Degenerate Art and the Jewish Grandmother

The story of the family behind the Nazi-era art trove
Degenerate Art and the Jewish Grandmother
Horse in a Landscape, 1910, by the German Expressionist Franz Marc, denounced by the Nazis as a "degenerate" artist. Courtesy Wikipaintings.
 
Observation
Walter Laqueur
Dec. 4 2013 12:39AM

Early in November, a major sensation erupted when it was reported that some 1,400 highly valuable works of art, most of them unseen for decades, had been discovered hidden in an apartment in Munich, Germany.

The apartment’s owner, Cornelius Gurlitt, is an eighty-year-old art dealer and recluse whose father, Hildebrand, was one of four dealers commissioned by the Nazis to sell their looted art abroad in exchange for much-needed foreign currency. Many of the works in the Gurlitt apartment appear to belong to this category of art works stolen from their owners by the Nazi regime, while others may have been consigned to the elder Gurlitt by Jews and others fleeing Hitler’s Germany while they could. A significant number are by artists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, officially condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate.”

Many thousands of such works remain unrecovered to this day. Nor have directors of the museums where some of them ended up in the postwar years been noticeably eager to cooperate with efforts to restore them to their original owners or their heirs.

And little wonder: over time, the value of most of the works has appreciated enormously. After the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (not Jewish) committed suicide in 1938, a year after being included in the Nazis’ notorious exhibit of “Degenerate Art,” his widow was lucky to obtain several hundred dollars for one of his paintings; a few years ago, Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene was auctioned by Sotheby’s and acquired by Ronald Lauder for $38 million. Another painting, Two Horsemen on the Beach, a particular favorite of mine by the “degenerate” Max Liebermann (Jewish, and the leading German Impressionist of his time), was virtually unsellable after the Nazis came to power. It was found among the works hidden in the Munich apartment; although Liebermann’s work has not yet come back into vogue, the painting would likely sell for at least $1 million today.

Liebermann Self Portrait

Self-portrait by Max Liebermann, the “degenerate” German-Jewish Impressionist whose Two Horsemen on the Beach was found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment. Courtesy Wikipaintings.

 

But who are the Gurlitts? Although press stories on the Munich finds have tended to focus on the Jewish admixture in their history, the family, whose origin is German-Danish, is well known for other reasons to students of German art, music, and literature. Hildebrand’s grandfather, Louis Gurlitt, was a well-known landscape painter, and his son Cornelius—Hildebrand’s father and grandfather of the present-day Cornelius—was an architectural historian of note. Nor were these the only culturally prominent members of the clan. As for the Jewish link, which consists of Louis Gurlitt’s wife Elisabeth, that is rather attenuated by now.

Thus, to use the metric applied by the Nazi-era Nuremberg laws, the reclusive Cornelius (Elisabeth’s great-grandson) is just one-eighth Jewish, while his art-dealer father Hildebrand, who died after World War II in a car accident, was a quarter-Jew. In Nazi Germany, this was considered a blemish but did not automatically mean Auschwitz. With a little effort and good will on the part of the authorities, one could always claim a fleeting episode of marital infidelity somewhere along the line, nugatory enough to turn a quarter-Jew like the Hildebrand Gurlitt into an almost-full Aryan. Of course, in order to remain unharmed, anyone so tainted was also well advised to exercise caution and above all not to make enemies.

As it just so happens, however, Elisabeth Lewald, Hildebrand Gurlitt’s embarrassing Jewish grandmother, came from a very interesting family herself, and their story is well worth telling—less because it somehow explains or excuses Cornelius’s behavior, as is typically insinuated by the press, than because of the window it offers onto the fraught and endlessly fascinating saga of Jewish assimilation in continental Europe.

