Thursday, May 25, 2017

Yom Yerushalayim 2017

I surprised myself this last Wednesday with the degree of emotion I found myself bringing to Yom Yerushalayim this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, then felt surprised by the fact that I felt surprised at all.

It would not, after all, be a stretch to refer to the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem by
Israeli troops on June 7, 1967, as the most momentous event in Jewish history since the founding of the state itself in 1948. (Jerusalem Day—Yom Yerushalayim in Hebrew—is observed on the anniversary of that day according to the Hebrew calendar, the 28th day of the month of Iyar, which fell this last Wednesday even though anniversary according to the secular calendar is still a few weeks off.) Nor, for once, does it seem exaggerated to speak about the reunification of the city in salvific, perhaps even messianic, terms: the restoration of the city, riven in two by war, to something akin to the psalmist’s vision of Jerusalem as a “unified city of tightly-knit together precincts” felt then and still feels to me now not merely like a great military victory, which it surely was as well, but as much—and perhaps even more so—like a hurdle successfully leapt over on the way to the great redemptive moment that Torah teaches will come to all humankind at the end of days. I’m not sure I can remember precisely how the ninth-grader I was then processed the events of June 1967 as they unfolded. But I am completely certain about how they feel to me a half-century later, as I look back on the Six Day War and contemplate its larger meaning.

Regular readers of my weekly letters and blog posts know that I have written at length in other many other places about my relationship to Jerusalem, sometimes focusing on my first trip there the year before the Six Day War when I was only thirteen years old (click here), sometimes about the experience of our oldest child being born in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes on the experience of acquiring a home in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes about the question of American foreign policy with respect to the status of Jerusalem (click here), and sometimes about the United Nations and its hate-filled, perverse, and deeply anti-Semitic stance with respect to the Holy City (click here or here.) In all those pieces, however, I tried to capture some aspect of my deep emotional commitment not only to the poetic idea of Jerusalem as the city of God that functions as the nexus point between heaven and earth, but to the actual city of golden stone that has existed physically and fully really at the epicenter of Jewish history since the days of King David more than three thousand years ago. Nor do I feel any need to choose between the two approaches: I am drawn to the city both as a theological concept suggestive of the deepest and most moving ideas about the world and the place of Israel among the nations and to the actual, physical city in which we are summertime residents and very happy property owners.

It’s interesting, now that I think of it, that the name Jerusalem does not appear in the Torah, where the city is invariably referenced slightly (or more than slightly) mysteriously as “the place in which God has chosen to cause the divine name to dwell.” Text historians have their own explanation for that strange detail of the biblical text, but for me it is part of a larger set of ideas regarding the nature of holiness itself.

Moses, the national hero par excellence and a man of unparalleled holiness, too is left unnamed in the Torah. The name Moses, after all, was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter because his life was saved when he was drawn from the river, and the word for “drawn” sounds a bit like the Hebrew version of Moses’ name. But, of course, Pharaoh’s daughter would have spoken Egyptian, not Hebrew, so presumably our biblical tale is a kind of Hebrew-language retelling of how Moses got whatever his Egyptian name was, presumably one that sounded like the Egyptian word for “drawn.”  But in either event his parents must have given him a name when he was born, months before he was deposited into the Nile in a basket or drawn from the river to safety. Surely that was his “real” name, the one his parents gave him…and yet it is nowhere recorded in Scripture. So in a very real sense Moses too has no name.

Nor does the Land of Israel. Other lands are named freely: the Land of Egypt, the Land of Goshen, the Land of the Philistines, the Land of Moab, and more. The pre-Israelite version of the land has a name too, of course: it is always referenced as the Land of Canaan. But the Canaanites are destined quickly to pass from the scene…and the land’s future name, “the Land of Israel,” is not mentioned in the Torah at all. The phrase, it is true, appears elsewhere in Scripture (although in fewer than a dozen places). But in the Torah the land is only referenced either by its soon-to-be-former name or by one of a handful of handy circumlocutions: the land that God promised to your ancestors, the land that God shall cause you to inherit, the land that God is granting you as your eternal patrimony, the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But nowhere in the Torah do we learn what the Land of Canaan will be called once the Canaanites vanish from the scene of history! So the Holy Land, surely the holiest of lands, too has no name…or at least not one in the simple sense that Laos and Ecuador do.

