Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story
Their Tragic Land
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 Unusual Relationship Between Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

As a powerful new exhibit shows, the 16th president felt a close connection to the Jewish people. Why?

The Unusual Relationship Between Abraham Lincoln and the Jews
The last posed photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken ten weeks before his assassination. Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia.
 
Observation
April 1 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Edward Rothstein is the Wall Street Journal’s critic at large. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.


It was Good Friday—April 14, 1865—when John Wilkes Booth made his way into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, forcibly propped the door shut behind him, and shot a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln. For many mourners, the timing had unusual significance. The Civil War, in which some 750,000 Americans had lost their lives, was coming to an end. Just weeks earlier, citing the nation’s trauma in his Second Inaugural address, Lincoln had suggested that this “mighty scourge of war” was a form of divine retribution visited on “both North and South” for the offense of slavery. He ended with words of consolation and exhortation:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . .

Lincoln’s own suffering, as evident as the nation’s, was inscribed in his countenance. Of his two life-masks, one had been cast as he was beginning his campaign for the presidency in 1860, and the other in February 1865, some two months before the end of the war. In the intervening years, his face had become emaciated, his eyes were gouged into his skull, and his skin was creased by age and sadness. “This war is eating my life out,” Lincoln once told a friend. “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”

Then came the assassination. You can see an account of the death and autopsy by Lincoln’s family physician in With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews, a fine new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The handwritten pages are blotched with brown stains— likely Lincoln’s blood. Since it was widely noted that the president had been shot on the day marking the crucifixion of Jesus, the spilling of his blood became imbued with religious resonance. In New York, Congressman James A. Garfield (to become, in 1881, the second U.S. president assassinated) stated: “It may be almost impious to say it, but it does seem that Lincoln’s death parallels that of the son of God.”

Unfortunately, the Christian parallel also prompted some to indulge in the world’s most ancient slander. The Chicago Tribune characterized the assassination as “the most horrid crime ever committed on this globe since the wicked Jews crucified the savior.” Also invoking venerable canards was Lincoln’s successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson. Excoriating Judah P. Benjamin, who had served as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state in the Confederacy, as “a sneaking, Jewish, unconscionable traitor,” and citing the apostle John’s account of the crucifixion, Johnson placed Benjamin in “that tribe that parted the garments of our savior and for his vesture cast lots.”

So much for “malice toward none”—and, perhaps, for the sorry fate of Reconstruction under Johnson’s presidency. But such comments, some of which are to be read at the exhibition or in its more detailed companion volume, provide context and contrast, not substance. For not only are any such sentiments absent from Lincoln’s own writings, but the relationship between Lincoln and the Jews was something else entirely. (With Firmness in the Right is on view till June 7, after which it will travel to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois; it is a perfect companion to the current exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation. Curated by Ann Meyerson and Dina Grossman, with Harold Holzer as historical adviser, the Historical Society exhibition is accompanied by the valuable, recently released Lincoln and the Jews: A History, co-authored by the distinguished historian Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis and by Benjamin Shapell, president of the manuscript foundation that owns many of the striking documents on display.)

For American Jews, Lincoln’s death was associated not with Good Friday but with the simultaneous holiday of Passover and not with Jesus but with Moses, who had liberated his people from slavery but was unable to lead them into the promised land. Many learned of Lincoln’s death on Saturday morning while on their way to Sabbath services. Adolphus S. Solomons, an Orthodox printer and bookseller in Washington DC who had managed Lincoln’s inaugural ball in 1861, noted that “it was the Israelites’ privilege here, as well as elsewhere, to be the first to offer in their places of worship, prayers for the repose of the soul of Mr. Lincoln.” At Temple Emanu-El in New York the congregation rose as one at the news and recited in unison the kaddish memorial prayer. Rabbi Elkan Cohen of San Francisco’s Emanu-El, hearing the news as he mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, “was so overcome,” reads one report, “that, bursting in tears, he sank almost senseless.”

The exhibition offers a sampling of synagogue eulogies. “We should regard Abraham Lincoln,” said Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, “as a son of Israel.” Another eulogist was Lewis Naphtali Dembitz of Louisville, uncle of the future Supreme Court justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis and a Republican leader so devoted to Lincoln’s political creed that he named one son after Henry Clay, the young Lincoln’s political idol, and another after Lincoln himself. Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, of Cincinnati, who had initially jeered at Lincoln’s election (“one of the greatest blunders a nation can commit”), only to become an ardent admirer (“the greatest man that ever sprung from mortal loins”), claimed that Lincoln had once confided to him that he was “bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh” and supposed himself “a descendant of Hebrew parentage.”

Since there is no other evidence supporting such a statement, Lincoln might have been speaking metaphorically. But his ancestors, as the exhibition points out, included New England Calvinists who bore names straight out of the Hebrew Bible. As the Puritans tended to emphasize Hebrew Scripture in general, alluded to their settling in the New World as a sign of the restoration of Israel (and in some cases even imagined Hebrew as the future American language), some aspect of their feelings of kinship may have passed down through the generations. Although Lincoln himself famously belonged to no church, he quoted the Hebrew Bible (the exhibition records) about three times as often as he did the New Testament, and the rhythms of the King James Version run throughout his speeches, his writings, and, it seems, his conversation.

In brief, his was no casual acquaintance. And if the living Jews of the time felt an unusual connection with Lincoln, it is no less clear from the letters, official papers, personal notes, and artifacts gathered here that he seemed to feel a similar connection—one that contrasts starkly with the regnant attitudes of his time. This association, not often examined, may also reveal something about Lincoln’s vision of the world.

 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Some of the items on display may not seem to offer much, being rather of the kind intended to inspire ethnic and religious pride. Did you know that the designer of the 1909 Lincoln penny was a Jew? Or the nineteen-year-old telegraph operator at the White House who broadcast the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the bearded doctor who was among the attending physicians at Lincoln’s deathbed and who appears directly above the president in Alonzo Chappel’s famous 1867 painting, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln? Or the first man to take a photograph of Lincoln (in 1858) and loaned him his own velvet-trimmed coat for the occasion?

These examples reveal less about Lincoln’s relationship with the Jews than about how, in the mid-19th century, Jewish immigrants were already making their way into the wider society. In 1809, the year Lincoln was born, there were perhaps 3,000 Jews in the United States. By 1840 the number had risen to about 15,000. But by 1860, thanks to extensive immigration from mostly Germanic lands, the figure had leaped upward to 150,000 (one part of a much larger wave that brought over three million immigrants to American shores). “Wherever there is a chance for profitable trade,” the New York Journal of Commerce intoned, Jews “have insinuated themselves.”