In the case at hand, the story begins in Koenigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave), where Elisabeth, one of nine children, was born in 1822 to David Markus and Tzipora Asur. Markus was a well-to-do businessman and banker who, in 1831, would change the family name to Lewald. Although the exact thinking behind his choice of name remains a mystery, in general Jews looking to embellish their backgrounds in those days had to be inventive. (A branch of my family that found itself in Russia around 1810, and made influential friends there, claimed the name de Laquière and a background among the French aristocracy. Some of their descendants have persuaded themselves that the story is gospel truth.)

If changing names was easy, changing religion was more complicated. When the Lewald parents gave two of their sons permission to convert and undergo baptism so as to marry out of the faith, the sons refused unless the parents agreed to convert as well. Gradually the whole family became Christian, if without much enthusiasm.

In this, they formed a contrast to an earlier wave of German Jewish converts to Christianity around the turn of the 19th century. Some of the young Jewish-turned-Christian ladies of that former time became the leading salonnières of Berlin, and were genuinely convinced of the spiritual superiority of the Christian dispensation; their number included the daughter of the great Enlightenment figure Moses Mendelssohn. Only for later converts—like Elisabeth’s elder sister Fanny—had conversion become, as it was for Heinrich Heine, merely an “entrance ticket to European civilization.” In her six-volume autobiography, Fanny confessed that she did not really believe in any of the dogmas of Christianity.

Kirchner_Berlin_Street_Scene_1913-SMALL

From Berlin Street Scene 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A previously unknown painting by the “degenerate” Kirchner was discovered in the Munich apartment. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Fanny, a novelist, was by far the most famous of the Lewald children; her collected works were published in the 1860s, and some have recently been reissued in Germany. More important than the novels is her autobiography, part of which is available in English translation (The Education of Fanny Lewald, 1992). In these recollections she cites some curious (to her) Jewish customs and traditions, like shiva, that in her youth, she writes, both attracted and repelled her. She also states that she and her siblings were never told they were Jewish; instead, they learned it in the street when, clothed in their beautiful little fur coats on their way to school, they were greeted with obscenities on the part of the neighborhood riffraff.

Fanny eventually moved to Berlin, where she established a literary salon attended by some of the leading German writers of the day as well as visiting foreign luminaries like Giuseppe Garibaldi. She fell in love with a German writer—married, with five children—who eventually left his family to join her.

There were instructive differences between Fanny’s salon and its predecessors of 50 years earlier. Where Mendelssohn’s daughter Dorothea Schlegel and her friend Henriette Herz conducted mainly literary gatherings, Fanny was at least as interested, if not more so, in social and political issues. True, the salons of 1800 had also become gradually politicized, willy-nilly, as many of their non-Jewish frequenters developed strongly nationalistic and even anti-Semitic attitudes. In general, history has not been kind to the Jewish salonnières of 1800 and their high-strung followers with their darkly negative attitude toward their origins. For Rahel Varnhagen, the central figure of that wave, Jewishness was a horrible injury that would never heal; “I shall never accept,” she wrote to a male friend, “that I am a schlemiel and a Jewess.”

For her part, Fanny Lewald writes in her autobiography that even as a child, before she went to school, she was aware that her Jewishness was a disaster. But she reacted differently, becoming in later years not only an important (if not, indeed, the most important) fighter for women’s rights of her era but also a staunch champion of emancipation for the Jews.

 

By the time Fanny died in 1889—her sister Elisabeth would outlive her by twenty years—the Jewish origins of the Gurlitt-Lewald clan were all but forgotten. Germany had changed: women, although they hadn’t yet secured the vote, had won most other rights, and a Jew who had been properly baptized could be a minister of the crown.

Take the case of Theodor Lewald, Fanny and Elisabeth’s nephew, born in 1860. A senior civil servant, he was highly educated, of impeccable manners, and sufficiently diffident in his behavior as not to raise suspicion. He made friends everywhere, faithfully serving not only the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and then the Weimar Republic, but eventually even Hitler’s Third Reich. Photographs show a man of imposing stature, far more Nordic-Aryan in appearance than the “typical” Jew of Nazi race theory.

