Thursday, December 12, 2019

More Light!

I first read The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, the famously gossipy and endlessly amusing historian of the first twelve Roman emperors, when I was in graduate school. Lots of the book stays with me still, but among those anecdotes he relates that I could cite in a letter that might possibly fall into the hands of children my favorite has to do, I think, with the death of Vespasian—the archenemy of the Jews of his day and the Roman most responsible for the brutal defeat of the rebellion that left Jerusalem in ruins and the Temple razed. He was dying of terminal diarrhea (which detail appeals to me for some reason) and sensed that his end was near, when, so Suetonius, he looked at the people assembled by his bedside and archly said, “Vae, puto deus fio,” which translates loosely as “Vay iz mir, I think I’m turning into a god.”  Okay, the vay iz mir part I just made up. (Although vae in Latin means roughly the same thing as that longer Yiddish expression that oddly starts with the same word.) But the rest is slightly funny, slightly pathetic: since the Romans in his day liked to imagine their deceased Caesars turning into minor gods, Vespasian apparently though he could announce his imminent demise in an amusing way by forecasting his posthumous deification. Hardy-har-har!

That story came back to me over the last week as I received email after email about my last letter, the one in which I quoted Leonard Cohen’s song about light coming into the world because everything, somewhere, has a crack in it through which light can seep. I used that image to frame some of the good things I perceived as having happened lately, incidents or events that reminded me—in a particularly dark, distressing couple of months—that where there is darkness there can also be light…if you know where to look for it!

One writer asked me, I think seriously, if I was turning—not into a Roman god—but, in some ways even less probably, into an optimist. My regular readers know that optimism is hardly a hallmark of my worldview. Just to the contrary, I think, is the case: I have read too much—way too much—history, and particularly Jewish history, to see things other than clearly. And, at least for me, that means understanding mindless anti-Israelism not as a momentary aberration but as an integral plank of Western culture, as merely the latest iteration of the anti-Judaic sentiment that underlies too much of Western culture to be removed or even removable other than by the cultural version of a tectonic plate shift. So, no, I don’t think I’m ready to look out at the world and declare myself even a non-cockeyed optimist. And yet there have been just lately some positive, encouraging events that I omitted to discuss last week. And so, at risk of being accused of abandoning my systemic pessimism about the universe, I thought I’d risk writing about them this week. Why not? I’m on a roll!

I am thinking of two recent events principally.

The first is the conference that took place just last month in London that brought together Arab intellectuals and leaders from fifteen different Arab countries: Morocco, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and nine Persian Gulf states, all of whom were apparently of the mind that the best way to bring peace to the Middle East would be for Arab states, as well as the Palestinians, to engage with Israel, to abandon the decades-long boycott of the Jewish State, and to welcome Israel as a partner-in-dialogue. Even casual students of the Middle East will understand easily how surprising—or rather, shocking—a development this was. And yet, there they were: journalists, artists, scholars, politicians, and scholars (including scholars of the Quran) sitting together and saying clearly that the refusal to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s existence has mostly cost the Palestinians what could otherwise have been the opportunity to build their own state with the willing, even eager, support of their Israeli neighbors.

The group has a name: The Arab Council for Regional Integration. And they have a leader too in one Mustafa el-Dessouki, an Egyptian who edits an influential Arabic-language news magazine called Majalla. More recognizable will be the name of Anwar el-Sadat, not the assassinated Egyptian leader (obviously) but a namesake and nephew whose major claim to fame—at least so far—lies in his having been expelled from the Egyptian Parliament in 2017 for not being sufficiently obsequious to Egyptian President (and strongman) Abdel el-Sisi.

I’ve read several accounts of this meeting. (To sample some, click here, here, here, and here. To hear former P.M. Tony Blair’s address to the group, click here.) All seem in agreement that these people are sincere and that they represent a real sentiment among many in the Arab world—albeit one rarely expressed in public—to the effect that the real way to pave a path into the future for the Palestinians is for Israel to be made to feel secure, thus less inclined to act solely defensively, and to foster an atmosphere of mutual undertaking and endeavor that will make Israelis into real people for their Palestinian neighbors and, in some ways even more dauntingly, vice versa. This is something I’ve hoped would happen, basically, forever—the sudden appearance of a block of respected thinkers prepared to enter into sustained, respectful dialogue with Israeli leaders that is not “about” Israel’s right to exist but rather about the ideal way for Israel and its neighbors to relate to each other, to work together on projects of mutual benefit, and to create the kind of peaceful setting in the Middle East that would benefit all concerned parties.

It’s just a beginning. It’s not even that much of a beginning. But it is something…and, as far as I can see, it actually is real. I feel buoyed, almost encouraged, slightly hopeful, marginally less pessimistic—all highly unlikely developments for someone who prides himself on the sobriety and realisticism of his worldview. And yet…here we are! Something new has happened. Where we go from here, none can say. But all can hope!

So that was the first event I wanted to bring to your attention. The second has to do with a visit just last week by some senior journalists from Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia who came to visit Israel for a five-day visit. Organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the guests all came from countries without diplomatic ties to Israel. But they came anyway, and this too represents a kind of sea-change—or at least the intimation of the possibility of that kind of sea-change—in the intransigency and obstinacy that has characterized even relatively liberal Arab writers when it came down to accepting the reality of Israel and understanding that the path to peace in the Middle East is through dialogue rather than violence. Yes, it’s true that these journalists, apparently fearing repercussions at home if it became known that they had been in Israel, retained their anonymity during the trip. But that only makes their visit more, not less, remarkable: here were people with everything to lose. And yet they came, partially (I’m sure) out of curiosity, but apparently also to take a principled stance against the mindless rejectionism that has led exactly nowhere in more than seventy years.

