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 Zombie Doctrine

Why do policy makers treat Islamic extremists as if they’re lacking brains—and deeply held beliefs—of their own?

The Zombie Doctrine
Photo by home_of_chaos/Flickr.
 
Observation
May 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Yagil Henkin is an Israeli military historian.


Toward the end of the movie World War Z, Brad Pitt arrives in Jerusalem. By now, mindless zombies have overrun most of the world—but, thanks to a wall built by the Israelis, Jerusalem has been spared. The defenders have managed to keep out anyone infected with zombie-ism, preserving a space in which all—Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—are united against a common enemy. Just as Pitt comes on the scene, the survivors join to sing the Hebrew prayer, “May He create peace for us.” Drawn to the sound, the zombies climb up, one on top of another, until eventually they surmount the wall and tumble onto the singers below. Jerusalem, too, falls into the hands of al-Qaeda.

Well, not quite: nothing in the movie suggests an explicit identification of the zombies with Islamist jihadists. Still, the analogy is apt—and not least because many of today’s policy makers seem to have made such an identification on their own, conceiving of Islamic extremists in terms more appropriate to World War Z than to, for example, the doctrines and ideas of the Islamic State (IS). (That the anti-Israel cartoonist Eli Valley, in the New Republic, has reversed field by portraying Israelis as zombie cannibals is one of those predictable exceptions that prove the rule.)

Zombies make good horror-movie villains because they are mindless, flesh- and (in some versions) brain-eating creatures who can’t speak or even listen, and show no signs of rational thought. They just march around, usually in swarms, bent on a single aim: finding human victims into whom they can sink their teeth. How then to fight them? You can kill some, but there are too many of them; inevitably, you will be overwhelmed. Your best strategy is avoidance. Lie low and do nothing to draw their attention—lest, sensing your presence, they immediately converge on you and your friends.

Sound familiar? Example: the president of the United States, anxious in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacres to reassure “Islam” that America is “not at war” with it or anything related to it, instead refers to America’s Islamist enemies as “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” In a word, zombies. Another example: whenever someone in Israel suggests changing the status quo on the Temple Mount—where Jews are prohibited from praying at their religion’s holiest site while Muslims enjoy freedom of access—Israeli politicians and security experts rush to warn that doing so will lead to a religious war with the entire Islamic world: that is, as some Israeli public figures are at pains to specify, a billion and a half Muslims.

To think that all you need to do is yell, “that’s not Islam!,” and your Islamist foes will cease their war against you is, frankly, ridiculous. No less ridiculous is to believe that Muslims everywhere, fully a fifth of the globe’s population, will suddenly drop everything to wage a holy war over the Temple Mount—or that Israel is capable of sparking such a conflagration. Unless, of course, you believe that Muslims are zombies: do something, anything, that draws their attention, and they’ll come at you, uncontrollably.

Marie Harf, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department , has said of IS: “We’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them, . . . but we cannot win this war by killing them.” More zombie thinking: in a zombie war, gun-wielding soldiers mow down hundreds of zombies only to be bitten themselves when they run out of ammunition. Harf’s solution: “We need, in the longer term—medium and longer term—to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity or jobs. . . . We can work with countries around the world to help . . . them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”

Most striking about these remarks is not Harf’s seeming ignorance of the fact that terrorists can be as rich as Osama bin Laden, as educated as his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri (a physician), or born to privilege like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the son of one of the richest men in Africa, who tried to blow up an American airplane in 2009. Nor is it her seeming ignorance of the fact that most of the world’s poorest countries are not, in fact, terrorist hotbeds. Most striking is that, like her president, Harf cannot admit the unsettling thought that something other than poverty and lack of opportunity draws people to these groups. Instead, the problem is purely technical. Find the right vaccine, administer it properly, and poof! no more zombies.

What neither Harf, nor her bosses in the State Department, nor the president will acknowledge is the role played by ideas and deeply-held beliefs. If you’re trying to figure out how to fight a ruthless, totalitarian, and ideologically-motivated enemy, you might look to the example of Winston Churchill, or George Kennan. If you’re fighting a zombie outbreak, you end up getting your answers from the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

 

To be fair, proponents of the zombie doctrine are not completely unwilling to acknowledge the power of ideas and ideologies in human affairs. (President Obama, for example, has theorized that racist beliefs are “deeply rooted” in American society.) Rather, their reluctance seems to kick in specifically when it comes to religion. Thus, strangely paraphrasing a favorite slogan of the National Rifle Association, the American president has asserted that “No religion is responsible for violence and terrorism; people are responsible for violence and terrorism.” Of the chieftains of IS and al-Qaeda he has said: “They are not religious leaders . . . they are terrorists.” Why not both at the same time? Evidently, to him, religion in general—or, if not religion in general, then certainly Islam in particular—is a kind of spiritual icing on the cake of life, not to be taken seriously as a motivating factor in anyone’s actions.

In some cases, that may even be true. But religion is also a powerful force capable of transforming the lives of believers and dictating their actions 24 hours a day, seven days a week—for better or for worse. Ignoring this fact, instructing Muslims about the precepts of their “real” religion, doesn’t explain why so many actually believe that IS and other radical extremist are true Muslims, or why some young Europeans—with or without jobs, opportunities, or broken systems of governance—join IS. And it sure as hell doesn’t explain how to stop them.

What, then, about Iran? After all, it calls itself the Islamic Republic; it has killed hundreds of American soldiers in Lebanon and Iraq; there’s scarcely an Islamic terrorist organization it hasn’t supported at one time or another; it currently backs Shiite militias in Iraq that are just as brutal as IS. So why hasn’t the U.S. applied the zombie doctrine to the ayatollahs? According to that doctrine, you can’t negotiate with zombies, yet Washington negotiates enthusiastically with Tehran. And why hasn’t the president declared that there’s nothing Islamic about the Islamic Republic, or accused Iran’s Supreme Leader of perverting Islam?

The answer is that, in the case of Iran, the logic of the zombie doctrine runs in the other direction. The Iranian government is willing to speak softly and sit politely through negotiations in Geneva; therefore, it can’t consist of zombies. If the ayatollahs aren’t zombies, it follows that they must be rational beings just like us. And since religion must be discounted as a motivating factor in their politics or in their diplomacy—or in their words—their very willingness to speak is more significant than what they actually say. After all, chanting “Death to America!” is just a ritual declaration, with no bearing on real life. The Islamic Republic’s ideas—and even its actions—must be ignored.

Here’s a hint to IS: start negotiating, say, a 30-percent reduction in beheadings in return for economic aid and diplomatic recognition and maybe you, too, can change from being zombies, to being “adversaries,” and thence to worthy partners with an important role to play in the stabilization of the Middle East.

Ideology alone does not govern human actions, but ignoring or dismissing it is foolish, dangerous, and often fatal. Some followers of IS may be brainwashed youth, but that does not make them zombies, either. After all, zombies lack the most important thing needed for brainwashing: a brain.

More about: Islamism, Politics & Current Affairs, Zombies

 

A Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends

The president’s address last week to Congregation Adas Israel as “an honorary member of the tribe” was something other than it seemed.

A Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends
President Obama speaks at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, DC on May 22. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
 
Observation
May 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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


Dear Congregants of Adas Israel:

On Friday, May 22, President Obama, calling himself “an honorary member of the tribe,” addressed you not just as the president of the United States but also as an explicit adherent of the “tikkun olam” tradition: a Jewish viewpoint for “repairing the world” that, in his reading, promotes universal progressive ideals like fighting bigotry and working for social justice everywhere. Thus, for him, the same “shared values” that underlay the civil-rights movement in the United States were what led him to identify himself with the cause of Israel—and also with the cause of Palestinian nationalism.

Although, as you may have noticed, the president never mentioned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by name, the heart of his speech was devoted to justifying his own role in their by now famous conflict. At the heart of that conflict, he suggested, was Netanyahu’s presumed hostility to recognizing the rights of the Palestinians. Making references to Ramallah in one breath and Selma in the next, and sketching an ethical map that made the civil-rights movement and Palestinian nationalism interchangeable, the president implied that support for Netanyahu’s policies was tantamount to rejecting the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of Haaretz, who best captured the essence of Obama’s May 22 message to you: “I represent your core values far better than the elected leader of Israel.”

To judge by the enthusiastic applause, many of you accepted the president’s sincerity and strongly agreed with his message. May I ask you, however, to pause and consider an alternative view? I cannot claim, as Obama did, membership in the tribe, but I can say that I am well informed both about the Middle East and about United States policy toward that region. In addition, I am deeply concerned about the deterioration in Israeli-American relations.

Here’s my question. As Obama donned his yarmulke and embraced your community, did you also catch the hint of a warning? If you did, it was because the president was raising, very subtly, the specter of dual loyalty: the hoary allegation that Jews pursue their tribal interests to the detriment of the wider community or nation. Obama was certainly not engaging in anything so crude as that; nor is he an enemy of the Jewish people. But he did imply that many Jews—that is, Jews who support Benjamin Netanyahu—have indeed placed their narrow, ethnic interests above their commitment to universal humanistic values. In his view, they have betrayed those values. And so the warning was faint, but unmistakable: if Jews wish to avoid being branded as bigots, then they—you—must line up with him against Netanyahu.

 

“But the president is right,” many of you would no doubt reply. “Netanyahu’s values are not my values.” That may well be the case. Yet this is also why it is a trap for you to accept Obama’s claim that his fight with Netanyahu is a struggle over “values.” The struggle is not over values. Rather, at the core of the Netanyahu-Obama grudge match is one issue and one issue only: the president’s long-sought détente with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To be sure, there are other sources of tension between the two men, both personal and political. Among them is the Israel-Palestinian issue, which the president dwelt upon at length in his remarks to you—but in the service of a goal that has nothing whatsoever to do with Israeli-Palestinian relations. If this sounds too calculating by half, consider three key points.

First, every informed observer knows there is no chance of moving Israel-Palestinian relations forward in the next two years—and also that, what with the Arab and Muslim Middle East exploding in violence, Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly the only skeptic in Israel when it comes to advancing a two-state solution any time soon. Had Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s main opposition party, won the election in March, the prospects of reaching such a compromise solution would have remained the same as under Netanyahu: that is, next to nil.

Let’s not forget that, back in April 2014, it wasn’t the Israeli government that put the final nail in the coffin of the American initiative to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu, for his part, grudgingly accepted the Americans’ draft framework agreement; Mahmoud Abbas refused. I have yet to hear the president excoriate Abbas for his betrayal of the values of progressive humanism.

Next, Obama has fallen out with or pulled away from almost every traditional American ally in the Middle East—a development that, even if it did not create the chaos now engulfing the region, has certainly played a major role in abetting it. The president’s relations with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are nearly as strained as his relations with Netanyahu. While these leaders may shrink from disagreeing with him in public, they have unmistakably signaled their conviction that the president’s deal with Tehran will not achieve its stated goal of stopping Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and that, in his obsessive pursuit of this deal, American policy is actively helping to turn the aggressively hostile regime of the mullahs into the dominant power in the Middle East.

Which brings me to the third point. In the course of extolling the virtues of his emerging nuclear deal, the president paused to express his unyielding commitment to shielding Israel from the threat of Iranian expansionism. Or did he? Take a look at his exact words:

[E]ven if we do get a good deal, there remains the broader issue of Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and [its] ugly threats against Israel. And that’s why our strategic partnership with Israel will remain, no matter what happens in the days and years ahead. And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.

This gauzy rhetoric may sound reassuring but it is deliberately devoid of content—for good reason. The plain fact is that the United States is doing nothing to arrest the projection and expansion of Iranian power in the region; quite the contrary. In Lebanon, for example, Washington has cut funding for Shiite figures who remain independent of Iran’s proxy Hizballah. In Iraq, the United States, through the Iraqi armed forces, is actually coordinating with Iranian-backed militias and serving as their air force. Indeed, wherever one looks in the Middle East, one can observe an American bias in favor of, to say the least, non-confrontation with Iran and its allies.

The pattern is most glaring in Syria, where the president has repeatedly avoided conflict with Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest ally. The tendency surfaced again a few weeks ago in connection with mounting evidence that Assad has routinely attacked his own people with gas. If true, this fact should trigger a sharp American response in keeping with the president’s famous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But when questioned on this matter at a press conference, he contrived to find a loophole. Assad’s forces, he said, have been deploying chlorine gas, which “historically” has not been considered a chemical weapon.