It was, in fact, owing to Theodor Lewald that Nazi Germany achieved one of its major early triumphs: the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. This is a story with a back story. Uninterested in sports as a youngster, Lewald, who spoke English well, had become involved in the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 and counted many influential Americans among his friends. It was thus that he found himself on a German committee dealing with the international Olympics organization.

The 1916 games, which had been planned for Berlin, never materialized because of the outbreak of World War I; in the war’s aftermath, Germany was barred from participating in the 1920 and 1924 games. Only in 1928, thanks to Lewald and his networking, was Germany fully reinstated; two years later, Berlin was chosen as the site of the 1936 games. For Hitler and Goebbels, the risk in hosting an international event of this kind, with so many non-Aryans competing and possibly even winning the gold, was outweighed by the potential propaganda value of the event and the unique opportunity to enhance the Third Reich’s standing in the world.

Lewald’s prior successes had, however, created enemies. One of them was a high Nazi-party official named Hans von Tschammer und Osten who also bore the title of “Reich Sports Leader.” In April 1933, an article appeared in the Nazi paper, the Voelkische Beobachter, declaring it intolerable that someone of part-Jewish extraction should be playing a key role in the forthcoming games. But Lewald’s rivals had greatly underestimated his ability to pull strings while keeping discreetly in the background. He alerted his American connections, who in turn mobilized much of the Olympics world in a wave of protests that turned out to be effective.

This was a little surprising. Avery Brundage, the head of the American Olympics committee, was rather sympathetic toward the Nazis and not known as a friend of the Jews. But the appeal to Olympic ideals—peace, fair play, friendship among nations, and the rest—was irresistible. The Voelkische Beobachter was put on notice, and Lewald retained his position. Only after the games, when the Nazis no longer had much use for him, did the going become rougher for Theodor. Still, even during the war years he was able to obtain extra food rations and help a girlfriend escape deportation to Theresienstadt. He died in Berlin in 1947 at the ripe age of eighty-seven.

Marc,_Franz_-_Pferde_in_Landschaft

Horses in Landscape by Franz Marc. This painting was discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

By this winding path we can now return to the 1,400 artworks recovered in Munich and claimed by Cornelius Gurlitt as his family property. Although a full inventory does not yet exist, some number of them, as I mentioned early on, seem to have come from the Nazis’ notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937. The whole concept of degenerate art was confused and controversial. Included in the 1937 exhibit were works by two of the most prominent figures of German Expressionism, August Macke and Franz Marc; neither was Jewish, and both happened to be war heroes, having been killed in battle in World War I.

Another early Expressionist included in the exhibit was Emil Nolde, a German nationalist and an early Nazi whose work had been supported by Goebbels and others. But Hitler, who abominated all forms of modernism in art, overruled them. After the war, Nolde received the Grand Order of Merit from the West German government. Two years ago, Sotheby’s sold his Flower Garden for $3.2 million. As for specifically Jewish painters, the most prominent at the time was Liebermann; but he, too, should never have been included in the exhibit since he never produced abstract paintings.

In addition to products of German art, Jewish and otherwise, the Gurlitt collection also boasts works by such eminent non-German modernists as Picasso and Chagall, probably bought by German collectors before 1933 or seized in occupied France, as well as perfectly respectable items of older vintage by the likes of Canaletto and Rodin. It is said that eventually some 600 paintings in the Gurlitt collection will be made available for viewing on the Internet.

What will eventually happen to these pictures? Even if the original owners or their heirs or representatives can be located, it is quite possible that few will be able to prove a legally valid claim. So Cornelius Gurlitt might keep at least some of his treasure after all. What will it be worth? The highest price ever registered at auction for a single work, $268 million, was paid by the government of Qatar in 2011 for Cézanne’s Card Players. It is unlikely that any picture in the Gurlitt collection would command a similar price—but there may be no end of surprises in this saga.