Even the great desert sanctuary to which the Torah devotes so many endless columns of relentless detail—and which houses not only the sanctum called “the Holy Place” but also the inmost sanctum called the Holy of Holies (that is, the holiest of holy places)—too has no name, not really: it is referenced merely as a mishkan, a slightly obscure term that denotes the resting- or dwelling-place of something or someone. And so the great sanctuary is called the mishkan of God, the mishkan of God’s glory, the mishkan of the testimony (i.e., of the tablets of the law that were preserved in the inmost sanctum), the mishkan of the Tent of Meeting (i.e., the tent that functioned within the holy precincts as its most sacred space), etc. But other than being reference as the dwelling of God or the resting place of some specific thing…it too has no “real” name at all.

In its own premodern way, Scripture nods to the almost ineffable sanctity of certain things by leaving then unnamed. The idea is clear enough—that, since human language is rooted in human experience and the quality of holiness derives from a realm completely outside the boundaries of the human experience, the most honest thing anyone can say about anything truly suffused with holiness would be to say nothing at all, a point made most famously of all by the author of the 65th psalm, who opened his poem with the bald assertion that, with respect to God, the Holy One of Israel, “the only [true] praise is silence itself.”

And so it is with Jerusalem itself, now and for many centuries named and called by its name, but still characterized by an aura of innate holiness that can surely be felt and vaguely described, but never fully defined.

I was, as I never seem to tire of relating, a boy when I first entered Jerusalem. To say I was naïve and untried in the ways of the world is to say almost nothing at all. I was, in every sense, a junior high schooler (this was the summer before ninth grade, almost a year before the Six Day War). I had only the rudimentary Hebrew of a Hebrew School student and no knowledge at all, let alone any sort of sophisticated understanding, of Jewish history or Jewish philosophy. I was me, obviously. But I was still a golem in every meaningful way, something akin to the block of marble in which David was imprisoned until Michelangelo set him free by chipping away the part that didn’t look like David. I was in there somewhere! (How can I not have been?) I obviously had no idea what the future would or could bring, but at that stage I wasn’t even sure what I wanted it to bring. But something in the place spoke to me even then, even without me being able to understand even a fraction of what it might have had to say. As I stood at the Mandelbaum Gate and attempted to take some snapshots with my Instamatic of the Old City’s walls looming tall behind the Jordanian soldiers glaring at me from just beyond the barricade, I felt a kind of kinship with the past and the future…and with the history and destiny of the people Israel and the Land of Israel that stays with me still.

A half-century plus a year has passed since I stood in that place. A year later, the Mandelbaum Gate came down and the city was freed from Jordanian occupation. Six years later, in 1973, I arrived back in Jerusalem, this time as a counselor on an AZYF teen trip to Israel, and it was then that I entered Jerusalem—or at least Old Jerusalem—for the first time. In a real sense, I haven’t ever left. The notion that Jerusalem is or ever could be anything other than the eternal capital city of the Jewish people doesn’t mean that we cannot or shouldn’t share it with others who too find holiness in its sacred precincts. But no accommodation to any sort of political reality can affect the bond between the Jewish people and its eternal capital city, a bond that exists not only outside of time, but also outside of language. The psalmist composed a simple prayer, and it is those words that have been in my mind all week. Shaalu shalom yerushalayim yish’layu ohavayikh, he wrote, addressing himself to the House of Israel: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem so that those who love the city may too only know tranquility.” That is our prayer too, of course, and this as well: May God grant that Jerusalem always be the capital of a strong, proud Israel, and may the city itself soon serve as the House of Prayer for all peoples of which the prophet wrote all those many centuries ago.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Who Went