The president’s sophistry demonstrates a simple but profound truth: his commitment to the progressive values of tikkun olam is governed by its own “red lines,” and is entirely utilitarian. Which again raises the question: what was his purpose in stressing this shared progressive commitment in his address to you, and what was his purpose in subtly reminding you of the costs of failing to abide by its terms?

The answer, I hope, is obvious. On June 30, Obama will likely conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. This will spark a faceoff with Congress, which has already declared its opposition to the deal. Congress will inevitably pass a vote of disapproval, which Obama will inevitably veto. In order to defend that veto from a congressional override, however, he must line up 34 Senators—all Democrats. This calls in turn for a preemptive ideological campaign to foster liberal solidarity—for which your support is key. If the president can convince the liberal Jewish community, on the basis of “shared values,” to shun any suspicion of alignment with congressional Republicans or Benjamin Netanyahu, he will have an easier time batting down Congress’s opposition to the deal with Iran.

Progressive values have nothing to do with what is truly at stake in this moment of decision. Only one final question really matters: in your considered view, should the Islamic Republic of Iran be the dominant power in the Middle East, and should we be helping it to become that power? If your answer is yes, then, by all means, continue to applaud the president—loudly and enthusiastically—as he purports to repair the world.

Your friend,
Michael Doran

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran nuclear program, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best

The 400-year-old translation is denigrated because of its archaic language. That’s one of its greatest strengths.

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best
From the cover of a 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
 
Observation
May 27 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.


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

Stephen M. Flatow asks why, in my column “The Paradox of the Transmission of Sacred Texts” that appeared two weeks ago, I used the King James translation when citing verses from the Bible. “Are there,” he asks, “no Jewish translations, such as the Jewish Publication Society’s, Soncino Press’s, or ArtScroll’s, that would have served a similar purpose?”

Yes, there are. The reason I nevertheless prefer the King James Version (KJV) is that, despite its age, its archaic English, and its often outdated interpretations of passages that subsequent knowledge has thrown new light on, it continues to be the best English Bible translation in existence.

This is, of course, a matter of taste and opinion, but the taste and opinion are not just mine. Millions of English-speaking Bible readers share them, which is why in 2013, the most recent year for which there are data, the 400-year-old KJV continued to outsell all of its numerous modern competitors but one. (That one is the New International Version of the Bible, first published in the course of the 1970s.) These millions of readers would agree with Adam Nicolson, who states in his God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible that, more than any other English translation of Scripture, the KJV is driven by an “idea of majesty” whose “qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, [and] power.” What its admirers sense in it above all, writes Nicolson, is what they sense in the Hebrew Bible itself: “a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority” of the text.

I do not sense this, or feel the same “grace, stateliness, and power,” in other Bible translations, including the ones mentioned by Mr. Flatow. True, those translations were produced by Jewish scholars for a Jewish readership, whereas the King James’s translators were Christians with Christian concerns. Yet these concerns almost never led them to distort the meaning of the text for polemical or anti-Jewish purposes, and even in the handful of cases where it might be argued that they did so, it is possible to defend their choices. Thus, for example, in the famously disputed verse from Isaiah, “Behold, a young woman [alma] shall conceive and bear a son and call him Emmanuel,” the King James adheres to Christian tradition by translating alma as “virgin,” turning the verse into a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. Yet given that in biblical times no respectable unmarried young woman—which is apparently what alma denotes—could have been anything but a virgin, this is not a totally outrageous reading.

Let’s look at the two verses I cited in the column Mr. Flatow refers to. In the original Hebrew they are: Adonai b’ozkha yismakh melekh; uv’yeshu’atkha ma-yagil me’od. Ta’avat libo natata lo; va’areshet s’fatav bal-mana’ta (Psalms 21:2-3). The King James has: “The king shall joy in Thy strength, O Lord; and in Thy salvation how greatly shall he rejoice! Thou hast given him his heart’s desire, and hast not withholden the request of his lips.” In the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, this is: “O Lord, in Thy strength the king rejoiceth; and in Thy salvation how greatly doth he exult. Thou hast given him his heart’s desire; and the request of his lips Thou hast not withholden.” The Soncino Press version uses the 1917 JPS text. The new 1985 JPS translation gives us: “O Lord, the king rejoices in Your strength; how greatly he exults in Your victory. You have granted him the desire of his heart, have not denied the request of his lips.” The 1996 ArtScroll has: “O Lord, may the king rejoice with Your strength, and how greatly does He exult with your salvation. You gave him his heart’s desire, and the speech of his lips you have never withheld.”