Indeed, the final such surprise may belong posthumously to Fanny Lewald, who spent the last years of her life in a hotel in Dresden. Since 1993, a street in that city, Fanny Lewaldstrasse, has been named for her. Its original name was nothing less than Friedrich Auguststrasse, honoring the last emperor of Saxony. Under the Communists, it became Wilhelm Pieckstrasse, after the president of the former East Germany.

But if things were different in 1889, when Fanny died, they are more different now. Even in her wildest dreams she could not have imagined that one day not only would women in her homeland have equal rights but a woman would be serving as prime minister. Perhaps most surprising to her of all, a day would come when a Jewish grandmother in the family closet would no longer be regarded as a shameful embarrassment but as a mitigating circumstance, an excuse, even an asset.

__________

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, is due out from Transaction in January.

More about: Art, Berlin, Gurlitt, Nazism, olympics

 

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS

What does the upheaval in the Middle East mean for Israel’s territorial needs?

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS
An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
 
Observation
Oct. 22 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999) and the author of, among other books , Hatred’s Kingdom, The Fight for Jerusalem, and The Rise of Nuclear Iran.


How has the tumult in the Middle East affected the debate over Israel’s territorial requirements? For an answer, Mosaic approached Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has long promoted the concept of defensible borders primarily as a means of meeting Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. Our exchange was conducted by email. 

Q. Before we get to the idea of “defensible borders” itself, can you begin by telling us about your involvement in it?  

A: I became immersed in this issue when I was serving as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in the late 1990s. I was tasked with converting the IDF’s “Interests Map” for the West Bank into a form that could be presented to President Bill Clinton; I joined the prime minister for that presentation in the White House Map Room. Four years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked me to condense the work for his meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.

This formed the nucleus of what, starting in 2005, would become a series of monographs on the subject published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Copiously illustrated with maps and photographs, they featured essays by such prominent authors as Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, Yaakov Amidror, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, and Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan. The latest edition in the series was released this year, by coincidence just prior to the Gaza war. [Mosaic linked to a number of chapters here Eds.]

Q. What was the original idea, and has it changed at all in light of regional developments over the years?

A: The idea was first put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon after the Six-Day War of 1967. As commander of the pre-state Palmah, Allon was one of the architects of Israel’s national-security doctrine, and had also been a mentor of Yitzhak Rabin. His essential point was, and is, simple enough: Israel must retain certain territories on the West Bank for its security.

Q: What about the Palestinians? That land, after all, is increasingly referred to as occupied Palestinian territory.

A: Let’s back up a bit. At present, no one has sovereignty over the West Bank. The last sovereign power there was the Ottoman Empire, which formally renounced its claim after World War I. The West Bank then became a part of British Mandatory Palestine, which was designated to become the Jewish national home. The 1948 Arab war to annihilate the newly established state of Israel ended with the West Bank in Jordanian hands, and there it remained until 1967. In June of that year, Jordan joined an Arab war coalition, led by Egypt, that was aimed explicitly at finishing the job begun in 1948. That war ended with Israel in control of territory on several fronts, one of which was the West Bank.

Because Israel had acted in self-defense in 1967, noted scholars of international law, including Stephen Schwebel, who later served as president of the International Court of Justice, and Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School and Under Secretary of State in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, recognized its claims as stronger than those of any other party. Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, affirmed that Israel was not required to withdraw fully from the West Bank or return to the pre-1967 lines, but rather was entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries” that were still to be determined through negotiation.

In short, the West Bank remains disputed territory to which both Israel and the Palestinians have claims. The West Bank is not “Palestinian” territory; there was no Palestinian state there prior to 1967, and the Palestinians never had sovereignty there. For its part, Israel has legal rights that need to be acknowledged, and security concerns that must be incorporated into any understanding of where the final borders will lie. One thing that Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu have made clear is that Israel cannot withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines, which were a permanent invitation to attack—in a word, indefensible.

A: Are there Israeli experts who disagree with you? And have recent events, including in Gaza, strengthened their position or yours?