Autobiography is a suspicious genre at best: generally speaking, the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own stories. For one thing, people almost by definition tell their own stories from their personal vantage points, presenting as obvious truths details that others would see entirely differently. That must seem like an obvious truism, but it’s not that easy to keep in mind as you read along, enthralled by the story being told and forgetting to remember that every story, even the compelling one you are being told by the talented author of the book you are reading, has another side…and would sound entirely different if someone else were telling it, the author’s spouse, for example, or one of his or her parents, or one of the police officers the author is accusing of brutality. Nonetheless, it’s a popular genre. And one of the most popular of its sub-genres is constituted of exposés by escapees, by people who have escaped from…somewhere. From prison. From slavery. From a cult. From an oppressive home environment. From an abusive marriage. From a horrific boarding school. From somewhere!

Some of these books specifically chronicle their authors’ successful escape from the religious cults that earlier on had claimed their total allegiance, books like Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief or Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. And then there is a whole sub-category of Jewish authors who write about their “escape” from the hasidic (or super-frumm non-hasidic) communities in which they either were raised or ended up living.

There are a lot of these books, mostly by women. Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Childhood, Judy Brown’s This Is Not a Love Story, Chaya Deitsch’s Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are only some of the better-known examples, but there are others out there as well.  Some of you may have seen the only recently-made Yiddish-language movie I know of, Adam Vardy’s Mendy, which details its protagonist’s unexpectedly uninteresting journey from his insular community in Brooklyn to a community of hasidic escapees in Manhattan. The movie was irritating, actually—not well written, not well acted, and not particularly compelling. But at least it was a man’s story…which made it almost unique. (I suppose I will probably eventually read Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament once I get past the vulgar title and the even more vulgar book jacket illustration. Or maybe not.)

And now I have just finished reading Shulem Deen’s memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, the author’s account of his painful decision to leave the Skverer hasidic community in New Square, New York, and to re-invent himself more or less from top to bottom even though his decision ultimately cost him not only his marriage and his community, but any meaningful contact with his children as well. But rejection by his neighbors did not herald rejection by the reading public and the book was almost incredibly well received. It won a National Jewish Book Award in 2015. Far more improbably, it was named one of Star Magazine’s “Fab 5 Can’t-Miss Entertainment Picks.” And more improbably even than that (which is saying something), it was named one of the “forty-three books to read before you die” by the Independent, one of Britain’s leading online newspapers.

It is a painful read, and particularly for those of us who come to the topic with our own set of complicated biases and preconceptions.

Like many of my generation, I grew up imbued with a strangely idealized conception of the hasidic world, one developed without the benefit of having ever met an actual hasidic person or visited a hasidic community or synagogue. They were everywhere in my childhood, those people. The walls of one of best friend’s parents’ apartments featured a series of decorative plates, each emblazoned with the image of a sole hasid dancing in apparently ecstatic prayer. My own mother once needle-pointed a pillow cover featuring in silhouette some hasidic men holding open books. In the same vein but even more popular were pictures on black velvet, not of dogs playing poker, but of hasidim engaging in some sort of raucous discussion, presumably about some holy matter, and gesticulating dramatically with their hands.  During my two summers at the UAHC Eisner Summer Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the words “hasidic prayer service” were used to denote a service without real (or any) liturgy—one more akin (I only realized years later how funny this was) to a Quaker meeting than anything a real hasid would recognize—in which people were asked to sit quietly in each other’s contemplative company until someone thought of something to say, something like the Shema or a line from a popular song. And, of course, there were the two volumes of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that served as the basis for a thousand divrei torah at camp and back home in Junior Congregation as well.

