Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story
The covers of <em>Like Dreamers</em> by Yossi Klein Halevi and <em>My Promised Land</em> by Ari Shavit.
The covers of Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.
 
Observation
Dec. 18 2013 8:36PM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


The story of the Jews was told so effectively in the Hebrew Bible that it shaped and sustained them as a people from that time to this. But what happens now?

We live in an era in which the Jewish people, having suffered a catastrophic national defeat greater even than the one recorded in the book of Lamentations, went on to write a chapter of its history at least as remarkable as any in its sacred canon. In a single decade, bereft of one third of their number, and without the obvious aid of divine intervention, Jews redefined “miracle” as something that could be enacted through human effort. Over the past six decades, the vitality and civilizing restraint of the Jewish way of life, honed in almost 2,000 years of exile, have been made manifest in the regained conditions of a thriving Jewish polity—one that simultaneously has been under relentless and, lately, spiraling pressure from all sides.

Will authors rise to this occasion as ably as the biblical authors did to theirs? Two recent and well-timed accounts of modern Israel offer a useful framework for examining how the challenge is being met. At over 450 pages apiece, each book required years of research and gestation: ten in the case of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, five in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. So there is no question about the gravity of these authors’ intentions, or the definitiveness of their aims and ambitions. Those ambitions, moreover, have already been rewarded in the form of unfailingly warm, respectful, and serious attention in the American press—and in Shavit’s case by a place on the bestseller lists.

What, then, have they wrought?

 

Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation traces the intertwined lives of seven men of the 55th Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which won back the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A brief introduction situates the author himself circa 1967 as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His father, a Holocaust survivor, is so shaken by the terrifying lead-up to war—many in those months feared a devastating cataclysm—but then so relieved by its outcome that he takes his son to see Jerusalem at first hand. Fifteen years later, the son, already a journalist, immigrates to Israel. One day, he is inspired by an article on a reunion of the 55th Brigade to look up the paratroopers, hoping to write about them on his own. As his project expands into a book, he is struck by a fascinating division among the men that suggests the main arc of tension in his burgeoning story: the split in outlook between secular Zionists hailing from the world of the kibbutz and religious Zionists hailing from the world of the yeshiva.

Except for continuing to treat his subjects as a unit, Halevi tries to stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1967 to 2004, beginning with a detailed reconstruction of the battle for Jerusalem and then following the seven men at key intervals as they move into civilian life while also being drawn back repeatedly into their unit as reservists. A complicated grid, mainly unseen by the reader, weaves in and out of their intersecting lives, telling their back stories and highlighting their individual idiosyncrasies even as it connects them as a group to major historical developments over almost four tumultuous decades in their country’s life. In this way, above and beyond what we come to learn about each man, his family, his personal achievements and failures, we are shown the interdependency that persists among them as their attitudes, thoughts, and convictions play out in the context of an open society debating its future while under unremitting threat from without.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is one man’s personal account, almost confessional in its intensity, of the history of his country from the arrival of a great-grandparent in 1897 to the writing of this book in 2013. It, too, is arranged chronologically. Its seventeen chapters trace the history of early Jewish settlement of the land, the growth of collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), the advance of agriculture, housing, and scientific research, the early absorption of Holocaust survivors and expellees from Arab countries, and so on into the present. Each of these developments is situated in the geographical locations within Israel with which they are historically associated.

A fourth-generation Israeli, an influential columnist for the daily Ha’aretz since 1995 and a sought-after political commentator, Shavit writes with an insider’s familiarity, interviewing leading cultural and political figures as old friends who share a lifetime of assumptions and sometimes quoting his own previously published words as pithy statements on Israeli events and personalities.

In their contrasting approaches, the two books thus somewhat resemble the reportorial versus the editorial sections of a newspaper. That being so, it makes sense to begin with the one that reads like reportage, if of an extremely high literary order.

 

The photograph on the dust jacket of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers is of young, battle-exhausted paratroopers looking up at the newly won Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the center, the youngest of them, helmet in hand, will become an iconic image, epitomizing the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise: v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:16). Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, the culminating event in several months of apocalyptic tension and six days of ferocious fighting, released a sense of relief and joy unparalleled in the country before or since. It was something like this same sense of relief that Halevi was reaching for in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when he began seeking out the veterans of that earlier battle to see what had become of them.

In 1967, about half of the soldiers and 70 percent of the officers of the 55th Brigade were the products of kibbutzim; a much smaller proportion was made up of religious Zionists. The two groups disagreed about such things as the place of religion in Israeli and Jewish identity, but Halevi finds an essential commonality in their animating idealism. “[For] all their differences,” he writes,” religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.” Each side saw itself as laying the foundation of an ideal society—egalitarian in the one case, religious in the other, with the dominant form of utopianism being that of the secularists. In deference to their common zeal, he draws the title of his book from a passage in Psalm 126:

When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

Then our mouths filled with laughter,

And our tongues with songs of joy.

Then they said among the nations:

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us.

Like Dreamers then follows these men from their dream state into daily life—much as paratroopers drop from the skies to land on unyielding earth.

Halevi relishes the evolving diversity of his cast of characters. Among those from the kibbutzim there will emerge a managerial genius who helps move the Israeli economy from statism toward capitalism; a songwriter who strikes out from the farm to the city; a sculptor whose large-scale installations harness the physical resources of his kibbutz; and an anti-Israel spy who joins a terrorist network and gives his handlers in Damascus whatever they want to know about his military training. (You read that right.) The distance each of these individuals seeks from the collectivist esprit of his upbringing helps to explain why the kibbutz as an institution had to give way to a society of greater freedom—and perhaps even why one individual would use that freedom to betray it.

Among the religiously devout, temperamental and intellectual differences also disturb the initial unity of purpose. Several after 1967 become leaders of the settlers’ movement, which for a time enjoyed the support of the Labor government and continues to be supported by much of the country at large. Here Halevi may be simplifying his story-line when he writes that “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz movement became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” For the religious men in the unit, as his narrative shows, it is less a case of symbolism than of adjusting, like their secular counterparts but in different terms, to the non-ideological opportunities and obligations of a dynamic society under siege; when it comes to the settlements, the same can be said for Israelis in general.