A: In the internal Israeli debate, some have argued that the whole concept of defensible borders has become outdated. In 1967, they remind us, the threat to Israel along its eastern front came from the combined strength of the armored and infantry formations of Syria and Jordan, plus an expeditionary force from Iraq. The IDF at the time was built around a small standing army that only gained full strength after the mobilization of reserves–which is why, if Israel were again to face a surprise attack, strategic depth was critical. It was in this environment that Yigal Allon put forward his plan.

And today? Israel remains a small country with a limited population base—certainly in comparison with its much larger neighbors—and there also remain real and persistent constraints on its ability to disperse its military capabilities. Critics of defensible borders like to point out that the constellation of hostile forces has changed markedly. The Syrian army has been badly degraded, the Iraqi army has been battered by war and domestic chaos, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. Thus, they conclude, the danger of attack by large conventional armies is no longer. Of course there is terrorism, but that’s a different matter, and besides, the critics say, it’s not on the same scale as the previous threats faced by Israel.

My response is that, for at least the short term, the terrorist threat to Israel from the east is unlike anything we have seen before in terms of scale and character. Terror used to be conducted by small squads of three to five men who penetrated Israel’s borders in order to seize hostages or place explosive devices under vehicles or in public places. Today, organizations like the Islamic State (IS), in possession of robust weaponry that includes sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have defeated whole divisions of the Iraqi army and confiscated vast amounts of equipment and money.

This year, operating with battalion-size formations, IS and its ideological cousin the al-Nusra Front have defeated Syrian armored forces and made deep inroads into the heart of Iraq. Despite recent setbacks thanks to American-led airstrikes, this is no mere tactical nuisance.

As for the longer term, no one can speak with any certainty. It’s true that, for the moment, a conventional assault by an existing state is unlikely. But the Middle East region is changing so dramatically before our eyes that Israel needs to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Q: Even without an army like IS’s, Hamas was able to smuggle weapons into Gaza and tunnel its way into Israel itself. Doesn’t that call into question the idea of defensible borders on the West Bank?

A: To the contrary. The war this summer disclosed the sheer size of the arsenal that Hamas had managed to build up over the years. But how did most of those weapons arrive? In withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel gave up a strip of land on the perimeter, called the Philadelphi Route, which had served to separate Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai. Thereafter, the number of tunnels under this route mushroomed, as did the quantity and quality of the weapons passing through them to Hamas and other groups.

On the West Bank, our outer perimeter is the Jordan Valley, which Israel controls. If Israel were to withdraw from the valley, weapons would flow to areas adjacent to Israeli cities.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft were found among the items smuggled into Gaza. No such weapons have been brought into the West Bank—yet. If they did get in, the security of Ben-Gurion airport would be placed at severe risk. To guarantee a demilitarized West Bank, then, Israel must retain the Jordan Valley, the functional equivalent of Gaza’s Philadelphi Route.

Q: Many commentators insist that, since Israel has such a strong army, it can afford to be more forthcoming with concessions and take greater risks for peace. 

A: We’ve just gone through the third Gaza war. The first time we withdrew from Gaza, it was said reassuringly that if Hamas failed to keep the peace, we could just re-invade and resume our control of the territory; what’s more, if attacked by even a single rocket, we would have international legitimacy to retaliate with the full power of the IDF.

We learned, painfully, that this was not the case. Israeli towns came under attack by Hamas rockets that were embedded in Palestinian civilian areas, making the effective use of Israel’s superior power much more difficult. Not only that, but after finally taking action in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel was pilloried by the Goldstone Report and faced international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council. The same thing is happening now, in a diplomatic atmosphere that if anything is more hostile, and more solidly stacked against Israel, than before.

My conclusion: it’s far better for Israel not to put itself in a position in which its vulnerabilities invite aggression but it is unable to respond with power. Once again, strategic depth makes a difference.

Q: A final question. You argue that the Jordan Valley must be kept under Israeli control. Why can’t Israel agree to international peacekeeping teams instead of the IDF, as is often proposed?