Even my own parents fell under the spell occasionally, speaking reverentially of hasidim as the ones who would keep the embers glowing even after the rest of us lost interest and moved on.  But, even despite all of this worshipfulness, I don’t recall it ever striking me how odd it was that I hadn’t ever met an actual hasid despite the fact that the great hasidic communities of Brooklyn weren’t more than a thirty-minute drive from Forest Hills and could be visited easily. Nor do I recall it dawning on me that the people on the plates and pillows were depictions of actual human beings who, had anyone wished, could presumably have been easily located, encountered and enjoyed in person.  And so things remained until I actually did meet my first hasid, a fellow my age named Summy (short for Isumar) who occasionally davened at the same quasi-hasidic shtibl in Forest Hills in which I occasionally attended services during my JTS years when I was back home with my parents for Shabbat. (Why I chose to attend services there when I would have been far more warmly welcomed elsewhere is a different issue, one I’ll write about on some other occasion. The other worshipers, at any rate, weren’t hasidim at all—just the rabbi and his innumerable sons were, plus Cousin Summy who occasionally escaped—his word, not mine—from Brooklyn to have what he called “shabbos in the country.” That he thought of Forest Hills as “the country” should have been my first clue that our worldviews were not going to mesh easily. And yet we were, in some sense, friends: two young men who got along and liked each other…and each of whom was familiar with a part of the world regarding which the other was very curious.)

From Summy, I got a clear sense of the “other” side of the story…and it was not at all a pretty picture. Even after all these years, I hesitate to repeat much of what he told me on our Shabbos-afternoon walks. As I think back, I don’t recall it ever striking me to wonder if he was being fully honest with me. (Were there really Manhattan brothels that catered to hasidic young men eager to test things out before marriage? I certainly believed him then, but now I find myself less certain.) Still, that relationship provided me with my first inkling that hasidim were real people who existed in the real world. Since then, of course, I’ve met other hasidic types, some impressively learned and others childish and naïve. But none has ever made the impression on me that Summy did when I was in my early twenties and still trying, albeit not yet too successfully, to figure out the Jewish world and my place in it.

So that is the baggage I personally brought to Shulem Deen’s book. In some ways, his is an unusual story. Born to baal-teshuvah parents in Boro Park, he hardly came from a hasidic family at all…yet he was drawn to the hasidic life to which he was exposed in New Square and, after some dithering, he bought into it more or less holus-bolus. He married as a young man in the typical hasidic style, then went on to have five children in rapid succession. On the outside, he was a “regular” hasid, wearing the whole get-up, sporting sidelocks that if uncurled would have hung down as far as his waist (a point he makes in passing but which stays with me for some reason), expressing public disdain for even the slightly glimmer of modernity that somehow managed to pierce the community’s almost impermeable boundaries. But on the inside, the author was a work very much still in progress. Reading how he first became aware of the fact that anyone, even a hasid, may borrow books from a public library, and how he acquired a radio, then a television (which he kept hidden in a cupboard and only dared watch when his children were fast asleep), and then a computer, his story reads more like a traditional Bildungsroman than a prison escapee’s journal.

The depiction of hasidic life in the book is as unappealing as it is slightly charming. The community really does stick together. And its members are depicted positively as men and women of deep and unquestioning faith. To say that they take their observance seriously is to say almost nothing: these are people who have chosen to subjugate every aspect of their lives to the kind of punctilious religious observance that is the hallmark of traditional hasidic life. And yet…for all they are as strict as strict could be (and the Skverer hasidim are among the strictest in terms of their observance and their standards), they are depicted in the book as harsh and judgmental, as petty and meanspirited, and as capable of remarkably cruelty towards each other. In one of the book’s most shocking passages, the author openly admits to having participated personally in a criminal effort to defraud New York State out of serious sums of money by producing false reports regarding the standards that prevail in one of the community’s yeshivahs. All in all, and even despite the occasional rays of light that shine though, Deen’s is not an attractive portrait of hasidic life and, in the end, no reader will find it even slightly surprising that the author wanted out.

But reading from my personal perch, what struck me was how Deen, for all he was ready to abandon his community and his family, and fully to reject the hasidic lifestyle, was unable to shed his community’s fundamentalist worldview. In other words, his escape was from black to white, from the strictest level of observance possible to absolutely nothing at all: this man whose payos once hung down to his waist is depicted by the end of the book as blithely living outside even the most elemental norms of Jewish life and as having no level of discernible Jewish observance in his life at all. The possibility of living a rich, meaningful, satisfying Jewish life characterized by both intellectual and spiritual integrity seems not to have dawned on the author: he left everything and moved on to nothing without, it seems, even considering that his problem might be with the know-nothing fundamentalism that characterizes hasidism at its least appealing, not with the foundational stuff of Judaism itself upon which every Jewish community from the most to the least liberal rests…including many into which the author could easily fit. 