No surprise to those familiar with Israel’s history, soldiering occupies a prominent place in this book, sobering in the degree to which it holds these particular men in its grip. In America, only professional soldiers are called up for successive tours of duty. But, scant years after the battle for Jerusalem, the reservists of the IDF’s 55th Brigade were fighting again, in even more traumatic conditions, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Then came 1982, when Israel undertook, in concert with Lebanese Christians, to drive the PLO out of Lebanon; during their second tour of duty that year, the battalion members could sense the eroding support of a country beginning to tire of ceaseless combat. Around the campfire there is talk of a colonel who has refused an order. Some of the men call him courageous, but a religious reservist invokes his eight-year-old son, according to whom it is permitted to speak against the government and forbidden to speak against soldiers—but also forbidden for soldiers to disobey an order.

“‘Why, Odi?’ I asked him. ‘Explain it to me.’”

“‘What will happen,’ said Odi, . . . ‘if there is a war and someone will say I don’t want to fight?’”

The reservist concludes, embellishing a rabbinic aphorism, “After the destruction of the Temple, prophecy wasn’t given only to fools but also to children.” A future generation of Israeli soldiers was beginning, at an early age, to balance civic and personal responsibilities in a democracy where the word of security officials was being subjected to doubt. In the decades after 1982, as Halevi demonstrates in his remaining chapters, the coils become only tighter, the conundrums more agonizing, opinion more polarized.

 

A reader whose taste I normally share told me this book left him dissatisfied. He kept losing track of the characters and had to keep thumbing back to the orienting “Who’s Who” at the front. I see his point, but nothing conveys the experience of daily life in Israel—where the boundaries between war and peace can be as permeable as those between Manhattan and the Bronx—better than Halevi’s back-and-forth between the contrasting yet contiguous spheres of battlefront and home front, secular and religious camps, collective and individual experience. By letting the men speak for themselves through interviews and memoirs, he also projects a feeling of unedited frankness and spontaneity.

The method works especially well in the case of the poet-singer Meir Ariel. In May 1967, just weeks before the outbreak of war, the popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed “Jerusalem of Gold,” expressing a longing for the Western Wall and the still-lost parts of the nation’s capital. Weeks later, King Hussein’s unanticipated attack on the Jordanian front, followed by victory in the resulting battle for Jerusalem, the song, with updated lyrics, turned into an anthem of reunification. Its patriotic fervor disturbed some on the Left. Drawing on his experiences in the city’s liberation, Ariel wrote an alternative version that he titled “Jerusalem of Iron,” registering the cost in the number of Israeli casualties (swollen by inadequate intelligence) and the lead needed to win that city of gold. Yet he insisted that his darker lyrics not replace but remain a commentary on the original song, and he declined to be lionized as a political protester.

Restive in the disciplining embrace of family and kibbutz, Ariel eventually drifted into religious life—not as a captive of any movement or party but on his own, looking for what he needed. Were Halevi a tendentious writer, he might have cast Ariel as the paradigmatic baal teshuva who “returns” to God and religion. Instead, we follow the unsteady path and tortured consciousness of a young man in an open society whose freedoms he has helped to secure.

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

 

To pass from Yossi Klein Halevi to Ari Shavit and My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is like moving from the admittedly buffeting winds of freedom into a long-term care facility. Shavit sets out, as he says, “to tell the Israel story” through family sources, personal history, and interviews. He begins his guided tour with the arrival of Herbert Bentwich, his great-grandfather, on an exploratory visit to the land of Israel in 1897, the same year Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basle. In then guiding us through the country’s geography and history, Shavit selects places where members of his family settled. Thus, Ein Harod, founded in the valley of Jezreel in 1921, is the book’s emblematic kibbutz, while the city of Rehovot, where Shavit spent part of his own youth, forms the background of otherwise disparate narratives about Israel’s citrus industry and its atomic project.

This recruitment of his family is not intended as family history, however. Shavit scarcely mentions, for example, Herbert Bentwich’s eldest son, Norman, a British Zionist activist and author of Israel Resurgent (1952) who was the more commanding historical figure of the two. From his family, as from the country, Shavit chooses only what he wishes to show.

Which is fair enough. But what does he wish to show?

“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” These sentences introduce us to the awakening consciousness, at the start of the Six-Day War, of the nine-year-old who in later passages will go on to experience the terrors of the Yom Kippur War, the Iraqi SCUD missiles falling on Israel’s civilian population in the first Gulf War, and the shooting, rock throwing, and suicide bombings of two Palestinian intifadas. In sum, according to Shavit, Israel’s victories, like Israel’s vitality, serve merely to camouflage “how exposed we are, how constantly intimidated.” Projecting his fear onto the national psyche, he foresees the day when the life of his “promised land” will “freeze like Pompeii’s” as Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses.

By age nine, any child with a passable Jewish education will have learned that the scouts sent by Moses to report on the promised land of Canaan committed a lethal sin when they instilled panic in the Israelites with accounts of the giants they had allegedly encountered there. (“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) The forty years of wandering through a desert that could have been traversed in a matter of weeks were divine punishment for the cowering faithlessness of these former slaves and their spineless guides.

Shavit is either unaware of the relevant Jewish lore or indifferent to its message. To be sure, fear is a rational response in a minority population living among hostile neighbors—but that is precisely why Jewish leaders have so often invoked this biblical episode to warn against undermining public morale. In my mother’s arsenal of daily proverbs, the only non-Yiddish saying she regularly incorporated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Although it tells a story of impressive national achievement, everywhere in My Promised Land the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom. In 1926, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz performs for thousands in a makeshift theater at Ein Harod. Here is Shavit’s take on what can only have been a thrilling occasion:

I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.

