Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sure They Can!

I’ve loved Herodotus—the witty, clever, occasionally ribald author whom Cicero famously called the very “father of history”—ever since I was obliged by benevolent circumstance to spend a year with him in graduate school, wading through long sections of each of the nine books (one, they say, for each of the nine muses who inspired him) and being—I was a bit naïve as a young man—being amazed at how contemporary and relevant an author who lived about 2500 years ago could be. This was the 1970s. I wasn’t entirely sure about people who were over thirty, let alone over two thousand. And yet…this guy really did get it, I recall thinking as I wandered deeper and deeper into his work and found in Herodotus a kind of kindred spirit, someone whose ancient worldview seemed oddly similar to mine. I thought of Herodotus the other day, actually, because of something someone else said—in this case, Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Israeli general and intelligence expert who served until recently as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs—regarding the perceived tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and also about his and my shared obsession with the dangers posed by a belligerent, well-armed, and supremely well-financed Iran to Western culture as we have come to know it.  (If you want to know what Herodotus thought about the latter, the passages from his Histories relating to the war in his own day between Iran and Greece were published in William Shepherd’s excellent translation by Cambridge University Press in 1983 in a volume called Herodotus: The Persian War, a used copy of which book you can buy—what a world this is!—for as little as one penny on If you want to know what I think, come to Shelter Rock almost any Shabbat morning this month and you’ll go home with an earful.)

The passage from Herodotus that came to mind will be familiar to at least some readers not from the ancient’s Histories at all, but because John Steinbeck quotes it in East of Eden. It’s a short passage and, because attempting to do better than Steinbeck would require hubris that even I couldn’t muster, I’ll just cite it in the master’s own prose:

Herodotus, in The Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not have asked if he had not been worried about the answer. ”Who,” he asked, “is the luckiest person in the world?” He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, “Do you not consider me lucky?” Solon did not hesitate in his answer. “How can I tell?” he said. “You aren’t dead yet.”

It’s a great story. Formally, it’s about a conversation that, if historical, must have taken place even longer-ago than Herodotus’ lifetime. (Croesus, king of Lydia, reigned over his kingdom in what today is western Turkey from 560 to 547 BCE. Solon, the famous Athenian jurist, was his much older contemporary.)  But, more than that, it’s about the relationship of optimism to pessimism, about the reasonableness of allowing one’s confidence in the sturdiness of the status quo to outweigh one’s knowledge about the way things in our world have the capacity, even the tendency, to change on a dime…and rarely for the better.

Solon’s line “You aren’t dead yet” is the part that’s stayed with me all these years, corresponding in its own arch way to my father’s joke about the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist.  The Jewish pessimist, you see, is the one who says, “Oy, things couldn’t get any worse,” while the Jewish optimist is the one who replies brightly, “Sure they can!”  The joke is funny because, these being Jewish people, even the optimist is a pessimist! But the notion that only someone with no real knowledge of the world will feel secure that things will remain as they are is at the base both of Herodotus’s funny story and my dad’s joke. But even if the parallel isn’t quite exact, Solon was still surely right that it’s only possible to diagnose someone as truly lucky once that person is done with life and thus immune to its ever-shifting vicissitudes, just as my dad’s pessimist knows all too well that there is no actual bottom line to how bad things can get, that nothing is fixed, that all is in flux, that the world is a quivering leaf ready to fall from its bough far more than a marble pillar set unshakably and permanently on its base. 

And so we come to General Kuperwasser. Responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with President Obama in the Atlantic that I attempted to analyze from the bimah last week at Shelter Rock, the general chose to frame his take on the interview in terms of the ancient and ongoing tension between optimism and pessimism. (Giving his hand away, he references “pessimism” as “realism.” But it appears to come to the same thing! If you are reading this electronically and you haven’t read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, click here and it should come right up on your screen.)

Starting with a simple question, General Kuperwasser begins rhetorically by asking why it is that the president seems so much more irritated with Prime Minister Netanyahu than with President Abbas, particularly given the fact that it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who scuttled the latest American attempt to broker a peace deal between them.  Surely, his pique should be directed at the side that refused to accept his formula for negotiation! Yet that appears not to be the case. Time and time again, in fact, the administration seems ready to ignore even the Palestinian leadership’s most egregious sins, preferring instead to take Israel to task for not behaving precisely as the White House would wish it to. That, so the general, is the question worth asking. And he knows the answer too, he writes, finding it rooted not in global politics at all but in the ancient struggle between two competing worldviews, optimism and (what he calls) realism.

