Thursday, June 26, 2008

Shelach Lecha: The First "Be'ezrat Hashem"?

How far should man's trust in God go? Does the Torah say anything about the relationship between God's Will and man's will? Is there a line where the Torah sees one stop and the other start?

Some of the many views on the nature of the relationship between God's Will and man's will are summarized nicely here. There is one approach that sees God's Will as dominating the universe so absolutely so as to make man's free will and his independent choice impossible. (How can I freely choose if God has knowledge of what my choice will be?) Another view sees free will as dominating the universe absolutely, leaving no space for God's Will (God created the Universe, it's just that he doesn't like to get involoved). Parshat Shelach Lecha offers a compromise of sorts:

The spies have returned from scouting the land and the Israelites await their report. Instead of giving the hard facts they paint a picture that spreads fear and anger through the people. Calev and Yehoshua, two of the spies, are described by the Torah as having responded to the crisis as one, and later, because of their words, are spared punishment by God. Their words are found in Numbers 14, verses 7 and 8:

and they spoke to children of Israel saying: The land, which we passed through is a very very good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which flows with milk and honey.

By linking the success of their military conquest to God's opinion of them, and by describing a project that would undoubtedly require enourmous human effort in passive terms (He will bring us into this land) Yehoshua and Calev express a view that negates neither the dominance of God's Will nor the freedom of man's actions. In short, in these verses the Torah implies a balanced model: Man should do everything in his power to accomplish his spiritual and physical goals whilst remembering that he is ultimately not in control.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Deep Routes of American Zionism

Any discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Israel must begin with the Bible. For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. This influence originated with the rediscovery of the Old Testament during the Reformation, was accentuated by the development of Calvinist theology (which stressed continuities between the old and the new dispensations of divine grace), and was made more vital by the historical similarities between the modern American and the ancient Hebrew experiences; as a result, the language, heroes, and ideas of the Old Testament permeate the American psyche.

Instruction in biblical Hebrew was mandatory for much of early U.S. history at Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. James Madison completed his studies at Princeton in two years but remained on campus an extra year to study Hebrew. Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan, "a land flowing with milk and honey," and reminded their audiences that just as the Hebrews lost their blessings when they offended God, so, too, would the Americans suffer if they disobeyed the God who had led them into their promised land. Today, Old Testament references continue to permeate U.S. political writing, oratory, and even geography -- over one thousand cities and towns in the United States have names derived from Scripture.

the article by Walter Russel Mead can be heard here.

Ethical Foreign Policy

It is important to remember that we did not overthrow Adolf Hitler to bring democracy to Germany.

from an article by Condolezza Rice, which can be listened to here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Story of Rav Yehudah Amital

One day Yehuda decided to take a trip through the Judean hills and visit the religious kibbutz, Kfar Etzion, set up just two years earlier in April 1943. Together with a friend from the yeshiva, he took an Arab bus from Jerusalem to Hebron. They got off close to Kfar Etzion and walked to the new settlement. On the way, they met a group of men from the Kibbutz, collecting stones for building from the hills. Yehudah was surprised to see that one of the men was his old adversary from Gruswedein, Joshua Hagar. Hagar had joined the the effort to build Kfar Etzion a short time after he had arrived in Palestine. He was also surprised to see Yehuda. They both immediately remembered the argument thay had had in shul in Gruswedein on Chol Hamoed Pesach. "Is that you, Yehuda?" he teased. "You scoundrel, you stayed alive? Weren't you the one preaching about dying for Kidush Hashem? By your own words you should have gone to Auswitz! I'm amazed you're alive!" In his heart, Yehuda answered him in a different tone. "Chutzpah! You were the only one who escaped, and you're calling me a scoundrel...?" Aloud, he said only "Baruch Hashem, I was saved". But Yehoshua wouldn't let go. "You still believe? You're still Dati?" he asked. To this Yehuda answered with a question: "Had I not stayed religious would the questions be answered? Would what happened be understood? Would it be clearer?"