A: Israel has always been reluctant to base its defense on international forces, and when it’s agreed to them it has suffered. Under challenge, such forces invariably back down or collapse. During the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser of Egypt demanded that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force in Sinai. UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to Nasser’s demand, thereby removing the lone buffer between Israel’s southern border and 90,000 massed Egyptian troops.

It used to be said that no one would ever dare attack international peacekeepers; the thought was just too outrageous to be entertained. That illusion has likewise been put to rest over the years. Overt acts of aggression can force UN peacekeepers to leave, while the mere threat of aggression has demonstrably compromised their neutrality or led to their being co-opted by enemy forces like Hizballah. Only the other week, on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria, the al-Nusra front captured a contingent of Fijian soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force and successfully held them for ransom. For all of these reasons, Israel’s position has always been that it cannot leave itself exposed, and must defend itself by itself.

As for the Jordan Valley, it’s worth remembering that, a month before his assassination in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin declared in the Knesset that the future security border of Israel would be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that geographical term.

This is what’s meant by defensible borders. Until the lion lies down with the lamb, there is simply no alternative to them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact.

More about: Dore Gold, interview, Israel, West Bank

 

The Silent Partnership

How the president has exploited the international campaign against IS in order to accommodate Iran.

The Silent Partnership
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with foreign defense ministers. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
Oct. 15 2014 5:00AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

 

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

 

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Policy, Iran, Islamic State, Nuclear Bomb

 

Mosaic 2.0

Welcome to Mosaic in its brand-new look.

Mosaic 2.0
 
Observation
The Editors
Oct. 5 2014 6:00PM

Dear reader,

Welcome to Mosaic’s brand-new look! After a year and a half of publication, we’ve re-launched our site in a form that’s visually cleaner and clearer than before, more coherently designed, more aesthetically pleasing—and, especially, much easier to read and use.

If you’re already a seasoned reader of Mosaic, you’ll notice the two most obvious changes right away. First, our big monthly essays, which are Mosaic’s main distinguishing feature, are now seamlessly integrated both with their invited responses and with the author’s final say at the end of the month. Second, our daily Editors’ Picks, presenting the best and most important items culled from around the web, come to you on their own page; each item is summarized by us in an introductory paragraph or two, followed often by a key extract from the “Pick” itself, and then by a link to the source publication for when you want to read more.

Other improvements are forthcoming. Our site will shortly become more mobile-friendly, eliminating the need to zoom in or pinch the text during your commute. Each monthly essay and its responses will be available as a Mosaic Book—an ebook you can read on your web browser, your Kindle, or your phone or tablet. With the facility afforded to us by our new design, we’re also planning to increase the frequency of shorter original pieces and to feature regular columnists.

Since its birth, Mosaic has become, for a growing audience, essential reading: the home for clear, bold, in-depth, definitive treatments of the most pressing issues concerning Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state. To our first-time visitors: we’re delighted to have you with us, and we hope you’ll want to stay. To our regular readers: welcome back, and we hope our new look makes your experience of the site all the more enjoyable.

Whether new or old, once you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with today’s Mosaic, we’d be very happy to hear from you with your thoughts, questions, or concerns. Write to us any time at [email protected].

Cordially,

The Editors
Mosaic

More about: Announcements, From the Editors

 

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Why should we confess, particularly on Yom Kippur? Why in public? And why so many times?

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty
From Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, by the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). Via Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Oct. 2 2014 6:00PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


I have two Jewish neighbors on my street in the little Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge. One, who has chosen to have nothing to do with religion of any kind, has a daughter who’s opted to live as an evangelical Christian. The other, a woman in her late thirties and the daughter of good North London Jews, married a man she met at college who was cosmopolitan, intellectual, and sensitive—all the things she considers to be Jewish characteristics. “It’s only when he’s with his parents that I realize he’s not Jewish.” When we moved into the neighborhood, she initially brought her two daughters to our house for Sabbath meals, but as time passed she stopped accepting our invitation. Clearly it was simpler to avoid a shared religious ritual, even over a meal, than to address the questions her daughters were quickly becoming old enough to raise.