It’s a good book and worth your time to read. It’s troubling and not a little sad. But it’s also provocative and very interesting. I resisted reading it when it first came out in 2015 for some reason, but a Shelter Rocker recommended it to me the other week and I decided to give it a chance after all. I’m glad that I did!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jubilees

Jewish life is cycles inside of cycles: the daily cycle of prayer, the weekly cycle of Sabbath observance, the monthly sanctification of the New Moon, the annual cycle of festivals, the seven-year sabbatical cycle related to debt release and land use, the twenty-eight year cycle relating to the recitation of Birkat Ha-ḥamah, the Blessing of the Sun…and the granddaddy of them all, the fifty-year jubilee cycle that brings all lands in Eretz Yisrael back to their original owners and completes the manumission of indentured servants. But that’s it—no cycles are longer than that final one, a half-century being most of most people’s lives, I suppose, and the notion of having calendrical cycles longer than the average human life span just didn’t really make that much sense…and particularly in ancient times, when life expectancy was that much less than it is nowadays.

So fifty was a big number of years in ancient times. And, today, I’d like to write to you about three different fifty-year anniversaries that either just passed or are about to come up, each of which affected the fifty-year-younger me in ways that I am certain I didn’t understand at the time and perhaps even couldn’t have.

It was fifty years ago exactly that Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, was published in the spring of 1967 and became an instant bestseller, remaining on the Times’ bestsellers’ list for thirty-nine weeks. I read it that summer at camp and was completely taken with it. But although I was myself only one year younger than the book’s protagonists, Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders, I could not possibly have been less like either of them—perhaps more overtly not like Danny Saunders, the son of a hasidic rebbe who in Williamsburg who is not only being raised in a hasidic community but who is also being raised by a father who refuses to engage in ordinary conversation with him and who only speaks to him at all about serious religious or spiritual matters…but also not at all like Reuven Malter, a boy being raised in a more “normal” Brooklyn Jewish home, but a strictly observant one nevertheless, under the aegis of a gentle father who is also a world-renowned Talmud scholar. I was neither of these boys! But, bringing to bear that peculiar Jewish ability to remember the future, I somehow understood, even at fourteen, that I was already on the path forward that would eventually become my life’s journey…and that successfully traveling its trajectory was going to require that, for all I wasn’t ever going to be either of them, I was somehow also going to have also to be them both.

The following winter, I read Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, the book which more or less guided me through my adolescence. It was a very popular book back then—I’m guessing not a few of my readers also read it in the course of their high school years—and it too featured two protagonists who were wholly unlike each other. Narcissus is the scholar who finds his greatest joy in intellectual achievement, while Goldmund wanders the world and samples its pleasures freely and with almost Dionysian abandon. But although the book is about how different and how similar the two of them actually are—in the end, each ends up wishing he were more like the other—and how each of us, to find balance and joy in the world, needs somehow also to “be” them both, I already had in place the antipodes that would delimit my life’s journey, and they were Reuven and Danny, not Narcissus and Goldmund. For better or worse, that is how I got to be me…if not precisely then certainly in broad terms. But the struggle depicted in the book between religiosity and scholarship, between losing yourself and finding yourself in Jewishness, between finding solace and guidance in other people’s books and writing your own story over and over in your own (the boys trade places with Reuven, the scholar’s son, becoming a rabbi, and Danny, the rebbe’s son, becoming a psychologist)—even at fourteen, I understood that this was to be my own slightly impossible path forward in life.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell myself, not really. But in retrospect I can see that I knew it clearly, and I think one of the first real intimations of my future life that I had came to me as I read The Chosen. I eventually read all of Potok, just as I eventually read all of Hesse. I liked all of both authors’ books too, although some more and others less. But nothing ever equaled either book in either author’s oeuvre in terms of the effect it had on the adolescent or post-adolescent me.

The second thing that happened a full fifty years ago that altered the course of my life forward was the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles released on my fourteenth birthday. (You see, it really was all about me!)

Young people today, unused to the way things were in ancient times when music wasn’t free and certainly didn’t come to you by floating magically through the air into your “device,” will find it difficult to imagine the impact that single album had on an entire generation. It was the Beatles’ eighth studio album, not their first. And it wasn’t that there weren’t other bands out there recording innovative, interesting material. But there was something in Sgt. Pepper that changed everything, even despite its relative brevity. (The whole album, all together, isn’t forty minutes long.) But I knew every lyric to every song, as did more or less everyone I knew anywhere near my age. We used and re-used phrases from the album endlessly in our casual speech. We could identify every single one of the fifty-seven living people and nine wax figures on the cover. The music itself took on something of the sacred, each track being intoned endlessly by ourselves in ninth grade as though the album were a collection of hymns reverently to be chanted as part of daily worship. I still had a month left of junior high school when the album came out, but that was a mere detail…and I was so ready for whatever was going to come next precisely because Sgt. Pepper served as a kind of a gateway into an unknown future, and not just for me alone either but also for more or less an entire generation. To this day, I know every word of every song. At least until James Taylor released his Sweet Baby James album in 1970, I thought of “Within You, Without You” (the only non-Lennon/McCartney song on the album) as my personal anthem. I could identify any song from its opening second or two. If The Chosen was where I was going, Sgt. Pepper was where I was. And it opened up to me the possibility of traveling there under my own steam, propelled forward by the sheer power of my own will to be as I wished and to become who I wished.

And, of course, we are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the single most transformational event in post-Shoah Jewish history. I will have a lot more to say in its regard when we get to Yom Yerushalayim on Wednesday, May 24, the actual anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian control and the re-unification of the city, but today I’d like to speak of the anniversary in far more personal terms.

My first visit to Israel was in 1966, the year of my bar-mitzvah. But that trip, transformational in every meaningful way possible, was only the prelude to what was to come. (For more about that trip and the effect it had on the adolescent me, click here and here.)

I loved Israel in 1966, but it was more than a bit of a third-world country in those days. The public telephones didn’t work too well. You could only phone overseas from a post office. Major roads were unpaved. The restrooms in the bus stations were by American standards unspeakable. Yet there was an intoxicating feel of newness and adventure everywhere, and the pioneering spirit our teachers spoke about endlessly in Hebrew School was fully tangible at every turn.  I was not only impressed, but, in the deepest sense of the word, I was overwhelmed. Nothing felt the same to me after that trip—certainly nothing back home in Forest Hills, but also nothing at all elsewhere in the world either—but, in the end, it was the Six Day War itself that sealed the deal and made me feel that Israel was not only a noble undertaking destined to have a profound impact on Jewish history, but that the future of the Jewish people was going to be indelibly and inextricably tied to the future history of the State in a way that was already making it impossible to think of one without simultaneously thinking also of the other and which would eventually shape my own sense of the meaning of Jewish history in our time.

And that was the story of my fourteenth year. Out there, the world was focused on the summer of love as it was unfolding in San Francisco, New York, and London. (I actually attended—or at least put in a nervous appearance—at the Be-In in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow that spring, which I remember as being remarkably like its depiction in Miloš Forman’s movie version of Hair. But that will have to be another story for another time.) But for me, it was the year of three things backed up by three other things—the Six Day War backed up by my experiences a year earlier in Israel, The Chosen backed up by Narcissus and Goldmund, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band backed up by every album I owned that came before it and which created the hole where the rain got in, and got my mind to wondering where it could go oh, where it could go. Oh! And where I went too, as it turned out. 




Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Art of the Deal

President Trump has come under particularly harsh fire lately for appearing not to know some basic facts relating to American history, at least some of which—that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, that Frederick Douglass lived in the nineteenth century, or that Andrew Jackson died more than fifteen years before the Civil War began—are generally considered to be more or less common knowledge. But it is also true that at least some of the above gaffes, all of which the White House tried to spin in a less embarrassing way once they were out there burrowing their way through the blogosphere and the online and print media, appear to be legitimately interpretable as mere slips of the tongue rather than proof positive that the President is unfamiliar with even the basic details of our nation’s history.

But one of the President’s recent remarks—his offhand comment the other day in an interview with Selina Zito on Sirius XM that the Civil War could have been avoided had someone of sufficient persuasive force fully trained in the art of the deal, perhaps someone like himself, been available to broker a compromise between the federal government and the states threatening to secede—struck me not only as not entirely wrong, but as something our nation would do well to take seriously and to ponder thoughtfully and maturely. (Just for the record, the notion that the President feels that he personally could have averted the Civil War is not something I came to on my own: in an interview with Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, President Trump apparently said openly that he believed that he personally could have “done a deal” to prevent the War Between the States from breaking out. To hear Jon Meacham report on that incident, just that click here, and listen carefully about 3.5 minutes into the clip.)

But the topic I wish to broach today is not whether the President’s sense of his own abilities as a negotiator is or isn’t grandiose, nor do I want to return to the topic of the degree to which Donald Trump is legitimately to be seen as a latter-day Andrew Jackson, whom he specifically mentioned in the Selina Zito interview as someone (someone other than himself, apparently) who could have prevented America’s bloodiest war if he had been in office at the time instead of the series of hapless losers who occupied the White House in the decade before Fort Sumter: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, Jr. (I wrote about the similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump more than a year ago in the context of then-candidate Trump’s promise to make American great again. Click here to revisit those comments.) Instead, I’d like to focus on the question that lurks behind the President’s comments about the Civil War. Is war ever truly inevitable? Are all wars the result of failed efforts to prevent them? Does every war begin because no sufficiently skilled negotiator rose up before the actual commencement of hostilities to broker the kind of deal capable of bringing the sides to a non-violent solution to their dispute?

We can start with the President’s example, the Civil War, which was preceded by many attempts to find a compromise with which both sides could live. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, proposed by Henry Clay and supported by ex-President Thomas Jefferson, that attempted to preserve a permanent balance between slave-states and free-states. There was the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which attempted to mollify the southern states, particularly South Carolina, in the wake of the so-called Nullification Crisis of the mid-1830s. There was the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to deal with the slave/free status of new territories won in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and which effectively, in the opinion of most historians, did delay the outbreak of hostilities by a full decade. (Just for the record, the single most odious piece of legislation ever passed by our American Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was part of that package. So compromise does not invariably lead the parties to it down a noble path.) And then there was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, engineered by Stephen A. Douglas, which effectively repealed the Compromise of 1820 by allowing the residents of both Kansas and Nebraska, then territories on their way to becoming states, to vote on whether to allow or forbid slavery within their borders. Those are the best-known examples, but there were also scores of other efforts to avert a war. As every eleventh grader knows, none of these efforts succeeded in the long run. And because no lasting compromise was reached, somewhere between 750,000 and a million Americans died…including more than 50,000 civilians on both sides and more than 80,000 slaves. So the question can be framed even more sharply: if the leaders on both sides had been able somehow to imagine the extent of the coming carnage, would they then have become able to find enough common ground to prevent the conflict?

It feels natural to insist that they could have. The North could have made its peace with the southern states’ right to secede—wasn’t the United States itself founded by people who insisted on their own right to secede from Britain? The South could have made its peace with there being legitimate limits to the rights of individual states in a union of united states. Everybody, had they only been able to see the mountains of cadavers on the ground at Gettysburg or Chickamauga in their magic crystal balls, would surely have understood the necessity of coming to terms without going to war!