(excerpt from page 108)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zechariah and the Emblem of the State of Israel

Did the vision found in the Haftorah this week (Zechariah), have an impact on the founding fathers of the State of Israel?

In Chapter 4 we read:

And the angel that talked with me came again, and woke me, as a man that is woken from his sleep, And said to me, What do you see? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick made of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and his seven lamps on it, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which on the top. And two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl, and the other upon the left thereof.

The image that comes to mind is the emblem of the State of Israel, below:

If I'm right, and Israel's national emblem was inspired by this Biblical passage, then there's food for thought for both hardcore secular Zionists and Israeli-flag burning Jews. For the secular Zionist, the plain meaning of the vision of the Menorah and olive trees is explained immediately by the angel:

So I answered and spoke to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord? Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Do you not know what these things mean? And I said, No, my lord. Then he answered me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubavel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.

The message from Zechariah is that military power alone will not suffice to guarantee the returning Jews survival in the land. Only through 'the spirit of God' will the attempt to reclaim the land succeed. Fast-forward two millennia
, and the relevance for Jews in Israel today is astounding (to me anyway). The message again is that power without purpose leads nowhere.

But what's also interesting to me, is that the secular leaders who chose this emblem must have been aware of the meaning. So, at the very heart of the supposedly secular, hedonistic country, condemned by so many ultra-Orthodox Jews, we find a national vision very different to that which they assume, and in fact, much closer to theirs.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Behaalotecha: Two Rebellions, Two Reactions

When Israel complains in this week's parsha, Moses asks G-d for an out, he wants to quit. When his siblings, Miriam and Aaron complain, God takes issue with them but Moses is silent. Why the different reactions from Moses?

Jonathan Sacks, here , says that the different reactions from Moses can be explained by his humility. The first rebellion, where the Israelites ask for meat, was against God. Moses despaired because he saw his message was not getting accross, Israel had not changed. When Miriam and Aaron rebel, the attack by those closest to him is deeply personal. But the Torah wants us to know that Moses' equanimity was not due to indifference, nor due to hurt, but due to his great humility. He cared about nothing other than the cause, about God and about freedom and responsility.

"Humility is the silence of the self, in the presence of that which is greater than oneself."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Warren Buffet have in common?

They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

More from Thomas Friedman

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shavuot - 5768/2008

I had an interesting discussion with an inspired convert to Judaism who found his faith whilst studying PPE at Oxford. It is certainly unusual to hear of someone becoming more religious studying at Oxford, but Aryeh explained how he had found the abstract nature of his subject unappealing, and had wanted something more practical. After he had begun searching for meaning in religion and examinined Christianity and Islam, he found that Judaism, being the original revelation, was also "better" since the number of people, an entire nation, is described as being present at Sinai, and this number is far greater than the relatively tiny numbers present in any of the revelations described in other religions. It was, in short, a line of reasoning similar to that of the ancient Kuzari king, written about by Judah Halevi (More).

It got me thinking. The revelation at Sinai is a marvelous concept. 3 million people, at the foot of a mountain, and the voice of God introducing Himself as Anochi Hashem. The tradition that all of Israel, including all future generations, were present at Sinai, was taught to me dogmatically at school. But cynicsm aside - were we not there? Can we read the verses in Shemot and not marvel at the Divine calling out to our nation? Can we say that we don't hear that calling ourselves?

Aryeh had to jump out of the cab early, and he gave me money to pay the cab driver with, first making me promise I would explain that it was a mitzvah to pay workers on time as I paid him.... which of course I did. The cab driver loved it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


To say that Henry Kissinger is the most controversial of twentieth-century American Secretaries of State would be an understatement. No other holder of that office has inspired opprobrium of the sort heaped on Kissinger by journalists such as Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens. The latter’s polemic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2002), for example, accuses Kissinger of having “ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way”. Hitchens offers no explanation of his subject’s alleged record of “promiscuous violence abroad and flagrant illegality at home”. The reader is merely left to infer that Kissinger must be a terribly wicked man.