Their visit was not totally unprecedented. Last summer, a group of bloggers and journalists from Iraq and the Gulf States who came to Israel also last month as guests of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In some ways, it was a normal trip: visits to Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount, the Knesset, etc. But this too was something we hadn’t ever seen: young writers, particularly bloggers, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and some Gulf States traveling around Israel, seeing the people not as a faceless enemy but as actual individual men and women, attempting to understand the culture of the place and its sense of self. (To get the idea, click here for a picture of a young Saudi blogger named Mohammed Saud and Yair Netanyahu, Bibi’s son, sitting side by side and apparently getting along just fine.)

None of this is going to matter in the long run if the participants are doomed to be outliers who represent no one but themselves. But I have long hoped—even prayed—for something like this, for people on the other side to realize that the great hope for a future for the Palestinian people lies in dialogue and cooperation, not in violence fueled by self-generated despair.

Yes, it isn’t much. In some ways, it’s hardly anything at all. But you know how it works with cracks and light: even the narrowest crack has the capacity to let in enough light to change everything! As Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, approaches, that seems like a positive notion to keep in mind.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

How the Light Gets In

Some people first heard the late Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” while listening to his 1992 album, The Future. Others, probably way more, were first exposed to its haunting melody in Oliver Stone’s 1994 controversial (but also terrific) movie, Natural Born Killers, starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. (For a terrific clip of the great man singing his great song, click here.) All the song’s lyrics are eerily compelling, but most stuck of all in my head is the chorus: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

For some reason the sound of that voice (truly like none other) singing those words has been in my head for the last few weeks.

Other than the day of Thanksgiving itself, which I spent surrounded by family and the house was filled with music and light, it’s been a dismal few weeks featuring a world-wide surge in anti-Semitic incidents and a parallel, and public, diminution of sensitivity to the legacy of Shoah that feels, at least to me, unprecedented.  The vicious verbal and on-line abuse leveled at Auschwitz survivor and Italian senator-for-life Liliana Segre because she dared call for the creation of a parliamentary committee devoted solely combatting hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism was shocking. (Click here for more details.)  A recent campus-wide surge in racist and anti-Semitic incidents at Syracuse University was so intense that the university was obliged to take the unprecedented step of suspending the social activities of all fraternities through the end of the semester. (Click here for the fuller story.) Reports of intense anti-Semitism, only sometimes dressed up as anti-Israelism to make it appear marginally less odious, in places once known as bastions of civility and learning—places like Vassar College, Duke University (where the level of anti-Semitism on campus has actually provoked an inquiry at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Education), the University of Toronto, Brown University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, the University of Virginia, San Francisco State University, and Columbia University (where the openly and unapologetically anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, was greeted with a world leader’s welcome just two months ago)—have only added to my general sense of discomfort and ill ease. If you’re not depressed enough, click here to read a round-up report of the latest anti-Semitic incidents in Poland. And here to read a similar survey of incidents in Hungary. There was a time when the ADL survey released two weeks ago according to which a full quarter of Europeans harbor strongly negative attitudes towards Jewish people would have shocked me to the core. Now it just seems like more bad news. (Click here for the full story, complete with depressing specifics.) Oh, and a white supremacist skinhead named Richard Holzer was charged just last week in Denver federal court with plotting to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado. (He pled not guilty.)

Given the gravity of the above, the kerfuffle over Amazon selling Christmas tree ornaments depicting various images of Auschwitz seems almost amusing. (And, no, I did not make that up. Click here.)

And yet, despite it all, there are also cracks through which light has lately been seeping in a bit and making the world feel at least marginally less dark, less anxiety-provoking, and less bad. So I thought this week I would focus on the cracks and the light, and invite you all to join me in looking away from the darkness for at least a few minutes. Trust me, it won’t take that long.

In Malmö, Sweden, a city whose Jewish citizens haven’t felt safe or secure for a very long time, an imam—and, at that, the founder of the city’s Academy of Islam—attended a public commemoration of Kristallnacht. It is amazing that this was considered an amazing gesture. But given the intense level of anti-Semitism in that place, his gesture was hailed not only as welcome and overdue, but truly as brave. So that certainly qualifies as a ray of light.

At the United Nations, an organization of which I couldn’t possibly think less, the annual round of Israel-bashing resolutions produced an unexpected ray of light—or, more precisely, thirteen of them when thirteen nations that have previously merely abstained when the same resolution was introduced in past years—Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Brazil and Colombia—actually found the courage to vote against one of the General Assembly’s more egregious efforts to condemn Israel for the world’s woes. Of course, there will be nineteen (not a typo) other bills introduced in the General Assembly condemning Israel this year…but at least in this one instance thirteen countries behaved decently and reasonably. (In the final vote, fifty-four nations still abstained, just twenty-three (including the countries listed above) voted against the measure, and eighty-seven supported it. So there wasn’t much light, just some. But sometimes a single ray of light is comfort enough when the alternative would be pitch darkness, which is what I believe all rational people have come over the years to expect from the United Nations.

In France, where I was counselled against daring to walk down the street wearing a kippah just two years ago, the National Assembly (i.e., the lower house of the French parliament) voted to approve the draft of a resolution that formally acknowledges hatred of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and which calls upon the French government to join other European nations in adopting the definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (That definition is an interesting document to consider in its own right: click here.) And that too constitutes a ray of light.