Several pages later, he comments on the spring of 1935, when the citrus harvest has enriched the villages surrounding Rehovot and “Jewish medicine” has brought progress to “desperate Palestinian communities.” Somehow, he writes, the “Zionists of Rehovot” have convinced themselves that, thanks to their altruism, “the clash between the two peoples is avoidable.” But this is delusion. “They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

So acute is Shavit’s anxiety that even the prospect of urban development suffices to darken an upbeat report on the integration of European and Arab Jewish refugees:

In 1957 [the moshav] Bitzaron is still encircled by breathtaking fields of wildflowers: autumn crocuses, asphodels, bellflowers, and anemones. But they are about to disappear. A wave of development is replacing them with more and more housing estates populated by more and more new immigrants who are rapidly become new Israelis.

Israel’s triumph—its valor, its initiative, its natural beauty—is real only as a foil for Israel’s tragedy, which is where the real emphasis falls in Shavit’s deceptively balanced subtitle. There is no humor or lightness in his telling—this, in a country that in 2013 ranks 11th in the world on the happiness index. Even his exuberant report on the sex, drugs, and gay scene of contemporary Tel Aviv serves as prelude to a lament on the widening gulf between secure and exposed sectors of the country—a gulf judged by him to position Israel, in its seventh decade, as “much less of a solid nation-state than it was when it was ten years old” (and the wildflowers were disappearing from Bitzaron).

 

What is all this about? One can see why it might be hard to tell the story of European Jewry in the 1930s without a sense of foreboding, given what we know of its fate. But why would a successful Israeli in a successful (if threatened) Israel unspool a narrative thread of decline and disaster reaching back into the 1890s, weaving a shroud in which to wrap his country’s irrefutable triumphs?

One obvious answer lies in the ceaseless Arab war against Israel, which began long before the emergence of the state and came to play an expanding role in the domestic politics of Arab and Muslim countries, in the rabble-rousing of their religious leaders, in the ideology of their terrorists, and increasingly, in our own day, in the mental formation of leftists and internationalists everywhere. In this reading, the drumbeat of aggression that frightened Shavit as a child would appear to have kept him traumatized ever after.

Yet the obvious does not apply here. For, according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them. The fear of attack with which the book opens yields immediately to its anxious echo—“For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation”—and the second anxiety supersedes the first. The obsessive foreshadowing is all about the wrongs that Jews have done or are about to do the Arabs, from the great-grandfather who fails to “see” their villages on his first journey through the land of Israel, to the kibbutzniks of Ein Harod who “burn the valley’s Palestinians,” to the 1948 war, and onward till today.

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

Nothing that happens to the Jews concerns them alone, so it is worth pausing here to consider what it means to substitute the Palestinian term naqba for Israel’s war of independence. In her recent one-volume Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira describes the special strains on the Jewish fighters of battles like Lydda’s that involved the highly trained Jordanian troops. As compared with Shapira’s meticulous account of what she rightly dubs an “Arab invasion,” Shavit’s Arabs and Muslims are deprived of agency, morality, and will. They are never seen to be plotting or planting, they never consider strategy or its consequences, they never indulge in moral reflection or compunction. “They suspect nothing,” “they cannot imagine what was about to happen,” and so forth. This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt.

Shavit’s precursors, who settled Israel, saw very well the Arabs and their villages; their failure lay in imagining people, like themselves, who had been living among and at the sufferance of others (in the Arabs’ case, mainly the Turks) and who would willingly have let others live among them. Some, indeed, did. But this is what Shavit cannot “see.” He will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior. In reporting on his meetings with Jewish religious figures or others of whom he disapproves, Shavit makes a point of telling us how he stands up to them in argument. Not so in his chapter “Up in the Galilee,” where his Arab friends assure him that Israel is doomed, and in response he merely reaffirms his love for them, asking, plaintively, “What will become of us, Mohammed?” No wonder they respond with contempt.

 

A further casualty of this book is journalism’s commitment to truth. Forecasts of doom are glaringly absent just where they are needed—and nowhere more so than in the section where Shavit describes how in the early 1990s he and his leftist political camp decided to bring “Peace, Now” by obscuring the declared intentions of Israel’s enemies.

In 1992, Israel elected a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin on a platform of no negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s terrorist organization, routed ten years earlier from Lebanon and now relocated to Tunisia. Subverting the democratic process, a few Israeli leftists, backed by an American millionaire, secretly plotted with Arafat to install him as head of a “Palestinian Authority” in return for nothing more than his word that he would keep the peace. Again with American help, they persuaded Rabin to accept this contract, very much against his better judgment. Israel thereby put the world’s leading terrorist in charge of protecting his prime target, and then proceeded to support and arm him.

Yossi Beilin, one of those who organized the meeting with Arafat in Norway, now admits they never considered the risks of PLO non-compliance. So when Shavit writes, “Peace was our religion,” he means, we acted idiotically through self-deception. In recounting this episode, he fails to look for where the dog lies buried (to adopt the Yiddish and Hebrew phrase). It does not help that, by now, Shavit recognizes the failure of the Oslo “peace accords” of 1993. In this respect, indeed, he early on distinguished himself from his colleagues at Ha’aretz. Nevertheless, he is still convinced that “[we] were right to try peace.” Instead of applying his professional acumen to investigating his and his friends’ part in the ensuing disaster, with its staggering loss of Israeli life, he limply seeks exculpation in his motives.

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a Jew. So did Shavit’s ancestors. But one can’t help wondering whether Shavit feels himself less elevated by Judaism than condemned to it. Missing from his description of Israel’s “Hebrew identity,” as he calls it, is any evidence of the powerful sense of identity that has enabled Jews through the ages to withstand the aggression of others. Of the superabundance of contemporary Israel’s Jewish culture—the poetry and song, the popular revival of piyyut (liturgical poetry set to music), the theatrical productions, the ferment of academic and intellectual life, not to speak of Jewish religious life tout court—vanishingly little appears in his book. Missing, too, are the finds of the City of David and the Second Temple, or the attachment to native soil that makes amateur archeologists out of so many Israelis; the ruins of Masada make an appearance as a contrived means of boosting military recruits’ feelings of obligation and allegiance. Yet why else except through the unbroken connection of Jews with their homeland would Israelis today be speaking Hebrew in the first place?

