in the way sand irritates oysters into producing pearls—and to allow readers to confront their complacency and address the logical flaws or moral sloppiness in the way they approach the philosophical or political issues that engage them the most passionately. I see that reviewer’s point and second the motion: to read those two books, one after the other, would truly to engage with the twin axes of Israel life: the x-axis of Jewishness which connects Israelis with Jews in all the lands of our dispersion, and the y-axis of rootedness in the land which ties Israelis, whether they like it or not, to the Palestinians who self-define in terms of their own rootedness in that same soil. And for those of us whose hearts beat with Israel, that kind of engagement with the grid can only produce insight into what we all understand is a very complicated situation.  Anna Porter, who wrote a very intelligent review of Halevi’s book for the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail (click here to read it), wraps up her appraisal by noting that “Israel is a very complicated country.” That, surely, we can all agree is true. But books like Halevi’s are attempts to shed more light than heat on the precise issues that make life in the Holy Land so complicated…and to inspire a dialogue, for once, that is rooted in reality rather than rhetoric.
Since I am not a Palestinian, I am presumably not the intended audience for a book entitled “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Nor will the large majority of people reading this be. Nonetheless, I recommend this to you all wholeheartedly as an opportunity to look out at the world, and the Middle East in particular, through Yossi Klein Halevi’s eyes. Particularly for young people eager to understand their parents’ deep commitment to Israel but unsure of where they personally stand, this book will be an eye-opening, inspiring read.






Thursday, May 31, 2018

Forty Years In


A few week ago, I mentioned in passing that this last May 14 was the fortieth anniversary of my ordination as rabbi. I wasn’t planning to make a big deal out of it—and I’m still not—but something in the news this last week drew me back to thinking about it, and in an unexpected way that I think I would like to share with all of you after all.
I started at JTS in 1974. It was a long time ago. Nixon had just resigned. That Petit fellow had just managed to walk from one of the Twin Towers to the other on a tight wire. All you could hear on the radio was “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. There were no cell phones, no personal computers, no internet providers. People deposited checks by handing them to flesh-and-blood tellers in brick-and-mortar banks. You rented a movie by walking to a video store and picking it out, paying for it, and carrying it home. I was barely 21 years old that fall, naïve and as unsure of myself as I was untried in the ways of the world.

But I did know where I was going, or at least where I wished to go. Something was drawing me to the rabbinate, something profound enough to have brought me to devote all my energy for more than a year to getting into the school at which I wanted to train for my future profession…and which now brought me to the front gate of JTS on the Sunday before the first day of classes eager to bring my twelve boxes of books and one valise of clothing up to my dorm room and then to get my parents back into the car as quickly as possible. But what was it exactly that brought me to that place and to that moment? Did I choose this path forward in life? Or did it choose me? Those are the questions that have been banging around in my head in the course of these last several weeks as I find myself crossing the threshold into my fifth decade of rabbinic life.
You’d think I’d know how I got here. And yet, when I try to compile a list of specific experiences that turned me from any of my earlier career ideas—some doable, others at least in retrospect probably not so much—to a life of service in the congregational rabbinate, I find myself uncharacteristically unsure of myself.