In the U.K., where Chief Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented step a few weeks ago of issuing a statement calling the Labour Party out on its apparently endemic anti-Semitism, that party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn—who has been accused widely and repeatedly of himself harboring deeply offensive anti-Semitic attitudes—actually apologized for the anti-Semitism in its ranks. Yes, he did so only after being prodded repeatedly by a persistent reporter. And, yes, he followed up his remarks by pointing out that other parties—he specifically mentioned the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—have had to deal with anti-Semitism in their ranks as well. But, at the very least, the man went on record as decrying the scandal that at times has engulfed his election campaign—the elections in the U.K. are scheduled for December 12—and saying, at least formally, that he considers anti-Semitism to be an unacceptable form of racism. And that counts as a ray of light too. Sort of.

And, speaking of England, there was the incident on the subway the other day that could reasonably go into the light and the darkness columns, but in which I prefer to see the light. A visibly Jewish man and his children were taking the Underground on their way somewhere when a man came up to them and started hurling anti-Semitic abuse at them and accusing them of worshiping in the synagogue of Satan. (The history of that expression, which appears twice in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, is more complicated that it might at first sound. But that the man on the tube meant it as a nasty slur against Jewish people goes without saying.) So that’s the bad part of the story. But then Asma Shuweikh, a visibly Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, stood up and defended the Jewish children against whom the man was so openly and so viciously venting his spleen. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose. (If the man doesn’t like Jews, he almost certainly also doesn’t like Muslims.) But she saw an open act of bigotry directed against innocents and instead of looking away, she stood up for the victims. It was a minor incident—you can actually see most of it on youtube by clicking here—but we’re talking this week about cracks that let in light. And this surely was a crack through which, albeit briefly, light shone. And that counts too.

Sticking with the U.K. for a moment longer, the Anglican Church issued a momentous report just last week—one that took three years to research and compose—in which it acknowledged, finally, that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism in Europe helped create the atmosphere that made the perpetration of the crimes of the Nazis during the Shoah years possible. Nor does the report focus solely on the past, noting specifically that “some of the approaches and language used by pro-Palestinian advocates are…reminiscent of what could be called traditional anti-Semitism.” Will the average Brit read this report and take its message to heart? Probably not. But the average pastor preaching in church week in and week out—and coming over and over to the question of whether Judaism remains a legitimate religion in today’s world or if Jews by clinging to their ancient faith are actually thwarting the possibility of redemption—will read it and, I hope, feel chastened by its various implications. And that too counts as a ray of light in a world awash in dark, menacing tides.

I am not a Pollyanna in any sense of the word. If anything, I’m a pessimistic realist when it comes to considering the future of the Jewish people in the various lands of our dispersion. And yet, even despite my general tendency to expect the worst from the world (and my sense that anyone who knows anything about Jewish history could hardly think otherwise), I find myself circling back around to Leonard Cohen’s line and, eager to see the light that the cracks let in, feeling slightly better about things and at least slightly more hopeful. 

It’s been a brutal few months. There is no particular reason to expect things to get better any time soon. And yet, “the wars they will be fought again / The holy dove, she will be caught again / Bought and sold and bought again / The dove is never free. / Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack, a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019

Despite the fact that it was only in 1863 that President Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation making Thanksgiving into an annual national holiday to be celebrated on the third Thursday of November, the holiday itself is much older and many presidents, starting with President Washington in 1789, had earlier on proclaimed national festivals of thanksgiving on a year-to-year basis. Nor was this a new idea even in George Washington’s day: as everyone who ever attended an American elementary school knows, the first Thanksgiving was observed in 1621 by the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. But the story as taught to children in our country masks the two crucial details which, more than paradoxically, are precisely the ones that we should be brining to the fore today and which have the ability, I think, to grant the festival ultimate meaning for Americans today.

In 1621, the Pilgrims were not having an easy time of it. The Plymouth Colony had only been established one single year earlier. But life here in these future United States was wholly unlike what the Pilgrims knew from England and by 1621 it was apparently clear to almost all that the newcomers were unlikely to survive at all, let alone to thrive, in the New World unless they found a way successfully to adapt to their new environment. For a while they looked only within their only ranks for the help they so desperately needed. And then a native man named Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe native to what is now eastern Massachusetts, stepped onto the stage to teach the newcomers what they needed to know. He taught them how to catch eel, for one thing. He taught them how to deal with winter weather conditions that was far more harsh than what they knew from back home. And, most crucially of all, he taught them how to grow corn.

Squanto, having learned English the hard way (he had earlier been enslaved in England and had managed to escape and travel back home), then went on to become the Pilgrims’ interpreter and, more crucially, to serve as a liaison between them and King Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe that had displaced the Patuxets as the leaders of the local indigenes. (The Patuxet tribe is believed to have died out from some sort of epidemic while Squanto was in England, thus making Squanto himself the last of the Patuxets.) And it was this fledgling relationship that led to the king donating large gifts of food to the fledgling colony of Europeans, which act of generosity and largesse led in turn to the 1621 feast of thanksgiving that became enshrined in American lore as the first Thanksgiving of all.

It wasn’t exactly like our holiday. For one thing, it lasted for three days. For another, turkey was only one small item on the menu, which (as preserved by Governor Bradford himself in his book On Plymouth Plantation, which I read years ago and can recommend as fascinating and engaging even today) consisted of cod, eels, bass, clams, lobster, mussels, duck, geese, swans, turkey, venison, berries, squash, pumpkin, peas, beans, and corn.