But could they really have? When we are talking about territorial disputes relating to borders or property or money, it feels ridiculous to say that compromise is not always be an option. But once we begin to talk about institutions like slavery—an institution that treated human beings like chattel and which subjected people to brutality and violence that even beasts of burden are generally spared—when talking about something like that, is it rational to suppose that compromise could have been achieved? In the end, either slavery was going to be tolerated—perhaps restricted to certain areas or forced to function with limits imposed upon it, but nevertheless allowed to exist—or it wasn’t. When viewed that way, it feels strange to imagine that compromise could ever have been possible: what sort of grey area could possibly exist between legal and illegal?

Ben Winters’ novel, Underground Airlines, which I read last year, imagines a compromise averting the Civil War, but it is not a very realistic one. In the author’s fantasy, Lincoln is assassinated before even taking office and in the context of a traumatized nation in deep mourning a compromise is reached that allows slavery to endure in six states only. Georgia eventually gives up slavery in exchange for some hugely profitable government contracts and the two Carolinas merge into one state, thus yielding four states, the so-called Hard Four, in which slavery has endured into the twenty-first century. And so the book opens with a federal agent, himself a former slave, trying illegally to use his influence to gain his wife’s freedom and almost succeeding. But the book’s premise just does not ring true because, in the end, no one truly committed to the abolition of slavery could ever be party to a “compromise” that does not abolish slavery. When moral issues are involved, there is always a bottom line…and the existence of such a line precludes the possibility of compromise in its regard: like all lines, everything else in the universe has to be on one of its sides or the other!

Applying this idea to other contexts is both frustrating and slightly intoxicating. World War I, fought over issues that even today resist easy description and which yielded to the combatant nations only devastation and death, could surely have been averted by agile, clever diplomats. But could World War II have been averted? The world never tires of mocking the leaders of France, Italy, and Britain for their effort to avert war with Germany through a compromise with Hitler that did not actually involve any of the above-mentioned nations losing any of their own territory or ceding any of their own citizens’ rights. (I’m not sure that it is even legitimate to reference an agreement as a compromise if it doesn’t require the any of the parties to it to give up anything at all. At Munich, the Germans got what they wanted and the others gave up nothing at all except other people’s territory.) Nor was the failure of the Munich Agreement of 1938 end-result-neutral: it also gave the Germans almost a full extra year to prepare for war, which time made victory, at least in the initial German effort to overwhelm nations to the east and west, far more likely.

Could Israel’s endless war with its Arab neighbors have been averted by compromise? That too is a question worth asking…and particularly in the wake of Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, which this week celebrated the sixty-ninth anniversary of Israeli independence. Here too, it’s a matter of what you mean by compromise. The Partition Plan itself was a compromise, of course: the lands under British control east of the Jordan were excluded, and the remaining territory of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into two new states, one Jewish and one Arab. The yishuv accepted the compromise, but the Arabs did not…and so went to war with the fledgling State of Israel shortly after independence was proclaimed on May 14, 1948. So, yes, compromise could have averted the ensuing bloodshed, but there would have had to be two sides willing to compromise, not just one.  From the Arab point of view, no compromise was deemed possible if it led to the permanent establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. And so the answer here too has to be no: once the Arabs rejected a compromise the United Nations itself had formally endorsed, there was no real possibility of averting conflict without the Jewish side giving up their right to exist as an independent people in their own land.


So the President was both right and wrong in his comments about the Civil War. The chances that Andrew Jackson, had he been president in 1860, could have averted the war feel very slim. (The fact that Jackson, like four of his six predecessors in the White House, was himself a slaveowner hardly makes it feel likely that he would have brokered a deal that involved the abolition of slavery.) Nor does it seem particularly likely that even a deal-maker like President Trump himself could have negotiated such a deal successfully: in the end, either the states were going to be more powerful than the union that bound them to each other or it wasn’t…and slavery was going to endure somehow and somewhere, or it wasn’t. Once moral issues are in play—issues that by their nature resist compromise, like slavery or genocide—compromise becomes indistinguishable from acquiescence. And the inverse is also true: acquiescence to evil can never be rebranded as fair-minded compromise, not can the principled decision to look away from intolerable horror ever be justified with reference to how much better it would be if people just set their issues aside and choose to live in peace by ignoring evil.