Lincoln’s first contact with Jews, in the persons of store owners in Kentucky and Illinois, may have been due to such “insinuations.” But his most important Jewish connection was with a fellow lawyer, Abraham Jonas, who was born in England and had come to the United States in 1819. Jonas’s law practice in Quincy, Illinois was in the same building as Congregation B’nai Abraham, which his family had helped establish. The two lawyers became political allies, fellow admirers of Henry Clay. Both campaigned for the Whig party, were elected to the state legislature, and became active in the anti-slavery Republican party after its founding in 1854. Jonas, apparently no mean politician himself, championed Lincoln, helped organize his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, and worked to propel him into the presidency in 1860. Once in office, Lincoln, who called Jonas “one of my most valued friends,” made him a postmaster—a patronage position—in Quincy, and after Jonas’s death appointed his widow to the position lest the family be left without income.

The Historical Society exhibition gives considerable attention to this friendship, which even extended to Jonas’s children, five of whom moved to the South and two of whom joined the rebel army. Yet Lincoln’s interactions with them remained touching and compassionate throughout. One of them, a lawyer, contacted Lincoln in 1857 on behalf of a black man from Illinois imprisoned in New Orleans for lack of papers; Lincoln raised the money to rescue him. During the Civil War, as Abraham Jonas lay ill, President Lincoln arranged to give another son, a Confederate prisoner of war, a three-week parole to visit his dying father.

The Jonas example is not the only personal relationship that stands out in Lincoln’s associations with Jews. Among his more colorful acquaintances was a chiropodist named Issachar Zacharie, who earned a testimonial letter for alleviating the pain in the presidential feet. Evidently a bit of an operator, Zacharie gained Lincoln’s trust, becoming emissary to New Orleans to imbue his “countrymen” with loyalty to the Union. He also acted as a kind of spy, reporting on Confederate troop movements. His correspondence with the president extended over a period of two-and-a-half years, with multiple White House meetings.

But the close connection felt by many Jews to Lincoln was not, of course, based on personal acquaintance. As the exhibition notes, Lincoln’s position on slavery, together with his ardent advocacy of American possibility, must have resonated deeply with the growing Jewish population. Why else would a Chicago merchant named Abraham Kohn have thought to send the newly elected president a painting of an American flag in whose white stripes was inscribed, in Hebrew, a passage from the book of Joshua: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest”?

It was indeed a special moment in American Jewish history. Not only were Jewish immigrants becoming established themselves but they were raising children who were entering American society. And then there was the effect of the war. Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, a compelling exhibition two years ago at the Yeshiva University Museum (co-presented with the American Jewish Historical Society), suggested that the war served as a “crucible” for American Jewish life. Through its trials, on both sides of the conflict, Jews were inducted into the mainstream of America, a change reflected in politics as well as in commerce and everyday life.

So at home in America were Jews beginning to feel that at least one Union soldier from Ohio could joyfully recount, in 1862, a Passover seder held by “twenty of my comrades and co-religionists belonging to the Regiment.” (His account can be heard on the exhibition’s audio tour.) After vividly describing the elaborate preparations, the menu, and the drinking—“we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider”—he concludes:

There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our G-d and our cause [emphasis added], would have imagined themselves amongst mortals. . . .

Jews entering American life—and confronting, no doubt, many obstacles along the way—must have felt a strong connection with a president who stood out for not erecting barriers, indeed for extending a welcome. During the war, the roster of Lincoln’s Jewish appointments is astonishing. In addition to Jonas, Henry Rice, a dry-goods merchant whom Lincoln knew from Springfield, was endorsed by him to become a sutler or military storekeeper. C. M. Levy, an Orthodox Jew from New York who had applied for a quartermaster position—responsible for army housing, transport, clothing, and supplies—earned this 1862 approbation addressed by Lincoln to his secretary of war Edward M. Stanton: “We have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” and Levy is “a capable and faithful man.” About 50 other Jews would likewise serve as quartermasters for the Union. In addition, although Congress had ruled that chaplains in the army had to be “ordained” ministers of “a Christian denomination,” Lincoln responded positively to the direct appeal of a Jewish candidate for such a position, and in July 1862 the chaplaincy was opened to non-Christians for the first time.

Lincoln also promoted Jewish officers in the Union Army, a fact hardly worth noting unless one knew that, as the exhibition points out, “In the military, anti-Semitism was casual, yet virulent and omnipresent.” Union generals seemed to endorse it as policy. Maybe that is why we see Lincoln, on multiple occasions, overriding unjustified condemnations or convictions of Jews. In early 1865, he intervened on behalf of two Jewish clothiers, Philip and Meyer Wallach, who, we read, “were unjustly convicted of selling contraband goods to the Confederacy.” But he also let stand a conviction if he found it just: a replica of a drawing here shows a procession of five deserters being led to their execution in Virginia in 1863. One of them is a Jew with a rabbi at his side.

The most notorious example of official anti-Semitism during the war was, of course, General Ulysses S. Grant’s December 17, 1862 order expelling “Jews as a class” from the territory he controlled. Grant was attempting to combat cotton smugglers and had decided that Jews were the villains. One Union soldier, in a letter here, testifies to having observed cotton smuggling, but not by Jews: “We soldiers can’t understand why they were singled out.” Others appealed directly to Lincoln, who had not been aware of the order. He said: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” The order was rescinded.

 

Lincoln’s record in all of this is stunning, unlike that of any American president until the 20th century. While little of the information at the exhibition seems new, and the subject has even inspired previous books (including one as early as 1909 by Isaac Markens)—and while the exhibition would have benefited from greater narrative continuity—the overall effect is powerful: strong enough to place Lincoln in a new light. Abraham Lincoln was a philo-Semite.

But what was the source of this sentiment? There is, as we’ve said, his family history to consider—his religious heritage—which may have made him less likely to indulge in calumny. But, given his contacts and friendships, he also had to have developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of Jewish beliefs and even of Jewish history. The exhibition points out that his sympathies may have also been stirred by “Jewish-themed” plays that the Lincolns attended in 1864 and 1865, including Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Twice he attended Gamea, or The Jewish Mother, about the 1859 abduction and secret baptism of a Jewish child in Italy on order of the Pope; and he also saw Leah, the Forsaken, a play about 18th-century Austrian anti-Semitism that the editor of Harper’s Weekly believed was relevant to the war then being waged over a similarly “outcast race.” But these were late experiences, and could only have confirmed and deepened already mature views.