Quite apart from the distinctly thin documentary foundation of Hitchens’s footnote-free case for the prosecution – which quotes from little more than a few dozen primary documents, all from US archives – The Trial of Henry Kissinger suffers from a strange absence of historical perspective. It would in fact be much easier to implicate a number of Kissinger’s predecessors in civilian bombings, coups d’état and support for murderous regimes. Unlike the case of Chile, to give a single example, there is no question that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew an elected government in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan Left. Many more people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were “disappeared” in Chile after 1973 (2,279). In any case, Richard Nixon was not the first President to seek to influence Chilean domestic politics. Both of his immediate predecessors did so. Yet you will search the bookshops in vain for “The Trial of John Foster Dulles” or “The Trial of Dean Rusk”.

The more books I have read about Henry Kissinger in recent years, the more I have been reminded of the books I used to read about the Rothschild family. When other nineteenth-century banks made loans to conservative regimes or to countries at war, no one seemed to notice. But when the Rothschilds did it, the pamphleteers could scarcely control their indignation. Indeed, it would take a great many shelves to contain all the shrill anti-Rothschild polemics produced by Victorian antecedents of Hitchens and his ilk. Which prompts the question: has the ferocity of the criticism which Kissinger has attracted perhaps got something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish? (Nota bene: this is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites. Some of the Rothschilds’ most fierce critics were also Jews. So are some of Kissinger’s.)

Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century puts Kissinger’s Jewishness centre-stage in an interpretation of his life that stands out among recent books on the subject for the extent and depth of the author’s research. Unlike Hitchens (to say nothing of Robert Dallek and Margaret Macmillan, two other writers who have recently published books critical of Kissinger), Suri has done some real digging before rushing into print. He cites documents from sixteen different archival collections. His sixty-seven pages of notes are a model of academic rigour. I should at this point declare an interest: I am currently researching a biography of Kissinger based (in part) on his own private papers at the Library of Congress, to which Suri did not have access. I hope this lends credence, rather than the reverse, to my positive judgement. Though I do not agree with all Suri’s conclusions, I salute his scholarship. This is surely the best book yet published about Henry Kissinger. (Jussi Hanhimäki’s 2004 study of Kissinger’s foreign policy is more comprehensive on Kissinger’s time in office, but is much less insightful.) Unlike so many previous writers – particularly those journalists steeped in the blood of the Nixon administration – Suri actually makes an attempt to understand his subject in the appropriate historical context rather than simply joining in the never-ending hunt for “smoking gun” quotations.

For Suri, Kissinger’s Jewish origins are the key to understanding both the man and the world’s reaction to him. Kissinger, writes Suri in one of his boldest sallies, was like “a hybrid of the Court Jew and the State Jew – what we might tentatively call the ‘policy Jew’”. He portrays his subject as ascending from academia to the corridors of power by doing “grunt work” for the goyim: first his Harvard mentor, William Elliott, then McGeorge Bundy, then Nelson Rockefeller, then Nixon and finally his successor Gerald Ford (about whom, like nearly all writers on Kissinger, Suri says much too little). But Kissinger’s Jewishness has a wider significance. In Suri’s account, it was Kissinger’s German-Jewish youth – born in 1923 at the height of the Weimar hyperinflation, ten years old when Hitler came to power, fifteen when his family emigrated to the United States in 1938 – that laid the foundation for a distinctly pessimistic world view. “Life is suffering, birth involves death”, wrote Kissinger in his sprawling Harvard senior thesis, “The Meaning of History”: “Transitoriness is the fate of existence. No civilization has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled. This is necessity, the fatedness of history, the dilemma of mortality”. The influence of Oswald Spengler, Suri suggests, imbued Kissinger with a fear of “a return to the violence, chaos and collapse of Weimar Germany”. Kissinger entered the White House as Nixon’s National Security Advisor filled with foreboding, anticipating four years of “disorder at home, increasing tension abroad”. This, he suggests, helps to explain why Kissinger felt so much was at stake in Vietnam. As he put it in the first volume of his memoirs:

"Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination . . . . I could never forget what an inspiration [America] has been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years . . . . It seemed to me important for America not to be humiliated, not to be shattered, but to leave Vietnam in a manner that even the protesters might later see as reflecting an American choice made with dignity and self-respect."

When Watergate struck the Nixon presidency, Kissinger feared “irreparable damage” that might take the US over the “edge of a precipice”.

I am not sure I quite buy these two arguments. Advising politicians politicians can be interesting, usually involves a measure of sycophancy, and is not a peculiarly Jewish activity. As for the Weimar trauma, I am inclined to think the experience of returning to Germany as a GI had a much greater impact. Still, these are matters of interpretation. Suri deserves credit for producing a more convincing account of his subject’s German-Jewish background than any previous biographer of Kissinger, including the broadly sympathetic Walter Isaacson.

Heinz (as he was originally named) and his younger brother grew up in an Orthodox household in Fürth, Bavaria, where their father Louis was a respectable schoolteacher, a firm believer in the benefits of German Bildung. Louis Kissinger’s world was shattered by the rise of the Nazis, but it was his wife Paula who had the wit to get the family out of Germany just months before the regime’s anti-Semitism erupted in full-blown pogroms. Kissinger lost at least a dozen relatives in the Holocaust, including his grandmother, Fanny Stern (who Suri says perished in the Belzec death camp). “I had seen evil in the world”, Kissinger commented in an interview many years later, “and I knew it was there, and I knew that there are some things you have to fight for, and that you can’t insist that everything be to some ideal construction you have made.” Suri is surely correct to see that an awareness of this searing experience is indispensable to our understanding of the man.

One puzzle that is not quite resolved here is why Kissinger abandoned his parents’ Orthodox allegiance, which they maintained after moving to New York’s Washington Heights by joining the most conservative synagogue in the neighbourhood. Was it the drudgery of the brush-cleaning factory where Kissinger worked for a time? Or was it, as Suri seems to imply, the experience of “eating ham for Uncle Sam” in the US Army after he was drafted in 1943? Suri’s account of Kissinger’s wartime career is tantalizing in other ways too. We do not hear enough about his work as a military administrator in the post-war occupation of Germany, a role which involved apprehending and interrogating Nazis. The link that Suri draws between these experiences and Kissinger’s subsequent close relationship with Konrad Adenauer seems tenuous.

As Suri shows, post-war Harvard provided the young veteran with an altogether more propitious environment than the military. With the proportion of Jews at the university rising from 17 per cent of enrolments in 1947 to 25 per cent in 1952, Kissinger can scarcely have felt like an outsider. He was also fortunate in his mentors: just as Fritz Kramer had spotted Kissinger’s intellectual potential in the army, so William Elliott soon identified him as “a combination of Kant and Spinoza”, hyperbole that Kissinger almost lived up to by producing a senior thesis so long that it prompted Harvard to impose a maximum word-count. Elliott’s influence, Suri suggests, was as much political as academic. As early as 1950, with Elliott’s encouragement, Kissinger was writing hawkish briefings for Paul Nitze, then Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Running the long-lived International Seminar at the Cold War Summer School (a classic “soft power” initiative partly funded by the CIA) also provided him with first-class networking opportunities, particularly among the next generation of Western European statesmen and diplomats. As Suri says, Harvard at this time was truly a “Cold War University” – in marked contrast to the hotbed of liberal sentiment it became almost as soon as Kissinger departed for Washington.