I’ve written in several different places about something that happened in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France on Erev Yom Kippur in 1972, not even two full years earlier than that Sunday afternoon that I found myself moving into the Brush Dorm at  JTS for the first time, although without revealing what I actually experienced in that greenish-purple meadow at dusk. (I won’t repeat the whole story here, but it’s available to anyone who wants to read about it in the “History is Destiny” chapter of my book, In Search of Wholeness, published by Moonstone Press in London, Ontario, about twenty-five years ago, but now available to all on my website at www.martinscohen.net.) I’ve felt forever that that incident—that life-transforming moment that came upon me wholly unexpectedly (and without any prior warning) and which then vanished forever, leaving me turned from who I was prior to it into who I was a moment later and still am today—I’ve always felt that that incident had merely to be the icing on the cake, the culminative experience that capped all the others that led me up to it. How could it not have been? Isn’t that journeys work: you walk forward one step at a time until you finally step over the line that all the other steps brought you up to? Or do internal journeys that bring people to new places without moving them physically forward at all work differently?
It feels like journeys should be cumulative experiences, yet I consistently come up dry when I try to dredge up the others experiences and incidents that led me to that single moment in the Col de Saverne—the specific mountain pass in the Vosges where our bus broke down and I was forced to watch the sun set on Erev Yom Kippur for the one and only time in my life since earliest childhood (or since) that I couldn’t and didn’t attend services in a synagogue on the most sacred night of the year, didn’t go into the fast with a nourishing meal under my belt, and found myself entirely in the company exclusively of people for whom September 17, 1972, was just a warm evening at the tail-end of summer and not the most sacred evening of the year—when I try to come up with those “other” experiences, there appear to be none for me to list. Was I open to what occurred specifically because I was still reeling after hearing about the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics just eleven days earlier? It feels, at least in retrospect, that the two events—the one known to the entire world and the other known solely to me alone—it feels as though they must have been related. But it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. And it still doesn’t feel that way to me, not when I try to be perfectly honest with myself.

I was brought back to this set of thoughts this week when I read the remarkable story of Mamadou Gassama, the Spiderman of Paris. I’m sure you all saw the video clip—click here if you somehow didn’t—featuring this almost unbelievable feat of courage and physical strength. A child, a boy of four, somehow ends up hanging on for dear life as he dangles from the balcony of his parents’ apartment four stories up over a busy Paris street. His mother is out of town. His father has gone shopping and left him alone. He is out of the reach of the neighbors who are trying to encourage him to hold on. If he lets go, he will surely die when he hits the pavement. And in the street is a young man of twenty-two, an undocumented illegal migrant from Mali walking to a football game with his girlfriend. He has every reason to avoid attention, every sound reason to do whatever it takes to keep from being noticed by the authorities. And yet, possessed of almost superhuman agility and strength, he finds himself facing his destiny. If he acts and is successful, the child will live. If he does nothing, the child will almost certainly die. In his hands, therefore, is a decision he can’t have ever imagined having to make. Will he risk everything, including his personal freedom and his future in France, to save a little boy he hasn’t ever met and for whom he obviously has no personal responsibility? Or will he blend into the crowd of horrified onlookers as a mute witness to someone else’s tragedy and leave it at that?



What happened next defies explanation. Even after watching the video clip over and over, I still can’t quite believe he was able to do what he did, but he somehow managed to climb up the side of the building, leaping up from each balcony to the next higher one and the hoisting himself up, gaining his footing on the new balcony, then somehow hoisting himself up to the next story. The whole incident took less than thirty seconds. When he reached the railing from which the boy was dangling, he simply flipped himself onto the balcony like a trained acrobat and pulled the child to safety.

Yesh koneh et olamo b’shaah achat, the Talmud says: there are people who alter the entire course of their lives in a single moment. And this was clearly that kind of moment. A day later, Mamadou was sitting in the Elysée Palace with Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who offered him three things: a medal for his bravery, French citizenship, and a job as a Paris firefighter. In a single moment, his life’s path was altered utterly and completely. A day after that, he met with Lassana Bathily, his countryman who saved those customers in the Jewish grocery when a supporter of the Islamic State took other patrons hostage in 2015, and whose life was also utterly altered by a split-second decision he made to risk his life to save innocents not because he had to but because he could. (He also earned French citizenship as a reward for his selfless heroism.) When that happened, I wrote to you all about how my understanding of what it means to be a hero and how my personal definition of heroism seems always to be evolving. (To review that piece, click here.) And now I find myself revising my thinking yet again, this time to accommodate a young man of almost unimaginable athletic ability and agility who saw the chance to do good and took it, even though it could easily have cost him his future and his freedom.