So it was a surprise when she asked me to come speak to her students about Jewish tradition. A hospice nurse, she had become a lecturer on end-of-life care and was now teaching a whole course on the subject. What irked her enough to seek me out was the frivolity with which some of her students mocked the need for ritual and symbolic acts in patients who might “still believe in that sort of thing,” as if they were a pygmy tribe. The nursing school is at the University of Bradford, in the middle of Britain’s largest Muslim community, but she was not about to invite an imam, or a Church of England vicar, or a Roman Catholic priest, and she didn’t know any rabbis. But we had talked about end-of-life care and about my interest in using extended interviews or memoir transcription as an alternative therapy for the dying:  a way of getting people to review unfinished business or to find a starting point for conversations they might wish to have with their family.

In other words, we’d talked about vidui: the Hebrew term for a form of private or public confession recited quietly as part of daily prayer in some congregations and aloud in all congregations as part of the Yom Kippur service. The daily version, beginning ashamnu, is shorter; something like it appears in the Book of Daniel, “We have sinned, and corrupted, been wicked, and rebelled, even by turning from your commandments and judgments.” The verbs both in it and in the longer version, “Al het,” are in the plural—“we,” not “I”—and both are acrostics, a form that can aid the memory by providing a catalogue of dozens of sins in alphabetical order.

 

The term vidui recalls the confession that Moses instructs his brother Aaron the High Priest to make during Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:21) in order to transfer the sins of the people onto a goat that is then sent away into the wilderness. Now the goat is gone, and so is the High Priest; but the sins and the people remain, so the confession endures.

But why should we confess, and particularly on Yom Kippur? The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) says that all who are sentenced to death make a confession. It adds, eloquently (in the minor tractate of Smahot): “Many have confessed but have not died; and many who have not confessed have died. And many who are walking outside in the marketplace confess. By the merit of your confession, you shall live.” And this is the phrasing that Joseph Karo in the 16th century codified into law in his Shulhan Arukh, turning a recommendation into a requirement.

But again: what is so important about confessing? And why in public? And why through these prescribed formulas? Surely nobody ever committed quite so many sins as these, or sinned in so ornate a manner as to require such a minuet of expiation.

Yom Kippur entails acknowledging a list of sins you may not personally have committed. The point of the recitation is in the collective, which serves two functions. The first is that by acknowledging yourself to be in the collective, by shouldering a communal burden, you are confessing everything: not just what you are willing to confess to but also what you are not willing to confess, sins you committed knowingly and sins you committed unknowingly, sins that you were barely aware of. You are acknowledging that you have done it all, and if you haven’t yet done it all you might do it all, and even if you might not, you are hopeful in any case of forgiveness. It’s a letting-go of everything, the stains you can see and the ones you cannot. You want to be clean.

The second function of the collective is to replace the service of the High Priest and his transference of the collective’s sins onto a goat. The community standing together is a testament to your personal seriousness of purpose. In a sense, you are putting your own fate in the hands of all the people around you. Like Abraham haggling with the Almighty before the destruction of Sodom, you are asking whether He would really destroy all this great congregation if there turned out to be fewer righteous individuals than He’d expected to find here. By reciting all possible sins as part of your own account, you are drawing about yourself the merit of all those present. You are saying to the Almighty not only what you are—the catalogue of sins, of which you have committed at least one or two—but also who you hope to be: a part of this group you choose to stand with and that contains (again, a hope) some righteous souls. You hope that it’s not goats but, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, the content of our character that is the deciding factor as we face the Almighty.

 

So I went with my neighbor, who will not be attending the Yom Kippur service, to the school of nursing where she works, and into an auditorium of 120 student nurses, male and female. I asked for a show of hands to get a sense of what traditions the audience would be slotting vidui into. There were a couple of Pakistani Muslims in the front row, a few Catholics dotted about, one or two Protestants, and the rest were the great wash of English post-believers. It used to be said that the Church of England is what the British had instead of religion. They largely do not have even that anymore.