Eventually the custom of recreating that feast caught on even among non-English communities in the New World. The Dutch of New Netherlands, for example, proclaimed a first Thanksgiving feast just a few decades later in 1644, then intermittently until 1674 when New Netherlands stopped existing after the entire colony was ceded to the British in the Treaty of Westminster.

But somehow a key element in the story managed to be forgotten: that this was not a meal prepared by the Pilgrims to give thanks for the bounty of the land on which they had settled, but a meal intended to express their thanks both to Squanto, their volunteer ambassador to King Massasoit, and to Massasoit himself, the native monarch who saved them from almost certain extinction.

We tend to think of Thanksgiving as a time to be grateful for all the good in our lives. That is surely a noble sentiment, but how much more meaningful would the holiday be if we were also to allow our celebratory mood to bring to the fore a sense of deep beholdenness to the native people who created the context for one of the first European settlements to survive more than a single year in their newly chosen homeland. Would King Massasoit have behaved differently had he somehow been granted some sort of prescient understanding of the degree to which European settlement in North America was going to bring about the near annihilation of native life in his place and if he could have been allowed somehow to see—even if just in his mind’s eye—the instances of wholesale slaughter and deportation that were going to characterize relations between the descendants of the newly arrived settlers and the native people already on the ground here in North America? I’ll leave that question unanswered, but will suggest that Thanksgiving should be a time for all of us to ponder the detail that the most famous of all settler encampments, the Plymouth Plantation itself, only survived because the native people they found in place when they arrived reached out to them kindly, magnanimously, and generously. For most of us, Thanksgiving is mostly about gratitude; my suggestion is that it also be about hospitality, charity, and kindness to strangers.

But what of the Pilgrims themselves? Their story too is almost always mistold, its “real” lesson thus either obfuscated slightly or totally.

Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620—only Jamestown was older—and its independent existence ended in 1691 when it was included in the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. But the Pilgrims themselves have somehow managed to live on in our national imagination as icons of religious freedom. Indeed, most Americans connect the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World with their quest for religious freedom and imagine that that specific virtue—the natural right of all to worship in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences—was what the Pilgrims must surely have been the most thankful for as they sat down to their eels and berries.

Here too, however, the story line matches reality only vaguely. The Pilgrims belonged to a very strict Protestant sect that followed John Calvin’s teaching that God offers redemption solely to those ready to embrace the specific version of Christianity preached by Calvin himself, whereas the rest of the human race was imagined to exist merely to experience God’s wrath for their sins. Calvin’s theology was less simple than I’ve just made it sound, but the bottom line is that the Pilgrims, driven from their homeland by relentless persecution, responded to their own past by embracing a set of beliefs that denied religious freedom to anyone not precisely like them. So as we gather at our groaning boards on Thanksgiving, it should be to reject, not celebrate, the Pilgrims’ own understanding of religious freedom as something deserved solely by them themselves and substitute for it a sense of religious freedom far more akin to the kind enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Freedom of religion is not an ancient value. Indeed, the notion that there is virtue in permitting even the smallest and least popular spiritual disciplines to flourish would have struck most in older times as somewhere between peculiar and wholly unacceptable. Although there were some precedents to the kind of spiritual freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights—and in unexpected places and times like, for example, India in the third century BCE—our Founding Fathers were basically staking out new territory when they forbade the government from establishing a state religion or from erecting any untoward barrier to religious worship in any legitimate mode at all. For that, we should be eternally grateful. And we should enjoy Thanksgiving, therefore, by emphasizing the fine and noble idea of religious freedom not as the Pilgrims understood it but as we ourselves do.

And those are my twin suggestions for Thanksgiving this year: that we think back to old King Massasoit and ponder how the future of the American nation once depended on the unearned hospitality showed by a native leader to newcomers in search of refuge from persecution and that we think back to the harsh legacy of the original beneficiaries of the benevolence shown them by the king of the Wampanoags and ponder how challenging it truly is to be in favor of religious freedom not only for oneself and one’s own faith group but for all citizens…including those whose spiritual beliefs are unfamiliar or even totally unrelated to our own.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

West Bank Story

Is diplomacy merely the costume politics wears when it ventures out into the international arena? Or are diplomacy and politics entirely different fields of endeavor, the one “about” the translation of national principles into the stuff of international relationships and the other “about” the need at least on occasion to surrender those very same principles for the sake of attaining the power necessary broadly to implement them in the forum of national affairs? It’s not that easy to say!

These were the thoughts that came to me this last week when I read that the United States government has determined that there is no inherent illegality to the establishment of Jewish settlements on the land Israel took over from Jordan after the Six Day War in 1967. Of course, illegal and ill-advised are not the same thing—and it is more than possible for something to be technically legal but still a bad idea actually to implement. (It is, for example, fully legal in New York State to purchase cigarettes and to smoke them wherever smoking is permitted.) And, that being the case, asking whether Israel should continue to construct settlements on the West Bank or whether the path toward peace will be made smoother or more rocky by this specific policy shift on the part of the U.S. government—those questions remain on the table for discussion and no doubt prolonged, rancorous debate. And rancor—to say the very least—is surely what will presently ensue now that this week’s decision is in place.

The United Nations has expressed itself repeatedly to the effect that allowing Israeli civilians to live on territory Israel acquired in the Six Day War is a contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, an international agreement to which both Israel and Jordan have been party since 1951. Leaving aside the moral bankruptcy of the United Nations and its decades-long history of unremitting and shamefully prejudicial hostility towards Israel, the issue here turns on the fact that the Convention in question specifically prohibits states signed on from moving civilians onto land seized by war, as might be done by a nation eager to establish an ongoing claim to the seized territory in question. But nothing in the Middle East is ever all that simple to unravel. (Also, it’s a good thing the U.S. only signed the convention in 1955—wasn’t Texas acquired by our nation in the Mexican War of 1848? Just sayin’.)