As the general sees things, President Obama is “a remarkable proponent for the optimist approach, [because] he fundamentally believes in human decency and therefore [also] in dialogue and engagement as the best way to overcome conflict.” And it is because of his fundamental belief in the power of reasonableness, particularly when coupled with the siren call of self-interest, that his working supposition is that Islamists, even the radical ones who hold the real power in Teheran, can be gotten to buy into the concept of a globally civil society in which conflicts are resolved in the context of peaceful discussion and negotiation, by heads coming together rather than by heads being chopped off.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a realist motived by an essentially pessimistic worldview. He looks across the border at the war in Syria, at the chaos in Iraq, at the violent misanthropy of ISIS, at the misery that Hamas has brought to Gaza, at the demise of democracy in Egypt, at the imperious presidency of President Abbas (now in the tenth year of a four-year term), at the near-anarchy in Yemen…and he, Netanyahu, is not prompted to embrace the sense of fundamental human decency that lies at the core, so the general, of President Obama’s worldview. And so, General Kuperwasser concludes, what is creating the tension between Israel and its most powerful ally is not a difference of opinion rooted in some specific detail about this or that dunam of land, but a divergence of fundamental philosophical orientation, the president being an optimist in the true and literal sense of the word and the prime minister playing the role of the self-proclaimed optimist in my father’s joke who is—and this is why the joke is funny—even more pessimistic than his friend who only thinks he’s a pessimist but who hasn’t fully accepted the truth about how things truly are in this world of misery and woe.

When framed that way, I find myself somewhat stymied. As an American, I bring the president’s fundamental optimism to my worldview as well. In 1903, Helen Keller published a remarkable essay called, simply, “Optimism,” which I still recall reading when I was in high school, and which I still think of as one of the simplest and most affecting expressions of native American optimism ever written.  (At Forest Hills High, we were always interested in the literary works of famous neighborhood residents. If you are reading this electronically, click here for a free copy of the Keller essay. Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills from 1917 to 1936.)  Indeed, when she looks into the future—and this was a woman who only looked at anything through the matrices of her own intelligence—and writes of her ability to see in the distance a “brighter spiritual era” slowly emerging, “an era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor; one taskmaster, God,” I find myself moved…but ultimately unconvinced. Or maybe that’s not even precisely correct because I do see that world in the future…but between here and the great redemption of the world that the prophets promised, I see the great obligation of nations endowed with vision, virtue, spirit, and a will to justice to struggle against the dark forces allied against all of the above values.

To paint the tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as rooted in the former’s subcutaneous anti-Semitism and the latter’s uncompromising Jewishness is to exaggerate the situation to the point, I believe, of falsehood. No one who reads a transcript of the President’s remarks at Adas Israel in Washington last week could seriously think otherwise. But I do believe that General Kuperwasser has seized on a basic truth: that the tension between them derives neither from prejudice nor irrational dislike, but from a fundamentally different worldview. The President is suffused with typical American optimism. He believes, as I wish I did too, that all people are basically good, that behind the bluster of political rhetoric invariably rests the equally well-rooted will to do good and to govern justly. Anne Frank thought that too. (Or she did while she was still safely hidden away in the Achterhuis and free to pen entries in her diary. Whether she revisited those thoughts later on obviously cannot be known.) Furthermore, I believe that most Americans share a basic sense regarding the fundamental goodness of the world and its peoples.

The Prime Minister shares the basically dour worldview that history has beaten into the Jewish people. He looks out at the world at Israel’s neighbors and sees predatory enemies waiting for the first sign of weakness, for the first intimation that Israel’s will to defend itself might be flagging, for the first reasonable opportunity to strike successfully and to defeat the Jewish state. He sees no reason to suppose that the violent anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership is feigned or that their oft-repeated desire to annihilate Israel is mere rhetoric. If there’s one thing we learned from our contemplation of our own history, it’s to take our enemies at their word…and always to take their rhetoric, including at its most brutally vituperative, fully seriously. The Prime Minister, therefore, is a pessimist. Or, if you approve of his approach, a realist.  General Kuperwasser clearly thinks he has it right and that our President is hampered, not strengthened, by his optimism. I hope he’s wrong. Time will tell. 

In the end, though, maintaining the traditional American belief in the ultimate worth of an essentially optimistic worldview is no substitute for remaining vigilant and strong, for declining to trust people whose behavior in the past has not even remotely earned that trust, for taking anti-Semites at their world when they speak openly about murdering Jews or destroying Israel, and for insisting on that the basic right to defend one’s people and one’s nation can never be subjugated to policies rooted, not in sober analysis of the facts in evidence, but in native optimism about human nature.  And that, more than my natural propensity to see the good in all people and to share my nation’s natural optimism about the world, is what guides me to my state of extreme wariness regarding the proposed deal with Iran soon to be upon us. 

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