That was why I was there. My post-religious neighbor may not observe much in the way of Jewish practice herself, but she takes the dying seriously, and while she didn’t trust herself enough to pound the message into her students’ heads, she was expecting me to dent their disdain toward the remnants of a generation that did still practice. I was supposed to make them feel more sympathetic to the flotsam and jetsam left on the beach after the tide of belief in God went out.

I didn’t pound Torah into them. Among the various high and low roads across the terrain of faith, I chose one of each. Taking a high road, I first presented the vidui as a simple legal requirement, like last rites for Catholics. You have to say it, or, if you aren’t capable of saying it, have someone say it for you. Simple; cut and dried. I recited a few lines in Hebrew to give them a sense of the music of it, and then read the English text to give them a sense of the swath of sins covered, the intricate span of corruption. I think that may have impressed even the committed atheists.

And then I took the low, humanist road and pitched straight for the soft underbelly of my unbelieving crowd: guilt, and fear. I told them about my idea of interviewing the terminally ill and editing their autobiographical accounts into books that they could give to their (soon to be) survivors and perhaps use as conversation-openers before it was too late to set anything right. I said we all need to get the story of our life straight before we die, there’s nobody who doesn’t benefit from looking over what they hoped to have done and what they actually did, what they could have done and should have done, what they need to make right in order to let go, and to be let go of in turn. For the most part, I think they bought it. The low road was something even the most religion-phobic could not balk at. I got a round of applause; my neighbor said, “I knew you could teach”; and the students went out buzzing away among themselves.

My neighbor’s husband called me the following week, fulminating because four of the 120 students had complained, anonymously of course, that if they were going to have a representative of a religion speak to them, it should have been from one of the religions they were likely to encounter in their nursing wards. He thought the complaint was anti-Semitic, but I didn’t take it that way. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Muslims who complained, or the Catholics, or even the Protestants. They seemed both to be engaged with what I said about the vidui and not to object to my humanist idea of a memoir.

No, I suspect the few complaints came out of the larger mass of post-believers, the ones who are happy to take up nursing but don’t like to think that dying is something that might happen to them, or that the people who will be dying on their watch are actually like them—are people. I think the four complainants were complaining not because they wanted  a Church of England vicar but because I raised the spectre of their own death, and not only that but the spectre of their loneliness dying alone in a hospital with no way to re-establish the connection to whatever relationships remained unresolved as they approached their end. So I took their protest as a compliment. I took it that my case for the prosecution—or was it for the defense?—had rattled them.

 

A few lines of the Al het, the Yom Kippur vidui, to close. I’ve chosen these because they leaped out at me for being rooted in the body and not the mind:

For a sin we sinned before you in breaking bounds
And for a sin we sinned before you in argument.
For a sin we sinned before you with intent against a friend
And for a sin we sinned before you with a narrow mind.
For a sin we sinned before you being feather brained
And for a sin we sinned before you being stiff necked.
For a sin we sinned before you being swift of foot to do wrong
And for a sin we sinned before you with a slanderous tongue.
For a sin we sinned before you with an empty vow
And a sin we sinned before you with a baseless hate.

There is no tune for this prayer; it’s as long as your guilt and as flat as the desert. But when I think of the last synagogue I spent Yom Kippur in, a tiny shtiebel in Leeds, the sound track in my head for this time of year is the closing passage of Avinu malkeinu, another recitation of sinfulness and entreaty for forgiveness, sung with particular longing only on the Days of Awe and other public fast days. It climaxes:

Our Father our King
Pardon and answer us
Because we have no deeds
Deal with us in charity and kindness
And deliver us.

At the end of the day, we ask the Almighty to treat us as we should have treated our fellows, hoping He will do better than we did.

More about: High Holidays, Jewish ritual, Religion, Yom Kippur