The territory in question on the west bank of the Jordan River was indeed part of sovereign Jordan before 1967. But Jordan only came to control the territory after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and its occupation of the territory was itself never recognized by a vast majority of the world’s nations. Furthermore, the land in question was specifically acknowledged as the heartland of the Land of Israel—the ancient homeland of the Jewish people—by the League of Nations in 1922. Most Americans will find it challenging to say whether any real importance should be ascribed to the decision of an organization that existed for a mere twenty-six years and which has been defunct since 1946. But for Jewish Americans, who come pre-equipped with much, much longer memories than their average co-citizens, the issue is rooted in a far older times than the Roaring Twenties anyway.

That the land on the west bank of the Jordan—called by many today by their biblical names, Judah and Samaria—that that land was part of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in antiquity is debated today by no reputable historian or political analyst at all. Nor, as I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, is at all in dispute the fact that the history of the land that followed the collapse of the Maccabean kingdom in the year 67 BCE was one of endless occupation—first by the Romans, but then by Iran (then called Persia), and then in order by the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim Caliphate, the Crusader Kingdoms, the Mameluke Sultanate, the Ottoman Empire and, finally, the British Empire (acting behind the fig leaf of its League of Nations mandate to rule over what had previously—and at that point for almost five centuries—been Turkish Palestine). That’s a lot of occupiers—thousands of years’ worth—and not a single one held back from settling civilians on territory gained by war. Nor, for that matter, did even a single one of the above— including any of the Muslim occupiers mentioned above—consider the land currently referenced as “the” West Bank distinct or different from the rest of the historic Jewish homeland. When Americans talk about “the” West Bank, therefore, as though it were akin to a state in the Union or a department of the French Republic, they are therefore setting themselves up not at all to understand the issue as it feels on the ground to the average Israeli. Or, for that matter, to the average citizen of any country possessed of a clear sense of the history of the territory in question.

All that being the case, the notion that the Fourth Geneva Convention can be simply be applied to the territory in question as though we were talking about the German occupation of Namibia—a place in Africa with no historical tie of any sort whatsoever to Germany—seems, to say the very least, facile.

And also worth noting—and stressing—is the degree to which I constantly see people with little or no background in the actual history of the region speaking or writing negatively about Israel’s presence on the West Bank at all.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917, for example, was an expression both of acceptance of the indigeneity of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and also of their natural right to establish a Jewish nation in their historic homeland. That, of course, was nothing more than an expression of British policy with respect to the eventual future of what was soon to become—at least slightly ironically—British Palestine. But dramatically less well known is that the San Remo Conference of 1920 that divvied up the territories of the nations defeated in the First World War among the victors formally affirmed the basic principles of the Balfour Declaration, speaking overtly “in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people.” There is not the slightest evidence of any sort that the participants at San Remo meant to exclude the land currently referenced as the West Bank in that thought.

I can’t recall hearing much about the San Remo conference lately, but even less about the Treaty of Sèvres that resulted from San Remo and which, as one of the final agreements that ended World War I, yet again reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration’s intent, and firmly, in these words:  “The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.” It was these words that the League of Nations affirmed and confirmed in 1922 when it adopted them into the formal mandate declaration awarded Turkish Palestine to the British.

All that being the case, to refer to the West Bank as being “occupied” by Israel because they wrested it from a nation that itself only ended up as its overlords because they managed to seize it militarily after the British withdrew their forces in 1948 and then had their overlordship of the region affirmed by the Armistice Agreement that ended the Israeli War of Independence seems, again to say the very least, forced.

Another point I generally hear made by none in this fraught context is that the United Nations Charter itself affirms the validity of all treaties entered into or brokered by its predecessor organization, the League of Nations. As a result, when the United Nations passed a scurrilous resolution in 2016 decrying all Jewish settlements on the West Bank as one large violation of international law, it was not only ignoring the specific details of the Oslo Accord of 1995 (which, pending a final peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians, divided the West Bank up into three areas, innocuously labelled A, B, and C, and specifically awarded Israel the right to govern the Arabs and the Jews resident in Area C), but also its own historical obligations. That our government dishonorably allowed that resolution to pass without a veto was a betrayal not only of Israel, but of our own supposed devotion to the rule of law.

People talk about “the settlements” as an untraversable barrier preventing Israel and the Palestinians from moving forward towards a peaceful resolution of their dispute. But even that commonplace assertion only really works on the assumption that the presence of a relatively small Jewish minority in a Palestinian state is impossible to imagine. On the other hand, if Israel is able to pursue its national destiny as a Jewish state with 20% Arab minority, why shouldn’t Palestine also be able to move forward with a Jewish minority of about 380,000 people among its three million citizens? And that number is not even remotely correct because the chances of every single Jewish resident of the West Bank remaining in place after a declaration of Palestinian independence is zero, which would bring the percentage of Jews present in independent Palestine to less than 10%. To describe that as an intractable problem only really makes sense if it goes without saying that a future independent Palestine must be wholly judenrein, an opinion I find both odious and deeply offensive.