One important reason for the affinity, emphasized in both the exhibition and the book, was Lincoln’s interpretation of the national project—his vision of equality. His treatment of Jews as fellow citizens seems in this reading to be a corollary to his convictions about slavery. Objecting to restrictions on immigration in 1855, for example, he wrote: “I have some little notoriety for commiserating with the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.” This is the opening quotation in the Historical Society’s exhibition, which throughout underlines Lincoln’s striving for “tolerance and inclusivity.”

This theme surely had something to do with the affinity, but it is too broad to yield insight into the case, specifically, of the Jews. Was it, perhaps, that Lincoln felt that Jews in particular shared his vision? There is certainly a tendency today to associate Jewish identity itself with a belief in “tolerance and inclusivity,” but the behavior of Jews during the Civil War was more equivocal. Of the 10,000 Jews who fought, 3,000 served in the Confederate army. As Lincoln had to know, moreover, there were rabbis who opposed abolition (some to their later embarrassment). Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, for example, supported Douglas over Lincoln and adduced biblical justifications of slavery. In a discomfiting passage in their book, Sarna and Shappell mention that, according to some sources, the family of John Wilkes Booth was itself of Jewish extraction.

So are we making too much of this matter of a specific affinity? In a recent collection, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives, edited by Eric Foner, the historian Robert Carwardine writes that Lincoln strove to maintain good relations with all faiths, and met with a “full gamut of religious visitors.” Carwardine also suggests (without mentioning Jews) that many religious groups claimed Lincoln for their own: Quakers pointed to his Virginia ancestors, Baptists to his parents’ faith, Episcopalians to his wedding ceremony, Presbyterians to the ministers he heard, spiritualists to séances at the White House in which Mary Todd Lincoln tried to contact the spirit of her dead son. “Methodists, Unitarians, Universalists, and Catholics—not to mention Freemasons—have found, or invented, reasons to clasp him to their bosoms.”

Is the Jewish case just another example, then, of Lincoln’s wide embrace? I don’t think so. What makes it so peculiar when compared with these other examples is that Lincoln’s attitudes toward Jews were so dramatically at odds with mainstream American opinion at the time. This suggests an intellectual consanguinity, even an aspect of shared belief (recall Lincoln’s intimate affection for the Hebrew Bible). Mary Todd Lincoln told friends that Lincoln said he wanted to see Jerusalem before he died. In the exhibition we are greeted in the final gallery by Frederick Edwin Church’s luminous, immense Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, painted in 1870: the city “as Lincoln might have seen it had he lived.”

If Lincoln did share with the Jews a particular religious temperament, in what did it consist? This is difficult to specify because his approach to religion tended to be solitary and ruminative, and it shifted over the years. Aside from his reading in the Bible, he regularly met at the White House, as Carwardine reports, with preachers and ministers of various sects—including one self-proclaimed prophet and Christian messianist to whom Lincoln announced: “I myself have a regard for the Jews.” All seemed to agree that he was a deeply religious man. In fact, he established more holidays for national religious observance, including the first nationwide Thanksgiving, than any president before him. As the end of the Civil War approached, he evidently devoted much thought to the conflict’s religious significance—the subject, in a sense, of the Second Inaugural, saturated as it is with allusions to both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.

Such generalities aside, some fundamental aspects of Lincoln’s thought are notably consistent with a particularly Jewish orientation. When Lincoln speaks of God and the role God plays in the world, he devotes almost no attention to the idea of salvation or otherworldly reward. For him, our interactions with God are this-worldly. While he made varying endorsements of predestination, his emphasis was on the ways we choose to regulate our lives and on the principles we choose to affirm.

This had something to do with his stubborn attachment to the law, a salient element in his approach to slavery that was at odds with the position of radical abolitionists. Agreeing with the latter’s moral ideals, he nevertheless argued that any alteration to the system had to follow the law meticulously. There were political considerations behind this stance, needless to say, but it was his adherence to law that accounted for the limited scope of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only the slaves in the rebelling states. Lincoln’s belief was that he could not, as president, simply eliminate slavery—that was left to Congress and the 13th Amendment—but as commander-in-chief in the midst of war, he did have some control over rebel property. He also had the authority to act to suppress rebellion. That’s what freeing the slaves in the rebellious states would do, and why the proclamation was issued in the president’s name “by virtue of the power vested in me as commander-in-chief.” It calls itself a “fit and necessary war measure.”

The point of this fastidiousness was to emphasize his main principle: fidelity to law was essential. In fact, it was the issue at stake in the Civil War itself: secession was an act of legal violation. As he suggested in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln wished to demonstrate that it was possible, while clinging strictly to laws founded on the principles of equality and democratic governance, for a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” to “long endure”—and not just to endure but to usher in “a new birth of freedom.”

In that same address, he speaks in high religious tones while insisting that the “unfinished work” and the “great task remaining” are the responsibility of “us the living.” Fulfilling that responsibility, however, would not yield a perfect world. When, in its Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court suggested that the Declaration of Independence had not extended equality to “negroes,” Lincoln retorted that the Declaration was meant to be a “standard maxim for free society,” regardless of society’s failings at the time, and that it should serve as a guide “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” The world would always fall short, but it would be up to the people to labor for the ideal’s achievement.

Some of the same spirit appears in the Second Inaugural, which speaks of “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” The conviction of being “right” is a human conviction, therefore necessarily incomplete. Lincoln is convinced, as he says, quoting Psalm 19, that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” But he knows human efforts are unending.

I am using broad strokes here, but it strikes me that this set of emphases—on this-worldly activity, on law as the basis and necessary means of human action, on human incompleteness, and, in other contexts, on education as an instrument of freedom—are congruent with bedrock Jewish ideas and values, and in their own way help explain the close connections between Lincoln and the Jews. So, at any rate, it was believed at the time. Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, in his eulogy at the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, had it partly right: “Of all the Israelites throughout the United States, there was none who more thoroughly filled the ideal of what a true descendant of Abraham ought to be than Abraham Lincoln.”

More about: Abraham Lincoln, American Jewry, History & Ideas

 

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?

Israel’s formerly quiet borders are now ungoverned zones filled with guerrillas. How should the Jewish state adapt?

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?
Smoke rises after Egyptian forces, in response to militant attacks, blow up a house in the border town of Rafah in November 2014.
 
Observation
March 30 2015 12:01AM
About the authors

Lazar Berman, news editor at the Times of Israel and a reserve infantry officer in the IDF, has written for the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, and other publications.

Gidi Netzer, a colonel in the IDF reserves, is a long-time adviser to Israeli and non-Israeli political figures, military commanders, and intelligence services.


This past January, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian Golan Heights killed up to twelve enemy fighters. These were not conventional Syrian forces, of the kind stationed across the mainly quiet frontier for decades. Israel’s pilots were after something new and far more troubling: Hizballah men (including senior commanders) and an Iranian general believed to have been scouting the border area for opportunities to carry out kidnappings, rocket attacks, and infiltrations into northern Israel. Meanwhile, in the very same volatile region, al-Qaeda-affiliated guerrillas and moderate Syrian rebels have been engaging in pitched battles with Hizballah and other Iranian-backed forces.

No quieter is the region hugging Israel’s southern border. Also in January, jihadists launched a series of attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, killing at least 30. The Egyptian government accused the Palestinian terror group Hamas of involvement in the attacks.

At first glance, these two violent episodes seem unrelated, one the product of the civil war tearing Syria apart, the other the result of alliances between jihadist groups and tribes holding longstanding grievances against Cairo. On closer examination, however, both incidents, as well as other developments taking shape on Israel’s borders, can be seen as products of a larger process driving events in the region.

Since 2010, as a result of the Arab revolutions, sovereign state rule has been imploding. As it recedes, stretches of territory have emerged in which an array of forces, armed with advanced capabilities and led by religious sects, ethnic groups, and especially tribal entities, operates freely. Also moving into these essentially ungoverned zones are global jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The phenomenon is occurring across the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, the Sinai, Yemen, and potentially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The challenge presents unique issues for advanced conventional militaries like Israel’s—different from those posed by such familiar non-state adversaries as Hizballah and Hamas, both of which see themselves as national religious movements. Conventional armies have been drawn by the new actors into long wars of attrition and have yet to solve the problem of defeating them decisively.

This emerging reality demands a reassessment of Israel’s approach both to the security threats on its immediate borders and to those emanating from deeper inside hostile territory. Innovations in intelligence-gathering, technology, training, force structure: all are needed. And such innovations, to be effective, must emerge out of an understanding of the new trends sweeping the Middle East.

Israel’s broader region of strategic interest stretches well beyond the Middle East through a swath of Africa and Asia. From the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, from the Sahel to West Asia and the Hindu Kush, money, weapons and fighters flow to conflicts near Israel’s borders. There, as government control contracts or collapses, guerrilla campaigns, led mainly by tribes, are becoming the region’s dominant feature. Using terrorism as a core tactic, these groups enjoy the cooperation of other, like-minded organizations and the support of states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The non-state actors operating in these ungoverned zones present no clear command or organizational structure. They, and often individual cells within them, decide independently when and where to initiate attacks. Growing and developing without ostensible logic, they spawn temporary, changing, and mobile formations that the most capable Western intelligence agencies have struggled to track. In addition, the deep cultural DNA of the tribal and ethnic fighters in these areas allows them to keep fighting indefinitely against far superior conventional forces.

The tribal and ethnic groups are not the only problem. Traditional powers can and do exploit the chaos to improve their own positions and move weapons and forces to the borders of enemy states. Foreign state actors can also manipulate guerrilla groups into forming confederations that serve their own interests.

With armed groups spread across national borders, the borders themselves have become increasingly meaningless. This, in turn, has enabled money, weapons, and fighters to flow to conflicts in close vicinity to Israel. On the frontlines of the battle against IS in November of last year, the Israeli journalist Itai Anghel reported being able to stroll back and forth across what was once the major border crossing between Syria and Iraq. If an Ashkenazi Jew from Tel Aviv can cross that border unnoticed, so can every type of weapon and fighter. The same goes for the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, blurred by Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

 

A quick tour of the ungoverned zones bordering Israel will give a sense of the gravity of the threat.

In the north, Syria has lost its coherence as a country. The Assad regime controls the Mediterranean coast and much of southwestern Syria. Kurds hold the northeastern corner bordering Iraq and Turkey. Meanwhile, across the ungoverned zones in much of central and eastern Syria, guerrilla armies have seized power. These are the poorest and most neglected regions of the country, where hostility to Assad and the Alawites runs high and where local tribes took an early role in protests and then in armed resistance against the regime. In this large area, with fighters largely dressed in civilian clothes and constantly battling each other as they move into new sectors, the IDF cannot readily identify the enemy.

Nor does this begin to account for the whole dizzying mix of organizations on both the pro- and anti-Assad sides of the conflict. They include Syrian Sunni jihadist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front; the nationalist Free Syrian Army (some groups within which are also supported by Islamists); the Lebanese Fatah al-Islam; the Muslim Brotherhood; Islamic State; and several Salafist organizations. All told, some 15,000 fighters from at least 80 countries have streamed into Syria, among them militants from North Africa, Turkey, Europe, and as far afield as Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, central Asia, and China.

Most of the Syrian Golan, on Israel’s border, is controlled by the Nusra Front, whose stronghold is the city of Daraa just north of Jordan. In the same region, the Assad regime still holds the Druze area of al-Hader, from which attacks on Israeli troops have originated.

The fighting in the Golan has also severely endangered the UN observer force on the Syrian-Israeli border, one of the few stabilizing influences in the region. In March 2013, 21 Philippine soldiers were kidnapped; six months later, the Irish contingent was attacked; in August 2014, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were seized by the Nusra Front, with dozens more fleeing into Israel. Since then, Austria, Japan, and Croatia have withdrawn their troops.

Iran and its proxy Hizballah, whose main role has been to prop up the Assad regime, have exploited the Syrian chaos to improve their position against Israel and create a forward base for Tehran. As arms transfers increase in both quantity and quality, Iran has managed to organize and direct into combat a force that includes Hizballah, conventional Revolutionary Guard troops as well as crack Quds fighters, homegrown Syrian militias, and unaffiliated Shiite combatants. Iran and Hizballah’s moves on the Golan Heights, temporarily stalled by the Israeli airstrike in January and a failed offensive by Hizballah, regime forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard advisers to take the area from the opposition, are clearly intended to open a Golan front against Israel.

Also to Israel’s north, the government of Lebanon has been able to exercise higher levels of control than does Syria’s, but rival elements in the country could push it into looking more like its neighbor to the east. Sectarian violence is common. Lebanon is home both to Palestinian terror groups and to global jihadi organizations, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. Many are taking an active part in the combat in Syria.