All four of these versions are highly similar. A cursory look at them demonstrates that the last three were influenced by the King James. Indeed, the 1917 JPS translation basically is the King James, with minor variations. Why not, then, go with the original?

The 1985 JPS version departs from the King James more—but not, I would say, for the better. “Your victory” is a less accurate and more confusing rendering of yeshu’atkha than “Your salvation”—God’s victory over what or whom?—and the dropping of the Hebrew connective v’, “and” or “but,” which regularly joins the two hemistiches of each line of Hebrew verse, sanitizes an important feature of biblical style in favor of more conventional English usage. The ArtScroll version is no improvement. To say that God has withheld not the “request” (areshet) of the king’s lips but their “speech” means that He has let the king speak freely, not, as the Hebrew states, that He has granted him his wishes. And since when does one rejoice or exult “with” something in English? One can rejoice with someone, but one rejoices in something.

These are minor points, I admit, but they are indicative of the KJV’s overall superiority, which derives in part from its being the product of a historical period in which the Bible’s divinely revealed character and literal truth, every word of which was assumed to matter supremely because it was God’s, were still taken for granted by most people, including the King James’s highly cultivated and sophisticated translators.

Indeed, the KJV’s archaic language, often cited as a point against it, strikes me as one more argument in its behalf. The language of the Hebrew Bible, after all, is archaic, too; it is precisely this that makes us feel when reading it that we are in contact with an age more wondrous and fervent than our own. The same holds true of the KJV. We should not want the Bible to sound modern. Of modernity we have more than enough; the Bible needs to be read against modernity’s grain. I’ll stick with the King James.

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

More about: Bible, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays, Translation

 

Did It Really Happen, or Was It a Dream?

God ordered the prophet Hosea to marry a whore and father her children. The rabbis can’t decide if the story actually happened or was purely symbolic.

Did It Really Happen, or Was It a Dream?
From The Prophet Hosea by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311. Wikipedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
May 22 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 haftarah accompanying this week’s reading of Bemidbar is taken from the prophet Hosea (2:1-22). That book is unusual in that rabbinic opinion is split down the middle on whether the events described in it—starting with God’s ordering the prophet to marry a whore and father children by her—happened in real life or are entirely symbolic depictions of the Lord’s relations with the people Israel. In the tractate Pesaḥim, the hardened realists of the Talmud imagine the encounter between the Almighty and Hosea went like this:

The Master of the Universe said: what shall I do to this old man? I’ll tell him “Go take to wife a whore and bear whoresons by her,” and after that I’ll tell him, “send her away from before you!” If he’s capable of sending her away, then I too shall send away Israel. . . . [Hosea] said: “Master of the Universe, I’ve children by her and cannot put her out or drive her away.” The Holy One said, “And what are you whose wife is a whore and whose children are whoresons, and you do not know if they’re yours or others’? Just so are Israel, who are my children, children of those I’ve tested . . . and you tell me to transfer them to another nation?!” Since [Hosea] knew he’d sinned, he rose to plead mercy for himself. The Holy One told him: “Since you’re pleading mercy for yourself, plead mercy for Israel, against whom I’ve decreed three decrees for your sake.” He rose to plead mercy for them, cancelled the decree, and started blessing them.

As far back as the Aramaic translation of Hosea (ca. 2nd century CE), however, there were doubts the book meant what it said. In the Middle Ages, Abraham ibn Ezra thought it was all a dream, and even Maimonides presumed the same. Not so Isaac Abrabanel (1437–1508), whose impatience with this approach scorches the page:

It’s truly lewdness and criminal to deny the simple meaning of the writings, . . . and these commentators have no argument when they say the Holy One was mocking the dignity of the prophet in commanding him to take a whore wife and bear whoresons. For plainly the prophets were not chosen by the Lord for their own sake . . . but were messengers of the deity to straighten out His people, and therefore He commanded them to do whatever was necessary to correct the people.

You can take it as you please, then, but you have to ask yourself one question: if Hosea was only dreaming that he’d married that woman and fathered those children, why shouldn’t he be able to drive her out in the same dream? But the relationship of the Lord with the children of Israel is not a dream; He really was stuck with those children who were worshipping idols. If the prophet was to be an instrument for voicing His pain, as Abrabanel has it, why balk at inflicting the same pain on him?

Tell your brother Ami and your sister Ruhama,
Fight, fight against your mother
For she is not My wife and I am not her husband
And she should remove her harlotry from her face
And wantonness from between her breasts
Or I’ll strip her naked and show her like the day she was born
And make her like a desert, make her like a barren land and let her die of thirst.
And for her children I’ll have no mercy for they’re the children of whoring.
For their mother strayed, she that bore them shamed them

In this haftarah, which consists of most of the second chapter of Hosea, you don’t actually get the scene of the Lord instructing Hosea to take this wife, or read about the birth and naming of the children. In Hosea 2, which is read once a year in the synagogue, the wife and the nation of Israel are virtually indistinguishable, and the Lord’s threat to strip the nation like a divorced adulterous wife is clearly symbolic. So again you might ask: is the prophet, Hosea, hallucinating, or is his pain real? No matter your answer, what definitely feels real is the Lord’s pain as he moves now into a very detailed ceremony of divorce, including the redistribution of marital assets, only to follow with a very moving remarriage ceremony that recaptures the love of youth and a reaffirmation of the wedding vows:

For she said I’ll follow my suitors
Who give me my bread and water, my wool and linen, my oil and liquor.
Therefore I’ll bar her way with briars
And fence her in and her byways she won’t find.
And she’ll chase after her suitors and not catch them
And seek them but not find.
So she’ll say: I’ll go and return to my first man
For I had it better then than I do now.
But she didn’t know it was I who gave her
Grain and grape and oil
And the silver I multiplied for her
And the gold she made into a husband.

The crux of this prophecy and its metaphors can be discerned in that last word, “husband.” The Hebrew, baal, can be read as the name of the idol that many Israelites were worshipping but also as husband or owner. Who is it these people belong to, anyway? And to whom does the wife look to for support and sustenance and love?

Therefore I’ll once more take my grain in its season
And my grape when it’s due
And I’ll salvage my wool and linen
That would cover her from being nude.
But now I’ll reveal her wickedness to her suitors’ eyes
And no man shall deliver her from my hand.
And I’ll still all of her holidays,
Festivals of new month and Sabbath, and all her sacred times
And I will desolate her vine and fig
That she said, They’re my reward that my suitors gave me.
I’ll make them over into a wood to be eaten by wild beasts
And I’ll remember her for the festivals of idols
When she burned incense
And put on her nose ring and bangle
And went after her suitors
And Me she entirely forgot, so says the Lord.

The strongest argument against a metaphorical reading of this book as merely a dream is the picture that will now be given of the Lord as He pursues his wayward wife into the desert. I don’t think most people, even prophets, pursue ideas into the desert. Even Moses had to be driven out of Egypt as a criminal and then find employment as a shepherd before he wound up in the wilderness for the Lord to find him. People just don’t hang out there for fun.

Therefore I’ll coax her
And lead her through the desert
And speak to her heart and give her her vineyards there
And the valley of Akhor as an opening to hope
And she’ll respond to Me there as in her days of youth
And like the day she came up out of the land of Egypt
And it’ll be on that day, says the Lord,
You’ll call Me your Man and no longer call Me husband
And I’ll remove the names of the idols from your mouth
And they’ll not be remembered by name on any account
And I’ll cut them a covenant upon that day
With the wild beast and birds of the sky and crawlers of the earth
And I’ll break the arrow and sword and war from the land
And I will lay them down secure
And betroth you to Me for all time
And betroth you to Me in justice and judgment
And in kindness and mercy
And I’ll betroth you to Me in faith
And you shall know the Lord.

How can you love an idea? The Lord told Hosea to take a wife who would be as troublesome to him and whose children would break his heart as much as the children of Israel have broken God’s heart. But the Lord is married to Israel, and what’s more He wants to remain married. So He tries again and wants Hosea to try again, and the children of Israel do “know the Lord”—because this is a marriage. They try again, they fail again, but eventually they listen in the desert. When He calls them, they hear the voice of true love—not an idea, and not a dream—and they come back.

More about: Bemidbar, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays, Talmud, The Monthly Portion