Our government acted in a principled and proper way to reject the notion that the presence of Jewish towns and villages on the West Bank is an ipso facto example of illegal settlement under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In a week already filled with cringe-worthy moments by the dozen, the Secretary of State’s announcement of this shift in American policy (which was really just a return to the policy adopted by the Reagan administration) was both welcome and just.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


One of the few things that Andrew Yang and I have in common is that we both have about the same chance of becoming the next President of the United States. Despite polling far behind the frontrunners, however, Yang strikes me as in many ways the most original of all the would-be candidates vying for the Democratic nomination and also, and by far, the most tech-savvy. And I owe to him my renewed interest specifically in robotics and in the potential impact machines provided with artificial intelligence might one day—and, according to Yang, one day very soon—have on our American landscape.

When most people—or at least most people my age—think about robots they generally think of unreal ones: Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons, C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, Robo-Cop and Wall-E from the movies named for them, Optimus Prime and Megatron from the I’ve-lost-track-of-how-many Transformer movies, and lots of other random androids and tin-plated automatons dished up by Hollywood to the American public for their cinematic degustation. Mostly, though, these robots are just souped-up metal versions of regular people who, just like their flesh-and-blood prototypes, vary dramatically in terms of the strength of their moral fiber: some are good and some are evil; some are adorable, while others are malevolent and seriously creepy; some can only manage to do what human beings have pre-programmed them to be able to accomplish, while others are able to strike out on their own and become autonomous, or at least autonomous-ish, actors on the world stage. But the key criterion the robots mentioned above all share is their non-existence: all are made-up creations intended specifically to entertain as characters in movies or on television shows and none of them is real.

For most people, then, robotics is merely the branch of theoretical science that provides the ideational underpinning that makes R2-D2 real enough to be depicted in a movie that bills itself as futuristic, but not completely fantastic. And that was what I thought as well.

Enter Andrew Yang, who opened my eyes to details of which I had no idea at all.

Yang talks about the entry of robotics into the economic mainstream, not as a semi-plausible plot for some futuristic science fiction movie, but as a “fourth industrial revolution” already well underway. (The first, stretching out from the end of the eighteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth, was about mechanization. The second, coming at the end of the nineteenth century, had to do with the introduction of electrical power. The third, during the second half of the twentieth century, had to do with the advent of computer technology. And, at least according to Andrew Yang’s understanding, the advent of robotics will bring in its automated wake change just as total and societally transformational as in their day were the introduction of computers or the invention of the mechanical engine.) Nor can the numbers he cites be easily dismissed: the nation appears in the last decade alone to have lost almost five million jobs to robotic automation. And the advent of self-driving trucks—in effect, car-robots—will, so Yang, cost the nation another 8.5 million jobs if the number of soon-to-be unemployed truck drivers is added to the number of soon-to-be-unemployed workers in the various service industries that cater to truckers while on they are on the road away from home.  And Yang predicts that the lost off 13.5 million jobs is only the beginning because, in the end, the advent of robotics will totally, permanently, and irreversibly change the American workplace. We either will or will not be ready. But what we will not be able to do will be to stem it all off with wishful thinking any more than people a quarter-century ago could have possibly halted the adoption of computer technology in American offices no matter how sincere their desire might well have been to protect workers with no computer skills from losing their jobs.

And so, with my interest already more than merely piqued, I found myself drawn powerfully to an extremely interesting responsum about Artificial-Intelligence-related issues adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last June. (The CJLS is the highest legal authority within the Conservative Movement and the ultimate arbiter of halakhic legality and illicitness.) Written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, currently the dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the paper has the tantalizing title “Halakhic Responses to Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Machines” and is an excellent example of just the kind of incisive, well-researched writing that characterizes the CJLS at its best. At almost fifty dense pages, it’s a big read. And a lot of it is couched in technical language that will be of interest mostly only to rabbis and scholars. But the larger picture is one of a thoughtful legist trying to respond to something entirely new in the world by drawing from the wellsprings of history and attempting to find contemporary relevance in lessons developed long ago by people who wouldn’t have been able even to dream of C-3PO or Rosie the Robot, let alone to imagine them actually existing. And yet the halakhah—the general term for Jewish law in all its complexity, inventiveness, and perplexitude—has been mined in the past to find responses to all sorts of new things, including steam engines, hearing aids, computers, and space travel. So why not robotics?

The questions Rabbi Nevins sets out for himself to answer boil down to three basic queries.

One has to do with the question of agency: can an intelligent machine able to make autonomous decisions be considered the author of its own deeds or must the responsibility of whatever R2-D2 does be laid at the feet of his original programmer?

A second has to do with ethics: should autonomous, thinking machines, including those programmed with the finest ethical principles, be permitted to make life-and-death decisions regarding human beings or should the ultimate responsibility for acting morally never be permitted to rest with machines—including those whose ability to weigh data and simultaneously to compare tens of thousands of precedents far outpaces the analogous ability even the brightest and most learned human beings could possibly cultivate?

And the third has to do with religion in general and with Judaism in specific, and asks whether a robot—or any autonomous, intelligent machine—can perform a mitzvah or utter a prayer either on somebody else’s behalf or, even more weirdly to consider, on its own behalf.

So those are Rabbi Nevins’s three core issues. Each in its own way is a refocus of the single basic question that underlies them all, however: can a machine capable of acting autonomously be taken seriously (or ethically or legally) as a person? To push that envelope just slightly further, I could ask if such a machine—or rather, once personhood is in some way deemed to inhere in the warp and woof of its existence, if such a “person”—could be deemed a Jew. Or, for that matter, if such a “person” could be supposed to possess any of the factors that we use to distinguish between different varieties of flesh-and-blood people like gender, nationality, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc. Can a robot be a black person or a gay person? Can a robot be a man or a woman? This suddenly feels a lot more complicated than it seemed on the Jetsons!