But the strongest actor in Lebanon is Iran’s proxy, Hizballah. Though it has suffered as a result of its participation in the Syrian civil war, having sacrificed more than 1,100 fighters and seen its support weaken as Lebanese parents lose children in Syria, the Shiite terror organization still controls both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, in the central portion of which it has established a permanent security zone. For now, it is unlikely that Hizballah will initiate a direct, sustained conflict with Israel, but it will continue to help other groups launch periodic attacks that remind Jerusalem of its presence. Such attacks could spread to the Israeli-Lebanese border as well.

Moving south, Israel’s long border with Jordan is relatively secure and stable, but there is no guarantee it will remain that way. Although Islamic State is not yet strong enough to invade Jordan as it did Iraq, it can spark unrest by carrying out terror attacks in the kingdom, where its fighters are already operating. Last August, Jordanian forces arrested 71 Islamist activists, including members of IS and the Nusra Front. IS’s horrific immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasasbeh in February may well have been designed to drag Jordan deeper into a fight that could yet wash back across the kingdom’s borders.

 

As for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas of prime concern to Israeli commanders and decision-makers, they are not ungoverned zones. Still, as we will soon see, developments in Gaza affect Sinai terrorism, and there are multiple terrorist groups operating in Gaza even as the territory as a whole is controlled tightly by Hamas—itself, of course, a terrorist organization pledged to Israel’s destruction. On the West Bank, Israeli and PA security services work to ensure that the area doesn’t disintegrate in a manner akin to the Sinai or Syria.

On Israel’s southern border lies Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, rapidly turning into an ungoverned zone dominated by a tribal guerrilla campaign. The actors there fall into five broad categories. First, there are the locals, mainly Bedouin tribesmen who initially turned to terrorism for economic reasons. Next, Palestinian terrorist groups, primarily from Gaza, have used the peninsula both as a safe zone that Israel dare not strike for fear of upsetting its peace with Egypt and as a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel. Then there are jihadist groups from the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, followed by jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda from farther afield. Finally, Iran uses the peninsula as a smuggling route into Gaza and as part of the ring of hostility it has been working to create on Israel’s borders.

Sinai has long been a region of weak government control. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pushed Bedouin tribes away from the coast, locking them out of the lucrative tourism industry on the Red Sea. Their economic prospects damaged along with their honor, the tribes turned to terrorism against Egyptian security forces and infrastructure. After Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, tribal fighters drove security forces out of northern Sinai, killing dozens, putting up roadblocks and checkpoints, attacking police stations, and repeatedly sabotaging the gas lines into Israel and Jordan.

In doing so, the Bedouin took advantage of existing family ties, used until then to facilitate smuggling. Then, as Salafist groups managed to make inroads among the tribes, and Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad did the same, many young Sinai Bedouin started growing beards, wearing Salafi garb, and abandoning tribal norms in favor of Islamist principles. Attacks by jihadist groups are now often carried out entirely by members of Bedouin tribes. In the aftermath of a 2013 drone strike that killed four militants, a statement released by the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group, many of whose fighters have pledged loyalty to Islamic State, identified all four dead as Sinai Bedouin from different tribes.

As for the Palestinian terrorist groups in the Sinai, their presence grew dramatically after the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, when IDF forces were removed from the Philadelphi corridor separating the Sinai from Gaza, thus freeing up the hundreds of cross-border tunnels that were Hamas’s primary smuggling route for arms and fighters. Treating the Sinai as its strategic hinterland, Hamas developed a network of intelligence operatives, recruiters, and safe houses. Weapons came from Iran, Sudan, and occasionally the Balkans, Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa.

President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, with Israeli consent, has increased Egyptian military activity in the peninsula. Last October, after the attacks by jihadists that left more than 30 Egyptian soldiers dead, Sisi redoubled his efforts, reinforcing the 12 battalions already stationed there with elite army units, including anti-terror battalions. But the problem is far from being solved, and the peninsula remains a terror hub that threatens Israel in a variety of ways. In June 2014, Egypt deployed several hundred soldiers at Taba to stop militants from firing missiles at Israeli airplanes in Eilat. As it happens, the attacks were carried out entirely by Sinai tribesmen, marking a break with the Bedouin policy up to that point of focusing their attacks on Egyptian targets. Rockets have also been fired numerous times at Eilat.

The rocket threat is likely to get worse, and not just from the Sinai and Gaza. Iran has an interest in seeing Israel surrounded by rockets targeting every inch of its territory, and is working to create that reality. Fighters in Syria have captured Scud missiles from overrun Syrian army bases; they could easily find their way into the hands of groups targeting Israel.

Nor are threats limited to ground-based weaponry and forces. Israeli ships could also see increased threats. In Yemen, the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran, after capturing the capital of Sanaa, took control of the strategic Red Sea port of al-Hudayda, potentially giving Tehran a commanding position on Israel’s route to the Indian Ocean and its Asian markets beyond. Back in the 1970s, as Avi Issacharoff has noted in the Times of Israel, Palestinian terrorists used to attack Israeli ships passing through this waterway; Iran could well try to replicate those attacks today. Iran’s strategic position in Yemen has only improved over the ensuing months as daily flights from Tehran started landing in the country and its U.S.-supported president fled the capital.

 

What can Israel do to cope with the high- and low-tech threats from these ungoverned zones, with the uncertain intelligence picture, and with the ability of traditional enemies like Iran to improve their position?

The overarching principle for Israeli military units tasked with fighting in these zones or on their edges should be to imitate the guerrillas’ strengths: to create uncertainty, as they do, by continuously changing tactics and shape and favoring multiple small-unit actions over heavier maneuver. And to move quickly: as targets present themselves only for brief periods of time, the “loop” from detection, to identification, to neutralization needs to be even faster than at present, especially since it will be impossible to pick up many operations while they are still in the planning phase.

The IDF has taken steps in the right direction. In 2013, recognizing that a conventional Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights was no longer a realistic prospect, Benny Gantz , then the IDF’s chief of staff, relieved the Israeli armored Division 36 on the Syrian border, replacing it with a new formation made up of rotating infantry units and focused on border security and surveillance. These units were the first in the IDF to operate “multi-sensor systems,” which pull together radar and visual data into one concrete warning. The border fence between Israel and Syria has also been completely overhauled; it is now fifteen feet high and can withstand anti-tank missiles.