In addition to illuminating Kissinger’s cultural roots, Suri does a good job of tracing the development of his strategic thought in the 1950s. He also gives a fair appraisal of Kissinger’s doctrine of limited nuclear war as a way of avoiding “impotence in the atomic stalemate” (as he put it in 1954). All-out nuclear war, Kissinger reasoned, “would not be an act of policy but of desperation”. There needed to be “options less cataclysmic than a thermonuclear holocaust”. Kissinger was therefore an advocate of increasing West German and Japanese conventional forces, while creating a “compact, highly mobile US strategic reserve” in the Middle East. He also recommended, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), a greater readiness to deploy and to use smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons. This has subsequently been misrepresented as a reckless “Doctor Strangelove” argument that underestimated the risks of nuclear escalation. But, as Suri shows, at the time Kissinger’s argument was welcomed by such luminaries as Bernard Brodie, Reinhold Niebuhr and even (albeit with qualifications) by President Eisenhower himself.

How far had Kissinger worked out a framework for American grand strategy before he entered the White House? Suri does not quite answer this question, but provides ample evidence to suggest it was quite a long way. For example, he early on grasped the significance of American “relative decline” as the rest of the world finally put the economic devastation of the Second World War behind it. This implied not only a basic acceptance of the division of Europe between the superpowers, but also a reconfiguration of the Western alliance system.

In lectures he wrote for Rockefeller in 1962, Kissinger advanced an argument for a new confederal “framework . . . for the free world” – an Atlantic Confederacy with an Anglo-American-French “Executive Committee”. At the same time, Kissinger made the case for an autonomous European nuclear force. As all this suggests, Kissinger still considered himself a European specialist. During his brief stint as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy, when Bundy was serving as President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, Kissinger was mainly concerned with the division of Berlin.

Yet America’s principal foreign policy preoccupation by the mid 1960s lay far from Germany. Suri shows that Kissinger had formed a pessimistic view of American policy in Vietnam as early as 1965, when he first visited the country. He also shows how Kissinger became persuaded that “ending the war honourably” was “essential for the peace of the world” since “any other solution may unloose forces that would complicate prospects for international order”. Contrary to the assumptions made (and still cherished) by a generation of liberals, Kissinger felt the US “could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and thirty-one thousand dead as if we were switching a television channel”. Pace Hersh and Hitchens, Suri contends that there was nothing untoward in Kissinger’s bipartisan communications about Vietnam at this time.

As has often been remarked, there have been few odder couples in American politics than Nixon and Kissinger. Not the least of the oddities about their relationship was Nixon’s tendency to give vent to his own anti-Jewish prejudices, sometimes even in Kissinger’s presence. Yet Suri argues that their differences were always outweighed by fundamental similarities of outlook. In particular, Kissinger was impressed by Nixon’s faith in his own willpower and the effectiveness of firm, decisive action. As the President told his adviser, his long, hard ascent of the greasy pole had given him “the will in spades”; hence his readiness to take “action which is very strong, threatening, and effective”. On occasion, Kissinger could talk in similar terms. As he told Yitzhak Rabin in 1973: “When you use force it is better to use 30 per cent more than is necessary than 5 per cent less than is necessary . . . . Whenever we use force we have to do it slightly hysterically”. Suri details the two occasions when Kissinger used nuclear sabre-rattling to exert pressure on the Soviets – October 1969 and October 1973 – though he does not offer a clear verdict as to whether these actions were effective diplomatically, or needlessly reckless.

The obverse of occasional sabre-rattling was Nixon and Kissinger’s shared and unshakeable faith in regular “back channel” negotiations. Beginning in February 1969, Kissinger cultivated a hotline to Moscow via the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. At first designed primarily (though never exclusively) to bypass the State Department, the back channel gradually evolved into a highly effective and highly sensitive system of superpower communications. Subsequent criticism of the policy of détente (from the Right more than the Left) cannot detract from the tangible achievements of Kissinger’s period in office: the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Helsinki Accords. Suri also seems to concur with the view that Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China (or, as Margaret Macmillan would have it, Mao and Zhou Enlai’s opening to America) worked as a way of exerting pressure on the Soviets by shattering the illusion of a homogeneous Communist Second World.