Rabbi Nevins deals with all these issues intelligently and adroitly. (To read his responsum in full, click here.) And then, towards the end of his paper, he gets finally to the section that strikes me as being the crux of the matter, the one entitled “Androids as Religious Agents.”.

He begins by citing books by Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel, Byron Sherwin about the concept of the golem, the man-made creature that entered halakhic discourse in the seventeenth century. And then he turns to the sources themselves.

The Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest extant book of Jewish mystical speculation, apparently already—and this is a very old book we’re talking about, one that some date as early as the second century CE—imagined the possibility that the scriptural reference to the souls that Abraham “made” in Haran was meant to be taken literally and that Abraham actually knew how to create what we would call an android—a kind of artificial human being lacking only speech and the kind of innate intelligence that can only come as a gift from God. And, indeed, that idea that in the righteous individual could conceivably inhere the ability artificially to create a living creature who would then lack only speech is already present in the Talmud, where we read that Rava, one of the masters of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, actually did create a man, albeit one who could not speak. And his remark that, if they were to wish it, “the righteous could create a whole world” of living creatures is also recorded, and in that same talmudic passage.

These passages were eventually taken seriously. The eminent halakhist, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (called the Ḥakham Tzvi, 1660-1718), for example, actually penned a scholarly responsum dealing with the question of whether the kind of person created artificially could be counted in a minyan, in a prayer quorum. (His answer was no.) His son, the even more famous Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776), also took up the matter and determined that the speechless android is less like a mute human being than like an animal in human form—and so his answer was also no. Scholem and Idel discuss these sources and many others, but it was the late Rabbi Sherwin who apparently first realized that these texts could reasonably form the basis for a halakhic approach to technology in our day. Indeed, his 2004 book, Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Biotech Century, is still in print and is widely available. I recommend it to my readers highly.

Nevins spends time with all sorts of authors I haven’t read, people like Giulio Tononi and Michael Graziano who write about the complex interrelationship of consciousness, technology, and humanness—and thus about the nature of personhood itself, about what it means to be a person. He understands clearly that thinking about thinking machines is a way of thinking about what it means to be alive, what it means to be a human being, even what it means to exist at all. To imagine a world populated both by regular human beings and by the kind of androids depicted in the recent HBO hit series Westworld is simple enough. But to follow that thought through and attempt to imagine how civil rights and ethical prerogatives might inhere differently in born-people and made-people is, to say the least, daunting. 
Andrew Yang is personally responsible for bringing this issue to the national stage and we should thank him for that. Daniel Nevins has effectively shown that there is more than enough water in ancient wellsprings from which scholars can and should drink as they ponder these abstruse, confusing issues, that he too deserves our thanks. But where exactly this will all take us—that, at least as far as I can see—is still entirely up in the air.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Rising Sea

I am old enough, but just barely, to remember Robert Frost reading his poem, “The Gift Outright,” from memory at President Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961. (I was just in second grade, but our teacher, Mrs. Slass, made sure—apparently successfully—that we would remember both that day and that poem for the rest of our lives.) But far more important to me in Frost’s magnificent body of work, at least later on, was his poem “Fire and Ice,” which I memorized in high school and still know by heart. True, it’s only five lines long. But even at that length, it is still very satisfying to read along as the poet famously wonders whether the world will one day end in a fiery conflagration that consumes all that humankind shall by then have built or in a new Ice Age that will simply overwhelm the peoples of the earth with a lifeless blanket of frozen water. I hadn’t thought about “Fire and Ice” for a while, though, until it suddenly resurfaced in my consciousness the other day as I was reading—coincidentally just days before hearing the story of Noah read aloud in synagogue—an article in the New York Times reporting on a new scientific study published just last week in the journal Nature Communications. (To read the study in Nature Communications, click here. To read the summary report in the New York Times by Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle, click here.)

The Nature Communications study, by Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss, determined that previous methods of calculating the effects of rising sea levels were seriously inaccurate, and that the correct figures are infinitely more devastating than the ones formerly proffered: the study concluded that 150 million people are currently living on land that will be submerged beneath the rising sea by 2050, a mere thirty-one years from now. They are not necessarily doomed, of course. There are, for example, about 110 million people already living on land below sea-level but whose dry-land habitat has been secured through artificially constructed sea walls and barriers of various sorts. The same could theoretically be done in the course of the next three decades for a significant portion of the 150 million people whose land will be flooded by mid-century. The questions, therefore, are as few as they are sharp. Do we have the knowledge to prepare in advance for this almost unimaginable catastrophe hovering over the horizon? Do we have the skill to translate theory into practice and to pre-rescue the land on which so many millions live while we still can? And, most unsettling of all to ask out loud and seriously and honestly to attempt to answer: do we have the collective will to address this issue on a global scale and in a way that sets aside the petty concerns of individuals and single nations in order to respond to a humanity-wide crisis in a way that encompasses the collective will of all humankind to act forcefully, thoughtfully, and successfully on its own behalf?

Looking further into the future only yields an even more unimaginable prognosis: Kulp and Strauss predict that a plausible, albeit worst-case, scenario puts 630 million people living today on land that will be submerged by 2100, a year that only sounds distant until you begin to figure how old your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be around the turn of the next century. To describe the situation even more starkly (and without relying on projections or estimations at all), a full billion people live right now on land less than ten meters above sea level, of whom a full quarter (i.e., 250 million people) occupy land currently less than one single meter above sea level.