What I experienced in the Vosges that Sunday evening in 1972 was nothing like that. It involved neither selflessness nor bravery. There was nothing at all heroic about it either, nor does it feel that way even in retrospect. Aval af ani kaniti et olami b’shaah achat: my life too altered in a moment and never resumed again the course along which it had been set for the years leading up to that moment. In a sense, my story was more like the prophet Amos’s, who was tending his sheep when suddenly he felt called to the charism of prophecy, or like Jeremiah who was quietly cooking his lunch when God first addressed him entirely out of the blue and asked him, of all things, what he saw before his eyes. (He answered, no doubt honestly, that what he saw before him was a pot of boiling soup.) Or perhaps like Ezekiel who was strolling along the Kebar River when the heavens suddenly opened over his head and he saw what he himself called mar’ot elohim, visions sent by God. None of these experiences required bravery or physical strength. None required advance planning or training. But all required intellectual integrity, uncompromising honesty, and the courage not to look away at what, after all, was right before their eyes.

I have made my way forward all these years attempting to be possessed of all three of those things. Like all of us, I’ve occasionally faltered. (Perhaps “occasionally” isn’t quite correct either.) But those were the gifts offered to me for the taking on that warm summer’s evening in the Vosges. It took me a while to take them up. I was not even a half-baked cake in 1972—just a junior in college who was idly thinking, possibly, of a life in our nation’s diplomatic service. That’s what drew me to France in the first place, by the way, the opportunity to perfect my French and improve my German. (And also the possibility of not being sent to Vietnam, which I’ll have to write about on some other occasion.) But sometimes you really can be koneh et olamkha b’shaah achat. The next week, I dropped all my German classes and all but one of my French courses, and enrolled instead in the university’s Institute for Semitic Languages, where I registered for all the Hebrew classes I was qualified to take. It was a confusing year in a million different ways. I was untested, untried, unsure of myself. But when our bus was finally repaired and I eventually got back to my dorm room on the Avenue de la Libération, I was a different person. And that is how I came to be who I turned into, and how I found my way into my life. 



Friday, May 25, 2018

Guns and Cars


Yes, of course, when I looked at the pictures of the innocents gunned down in the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, last Friday, I felt some combination of anger and deep sadness. What kind of person could look at portraits of murdered children and not feel both those emotions welling up from deep within? And yet it’s also true that the incident itself independent of the victims—the actual scenario of a young person getting a gun somewhere, entering a school (in this case his own high school), and opening fire on whomever has the misfortune to be standing in his line of fire—the actual incident itself amazed me in precisely the opposite way: by failing to stir up the level of outrage that even I myself think any normal person should bring to his or her contemplation of an event like last week’s bloodbath at Santa Fe High. It’s just become so…so what? So routine, so almost ordinary, so weirdly and eerily banal? The sad truth is that it’s not even that easy after all these incidents for me to remember clearly which shooter attacked which school.
As a result, I found myself understanding easily when I listened to that video clip featuring Paige Curry, a seventeen-year-old student at Santa Fe. “It’s been happening everywhere,” Paige said. And then she added a thought that would have once been incomprehensible other than in a horror movie as the cellos start thrumming in the background. “I’ve always kind of felt,” she said, “like it eventually was going to happen here too.” And then, just to sharpen her point, she added the almost obvious: “I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I was just scared.”

I get it. I’m sure I’d be scared too if I was present in the same building as an unrestrained shooter. But would I be surprised? I think I personally would be. But, of course, I’m not a high school student, much less one in Texas, to whose entire lifetime these incidents have served as a kind of terrifying, if almost ordinary, background. (Today’s high school seniors were born after the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999, not before.) I was once a high school student, of course. And there were indeed school shootings across the land during my years at Forest Hills High. But what was absent in my day was the sense of randomness that the shooting incidents of these last years seem almost invariably to feature. There were, to be precise, exactly one dozen documented school shootings during the years I was in high school, seven of which took place in high schools or junior highs. The rest took place in universities or colleges, but the salient detail is that none was random: some, like the famous Kent State incident of 1970, took place in the context of political demonstrations; others were tragic, unintentional accidents; and still others, at least half, were targeted assassinations, usually of teachers or principals by disgruntled students. In other words, in none did a young person simply appear in school with a gun and just start shooting.
The earliest school shooting in the United States actually preceded the founding of the nation itself. It took place in 1764 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in the context of the now-long-since-forgotten war called Pontiac’s War in which native tribes banded together to protest British policies towards them. And it was thus, at least in their own minds, as an act of war that four Delaware Indians entered that town’s school building on July 26 of that year and shot to death the school’s principal, one Enoch Brown. Whether Greencastle can count as our country’s first brush with murder at school, or whether the murder of John Davis, the law professor at the University of Virginia who was murdered by one of his students on November 12, 1840, deserves to be considered the first American school shooting, seems to me at least debatable. (I believe the Greencastle incident is the only school shooting, even now, in American history that took place in the context of an actual war. But it seems odd to consider it an American event, given that the United States did not yet even exist.) But the more profound question is not which incident gets the most reasonably to be labelled our first school shooting, but whether we can stem this tide of senseless violence before it becomes even more endemic, even more a part of our national culture, even more inextricably woven into the fabric of our American ethos…and as such something that in the end simply cannot in any practical way be eradicated.