Another useful step was the 2011 rejuvenation of the Depth Corps, which coordinates the IDF’s long-range operations and its capacity to strike deep inside enemy territory. This was not an entirely new idea. Back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, the IDF drew up plans to take over launch sites in western Iraq. One special-forces group tasked with playing a major role in the planned operation was the air force’s Shaldag (“Kingfisher”) unit, then commanded by Gantz himself.

Still, the upheavals of the last couple of years have created a demand for more drastic innovation. In the words of reservist Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, deputy commander of the Depth Corps, Israel’s opponent “has become sophisticated, agile, and diversified, and has a faint intelligence signature. . . . [This] makes it extremely difficult for state security organizations to stay informed of the rate of his learning and evolution process.”

Writing in Israel Defense three years ago, Hirsch recommended that “in the face of our unique, irregular opponent, we should develop unique, irregular organizations and regard them as our main force for these times.” Hirsch foresaw new IDF formations: smaller, technologically more advanced, with enhanced capabilities and the freedom to exploit them. “These forces may operate under their own legislation and procedures,” he wrote. “They are educated to improvise, to develop relevant knowledge, to initiate and to evolve constantly.” Only thus, with “new players and new game boards,” could Israel change the rules of the game to its advantage.

It is inevitable, for example, that Israel will again be forced to operate inside neighboring territory. Instead of heavy tank and infantry maneuver, preference will have to be given to small, mobile units. In effect, it will be guerrilla vs. guerrilla, but ideally with an Israeli advantage in training, technology, intelligence, and numbers. Dozens of IDF columns will need to operate independently and simultaneously, converging on targets from different directions, then disappearing.

This, too, is not an entirely new concept; in some respects, it is a very old one. Jewish mobile commando units formed in pre-state Mandatory Palestine—notably, Orde Wingate’s “Special Night Squads” and the Haganah’s “Fosh” field companies—operated with great effectiveness against Arab insurgents.

Other pre-state models are also still relevant. Through tunnels and breaches of the border fence, Hamas and Hizballah already pose a threat to Israeli communities on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, and Syrian rebels could soon turn their attention to Golan villages. The infiltration and capture of a border kibbutz, even for a few hours, would be a nightmare for Israel, with dozens of civilians killed or captured.

Unfortunately, in September 2013, the IDF decided to cease deploying soldiers inside 22 border communities, opting instead to focus on improved protection of the border itself. In today’s circumstances, as in yesteryear’s, a wiser policy would be to station IDF units within those communities, capable ofresponding independently without waiting for help to be summoned via a centralized command center.

Changes can also be made to protect the borders themselves. By their nature, borders favor static and predictable defensive actions. Fixed observation posts abound and patrols are often conducted on a predictable schedule and along a predictable route. Terrorists thus know what to expect: a no-man’s land, a smart fence, cameras, observation posts, mobile patrols. Nor is it difficult to develop a clear picture of how the defenders operate: just pay a few unarmed men to touch the fence or try to get over it, and you’ll gain a good idea of how long it takes for a response and where it arrives from.

Hizballah has enjoyed success against IDF patrols since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. That same year, it ambushed a patrol jeep, kidnapping and killing three soldiers. Six years later, it attacked two IDF armored Humvees on the border, killing five soldiers. The bodies of two of them were spirited into Lebanon in the incident that sparked the second Lebanon war. And attacks continue amid the present-day chaos. Last March, four Israeli soldiers were hurt in a blast along the Golan border fence south of Majdal Shams. In October, a Hizballah IED injured two soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. In January of this year, an IDF soldier and officer were killed by a volley of Hizballah Kornet missiles that struck an Israeli convoy near Har Dov.

In response, Israel must become as unpredictable as the groups on its border, and there can be no clear line beyond which terrorists know they are safe.

 

Although the most pressing threats are still on the border, that should not keep commanders from devoting particular attention to where many of those threats originate. Better and longer-range intelligence will enable Israel to counter weapons smuggling and the formation of plots before they reach the ungoverned zones close to home. Such intelligence has already been critical, for example, to intercepting Iranian weapons ships before they unload in Sudan for the trek across the Sinai to Gaza.

Many of the tools in this effort will be technological. Though traditional satellite reconnaissance over ungoverned zones is not an answer to tribal terrorism, it can help track the movement of weapons shipments and fighters. If armed groups decide on a major attack, and especially if they provide themselves with biological or chemical agents (“the poor man’s WMD”), sensors similar to those employed by the U.S. can provide early warning.

If technological intelligence is crucial, human intelligence is no less important. In zones with a multitude of actors and combatants, understanding the culture, norms, religious beliefs, and rationales of tribes and ethnic groups can offer insight into capabilities, tendencies, and shifting alliances. It can also open a window into possible opportunities for quiet partnerships. This can be used by both Israel and moderate governments like Egypt to wean tribes away from jihadi groups, as the ties remain in place only so long as tribal interests are met and honor protected. Israel’s ability to do this is limited by the fact that tribes operating in Egypt and Syria nurse grievances against the policies of the central government, not Israel. But by offering a range of assistance, Jerusalem can work to enlist groups who might ensure that when common enemies attack Israel, they will have to fend off local militias as well as the IDF.

And that brings us to the other side of the picture—where, amid the dizzying range of potential threats, opportunities emerge. Alarmed by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its steadily evolving nuclear-weapons program, and stunned by the brutal efficiency of Islamic State, Western-oriented Arab states are working together and in quiet cooperation with Israel to resist, contain, and, where possible, defeat common foes. Egypt and Israel are coordinating efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai and smuggling into and out of Gaza, and Israel has acquiesced in the introduction of heavier Egyptian formations to conduct anti-terror campaigns in the peninsula. The IDF and Jordanian armed forces work together to keep terrorists from crossing Israel’s border.

In the face of Iran’s moves across the region, both in ungoverned zones and in more traditional areas, it became conceivable that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE would form a military alliance, and in fact such an alliance coalesced quickly in response to the Houthi takeover of Yemen. Led by Saudi Arabia (but not, notably, by America) and backed by Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, and other Sunni states, it has carried out waves of airstrikes while readying a ground invasion. The coalition, whose interests align closely with those of Israel, the strongest military power in the region, will likely endure.

In this era of collapsing state control, Gal Hirsch has called upon Israel to develop new players and new game boards. But the enemies’ new game boards are already here, and so are the new and fiercely aggressive players. For the IDF, the key is to anticipate threats and to develop flexible approaches before those threats materialize. Doing so will take vision, creativity, and daring; fortunately, these are precisely the traits for which the IDF has long been known and feared.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"
Photo by Edsel Little/Flickr.
 