Cut off from its Jewish rootedness, Shavit’s Israel finds its main justification in the suffering and supposedly nightmarish fears of its Jews. But suffering is not a Jewish virtue, only the sometimes necessary price to be paid for the privilege of living as a Jew. Moreover, in a face-off between competing fears and miseries, how can the prospering Jews of a “start-up nation” ever rival the perpetually deprived Palestinian Arabs? In his book, they don’t.

 

Doing justice to the story of modern Israel requires the moral confidence to distinguish between a civilization dedicated to building and one dedicated to destroying what others build. Is it really necessary to reaffirm that the Jewish state rests on a foundation of moral and political legitimacy stronger than that of any other modern nation, or that Jews maintained their indigenous rights to the land of Israel both when they resided in Zion and whenever and wherever they lived outside it? In modern times, and in modern terms, those rights were affirmed repeatedly, both in international law and through the gigantic efforts of Jews themselves, who purchased great tracts of the land, won back expanses of swamp and desert, built industries and cities, and repopulated the country in an unparalleled process of ingathering and resettlement of refugees.

Since war remains, alas, the universal means of securing land when a claim is challenged, the Jews of Israel have had to defend their land more often than any other contemporary people. In peace and in war, Jewish sovereignty has required and still requires of them greater qualities of mind and spirit than those that maintained their ancestors for centuries in other people’s lands. If it took tremendous courage to reclaim the Jewish homeland, at least equal courage is required to sustain and protect it among people who are currently less politically mature than they. One can only hope that, in that monumental task, Israelis will manifest in their written and spoken words the same moral confidence that as soldiers they have shown in battle—and that those writing specifically in English will remember that, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, prominent among their present-day assailants are Western liberal elites.

_____________________

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish State, Kibbutz movement, Six-Day War, Yeshiva, Zionism

 

The Girl with the Yiddish Tattoo

A near-indecipherable tattoo on a woman’s leg helps unravel a mystery surrounding the 1943 anthem of the Jewish resistance.

<em>The legs of a "feministically inclined Jewish patriot."</em> Philologos.
The legs of a "feministically inclined Jewish patriot." Philologos.
 
Observation
July 31 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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The photograph of a tattooed pair of women’s legs appearing atop this column was e-mailed to me by a friend after having been sent to him by an acquaintance who’d taken it in New York. The legs—belonging, apparently, to a feministically inclined Jewish patriot—bear three inscriptions. On the left calf are “Never Again” and a barbed-wire Star of David. The left ankle (not pictured here) has two words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I can’t make out. On the right calf are the faces of two young women wearing military-style berets and lettering that, though  a bit difficult to decipher, spells the Yiddish words dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, “the song is written with blood,” above the faces, and un nit blay, “and not lead,” beneath them. Or is it, on the contrary, un mit blay, “and with lead”? It’s hard to tell—and thereby hangs a tale.

The words of this tattoo come from the well-known song Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letztn veg, “Never say the road you’re on will be your last,” also known as the Partisans’ Song. Written in the Vilna ghetto in May 1943, it quickly became the anthem of anti-German Jewish partisan units all over Eastern Europe. After the war it was widely performed and recorded, and it continues to be sung in various languages at Holocaust commemorations and other events to this day. In its accepted version, the fourth of its five stanzas goes:

Dos lid geshribn iz mit blut un nit mit blay,
S’iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl af der fray,
Dos hot a folk tzvishn falndike vent
Dos lid gezungn mit naganes in di hent.

A more or less literal translation (there are several poetic ones) is:

This song is written with blood and not with lead,
It’s not a song sung by a bird that’s flying free,
The people singing it is ringed by falling walls,
And sings it with a pistol in its hands.

The tattooer, it would seem, whether inadvertently or because given an erroneous version to copy, made a mistake in the stanza’s first line by omitting either mit, “with,” or nit, “not,” before blay, “lead.” In the first case, the line’s meaning would remain the same but its scansion would be harmed by losing a syllable, thus laming the last of its five beats. In the second case, the scansion would again suffer—and the line’s meaning would also be reversed.

And yet there would be, I must say, a logic in such a reversal, because the line in its accepted version doesn’t quite make sense. If you’re singing with a pistol in your hand, why say your song is sung only with blood and not also with the lead of bullets? Or is it possible that the lead referred to is not that of bullets but of the written word? Movable print, after all, was traditionally cast in lead, and the Yiddish word for a pencil is blayshtift, literally a “lead pin.”

The song’s lyricist, Hirsh Glik, did not survive to be asked these questions. A twenty-one-year-old Vilna poet at the time he wrote it, he was apparently killed by the Germans a year later (there were no actual witnesses to his death), in the summer of 1944. Taking the music from a song composed by the Jewish brothers Dmitry and Daniel Pokrass for the 1937 Soviet film Sons of Working People, Glik wrote Zog nit keynmol‘s words under the impact of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, which broke out in late April 1943. A similar revolt was being planned for the ghetto in Vilna, and according to Glik’s fellow Vilna Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginski, who later escaped to join a Jewish partisan unit, Glik was at the time “breathing an atmosphere of grenades and guns.”

This certainly suggests that the lead of stanza 4 is that of bullets. Indeed, there has always been reason to suspect that mit blut un nit mit blay may not have been Glik’s original words, because when Zog nit keymol was translated into its classic Hebrew version in 1946 by the poet Avraham Shlonsky, the stanza’s first line was rendered as Bi-khtav ha-dam ve-ha-oferet hu nikhtav, “It’s written in the script of blood and lead.”  Was this what Glik actually wrote, which was subsequently changed? Or was it Shlonsky who changed Glik’s words for reasons of his own?

I now know the answer, supplied to me by the Yiddish scholar and literary critic Ruth Wisse, who needs no introduction to Mosaic‘s readers. Ruth was a close friend, until his death five years ago, of the great Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever—who, though not a native of Vilna, was in its ghetto, too, when Zog nit keynmol was written, after which he escaped with the same group as did Kazcerginski and fought together in the forests with him. In the course of our e-mail exchange, she wrote me: “According to Sutzkever, the line was originally written as Geshribn iz dos lid mit blut un blay, ‘blood and lead,’ not as it later came to be sung. He was quite insistent about this.”

Shlonsky’s translation, then, was accurate. But it’s more complicated than that, since after his escape from the ghetto, Sutzkever wrote a marvelous poem titled Di blayene plate fun Roms drukeray, “The Lead Plates at the Rom Press,” in which he describes, in preparation for an uprising, participating in melting down the lead letters of a Vilna printing establishment known for its elegant editions of the Talmud and recasting them as bullets. Part of the poem—in Yiddish the lines are metrical and rhymed—reads (in Neal Kozodoy’s translation):

Letter by melting letter the lead,
Liquefied bullets, gleamed with thoughts;
A verse from Babylon, a verse from Poland,
Seething, flowing into the one mold.
Now must Jewish grit, long concealed in words,
Detonate the world in a shot!

For Sutzkever, then, not only did Glik’s song speak of blood and lead, but the lead was that of bullets and printed words—or more precisely, of words turned into bullets. If Glik wrote Zog nit keynmol at the time the lead letters were being recast, he must have thought of it this way, too—but here the plot thickens once again. Although Sutzkever gave his poem the subscript “Vilna Ghetto, September 12, 1943,” which was the day of his escape to the forests, the Yiddish literary and cultural historian David Roskies writes in his book Against the Apocalypse that the poem was actually written in 1944 and that the melting-down of the letters never took place but was entirely a product of Sutzkever’s imagination. If that’s so, Glik may have been thinking only of bullets after all.

 

Why, when, and where were the song’s words altered to what they are today? Possibly, the instrumental figure was Paul Robeson, the pro-Communist African-American vocalist who was idolized in the 1940s and 1950s by the American and international left. Robeson sang Zog nit keynmol in both Yiddish and Russian to a large audience in Moscow in 1949 (this may have been the last time that Stalin’s regime permitted any public expression of pro-Jewish sentiment), and the Yiddish version he sang, as can clearly be heard in the recording made of it, had blut un nit mit blay, “with blood and not with lead.” Could he (or someone else) have changed the line to make it more palatable to the Soviet authorities by toning down its Jewish militancy, and could his version, due to his popularity, have supplanted the older one?

Perhaps. Yet one needn’t resort to conspiracy theories. The words of folksongs—and in effect this is what Zog nit keynmol has become—change all the time as they are sung and transmitted. I myself have more than once had the experience of looking up the lyrics of some folk song I sang when young, only to discover that the words differed considerably from the ones I remembered. Zog nit keynmol could have changed spontaneously in this way, too. It has changed again on the legs of our tattooed woman, possibly back toward its original version, although not in a way that can easily be sung to its melody.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Arts & Culture, Avraham Sutzkever, Holocaust, Yiddish literature

 

Who Bamboozled Whom?

Those who think the Iranians outwitted us fail to recognize one very important thing: the White House never intended to contain Iran.

<em>John Kerry testifies about the Iran deal before the House Foreign Affairs Committee</em>. State Department/Flickr.
John Kerry testifies about the Iran deal before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. State Department/Flickr.
 
Observation
July 30 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


The nuclear deal with Iran is a wildly lopsided agreement.  Whereas Iran received permanent concessions, the United States and its partners managed only to buy a little time. The agreement will delay the advent of a nuclear-capable Iran for about a decade—and much less than that should Tehran decide to cheat. Meanwhile, thanks to the deal, Iranian influence in the Middle East is set to grow. All of these benefits accrue to Iran without its ever having given any guarantee that it will change its revolutionary, expansionist, and brutal ways.

Why did the Obama administration accept such a deal? In trying to answer this question, some critics have claimed that the president and his negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, were simply no match for their opponents. The Iranians, so the argument goes, are master negotiators—they play chess while the Americans play checkers.  “You guys have been bamboozled and the American people are going to pay for that,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho told Kerry during recent hearings on the nuclear deal.

One sympathizes with the senator’s frustration, but his criticism is misplaced. The Iranians are not nearly so talented as claimed. While Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did exhibit skill in the negotiations, he also resorted to blatantly underhanded tactics that, opposite a different American team, would have rebounded against him. Zarif made concessions one day, only to revoke them the next; raised new issues at the eleventh hour; and blurred the lines of authority between himself and the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to the point where Kerry never knew for certain whether a deal could actually be cut.

These were the tactics of a used-car salesman, not a master statesman. If the White House had been so inclined, it could have invoked them as justifying a redoubling of the pressure on Iran. But the president and the secretary of state consciously rejected that path—and not for the first time.

In November 2013, the administration agreed to an interim deal that both granted Iran the right to enrich and accepted the idea that all restrictions on the Iranian program would be of limited duration. In so doing, the interim deal already incorporated the main lines of the comprehensive agreement that we see before us today. And long before November 2013—indeed, from the very beginning of his presidency—Obama has consistently dangled before the Iranians the prospect of gaining what they have most wanted: to become, in his words, “a successful regional power.” Toward that end, as he has stipulated on more than one occasion, the message he has sent to Tehran is that it would have more to gain by working with us than by defying us.

This is what many of Obama’s critics, including in Congress, have yet to absorb. When they suggest that the White House has been taken in, they tacitly assume that the president shares their goal of containing and rolling back Iran—an enemy power bent on ousting the United States from the Middle East and vanquishing America’s allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia foremost among them—but has somehow become confused about how best to achieve this. But he does not see Iran that way at all.

 

In his news conference after the signing of the comprehensive agreement, Obama emphasized that the deal only “solves one particular problem”—that is, the nuclear issue. But he also expressed the hope that it would also “incentivize” the Iranians “to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative.” This gets to the heart of his approach, adumbrated again and again in his own statements and in those of his key advisers. Here is the president in a January 2014 interview in the New Yorker:

If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.

And here more recently is Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication: “We believe that a world in which there is a deal with Iran is much more likely to produce an evolution in Iranian behavior.”

In Obama’s eyes, containment is a fool’s errand, and continuing to treat Iran as a pariah will simply ensure that it will never help us damp down Middle Eastern turmoil. To him, therefore, the nuclear deal is not an end in itself; it is a means to the larger end of a strategic partnership that will conduce to his sought-for “equilibrium” in the Middle East. It is only because of the president’s awareness that the very idea of such a strategic partnership is anathema to a majority of the members of Congress, as it is to America’s allies in the Middle East, that he has pretended otherwise, framing the deal as a narrowly conceived and heavily qualified arms-control agreement that will in any case not affect America’s interest in countering Iranian mischief.

Of course, the agreement is no such thing, and Congress is right to be treating it with the utmost gravity. Much of the debate centers on technical questions—on whether the inspection regime is tight enough, the snap-back mechanism reliable enough, and the enrichment quotas restrictive enough. In addition to these far-from-trivial issues, critics also point to the havoc in increased Iranian aggressiveness that the deal promises to bring to the Middle East and elsewhere. By immediately channeling upward of $150 billion to Iranian coffers, it will inevitably contribute to funding the regime’s terror network. (Significantly, a cessation of Iran’s support for terror was not a condition of sanctions relief.) And as economic ties with Europe and Asia expand, and new avenues of diplomatic and military cooperation open up with Russia and China, Iran will become ever more confident and bellicose.

The White House has replied to the latter concerns by claiming that the regime will spend its windfall on butter, not guns. “They’re not going to be able to suddenly access all the funding that has been frozen all these years,” President Obama asserted in April—and besides, he added, “a lot of that [money] would have to be devoted to improving the lives of the people inside of Iran.”

Even to some advocates of the deal, the absurdity of this argument—when in the course of human history has getting $150 billion at the stroke of a pen ever convinced anyone to change his ways?—is too patent to be ignored. Thus, Nicholas Burns, a distinguished former diplomat and a staunch supporter of the nuclear agreement, has acknowledged its deficiency in this respect and has joined a growing chorus in proposing an antidote. “This is no time to help Iran augment its power in a violent and unstable region,” Burns has testified to Congress. “Instead, the U.S. should impose a containment strategy around Iran until it adopts a less assertive and destructive policy in the region.”

Unfortunately, Burns and others advancing this view are caught in the same contradiction as are Obama’s critics; inadvertently, both parties are reinforcing the fiction that Obama is truly interested in containing Iran. In fact, the White House has consistently displayed an aversion to countering Iran. Time and again, America’s allies in the Middle East have begged the president to help them curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and time and again he has refused. His aspiration for equilibrium is instead based on the conviction that, thanks to his diplomacy, Iran will voluntarily come to place limits on its own ambitions. With that aspiration, the nuclear deal—an explicit recipe for strengthening all elements of Iranian power, political, military, and economic—is entirely compatible.

Indeed, even if Obama were to agree with the need for punitive measures to curb Iran’s “malign influence,” in the phrase of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the deal will vastly complicate any such project. One of the text’s more remarkable passages reads: “Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this [agreement].” With this statement the Iranians have warned America that any action designed to weaken Iran will be met with nuclear blackmail.

If the Iranian nuclear program has been a knife held at America’s neck, the deal has, temporarily, moved the knife away by at most a few centimeters. To achieve this paltry, equivocal, and evanescent benefit, the deal has permanently ceded diplomatic leverage to Iran and nullified vigorous containment as a serious option. Anyone who claims otherwise has certainly been bamboozled—but not by the Iranians.

More about: Barack Obama, Iran nuclear program, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy

 

The Vanished Jews of Oria

Negotiating for a country home, a classical singer and cantor uncovers traces of Italian Jewry’s medieval golden age.

<em>Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter.</em> Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter. Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
 
Observation
July 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Mark Glanville, a bass baritone, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, New Israeli Opera, and on the recital stage, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir.


Five years ago, I had never heard of Oria, let alone its Jews—even after a decade of regular sojourns in Puglia (Apulia), the southeastern province that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot. Traces of Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Arabic, French, Norman, Spanish, Turkish, German, and even Gypsy culture: all these I had encountered. But I’d concluded that this remarkable region wasn’t a place where Jews had made much of an impression.

True, I knew the story of San Nicandro, some of whose inhabitants had converted to Judaism at the oddest time imaginable, just as Hitler had begun massacring communities all over Europe. True, too, remnants of an earlier Jewish population could be found at the functioning synagogue of Scolanova at Trani, in Puglia’s north. Descendants of 13th-century forced converts to Christianity under the Angevins, they had continued to practice their faith in secret until free to return openly to Judaism. But these days? Reveal your Jewish provenance to a Pugliese, and he’ll likely smile and say you’re the first Jew he’s ever met.

So when, answering an ad for a 17th-century country mansion (masseria), I parked for the first time outside one of the entrances to Oria’s medieval center and beheld in front of me a giant bronze menorah, I was astonished. But I shouldn’t have been. As a plaque on the wall announced, I was at the entrance to the Rione Giudea (Jewish quarter), and more specifically in the Piazza Shabettai Donnolo.

My real-estate agent enlightened me further: though the town had once hosted a significant community, there had been no Jewish presence in Oria for about a thousand years. Delighted to learn that I was a Jew myself, he drove me down the tiled central street of the old Jewish quarter, whose twisting alleys, blind passageways, and tiny lanes decorated with archways, portals, and steep stairways struck me as reminiscent of the ancient Middle East or North Africa.

As weeks passed, and negotiations for the masseria drew to a close, the agent put me in touch with an Orthodox British Jew named Graham Morris who recently had been visiting Oria on a regular basis, often escorting groups of American Jewish tourists around the town’s Jewish landmarks. In his first email to me, Graham remarked that he was fond of telling “the worthies in Oria that at the holiest hour of the holiest day of the year, several million Jews sing a hymn crafted in Oria a millennium ago!”

This got to me. As the regular High Holy Days cantor at a synagogue in central London, surely I had to be one of those millions. And indeed Graham’s “hymn” turned out to be Ezkerah Elohim, a piyyut (liturgical poem) composed by Amittai ben Shephatiah, who lived in Oria in the 10th century. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the hymn is recited during the final supplications of the Yom Kippur service, and I had been chanting it for twenty years.

I remember, oh God, and lament
When I see every city built on its foundations
And the City of God degraded to the nethermost pit.

The thought that a prayer of such importance had been written in this quiet, forgotten southern Italian town where I had just bought a home made me shiver.

Cantor Tzvi Weiss sings Leib Glantz’s setting of Ezkerah Elohim.

 

What had life actually been like in this beautiful town, set in an agricultural landscape dominated by olive groves and vineyards? Through Graham Morris I came to meet Giuseppe d’Amico, whose short book, La Communità Ebraica Oritana e il suo Rione (“Oria’s Jewish Community and its Quarter”), provides as good an introduction as any to the subject. A septuagenarian teacher of classics who still entertains himself by writing Latin elegiacs and ancient Greek alcaics, d’Amico took me to the site of the Jewish cemetery, its tranquil charm marred only by a telecommunications tower visible for miles around. From here, he was able to point out the perimeter of the much larger medieval town in which the Jewish community once lived. Oria had been a city of considerable importance, and the Jewish cemetery was situated just outside it.

D’Amico reeled off a few salient points of local history. Most notable was the black year of 925, when a Saracen army sacked the city, killing 6,000 of its men and taking 10,000 women and children prisoner. Among the dead were no fewer than ten rabbis, a figure itself suggestive of a sizable Jewish presence. Later, guided by d’Amico’s book, which is infused with the same passion as his speech, I gleaned a fuller portrait not only of the town and its Jews but of the rich Jewish history of Puglia itself.

Greek-speaking Jews had lived in Puglia since Roman times, and it was here that rabbinic scholarship gained its first foothold in Christian Europe. A medieval legend explains how talmudic erudition spread from its older center in Babylonia (Iraq) throughout the Mediterranean. It seems that four rabbis, having set sail from the port of Bari—Puglia’s largest city— were captured en route and sold into slavery at various locales. Ransomed by the local Jews, they proceeded to plant the seeds of Torah study in Tunisia, Egypt, and Spain. Ashkenazi Jews, too, trace their intellectual heritage to Puglia. Jacob ben Meir Tam, the great talmudist of 12th-century France, is said to have declared—playing on Isaiah 2:3—that “the Torah shall come forth from Bari, and the word of the Lord from Otranto.”

In this setting, Oria’s Jews exhibited their own brand of scholarly activity. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, in addition to numerous religious and mystical works, they produced important scientific and medical treatises, plus an important work of history (more on this below). Whether they were equally productive as farmers is uncertain, but an 11th-century manuscript copy of the Mishnah bears marginal annotations in the obscure and colorful dialect of southern Puglia, written in Hebrew script and referring almost entirely to agricultural terminology and procedures. “Mittene litame cannizza i vardezzona” (spread a wattle of dung and grass), says one, citing a technique for protecting trees from harmful insects. “Karmenatu in unu filatu intessutu” (carded, spun, and woven) says another, referring to the preparation of wool.

In Italy’s most fertile zone, were Oria’s Jews no less a people of the land than their neighbors? Oria’s chief product at the time was cloth, especially silk, and Mediterranean Jews, one scholar writes, were in general known “as planters of mulberry trees, breeders of silk-worms, weavers, and dyers of silk and purple fabrics. They carried the art into Sicily and became its chief promoters and artisans there. . . . From Sicily it was easily transmitted to Italy where it was developed with equal skill and enterprise.” It is thus quite possible that this was a trade in which the Jews of Oria also excelled and to which their wealth may be attributed.

 

To return to that work of history: through d’Amico I was introduced to the extraordinary Sefer Yuḥasin (“Book of Genealogies”) a hodgepodge of legend and chronicle written by a certain Aḥimaats ben Paltiel in 1053 and known also as “The Chronicle of Aḥimaats.” I saw a copy in the town’s library: an elegant edition with parallel Hebrew and Italian texts and commentary by Cesare Colafemmina, the subject’s foremost authority.

Sefer Yuḥasin (not to be confused with the later work of that name by Abraham Zacuto, 1452-ca.1515) was the first book to shed light on Jewish history during the period long dismissed as the “Dark Ages.” Surviving in a single manuscript copy, Aḥimaats’s book was rediscovered in 1869 in Toledo in a codex dating from the 14th or 15th century. Colafemmina believes it to be one of the Jewish texts stolen from the long-suffering Jews of the Roman ghetto and carried off on 38 carts one night in April 1753 by agents of the Vatican.

Its significance cannot be underestimated. Sefer Yuḥasin sets the southern Italian Jews of that period, as well as such important figures as Amittai ben Shephatiah, the author of Ezkerah Elohim, in their correct historical context. Basing themselves on Amittai’s mournful output, scholars had once placed him either close to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE or, alternatively, at the end the 11th century (just after the First Crusade). Thanks to Sefer Yuḥasin, we now know that he wrote in the 9th century, in the wake of the brutal persecutions initiated throughout the Byzantine empire by the icon-worshipping emperor Basil I (867-886).

Of course, as a true historical source, Sefer Yuḥasin is unreliable. But it is highly readable and entertaining. Among its accounts of miracles wrought by wonder-working rabbis is the tale of Abu Aaron of Babylon (773-816), who visited Oria in the middle of the 9th century and  found there “tents of study set up by rivers, planted and thriving like trees by the waters, schools established, rooted like cedars growing at the side of flowing streams.” Aḥimaats tells us how Abu Aaron restored to human form a boy who had been turned into a mule by an evil sorceress and bound to a millstone “to make him grind as long as he lived.” Another miracle, wrought by none other than Shephatiah, father of the poet Amittai, relates to the historically verified edicts of Basil I, in which Jews of Puglia who failed to convert were ordered to be crushed in an olive press.

“Basil had a daughter whom he loved as the apple of his eye,” Aḥimaats informs us. “An evil spirit tormented her. He could not find a cure for her. He spoke to Shephatiah in secret and with earnest entreaty said, ‘Help me, Shephatiah, and cure my daughter of her affliction,’ and Shephatiah answered, ‘With the help of the Almighty, I will surely do so.” Shephatiah then exorcised the spirit, stuck it in a leaden chest, and dropped it into the sea. When the delighted emperor invited Shephatiah to request a boon, the latter replied, “in sorrow and bitter weeping, ‘If thou, my lord, wouldst favor Shephatiah, let there be peace for those engaged in the study of the law. Do not force them to abandon the law of God, and do not crush them in sorrow and affliction.’”

Basil, infuriated by this request, which he perceived as spurning his offer, nonetheless issued an edict “commanding that no persecution take place in the city of Oria.” But Oria was to be the exception. For “then the wicked king continued to send emissaries into all the provinces and ordered his agents to fall upon [the Jews], to force them out of their religion and convert them to the errors and folly of his faith. The sun and moon were darkened for 25 years, until the day of his death. Cursed be his end.”

Though we also learn from Sefer Yuḥasin about the later, brutal incursions of the Saracens, responsible for the devastation of 925, it is the Byzantines for whom Aḥimaats reserves his ire—perhaps because, while the Saracens targeted all of the citizens of Oria, irrespective of religion, Basil’s legislation was rooted specifically in anti-Semitism.

The strangest aspect of Sefer Yuḥasin is not what is written in it, but what is left out. The chronicle contains no mention of Oria’s greatest son, Shabbetai Donnolo, whose name graces not only the square where I first became aware of the Jews of Oria but also a street and a hospital in Tel Aviv. Why a hospital?  Donnolo’s milestone work, Sefer ha-Mirkaḥot (“Book of Mixtures”), was the first medical text to be written in Italy after the fall of the Roman empire and the oldest Hebrew medical text in Europe. It also makes generous use of non-Jewish sources. (Could this have struck the ever-proud Aḥimaats as an unforgivable transgression?) Donnolo was also an accomplished poet, the author of an important work on astronomy and astrology, and the coiner of many Hebrew words and phrases still in use today.

While Aḥimaats’s anger is stirred by the Byzantines, Donnolo’s own bitterness was quickened by the Saracens who in 925 destroyed his community and sold him into slavery. It is he, I realized when I came to read Andrew Sharf’s The Universe of Shabbetai Donnolo, who detailed the atrocities committed by the Arabs in that fateful year, not least among them the murder of the ten rabbis.

 

What would Shabbetai Donnolo have thought had he known that Arabs were to return to Oria a thousand years later in rather different circumstances? I had arranged to meet Giuseppe d’Amico just outside the old Jewish quarter where I would be translating his reconstruction of local Jewish history for the benefit of a group of 80 Anglophone Jewish tourists who had come to Puglia to celebrate Passover. D’Amico began by repeating Donnolo’s bitter threnody on the events of 925, and I thought I detected a contemporary overtone in his words.

To an outsider, Oria’s streets may have seemed calm, but its citizens were uneasy. At the town’s corners and cafes, young men from Tunisia—home territory of the Saracens who had ravaged the town a millennium earlier—were congregating every day. They were refugees who, after arriving by boat in the wake of the 2011-12 Arab Spring, had been sent to a holding camp halfway between Oria and Manduria, five miles away. Indeed, our group had been advised to take a detour to our next stop, a tiny 16th-century synagogue, lest we bump into any of these Arab youths as they drifted aimlessly about, warned by notices in their language not to linger at café tables for longer than fifteen minutes.

In Manduria itself, a contingent of military police was on hand to prevent any local outbreak of violence. But this was gratuitous; most of the Tunisians were waiting in the camp, hoping to receive permission to leave an area where they had no prospect of employment and head instead for relatives in France. Quite a few had already done so after a mass breakout from a former World War II U.S. airbase. Meanwhile, some had harmed themselves protesting their internment; one had set himself alight, another was killed on the road. Thus did the latest Arab invasion of Oria and its environs bespeak both tragedy and farce.

As for the Jews, in their old quarter one can see the only freestanding building in the town’s historic center. What looks like a rather unprepossessing, whitewashed, modern family home, d’Amico believes was once a synagogue. “My grandparents used to circle its walls at times of illness in the belief they would be cured,” he told our party. “The Jews of Oria were famous doctors and pharmacists, so it makes sense. They brought light to this town at a time when the rest of Italy was darkened by barbarian invasions.”

Most modern Oritani share d’Amico’s pride in their town’s Jewish heritage. Each September, a festive conference is held in the city and papers are read to mark the ancient Jewish presence there. But it would be naïve to infer from such nostalgic philo-Semitism that the town holds contemporary Jews in equal esteem. Following Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year, I was privy to the following exchange on Facebook between two Oritani, one of whom had “friended” me on the site:

A: What’s the matter with those awful people? You’d think after what happened to them [in the Holocaust], they’d have learned!

B: It’s a shame [the Nazis] didn’t finish the job and wipe that filth off the face of the earth.

I have never met the authors of these words, and I hope I never will. I also firmly believe that none of my own Oritano friends and acquaintances shares these all-too-frequently expressed sentiments of our historical moment. Still, even as I continue to enjoy my own privileged status as the first Jew to return to Oria after a thousand years, I am mindful of a fact that one should never lose sight of: it is as easy to idealize dead Jews as it is to demonize living ones.

More about: History & Ideas, Italian Jewry, Middle Ages, Piyyut

 

Were Reuben and Gad Right to Ask Moses for Land on the Other Side of the Jordan?

Wherever Jews live, God lives within them.

<em>From</em> Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, <em>by Arthur Boyd Houghton.</em> Wikimedia.
From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
July 16 2015 12:01AM
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.


The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.

As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:

But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”

As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:

But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”

So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?

But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.

And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.

 

It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.

The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.

But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”

If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.

Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.

. . .

And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.

 

The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.

The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:

But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.

Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.

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