To my way of thinking, this is specifically not a Second Amendment issue and we have done ourselves no service by appearing unable to frame it any other way. Indeed, approaching the question from that vantage point—i.e., by wondering if Americans should or shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms or how that right should or shouldn’t be curtailed with respect to one or another subgroup within the citizenry—that seems to me to be the precisely least productive way to engage with this issue. Instead, this should be a considered a safety issue—and in the context of school shootings, a children’s safety issue—and the question framed, not in terms of the rights of citizens (or specific citizens) to own guns at all or specific kinds of guns, but in terms of the basic right of all citizens, most definitely including children, to be safe from harm as they go about conducting their daily affairs.
We’ve managed this in other areas, after all. In a truly remarkable essay published last November, Nicholas D. Kristoff made the remarkable point that, through a combination of innovation, legislation, and increased awareness on the part of the public, we have managed to reduce the likelihood of an American dying in an automobile accident by an unbelievable 95% since 1921. (To see Kristoff’s essay, click here.) Even more to the point is that we have done so not by prohibiting the use of cars, not by making cars increasingly less powerful with each model year, not by continually raising the age at which young people can get driver’s licenses, not by requiring background checks before permitting a dealer to sell a car to anyone at all, and not by requiring people to acquire government-issued permits to purchase motorized vehicles. Instead, we allowed what we know of cars—and, no less crucially, what we know of the people who drive them—to inspire innovation after innovation intended to diminish the likelihood of an American dying in a car accident.

We all know how this has been accomplished. Seatbelts were introduced in 1950 and eventually made mandatory in all fifty states. Federal safety standards were first imposed on automobile manufacturers in 1968. The national 55 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed on most American highways in 1974. Car safety ratings, giving consumers the opportunity to purchase vehicles based on the degree to which they were considered safe to operate by unbiased experts and not merely the degree to which they were touted as such by their manufacturers, were introduced in 1993. Front-seat airbags became mandatory in 1999. We introduced mandatory reporting of defects by car manufacturers in 2000. And the result? In 1946, there were 9.35 deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States. In 2016, there were 1.18 deaths per 100 million miles driven. That is a truly amazing statistic, one all Americans should bear in mind as they search for a way to make safe our schools and protect our children. It surely can be done. We just need to figure out how.
As Mount Kilauea continues to erupt in Hawaii, there has apparently been a resurgence of interest in Madame Pele, the traditional Hawaiian goddess of destruction imagined to govern that fiery mountain and to control its lava flow. I doubt most Hawaiians take these beliefs too literally, although there are apparently those who take them very seriously indeed. (Click here to read more.) Nor is the idea of a god or goddess of destruction unfamiliar to me—the Israelites themselves used regularly to flirt with the idea of bringing some version of Mot, the Canaanite god of death and destruction, into the Israelite cult as a kind of sub-deity deemed responsible for destruction and death in the world. The prophets inveighed against that kind of potential deviation from strict monotheism, but I can certainly understand the appeal of explaining away at least some of the terrible things that happen in the world by blaming them on perverse deities intent on bringing mayhem to the world. But when it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our land (and particularly the version directed at children or teenagers in school), it feels ridiculous to blame the situation on malevolent gun gods or on our national ethos, or in describing it as the inevitable consequence of our right to bear arms.

It’s easy to be cynical. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people say in the last little while that there simply is no solution, that if Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to rouse Americans to action than nothing ever will be. I suppose there’s something to that. But the dimensions of the problem need to rouse us to action anyway: if you include suicides, there have been more gun deaths in our nation’s history (about 1.4 million) than deaths in all the wars in which our country has participated since the Revolution itself (about 1.3 million, as Shelter Rockers who come to Yizkor all know). In most years, more Nursery-School-aged children die from gunfire than police officers risking their lives in the line of duty. We have created this situation and I simply can’t imagine that we can’t also solve it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Torture and the American Soul

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA now that former head Mike Pompeo has become Secretary of State, is facing stiff opposition on Capitol Hill primarily over two specific issues: the question of the use of torture to extract information from prisoners at a secret CIA “black site” detention facility in Thailand that Haspel supervised in 2002 and her role in the 2005 destruction of almost 100 videotapes of interrogation sessions, some of which are thought to have captured scenes of actual prisoners and detainees being tortured. Speaking indirectly to both charges, Haspel on Wednesday told the Senate Intelligence Committee that she will not reinstitute the brutal interrogation techniques that were in use in Thailand when she was in charge there and elsewhere. Haspel did not, however, condemn torture as an absolute wrong, thus suggesting that there may well be circumstances under which even the most violent, pitiless and ruthless techniques for eliciting information from detainees could be justified.

Most of the authors I’ve been reading lately who oppose the use of torture to extract information from prisoners fall largely into one of two categories.
Some understand the use of torture regardless of circumstances to constitute what legal philosophers call a malum per se, something that is morally wrong “in and of itself” in which moral wrongness inheres by its very nature, as opposed to the malum prohibitum, which term references the act that is wrong only because it is prohibited by law. (The law requiring people to drive on the right side of the road would be a good example of that latter—a perfectly reasonable law that forbids behavior no one would describe as intrinsically evil.)

Still others, perhaps less philosophically inclined, oppose torture on the practical grounds that they feel that it rarely, if ever, yields truly useful information because it merely brings the individual being tortured to the point at which he or she will say anything at all to gain relief and because information so acquired is therefore highly unlikely actually to be accurate. As an example, people in this camp point to the torture-obtained admission by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani national named in the 9/11 Commission Report as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” that he had recruited black Muslims in Montana to carry out future terror attacks, a confession that he later recanted and which apparently had no truth to it at all.
To help refine my own thinking on the matter, I’ve had recourse in the last few days to two important works: Torture: A Collection, an extremely interesting and rich collection of essays published by Oxford University Press in 2004 and edited by Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School; and a very long and detailed essay by Rabbi J. David Bleich called “Torture and the Ticking Bomb” published in 2006 in Tradition, the quarterly journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis. (Used copies of the Levinson book are available for purchase online for less than $2.50; to see Rabbi Bleich’s essay, click here.) In the Oxford volume, I was particularly taken with the essays by Miriam Gur Aryeh and Alan Dershowitz. But I’d like to focus primarily today on Rabbi Bleich’s argumentation.

After a long and very interesting survey of modern and pre-modern approaches to the topic, he turns to a specific question of Jewish law, the one concerning the ticking bomb mentioned in the title of his essay. He begins by noting that the Torah’s commandment at Leviticus 19:16 to the effect that one may “not stand idly by the blood of another” has been interpreted since ancient times to mean that there is a legal, not merely a moral, obligation to come to the aid of someone who’s life is in danger. And then he poses the question about torture against the background of that concept by proposing a situation in which terrorists have placed a weapon of mass destruction, say a “dirty” bomb or even a more sophisticated nuclear device, in a public place where it will take the lives of thousands if it explodes. And let’s imagine further than one of the terrorists, one who is considered at least likely to know the specific location of the bomb, is apprehended, but refuses to reveal what he knows. Is there a moral limit to the amount of force that may be applied to extract that information from such a prisoner?
There are lots of ways to approach the question. Is it a matter solely of numbers? In other words, the example above imagined thousands of lives on the line. But what if it were tens or hundreds of thousands? What if it were millions? And that is where the distinction between a malum per se and a malum prohibitum comes into play. Is the prohibition of torture a line that by its very nature may never be crossed? Or is it just a bad thing that rarely produces good results and that the law therefore rightly forbids…but which could be morally justified under certain specific circumstances? The Romans used to say fiat justitia et pereat mundus (“let justice prevail even if the world be destroyed”). Those words have a noble ring to them…but the acid test is not whether you would learnedly cite them in a law school application essay but whether you, who are on record as abhorring the use of torture, would dare say them aloud to someone whose children are in the city where the bomb has been planted and where it will probably, or even just possibly, explode if its location is not discovered in time.

Rabbi Bleich begins his analysis by introducing the concept of the rodeif, the “pursuer.” According to Jewish law, when someone’s life is in danger because that individual is being pursued by someone who appears intent on killing him or her, it is deemed permissible to save the individual being pursued even if the sole means available to do so requires taking the life of the pursuer. This is how the mandate not idly to stand by the blood of another mentioned above is applied in our sources: there is an absolute obligation to safeguard life and, in a situation in which one individual is attempting to kill another, it is not merely permitted but required to do what it takes to make sure that the pursued party survives even if doing so costs the pursuer his or her life.
In the situation described above, the one in which the apprehended individual has information about the location of the bomb, is that individual a rodeif? What if there is no evidence that this specific individual did anything at all—and certainly not that he armed the bomb or knows how to disarm it—but merely might know where it is. Is that enough to make him into a rodeif whose survival may be risked for the sake of saving others? That, Rabbi Bleich maintains, is the question at the heart of the matter. The prisoners the CIA waterboarded to make talk were not at that moment trying to kill anyone. But they had information, or possibly had information, that could have saved the lives of innocents. Does that justify doing what it takes to make them tell what they know? (And, no, you don’t get to have a different opinion if the innocents in question are your own children or other people’s.)

What comes through in Rabbi Bleich’s analysis again and again is how complicated this all is. When the prisoner is being tortured, there is often no way to know in advance if he possesses any usual information at all. Nor is it possible in advance to know if the information successfully elicited with have any worth. Also in the mix is the understanding of our Torah that the prisoner also has a sacred obligation to save human life. So getting such a prisoner to provide information that could conceivably save thousands is somehow both an assault on his physical being and a way of assisting him or her to behave ethically.
For most of us, it also depends how the question is phrased. When asked if torturing prisoners to see what they might know is morally defensible, for example, I think most of us would easily answer in the negative. But when asked if there should be limits placed on the CIA agents attempting to elicit information that could potentially save the lives of, say, a thousand school children, I think most of us would answer quite differently. Nor does this inconsistency have to do solely with the number of potential lives saved. When the question references physical pain, as in electrical shocks or simulated drowning, some of us would condone torture and others would oppose its use. But if the question were to be rephrased to reference sexual assault—for example, if we were to be asked to approve of a female prisoner being repeated and brutally raped to elicit information from her, even of the kind that could save innocents—my guess is that most of us would refuse categorically to condone the practice.

Finally, Rabbi Bleich mentions the concept of hora∙at sha∙ah, the temporary suspension of the law. Americans will think back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of habeas corpus, and to the detention without trial of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. But this notion that even the most basic laws may be suspended in times of great national peril is part of Jewish tradition as well and extends under certain circumstances even to the most basic prohibitions.  So, in the end, the question really is whether the war against our nation’s enemies, particularly violent extremists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, is enough to justify the suspension of our natural disinclination to condone torture as a “regular” means of eliciting information from our nation’s foes. Some will stick to the malum per se argument and say, with the ancients, fiat justitia et pereat mundus. But others will think back to 9/11 and recall that our tradition also teaches that saving even a single life is the moral equivalent of saving the entire world.