And so we finally have an answer to Frost’s question. Yes, the world will be toast (in both senses of the expression) in five billion years when the sun turns into what astronomers call a “red giant” that, as it expands into its next stage of being, will engulf first Mercury and Venus, and then Earth in a thermal cocoon of almost unimaginable heat. Perhaps we will by then have long since decamped to some alternate planet with a better prognosis for long-term survival. But long before that (and in our own lifetimes), human life as we know it will be disrupted by water as the seas rise and we either do or don’t find the wherewithal to stem off at least the most potentially devastating of the effects that the rising sea will bring in its wake. So what if Frost and Dante were wrong in supposing the devastating water would come all froze up? They had the right basic idea! So at least that’s settled.

Poets vied with themselves in ancient times—or at least in Israelite ancient times—to find an appropriate metaphoric range along which to describe the great goal of all mystic endeavor, the attainment of a state of ongoing communion with God. It sounds almost simple when written out so plainly, but the journey to God was (and is) truly daunting—and for one single reason: since God by definition exists outside human experience and since all human language is rooted precisely in the warp and woof of human experience, any effort to speak honestly and clearly in any human language about God should be impossible. And, ultimately speaking, it probably is impossible…but only for writers of prose. Poets are used to using language somehow to describe the essentially indescribable and so, at least in theory, the task should not be beyond the best of them. Nor was it beyond the poets of ancient Israel, as the various efforts in the Book of Psalms to describe what it would be like experientially and sensually to know God—or at least to know of God—seem unequivocally to prove.

Different ancient poets choose different metaphoric ranges along which to express themselves and more than a few described the experience as one of drowning and then, at the very last moment, feeling oneself miraculously saved from certain death. The poet whose ode to God encountered is our eighteenth psalm, for example, writes movingly about the sense of being lifted up by divine hands from a sea in which he was at that very moment about to perish. The author of the sixty-ninth psalm writes about waiting for God to speak as he sensed himself sinking slowly into the seabed and the water rising all around him. The authors of the 88th and 124th psalms wander the same metaphoric path, as does the author of the psalm that appears as the second chapter of the Book of Jonah. These odes to God’s palpable presence are different in lots of ways, but they all have in common this single feature of likening the experience of God to the sensation of being almost drowned and then being miraculously being saved. And, of course, this was the Israelites’ story as well: they too almost drowned in the Sea of Reeds on their way to their experience of intimate communion with God at Sinai. (One of my earlier essays in the journal Conservative Judaism was about this notion of drowning in God; click here to read what I wrote back in 1999.)

Along with Frost’s, these poems too came to me after I read that piece in the paper about the Nature Communications study. At first, they seemed antithetical: the biblical poets were using the notion of being almost drowned and then at the very last moment rescued to describe how it felt to them to be elevated out of mundane reality and—even if just for a long moment—ushered into the reality of the divine, whereas the authors of the Nature Communications study were talking about the possibility of countless numbers of people drowning—or almost drowning—as they flee their homes for higher ground that they either will or will not actually reach in time. But then I changed my mind and in an uncharacteristically hopeful way: perhaps, it struck me, the ancient poets were actually offering us the wherewithal to deal with this new study productively and meaningfully.

The waters are rising, that much seems certain. Nor is there any question that the seas are rising because of human intervention in the natural eco-system of our planet. (Click here to visit the website of the National Ocean Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce if you still need convincing on either of those assertions.) And so the only real question is whether humankind can respond meaningfully to the implications of a changing climate and a changing environment without becoming mired in a swamp of indulgent self-interest from which ultimately none will get out alive. If we just apply to everybody’s better angels to get on board, I suppose we will end up with nothing at all. But if the faithful of the world—and particularly those whose Bibles feature the full text of the Book of Psalms—were to understand that the rising sea actually is God speaking to us, warning us, remonstrating with us, reminding us of our responsibilities to all who bear the divine image (which is every living soul on earth) and to the planet on which all those people bearing God’s image live—then perhaps we can still act meaningfully, and as one, to save ourselves before it really is too late. As all my readers know, the Book of Psalms is primarily a prophetic work. But even the most authentic prophetic prediction can be averted through concerted human action. The Book of Jonah teaches that clearly enough. So the question is only really whether we are prepared to act on that lesson or not.

I close with another favorite poem. In the fifth book of his “The Prelude,” William Wordsworth describes a strange encounter he had in a dream with a mysterious stranger. In the dream, his gaze is drawn in the direction of the stranger’s. “And looking backwards when he look’d, I saw / A glittering light, and ask’d him whence it came. / ‘It is,’ said he, ‘the waters of the deep / Gathering upon us,’ quickening his pace / He left me: I call’d after him aloud; / He heeded me not; but with his twofold charge / Beneath his arm, before me in full view / I saw him riding o’er the Desart Sands / With the fleet waters of the drowning  world / In chase of him, whereat I waked in terror, / And saw the Sea before me; and the Book, / In which I had been reading, at my side.’  I first encountered those lines in W. H Auden’s remarkable book, The Enchafèd Sea, then sought them out in their original context. I offer them to you all today, however, not as poetry but—in the style of the ancient bards who created the Psalter—as prophecy. And so are we just where the poet himself also was: between the word (in our case, as published last week in Nature Communications) and the sea itself. Shall we just read? Or shall we act? That wasn’t precisely the poet’s question to his readers back in 1805, but it is mine to all of you this week.

So what else happened this week? Oh yes, the United States began the procedure intended formally to withdraw our nation from the Paris Climate Accord.