In Suri’s version of events, Nixon and Kissinger approached the problem of Vietnam with a similar combination of tools: the unflinching use of force plus sustained back-channel negotiation, allied with the hope that either the USSR or the PRC could be induced to lean on Hanoi. Suri does not dismiss the strategy as doomed to fail. The use of force certainly hurt North Vietnam. Le Duan, General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, later admitted that the mining of Haiphong “completely obliterated our economic foundation”. Equally, Kissinger’s tenacity in negotiation ultimately bore fruit in the form of the Paris Accords, signed on January 23, 1973. The question – which Suri does not quite answer – is how long that peace might have endured had not domestic opposition undercut American assistance to South Vietnam.

A similar question can, of course, be posed about Kissinger’s policy in the Middle East. Could more have been achieved? But there is a danger in posing unrealistic counterfactuals. An enduring peace in the Middle East was probably not attainable in the wartorn 1970s. What was attainable was a diminution in the power of the Soviet Union and a stabilization of Israel’s position relative to her Arab neighbours. These goals, as Suri points out, Kissinger was uniquely positioned to achieve. As a Jewish Secretary of State, he could credibly promise the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to “get [Rabin] to move in the right direction . . . to work on him”. At the same time, he could withstand the bitter claims of Menachem Begin that he was one of those “Jews, who out of a complex feared non-Jews would charge them with acting for their people, and therefore did the opposite”. And, having ousted the Soviets from Egypt, he could reassure Rabin, with equal credibility: “We are working for a common strategy, one element of which is a strong Israel”.

“Kissinger”, Suri writes, “was above all a revolutionary.” To those who have read their Hitchens, this may come as something of a surprise. Kissinger a revolutionary? The man who told the Argentine junta’s Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti: “We wish [your] government well”? The man who promised his South African counterpart to “curb any missionary zeal of my officers in the State Department to harass you”? The man who told the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: “We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here”? Yet Suri has a case to make, even if he does not make it more than obliquely. An integral part of Kissinger’s grand strategy was always to establish priorities. In order to check Soviet ambitions in the Third World – the full extent of which we have only recently come to appreciate – some unpleasant regimes had to be tolerated, and indeed supported. Besides the various Latin American caudillos, the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran and the Pakistani military, these unpleasant regimes also included (though the Left seldom acknowledged it) the Maoist regime in Beijing, which was already guilty of many more violations of human rights than all the right-wing dictators put together when Kissinger flew there for the first time in July 1971.

Yet the real revolution Kissinger had to achieve was not so much in the realm of grand strategy as in that of domestic politics. As he himself put it in one of the many “heartland speeches” he delivered in the US in 1975 and 1976, his underlying aim was “to end the self-flagellation that has done so much harm to this nation’s capacity to conduct foreign policy”. In this he was ultimately unsuccessful. Indeed, US self-flagellation reached its zenith during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Jeremi Suri, who was still an untenured junior professor at the University of Wisconsin when he wrote this book, draws back from passing an unambiguous verdict on Kissinger’s “revolution”. He does not say how far the strategic benefits of supping with sundry devils outweighed the domestic costs. Indeed, he leaves open nearly all the major questions about Kissinger’s grand strategy. What he has done is to provide an invaluable insight into the background of an American statesman who has surely received a disproportionate share of criticism relative to his predecessors. How far Kissinger’s Jewishness provides the real key to his inner motivations remains a matter for debate. (My own preference would be to see him as first and foremost a historian – one of the very select band of serious scholars of the past who end up actually making policy in the here and now.) But it certainly provides a part of the explanation for the vitriol that has come his way.