Observation
March 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


From Ken Ehrenburg comes this query:

A fellow shul-mate and I are engaged in a small dispute that I hope you might settle or illuminate. He has maintained for a long time that calling the repast that precedes the end of the Sabbath shalosh se’udot in Hebrew is grammatically incorrect, since this means “three meals” rather than “the third meal” [the first two being Friday-night dinner and Saturday lunch], which would be ha-se’udah ha-shlishit. I, on the other hand, have argued that this usage could be a form of synecdoche, whereby a part is referred to by means of the whole. What do you think?

The oddity of calling the Sabbath’s third meal “three meals” has struck me, too. Until now, I must say, I thought Ken Ehrenburg’s fellow synagogue-goer must be right. In Eastern Europe, the Sabbath’s third meal was called sholesh suddes, as it continues to be by many Orthodox Jews today; this is the Yiddish pronunciation of Hebrew shalosh se’udot, and I had always assumed it to be a Yiddish garbling of Hebrew grammar that was subsequently introduced into Hebrew itself. Such an assumption made historical sense, because the se’udah shlishit was accorded special importance in Jewish ritual by the Eastern-European movement of Ḥasidism, which observes it in the synagogue with singing and chanting in a highly charged religious atmosphere, and Ḥasidic authors were notorious for their mangling of the rules of Hebrew.

Still, I was never quite satisfied by this. Even Ḥasidism mangled Hebrew only so far, and sholesh suddes, which substitutes the Hebrew cardinal number shalosh for the ordinal number shlishit, and puts it before the noun it modifies rather than after the noun where it belongs, would seem to go well beyond that. Could there be another explanation? Ken Ehrenburg suggests what this might be.

The tradition of a third Sabbath meal goes at least as far back as the early centuries of the Common Era, there already being mention of it in the Talmud. In talmudic times, it was the practice, with the exception of Sabbaths, to eat only twice a day, once in mid-morning and once in the evening. Yet even in our own age, when three meals a day are the norm, Orthodox Jews skip breakfast before the Shabbat-morning prayer, with the result that they, too, would eat only two Sabbath meals were it not for the se’udah shlishit. The talmudic tractate of Shabbat gives as the tradition’s source a verse in Exodus (16:25) about the manna: “And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for it is the Sabbath today, today you will not find it in the field.” Three “today’s,” the rabbis reasoned, equal three portions of the manna provided by God in the desert, which was not gathered on the Sabbath.

Although this exegesis probably served to rationalize an already existing custom of celebrating the Sabbath by eating an extra meal, it lent the meal rabbinic authority. Still, only in 16th-century Palestine, with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the Sabbath’s third meal come to be considered the time of special divine grace that it was later thought to be by Ḥasidism as well. And it was only in Eastern Europe that the se’udah shlishit became the shalosh se’udot or sholesh siddes.

I asked an acquaintance steeped in Jewish sources if he knew the reason. His answer was that he believed there was a discussion of the matter in Divrey Emet or “Truthful Points,”a collection of homilies by the Ḥasidic master Yakov Yitzḥak Horovitz (1745-1815), also known as “the Seer of Lublin,” but he couldn’t remember where in the book I would find it. Fortunately, Divrey Emet is a short volume, and three-quarters of the way through it I came across the passage in question. In commenting on the verse in the book of Numbers (24:19), “And out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,” Horovitz writes:

The rabbis of blessed memory have said that whoever eats three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three calamities: the pangs of the [coming of the] messiah, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the retribution of hell. And I have heard it said that the reason the third Sabbath meal [se'udah shlishit] is called “three meals” [shalosh se'udot] is that partaking of it is [like] partaking of all three. For, in the first two, the eater is hungry and enjoys his food while observing the commandment “And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight” [Isaiah 58: 14]. But this [third] meal is entirely for the sake of heaven, since, having no appetite, he [who eats it] acquits himself of all [three]….This is why it is called “three meals,”’ because a commandment is named for what completes it.

In other words: eaten a few hours after a large lunch, at a time when one does not really feel hungry, the third meal alone truly fulfills the commandment to eat three Sabbath meals, the other two of which would be eaten anyway. This explanation, which testifies to the Yiddish usage of sholesh suddes being common in Eastern Europe already over 200 years ago, is precisely the one offered by Ken Ehrenburg: the third meal is called shalosh se’udot because it stands for all three. The term is indeed a synecdoche.

Whether the Horovitz-Ehrenburg thesis is historically correct, I can’t say. All in all, though, it seems to me more likely than the mangled-Hebrew theory. And in case you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the biblical Jacob, kabbalistic tradition associates each of the Sabbath meals with a different patriarch: the Friday-night dinner with Abraham, the Saturday lunch with Isaac, and the se’udah shlishit with Jacob. Forcing oneself to eat once a week when not hungry is a small price to pay for being spared the apocalypse of Armageddon and the fires of Gehenna.

More about: Religion & Holidays, Shabbat, Talmud

 

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh

You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind. What’s the point of such a Shakespearean portrayal?

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh
From Pharaoh Notes the Importance of the Jewish People, 1902, by James Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 19 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 Sabbath service this week marks the imminent onset of the month of Nisan, in which Passover occurs. Appropriately enough, a special reading from the Torah, harking back to the portion of Bo in the book of Exodus, is added to the week’s regular portion of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). Here I want to concentrate not on the specific verses (Exodus 12:1-20) from Bo that are read, or rather reread, on this Sabbath but on its overall narrative of the unfolding relationship between Pharaoh and the Lord as mediated by the Lord’s instrument Moses.

The central issue of Bo is what is within the body of Egypt, whether the body in question is that of Pharaoh, or the body of the people of Egypt who are an extension of the sovereign’s body, or the body of the land of Egypt. And not only what is within the body but outside it, what belongs and what should be expelled, what will enter without permission and what will finally be released unwillingly, spat out like poison or bile.

The very first verb of the reading is bo, come, and this divine instruction to Moses (“Come unto Pharoah” . . .) uses precisely the same verb that in Genesis instructed Abraham to “come unto” and impregnate Hagar, the barren Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the Lord instructed Moses to enter Pharaoh physically. But the appearance of that particular verb at this particular juncture alerts us to a whole series of intimate and unjust relationships in the Torah. The series begins with Sarah’s oppression of Hagar, continues with Joseph’s enslavement of all Egypt, rebounds upon the Israelites in Pharaoh’s subsequent enslavement and oppression of them, and enters into its culminating episode here as the Lord instructs Moses to come unto Pharaoh before the Lord Himself will enter into Pharaoh’s most private and intimate space: his mind.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh
For I’ve given him a heavy heart and his servants, too,
To put these marks of Mine in him
And to make you tell your son and grandson how I abused Egypt
And My marks that I put in them, so you’ll know I am the Lord.”
And Moses and Aaron came unto Pharaoh and told him,
“So says the Lord, God of the Hebrews:
‘How long will you refrain from responding in My presence?
Send out my people to worship Me.
For if you refrain from sending My people
I’ll bring locusts over your border
And they’ll cover all visible land,
You won’t be able to see the land.’” . . .

And he turned and he left Pharaoh’s presence
And Pharaoh’s servants said to him:
“How long will this ensnare us—
Send the men to worship the Lord their God.
Do you not realize yet, Egypt is lost?”
So Moses returned with Aaron to Pharaoh
And he told them, “Go, worship the Lord your God;
Who’s who that’s going?” And Moses said,
“We’ll go with our boys and old men, with our sons and our daughters,
Our sheep and our cattle we’ll go
For it’s God’s festival for us.”
And he told them, “Let it be so, the Lord be with you when
I send out you and your children—
Look how there’s evil over your face.
Not so; kindly go, just the males, and worship the Lord
Because that’s what you’re asking.”
And Pharaoh drove them out from his presence.

In addition to what you might call the special effects of the ten plagues, which I’ll largely omit here, what’s beguiling in this portion is the acute portrayal of Pharaoh as petulant villain. But he’s not two-dimensional; he’s more than three-dimensional. You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind, turning on a dime, arriving almost at the point of cooperating and then withdrawing again like an insecure businessman not quite capable of closing a deal. The irony of his consenting to Moses, swiftly followed by the outburst about how Moses and Aaron are scheming to deceive him, followed by the noblesse-oblige condescension of his polite “request” that the males go without their children, followed finally by the curt dismissal of Moses and Aaron, gives you a Shakespearean portrait in just two or three lines.

And it’s not over.
But Pharaoh was quick to call Moses and Aaron
To say: “I’ve sinned to the Lord your God and you.
But now bear with my sin just this once
And petition the Lord your God to remove from me just this death.”
And he went out from Pharaoh and petitioned the Lord
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart
And he didn’t send out the children of Israel.

Rabbis over the centuries have tied themselves in knots to prove that Pharaoh had freedom of choice, free will, that he was able at any point to release the Jews but chose not to. A literal reading of the text shows that this was not the case. Not only does the Lord declare at exactly what point He will allow Pharaoh to come to his senses, He also tells Moses that He’s not interested in Pharaoh’s coming to that point. He wants to pummel Pharaoh into submission, and it does not suit His purposes for Pharaoh to have free choice, let alone to make an intelligent call.

Time and again, the Lord reinforces Pharaoh’s heart. Two different verbs are used for this action, which is often flattened in English translation into a single “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” On the one hand, He makes Pharaoh anxious, literally makes his heart heavy; on the other hand, He makes him proud—literally strengthens his heart. This is the cycle by means of which a losing hand or two become a total bust. Pharaoh is meant to be left incapable of running a lemonade stand, let alone the mightiest empire on earth.

And Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go worship the Lord
Just your sheep and cattle will be deposited,
You children can go with you, too.”
But Moses said, “You shall also put sacrifices and offerings in our hands
To make for the Lord our God,
So our livestock will go with us,
Not a hoof will be left behind
For from them we’ll select to worship the Lord our God
And we won’t know how we’ll worship the Lord till we get there.”
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart and he balked at sending them
And Pharaoh told him, “Get away from me,
Take good care you don’t see my face again
Because the day you see my face you’ll die.”
And Moses said, “Just as you say. I will not look on your face again.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “One more ache
I’ll bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt,
After that he’ll send you from here as he’d send a bride,
He’ll drive you in droves out of here.” . . .

And Moses said, “So says the Lord,
Around midnight I’m going out into Egypt
And every first born in Egypt is dead
From the first born of Pharaoh who’ll sit on his throne
To the first born of the maid behind the millstones
And every beast of burden’s first born
And there will be a great shriek in the land of Egypt
Such as has never been and such as won’t be again
And to all the children of Israel
No dog will wag its tongue, neither man nor beast
So that you know the Lord discriminates between Egypt and Israel
And all these servants of yours will come down to Me
And bow to Me saying, ‘Go, you and the people at your heels’
And after that I’ll go.” And he went from Pharaoh’s presence in a fury.
But the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh won’t listen to you—
So as to increase the examples I’ll make of the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh’s warning to Moses not to look on his face again lest he die is both pathetic and accurate. When Moses does see Pharaoh again, it is at Pharaoh’s request and it’s the middle of the night—when nobody can see anything. By then, Pharaoh’s the one begging Moses to intercede so that he himself won’t die in the general carnage.

And it was midnight and the Lord struck every first born in Egypt
From the first born of Pharaoh who’d sit on his throne
To the first born of the prisoner housed in the pit
And every beast of burden’s first born.
And Pharaoh rose that night
And all his servants and all Egypt did, too
And there was a great shriek in Egypt
For there was no house without a corpse in it.
And he called Moses and Aaron at night, saying:
“Get up and get out from inside my people,
Both you and the children of Israel, and go worship the Lord just as you said,
Your sheep too, your cattle too; take what you said
And go—and bless me, too.”

This is the final humiliation: Pharaoh is reduced to asking Moses to pray for him and, as Moses prophesied, to make a sacrifice in his name to the implacable God who has come over his borders, into his houses, and finally into his mind. When the text specifies that the Lord kills not the child of the maid (as promised previously) but the child of the prisoner in the pit, it is no slip of the pen. The Lord went walking to the place where Joseph started his great ascent in Egypt by foretelling what would happen to Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants.

In this portion of Bo, we revisit first Hagar, then Joseph, before seeing how the cycle of slavery and abuse is finally ended with the Hebrews having undergone a 400-year punishment for abusing Hagar, and with Egypt, in turn, being crushed completely in order to pluck the Israelites back out of it like pips from an orange. The Lord started a cycle with Abraham that he would complete with Moses, only to make the great point, reiterated a total of 36 times in the Torah: do not abuse the stranger, because you were a stranger in Egypt. The subtext is clear: do not do again what you did then, nor ever do what they did to you, because what I did to them I can do to anybody.

More about: Bo, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Pharaoh, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayikra