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

 

A Woman Who Fired the Torches

Why Jewish girls are named after the fierce prophetess Deborah.

A Woman Who Fired the Torches
An engraving of Deborah by the French artist Gustave Doré. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Jan. 29 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.


Most epics involve heroic men leaving women to pursue adventure, victory, and conquest. Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope and the enchantress Circe, Aeneas leaves Dido, Homer’s Iliad is set in motion first by the theft of a woman, Helen, and then by an argument over the female spoils of war that erupts between the warlord Agamemnon and his mercenary Achilles, the poem’s hero.

But what does any of this have to do with Torah? It has to do with the haftarah for this week’s portion of Beshalah (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16), which concerns the military exploits of the prophetess Deborah. The story appears in the biblical book of Judges, a peculiar work that I often think of as a collection of absurdist parables. But this particular reading (Judges 4:4 – 5:31) is different. It strikes me as a mock-epic, and it never ceases to amaze me with its command of that form—and with its fine savagery.

The climax of the Iliad, the greatest heroic story ever told, is the confrontation between Achilles and the opposing general Hector. Having finally tracked him down, Achilles pursues Hector in Homeric lines thrillingly translated by Christopher Logue:

And Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming
over the quarry, plunging over and over, his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill—

And then, in the translation by Robert Fitzgerald,

The two men ran, pursuer and pursued
And he who fled was noble, he behind
A greater man by far. They ran full speed
And not for bull’s hide or a ritual beast
Or any prize that men compete for: no,
But for the life of Hector, tamer of horses.

That’s the sort of story—a story about men in battle, and about horses—that we have reason to think we’re going to be getting here in the book of Judges. But not this time:

And Deborah was a prophet woman,
A woman who fired the torches,
She judged over Israel at that time:
And she sat under a date tree, Deborah,
From the heights to Beit El at Mount Ephraim
And the children of Israel went up to her for judgment.

And she sent and called for Barak son of Avinoam
From Kedesh in Naftali and said to him,
Did not the Lord God of Israel command,
Go and draw men from Mount Tabor
And take with you ten-thousand men
From the sons of Naftali and sons of Zebulun?
And I will draw for you to the river Kishon
Sisrah, the warlord of Yavin, and his chariots
With his multitude and put him in the palm of your hand.

And Barak said to her, If you go with me I’ll go
And if you don’t go with me I won’t go.
And she said, Go I shall indeed go with you
But your fame will not be found on the path you’re set on,
For in a woman’s hand the Lord will deliver Sisrah.
And Deborah rose and went with Barak to Kedesh
And Barak called up Zebulun and Naftali at Kedesh
And he went up with ten-thousand men at his heels
And Deborah went up with him.

This haftarah plays with your expectations by carrying on about Barak and his ten-thousand men. True, you’re told upfront that this is an odd sort of epic: the prophet is a woman, and the hero whom she summons hasn’t the guts to make a move without her. And then she tells him that a woman will be the one who does in Sisrah, which makes you think Deborah herself, who’s leading the action, will be the vanquisher. In  just a few lines we’ll be in the heat of battle, but first there’s a lull as the focus returns to Barak and his ten-thousand men, whom he marches up the hill and promptly marches down again (rather like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme). Finally the battle starts and—surprise—this isn’t a war story after all:

And they told Sisrah that Barak son of Avinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor:
And Sisrah called up all his infantry,
nine-hundred steel chariots,
And all the people who were with him from Haroshet Goyim
To the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, now rise
For this is the day the Lord has put Sisrah in your hand
Will not the Lord go out before you!

And Barak came down from Mount Tabor
With ten-thousand men behind him,
And God stampeded Sisrah and all his chariots and all his camp
At sword point before Barak
And Sisrah got down off his chariot and fled on foot.
And Barak chased after the chariots and the camp up to Haroshet Hagoyim
And the entire camp of Sisrah fell at sword point, there was not a single one left.

Who’s doing the fighting here isn’t Barak; it’s the Lord, and the fight is over before you know it. Bang! The mighty host is routed and wiped out to the last man. Sisrah is fleeing, and Barak is after him, and now we devotees of the epic are waiting for the climax, the heroic confrontation, Achilles and Hector, the sweaty clinch as two superwarriors go at it mano a mano. Instead, as befits a mock-epic, we have a war waged by women against women.

And Sisrah fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Haver the Kenite
For there was peace between Yavin king of Hatzor
And the house of Haver the Kenite.

And Yael went out to face Sisrah
And said to him, Turn my lord, turn to my house, don’t be afraid
And he turned to her into the tent
And she covered him with a blanket.
And he said to her, Please let me drink
A little water, for I’ve been thirsty,
And she opened the sack of milk
And let him drink and covered him over.
And he said to her, Stand at the tent opening
And should a man come and ask you, saying, Is anyone there?
You can say there is no one.

And Yael the wife of Haver took the tent peg
And put the hammer in her hand
And she came to him softly
And stuck the peg in his brow
Till it went through to the ground,
And he’d been dozing and weary and he died.
And here Barak was chasing after Sisrah
And Yael came out to face him
And she said to him, Go
and I’ll show you the man you seek.
And he came to her and here was Sisrah
Dropped dead with the peg in his brow

Deborah has called up the charge. Sisrah in his abject flight has stumbled across the tent of Yael who, echoing Abraham’s words to the angels in Genesis (18:2-5) and acting the perfect hostess, not to mention a wicked witch in a fairy tale, entreats him to come inside. He asks for water and she gives him milk—which, the rabbis note in their commentary, is a soporific and which to my ear has a maternal ring; she gives him a glass of milk and covers him up, as if putting a baby to sleep. You can almost see her switching off the nightlight as she creeps out of the room. Then she’s back with the tent peg—has there ever been a phallic object less heroic?—and she puts it through his brow so far that it goes into the ground.

What I always find at once the most barbaric and most refined touch is the song at the end, which moves from praising the heroic glories of the Lord, to Sisrah’s dramatic encounter with Yael,  to the homely details of a domestic scene in which Sisrah’s mother is depicted waiting impatiently for her son’s triumphal return from battle.

Blessed of all women be Yael
Wife of Haver the Kenite,
Blessed of all women of the tent:
He asked for water, she gave him milk,
In the cup for great guests she offered him cream.
Her hand to the tent peg she reached
And her right hand to the workman’s blow
And battered Sisrah, wiped out his head,
And crushed and went through his brow.
Between her legs he knelt and fell
Where he knelt, there he fell, lost.

Through the window spying and wailing
Sisrah’s mother at the lintel,
Why does his chariot dally and not come,
Why does the rattle of his chariots tarry?
The wisest of her ladies will console
And even she repeats what they prattle.
For will they not find and divide spoils,
A maidenhead or two for each fellow?
The trove of the colors shall go to Sisrah
The trove of colors that are embroidered,
Colors embroidered on both sides for their necks in spoils.

So shall all your foes be lost, Lord,
And His adorers as the sun coming out in full force.
And the land was quiet for forty years.

This song, sung by Deborah herself, is the triumphant cry of one woman over another. You think your son is sharing our daughters with his men, you think he’s getting the best of our needlework? Think again, honey! And then, from the wrenching close-up of Sisrah’s mother and her ladies-in-waiting, fantasizing about Sisrah’s expected haul of pretty baubles, the song abruptly shifts register, the camera pulls back, and we’re given a panoramic shot of the Lord’s armies rising like the sun itself.

I always look forward to this haftarah, and I always find it stomach-churning. David rejoicing over the fall of Goliath is as nothing compared with Deborah exalting Yael and jeering at Sisrah’s mother. Besides, when David beheads the giant Goliath, you take comfort in the victory of a lean and ascetic youth armed only with his slingshot over the gargantuan and heavily armored professional warrior. Where in this story is the moral uplift? The Lord doesn’t need armies, He doesn’t need swords, He doesn’t even need Jews. If He’s decided against you, He’ll find some friendly lady of another tribe to offer you a drink of water, and while you’re wiping the milk from your upper lip, there’ll be a tiny pain at your temple and so long, Achilles.

And there’s just the point. As this mock-epic shows most graphically, the Lord of hosts doesn’t need heroes. And a horse, as Psalm 33 puts it, is a vain thing for deliverance. That is the moral of this tale: it’s not about the horses. Deborah knows that, Barak does not. That’s why Jewish girls are named after her, and Jewish boys are named after prophets, not warriors.

More about: Book of Judges, Deborah, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?
Members of Anonymous, the internet hacking collective. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Mosaic reader Max J. Katz writes:

I am interested in the etymology of “hacker” as it is used in computer technology to mean variously an expert, gamester, or someone who maliciously intrudes upon someone else’s computer to change or manipulate it. In particular, I wonder whether there is a connection with the Yiddish verb hakn, meaning to chop.

There is an extensive literature on the history of “hacker”—and also extensive disagreement. One thing there is no argument about is that the term was first used for computer buffs in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally, it seems, a hacker at MIT was not specifically a lover of computers and their programs; rather, he was anyone who was more passionate about an extra-curricular hobby than about his academic studies. The earliest documentation of the word denoting such students dates to the late 1950s, when members of an MIT model-railroad club used it for themselves.

From this point on, the questions take over. Were the first program hackers out from the start to gain control of other people’s computers for nefarious purposes, or were they simply digital fun-lovers whose pranks meant no harm? If the latter, should the meaning of “hacker” be revised to rid it of the negative connotations that have colored it strongly since the 1980s, so that it once again refers to all programming enthusiasts and not just the criminally minded? And if so, what should criminal hackers be called? (Among the terms suggested have been “computer vandals,” “crackers,” and “white-hat hackers” as opposed to “black-hat hackers.”)

And finally: what is the etymology of “hacker”?

The dominant theory is that the word came from “to hack” in its sense of to cut or to chop. According to University of California computer scientist Brian Harvey, a member of the first hacker generation:

Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A “tool” is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight A’s. A “hacker” is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

The hacker, in other words, has no patience for the traditional ways of doing things, such as using tools in an accepted manner. He takes what comes to hand and chops away with it. The only connection with Yiddish would be that “to hack” and hakn are close cognates, belonging to a group of words that also includes German hacken, to cut, chop, or cleave, and Dutch hakke, a hoe. Some of us know the Yiddish verb hakn from the Yinglish idiom “to hock a cheinik,” that is, “to bang a teakettle” or rattle away verbally at someone.

The problem with this is that both “hack” and “hacker” have numerous other meanings in American slang that could equally have influenced students at MIT. Many of these also stem from hack in its meaning of chop, while others go back to hackney, a 14th-century English word that originally designated an old nag or worn-out horse, and subsequently, shortened to hack, came to refer to a dilapidated old car or carriage, a cab, a driver earning his livelihood from such a vehicle, or anyone making a living from dull or unworthy work.

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a given meaning of “to hack,” “hack,” or “hacker” derives from the hack=chop or hackney line of words or has been produced by an interaction between them. Here are a few of these meanings:

Hack: Someone working at a job for which he is insufficiently skilled, trained, or motivated.

Hack it: To cope successfully with a difficult situation, often by improvised means.

Hacker: An amateur tennis or golf player with a clumsy swing, and by extension, any inept beginner or practitioner.

 Hack:  An athlete who routinely fouls other athletes. Also, an unfair play in football or other sports.

Hack:   Someone who spoils someone else’s art work by drawing on it.

 Hack:   An ugly or nasty solution to a problem.

Hack:    To cut off another driver and speed away.

Hack: To steal a joke from a comedian.

To complicate matters further, while any of these usages might have contributed to MIT’s “hacker,” it is also possible, the date of first appearance being uncertain, that some were the results of it. It’s one of those etymological questions that will probably never have a clear answer. And just to add, for Mr. Katz’s benefit, one more unlikely possibility with a Yiddish angle, consider this:

In the debate over whether computer hackers are or are not intrinsically objectionable figures, those who claim they are not have had recourse to the analogy of a locksmith. Just as picking locks, they contend, can be used for both bad ends like burglary and good ones like letting someone into a house he is locked out of, so computer hacking has its positive sides, too.

A lock in Yiddish is a shlisl. And what’s a lock pick? I won’t ask you to hold your breaths. It’s a hakshlisl. 

More about: Arts & Culture, Language, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 2015 12:01AM
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).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy