It's Not Just Ukraine

What his actions in Eastern Europe tell us about how Vladimir Putin sees the Middle East.
It's Not Just Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs bills making Crimea part of Russia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo credit: AP/Sergei Chirikov.
 
Observation
March 26 2014 12:05AM
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.


Does the Ukraine crisis mark the beginning of a new cold war? The answer from President Obama is a firm no. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war,” he told a Dutch newspaper.

The president is partially correct. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the intention nor the capability to challenge the entire European order, and it is certainly not mounting a global revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, it is a revanchist power, and its appetites are much larger than the president cares to admit.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game seems obvious. Somewhat less apparent is the fact that his revisionist aspirations also extend elsewhere, and most saliently to the Middle East. 

 

Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” relations with Russia was rooted in the firm conviction that the main cause of Russian-American competition in the Middle East lay in the previous Bush administration’s war on terror, which was read by the Russian leader as a pretext for a global power grab. Bush’s freedom agenda, with its support for democratic reform inside Russia, only confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions.

Alienating Putin, the Obama White House believed, had been a strategic blunder, depriving the United States of a potentially valuable partner. Putin, whatever his faults, was a realist: someone who could cut a deal in situations—like those in the Middle East—where Russia and America shared many interests. Once Putin fully grasped our sincerity, demonstrated by our ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian fears of American aggressiveness would dissipate and Russian-American cooperation would blossom. 

Unfortunately, getting through to Putin proved harder and took longer than expected—though not for want of trying. Famously, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, an open microphone caught Obama making his pitch. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he told then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. “I understand,” Medvedev answered. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Eventually, Putin did seem to grasp the concept. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward last September with an offer to strip Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama saw the move as a breakthrough, precisely the kind of mutually beneficial arrangement that the Russian reset was designed to generate. Soon, working together on the chemical-weapons problem, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov also conspired to launch Geneva II, a peace conference designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. 

In the dawning new era, Syria was seen by the White House as a prototype: a model for stabilizing the Middle East and containing its worst pathologies. If successful, it could be applied to other problems in the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the greatest challenge of all. In his speech at the General Assembly last September, the president was eager to defend his friendship with Putin in just these terms. “[L]et’s remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama reminded his critics. “We’re no longer in a cold war.” 

 

Today, just six months later, the new model is collapsing before our eyes. The proximate cause is the spillover from the Ukraine crisis. On March 19, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia would retaliate by exacting a much greater price: it would throw its support to Iran in the nuclear talks. “The historic importance of what happened . . . regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia,” Ryabkov explained, “is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Even before Ryabkov issued this extortionate threat, there were clear signs that the Kremlin never truly supported the new model of Middle East cooperation. Kerry and Lavrov did convene Geneva II in January, but the conference ended in abject failure thanks to the intransigence of the Assad regime—which after all is Russia’s client. Shortly thereafter, Kerry openly blamed Russia for the Syrian disaster. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”

In the Middle East as in Eastern Europe, then, the reset looks increasingly bankrupt. In fact, being based on two major errors, it never had a chance.

 

The administration’s first error was the failure to appreciate Putin’s either-or perspective on politics, a viewpoint succinctly expressed in Lenin’s famous formula: “who-whom?” Who will dominate whom? In Putin’s view, all accommodations with the United States are tactical maneuvers in a struggle—sometimes overt, sometimes covert—for the upper hand.  

In the bad old days of the cold war, the overtly malevolent intentions of the Kremlin were hard to misread (although, even then, some American leaders did try to misread them). Today, Russia’s motivations are more complex: a unique mix of Great Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, and autocratic whimsy. This makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin’s behavior. For 364 days of the year, a deal between a Western client and Gazprom, the largest Russian natural-gas supplier, will function like a normal business transaction. On the 365th day, to teach the recipient a lesson about who’s really in charge, Putin will cut the gas flow. 

Adding to the unpredictability is Putin’s mercurial-seeming personality. Perhaps the single most revealing fact about him is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground.

Turning a blind eye to such niceties, Western politicians assumed that by enmeshing Putin in a web of diplomatic and economic deals, they would foster in Moscow a sense of shared destiny that would ultimately work to moderate Russian behavior. As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, the web has indeed created mutual dependencies. But the crisis also reveals that the two sides do not approach dependency in a spirit of reciprocity. When shaking hands on a deal, Putin never fails to assess whether he has positioned himself for a speedy takedown of his partner. 

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

 

Lack of attention to the perfect fit between Putin’s mentality and Middle East reality constitutes the second error of the administration’s Russian reset.

With respect to political alignments, the most influential event in today’s Middle East is the Syrian civil war. That the conflict is barbarous is easily gleaned from a slogan of the pro-Assad forces, scrawled on buildings in all major cities: “Assad, or we will burn the country.” This demand has divided the entire region into two groups. On one side stand the allies of America: the Saudis, Turks, and other Sunni Muslim states, all of whom agree that, come what may, Assad must go. On the other side, the Iranians, together with Hizballah, have lined up squarely behind Assad, their partner in the so-called Resistance Alliance.

For Putin, Syria has raised two key questions, each a variant of who-whom: (1) who will dominate inside Syria; (2) who will dominate in the region more broadly. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who two years ago, in a rare slip of the tongue, best explained how Putin saw these questions: “if the current Syrian regime collapses, some countries in the region will want to establish Sunni rule in Syria.” More bluntly, the Kremlin sees itself as the great-power patron not just of the Assad regime but also of Iran and Hizballah—the entire Resistance Alliance. At the time, Moscow’s unvarnished preference for Shiites won little attention in the United States, but it sparked a storm of outrage in the Sunni Arab world, leading one prominent Saudi commentator to dub the foreign minister “Mullah Lavrov.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s position was in perfect keeping with one of the most fundamental rules of strategy, perhaps best expressed by Machiavelli: “A prince is . . . esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is, when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another.” In the Middle East, Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.

In Syria, the United States criticizes Assad harshly and says it sympathizes with the opposition. But it releases only dribs and drabs of military aid to opposition forces while simultaneously qualifying and hedging its diplomatic support. Fretting incessantly about the Sunni jihadist elements fighting the Assad regime, it develops no strategy to combat them; instead, it cozies up to Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons. When the Sunni allies of the United States compare the confusion of American policy with the clarity of Russian strategy, it’s no wonder they despair.

Obama is not entirely oblivious of the problem. In a recent interview, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked him bluntly, “So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?” His answer: “[T]here are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off-guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” This exercise in condescension, while doing nothing to allay and everything to aggravate the fears of America’s allies, offers a glimpse into the mindset that generated the reset, a mindset that dreamed of a concert arrangement whereby both Russia and America would place a greater value on comity with each other than either would put on its relations with allies. 

To be sure, Putin will gladly sign on to American-sponsored initiatives like Geneva II. But he will insist on guiding them in directions that, regardless of their stated intentions, serve the interests of his clients. If the Obama administration has yet to admit or adjust to this reality, that is partly because the Russians do not wave a flag identifying themselves as the great-power patrons of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Nor does Putin back Tehran and Damascus to the hilt as the Soviet Union backed its clients in the cold war.

It is thus more accurate to say that Russia is in an alignment, not an alliance, with Iran and Syria. Depending upon competing priorities and the vicissitudes of world politics, Putin will tack this way today, that way tomorrow. In the end, however, he will never sell out Tehran and Damascus in order to win compliments in Washington; if forced to choose, he will always side with the former against the latter, and will certainly leave them in no doubt that Russia is their most dependable friend in the United Nations Security Council.

It is this fact that makes Russia a revisionist power in the Middle East and the permanent adversary of the United States. 

 

What, then, about the Iranian nuclear question? Hasn’t Russia consistently called for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Didn’t it vote in favor of six Security Council resolutions against Tehran? Hasn’t it signed on to the economic sanctions? Surely all of these actions support the Obama administration’s contention that Russia, in certain contexts, is a valuable partner. 

Indeed, Putin has a strong track record of supporting some actions designed to prevent an Iranian bomb; in an ideal world, he would probably prefer an Iran devoid of such weapons. But he also has a strong track record of building the Iranian nuclear program and of providing security assistance to the Iranian military. Whatever his preferences in an ideal world, in the here and now his goal is less to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than to garner as much power and influence for Russia as he can. He is supportive enough of the United States and its key European partners to maintain credibility with them. On the key issue of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is never so supportive as to be taken for granted. 

How this cynical game works was revealed in Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s extortionate threat mentioned earlier. It has placed Obama on the horns of a severe dilemma. If, on the one hand, the president simply acquiesces in Putin’s power play in Ukraine, he will embolden not just Russia but also Iran, Syria, and Hizballah by demonstrating that, just as in Syria, he retreats when challenged. If, on the other hand, he marshals a robust Western response, he could well provoke the threatened Russian countermeasures of increased support for Iran.

No matter which course the president follows, the Ukraine crisis has damaged the prestige of the United States in the Middle East. America’s Arab friends in the region, who are on the front line against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, already feel the pinch, and are deeply uncertain about how to respond. Unlike the Resistance Alliance, they are not accustomed to cooperating on their own. As Karl Marx notoriously said of peasants, America’s Arab allies are like potatoes. When U.S. leadership provides a sack, they take on a single form and become hefty in weight. In its absence, they are a loose assortment of small, isolated units.

The ally who most immediately feels the fallout is Israel. On March 17, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described, with unusual bluntness, the consequences of what he called the “feebleness” of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s weakness, he argued, was undermining the position not just of Israel but also of America’s Sunni allies. “The moderate Sunni camp in the area expected the United States to support it, and to be firm, like Russia’s support for the Shiite axis,” Yaalon lamented.

Yaalon spoke no less despairingly of Obama’s ability to make good on his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “[A]t some stage,” he observed, “the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.” On the matter of Iran, Yaalon concluded, inevitably, “we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

Whether Israel actually has the political will and military capability to launch an independent strike against Iran is anybody’s guess. But two facts are undeniable. First, Putin’s muscular foreign policy and Washington’s timorous response have increased the pressure on Israel to strike independently. Second, Obama has lost influence over the Israelis—just as he lost influence over his Arab allies when he refused to back them on Syria. 

Adrift in Machiavelli’s no man’s land, neither a true friend nor a true enemy, Washington is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing.

__________________________

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

More about: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin

 

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance

God wanted all of Amalek dead. Saul thought he knew better. What happened next?

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance
From The Death of Agag by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Feb. 26 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 weeks, the haftarah—a reading selected from one of the prophetic books of the Bible—is chosen because it shares some theme with the weekly Torah portion. This Shabbat (known as Shabbat Zakhor) is one of the exceptions: since it’s the Sabbath before Purim, the reading, taken from the book of Samuel (I, 15:1-34), involves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and the ancestor of Haman.

But the haftarah isn’t really about Agag, and it isn’t at all like the plot-driven book of Esther. It’s a character study, in which two personality types are examined. Unlike the story of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Joseph, where the difference was one of what you might call “learning styles,” here there’s a straightforward contrast between what you might call inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

The prophet Samuel is not altogether interested in what the people want. He warns them against this whole king business right off the bat. But they want a king, so he asks God on their behalf for a king. What they get is Saul. Saul cares rather too much about the people:

But Samuel said to Saul, me it was God sent to anoint you
as king over his people, over Israel,
and now obey the words of God.
So said the Lord of hosts: I will repay what Amalek did to Israel
That ambushed him on the way as he rose out of Egypt:
Now go and beat Amalek and eradicate all he has
And have no mercy on him
And put to death whether woman or man, from newborn to suckling babe,
From bull to lamb, from camel to ass.

And Saul called up the people and counted them using patches,
Twelve-hundred infantry and ten-thousand men of Judea.
And Saul came up to the Amalek camp and lay in wait at the river.
And Saul told the Kenites, Go, turn away, get down from Amalek-land
Or I’ll lay you to waste with them, whereas you dealt kindly
with all the children of Israel as they went up from Egypt,
and the Kenite turned away from among Amalek.

And Saul beat Amalek from Havila to Shur across from Egypt:
and he captured Agag king of Amalek alive
but all the people he eradicated by the sword.
But Saul and the people took pity on Agag
and on the best of the sheep and the cattle
and on the second-born and the horses and on all the goods
but all the livestock that’s scorned and melts away, that they eradicated.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say—
I regret having crowned Saul as king
For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
And it troubled Samuel and he clamored to the Lord all that night.
But Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning
And it was told to Samuel to say, Saul is come to the Carmel
and here he is erecting himself an altar,
and he turned and he passed and went down to Gilgal.

And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him,
God bless you, I have fulfilled the word of God.
But Samuel said, And what is this sound of sheep in my ears
And sound of cattle I hear?
And Saul said, They brought them from Amalek-land
For the people took pity on the best sheep and cattle
In order to sacrifice to the Lord your God,
but the leftovers we eradicated.
But Samuel said to Saul,
Leave off and I’ll tell you what the Lord said to me tonight.
And he told him, Speak.

And Samuel said, If indeed you are slight in your own eyes
You are head of the tribes of Israel and the Lord anointed you king over Israel:
And the Lord sent you on your way and told you
But you shall eradicate the sinners, the Amalekites,
and fight until you have finished them.
And why did you not obey the Lord but rather fall on the spoils
and do what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord?
But Saul said to Samuel, indeed I obeyed the Lord
And went the way the Lord sent me,
And I brought Agag king of Amalek, but I eradicated the Amalekites
And the people took from the spoils sheep and cattle,
the first of the offerings, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.

But Samuel said, Does the Lord want offerings and sacrifices
as much as obedience to the Lord?
Look, obedience is as superior to sacrifice
as obedience is to the fat of rams.
For a sin-offering is a rebellious charm: sin, and casting lots for pleading.
So you tired of the word of the Lord and he’s tired of you being king.

The other problem with taking your eye off the ball to listen to the people is that the consequences can be lethal and instantaneous. The commentators point out that from a legal point of view, Saul’s argument is perfectly valid: both he and the people took some spoils away to sacrifice at a more dignified time and place. But that’s not how Samuel understood it, and that’s not how the Lord sees it.

The crucial difference is in understanding the point of the exercise. The Lord wanted to exact a terrible vengeance for what He describes as an unprecedented and immoral attack on Israel at its time of weakness. There are many other tribes the Jews encounter in their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, but Amalek is singled out because they attacked like bandits at a time of weakness, not like an army defending tribal territory and giving the Jews a chance to fight back. Neither Samuel nor the Lord regards this military campaign as mere business as usual.

But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his  words
For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
For you tired of the word of the Lord
and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.

And Samuel turned to go but he gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
Though the victory is Israel’s, He will not lie and will not reconsider
For He is not a man to reconsider.
But he said, I’ve sinned, now, pray you, honor me before the elders
of my people and before Israel,
And return with me and I will pray to the Lord your God.

And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
And Agag walked to him in delight
and Agag said, indeed the bitterness of death has gone.
But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal. . . .

And Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day he died
because Samuel mourned over Saul,
and the Lord regretted having crowned Saul over Israel.

The aftermath comes a few pages later in the book of Samuel, in a passage not read in the haftarah. We are introduced to David with three separate stories, beginning with Samuel going to look for him and finding him the smallest and least impressive of his father’s sons, yet still being told by God to anoint him though he’s not tall and impressive as Saul was. Then there’s another story where David comes to court as a rather talented harp player summoned to minister to Saul and make him feel better because he’s rather depressed (and I think we know why). That’s a great testament to David’s therapeutic gifts but still doesn’t explain why the Lord wants him to be king.

But then finally we have the story of Goliath coming to curse the entire massed armies of Israel and nobody daring to take his challenge. Goliath then repeats his challenge while David is bringing food from home for his older brothers and, the story notes, David heard him. Whenever I read that line about David hearing Goliath, I always imagine a sound effect of scary music. You get this definite feeling the text thinks there’s going to be trouble. But why should there be trouble from this puny harpist? When David offers to accept Goliath’s challenge, Saul tries to dissuade him:

But Saul said to David, you can’t go to this Philistine and fight him,
For you’re a boy and he’s a man of war since youth.
But David said to Saul, Your servant was a shepherd to his father’s flock
and the lion and bear came to carry away a lamb from the herd
And I went after him and beat him and saved it from his jaws
And he rose up against me and I held him by the bristles
And beat him and killed him. Your servant beat both the lion and the bear
And this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them
Because he cursed the armies of the living God.

One thing you do not need to worry about with David, as this lyrical evocation of his days back on the farm makes clear, is that he’ll have mercy on somebody the Lord asks him to kill. David does not even think Goliath is human—just  another critter out there in the field, and he’s already killed plenty of critters. David, we see now, has been nominated as king because the Lord looked inside his heart and found him both spiritually gifted and entirely ruthless. As the high-holiday service notes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but sometimes the shepherd has to decide which sheep has to die.

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet. David eventually sins and pays a terrible price for his unbridled appetite in private life, but he always obeys the Lord as King and never loses sight of his function. Even if he falls victim to his own passions, he never falls victim to the passions of the mob. That is why he remains the one wielding the sword. Obedience is better than any number of offerings. Those who don’t obey but let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.

More about: Amalek, King David, Samuel, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kobi Gideon, GPO
 
Observation
Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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


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

“Until a few years ago,” wrote the New York Times’ Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren in a recent dispatch commenting on the lack of substance in the current Israeli election campaign,

there was no Hebrew word for debate. Then in 2012 linguists adopted the term “mamat,” whose root meant “confrontation,” which Yoni Cohen-Idov, an international debating champion, sees as symptomatic of what ails his nation’s political discourse. “Debate, the English word, consists of two elements—one is confrontation, the other is discussion,” he said. “If you’re rivals and you only shout at one another and make slogans, and you don’t discuss them in depth, that is not a debate.”

About the dismaying triviality of the politicians bidding for Israelis’ ballots on March 17, I couldn’t agree with Rudoren more. Nor would I blame her for her faulty Hebrew, even though had she bothered to check, she would have known that the neologism in question is ma’amat, not mamat, from the root ayin-mem-taf, found in the Bible in l’umat, “across from” or “facing.” Ma’amat was indeed adopted as a term for debate several years ago by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an official body of linguists and scholars entrusted with coining new Hebrew words.

No, the real culprit here is Cohen-Idov—and the Academy. The first is ignorant, the second misguided.

No Hebrew word for debate? This would be passing strange if true, since debate lies at the very heart of the Talmud and of the rabbinic tradition that is based on it. One would as much expect Hebrew to lack a word for debate as one would expect Arabic to lack a word for sand or Inuit a word for snow.

And in fact, it’s completely untrue. Hebrew has, quite apart from ma’amat, at least five words meaning “debate,” some going back 1,500 years or more.

The oldest of these is plugta, an originally Aramaic word deriving from the Aramaic/Hebrew verb palag, to divide or be divided from. Plugta is regularly used in the Talmud to denote a running argument between two rabbis or schools of thought and yields bar-plugta, a debating partner. This term is applied, for example, to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the tractate of Bava Metsiya, in which the two take opposing sides on a series of questions pertaining to the return of stolen property.

A second word for debate with ancient roots is pulmus, which comes from Greek polemos, “war.” In the Talmud, where it appears as polmos, it actually means war, but in later ages, like its English cognate “polemic,” it took on the meaning of a war of words. For the early rabbis, polmos Adrianus denoted the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian; in contemporary Hebrew, pulmus Bar-Kokhba refers to the ongoing scholarly debate over that rebellion’s causes and justifications.

Next comes nitsuaḥ, from the verb natsaḥ, “to triumph over.” In an oft-cited talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who performs a series of miracles to prove he is right in a halakhic dispute, the forces of nature that collaborate with him are scolded by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who tells them: “If rabbinical scholars are debating [menats'ḥim, literally, "striving to triumph"] in a matter of law, what business is it of yours?” From this comes the noun nitsu’aḥ, a debate, first found in the Middle Ages. In modern Hebrew, it has been joined by its synonymous reflexive form of hitnats’ḥut.

“But,” Cohen-Idov might counter, “none of these words designates a debate in the sense of a formal contest held in the presence of an audience and judges.”

True enough. Yet Cohen-Idov has apparently never heard of various medieval religious debates between Jews and Christians in which precisely such conditions prevailed. Probably the best-known of these took place in Barcelona in 1263, at the court of King James I of Aragon, between Naḥmanides or Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman and the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. Remarkably for the times, a panel of Christian judges ruled Naḥmanides the victor and awarded him a monetary prize. In Hebrew this event is traditionally known as viku’aḥ Bartselona, the Barcelona debate or disputation, from the biblical verb hitvake’aḥ, “to argue,” and other similar disputations were called vikuḥim, too.

“Surely, though, Hebrew deserves to have two separate words, one for an argument and one for a debate!” one imagines Cohen-Idov persisting, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language would clearly agree. Let viku’aḥ mean “argument,” let ma’amat mean “formal debate,” and we can all sleep better at night.

But we should have been sleeping well already. No two languages have identical semantic fields, and the fact that there are distinct words for W and X in Language Y is no reason to require them in Language Z. If Hebrew uses the verb lavash for putting on a coat and ḥavash for putting on a hat, does this mean that English needs different words for putting on hats and coats, too? And if Hebrew speakers do want to differentiate more explicitly, they have the option of saying viku’aḥ tsibburi, “a public vikuaḥ,” just as one speaks of “a public debate” in English.

Of course, English is a world-dominating language and Hebrew is not—and implicit in the Academy’s coining of ma’amat when viku’aḥ is available is the assumption that while English needn’t behave like Hebrew, Hebrew should and must behave like English. This is the truly objectionable part of it. If Hebrew speakers knew their own language better and took more pride in it, they wouldn’t think a new Hebrew word was called for every time an old one was not a precise equivalent of a word in English. It’s not only Cohen-Idov who is suffering from a linguistic inferiority complex. It’s the Academy of the Hebrew Language, too.

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

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, Medieval disputations

 

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?
Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.
 
Observation
Feb. 12 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson scholar of ethics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays

 

Who Kissed/Killed First?

Does the English idiom “kiss of death” come from the story of Judas, or from the Sicilian Mafiaor both?

Who Kissed/Killed First?
From a poster for the 1947 movie Kiss of Death.
 
Observation
Feb. 11 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].

“The Kiss of Death and the Google Exec” was the name of a January 24 documentary shown on 48 Hours, a long-running CBS series featuring a weekly story about a crime, scandal, or mystery in the news—in this case, the alleged 2013 murder of a hi-tech executive by a California call girl now on trial for committing it. This was not the first film thus titled. That was the 1947 Twentieth Century Fox gangster thriller Kiss of Death, directed by Henry Hathaway and co-written by Ben Hecht. The latter’s passionately pro-Zionist A Flag Is Born, with the unknown young Marlon Brando in its cast, had played on Broadway the year before.

In ordinary language, of course, a “kiss of death” refers neither to an actual kiss nor an actual death; rather, it denotes something that spells a person’s or an undertaking’s doom. Its original meaning, however, is generally assumed to have been literal and to have come from the New Testament story about Judas, who accompanied the Jewish officials sent to arrest his master Jesus on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives following the Passover seder known as the Last Supper. As related in the Gospel of Mark: “And he [Judas] that had betrayed [Jesus] had given [the officials] a token, saying, ‘Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he.’”

Mark’s account, to tell the truth, is not quite logical, for if, as we are told, Judas arrived on the scene at the head of Jesus’ apprehenders, such a secret signal served no purpose; having already exposed himself as a traitor, he could just as well have pointed to Jesus and said, “That’s him.” Yet whether Mark misunderstood what happened, or whether Judas wished to kiss Jesus a sorrowful goodbye because even in his perfidy he loved him, or whether the kiss was invented by early Christian tradition to make Judas look even more diabolical, most contemporary English dictionaries agree that “kiss of death” owes its origins to this source.

But does it? Consider the following.

First, although one would expect a phrase deriving from the New Testament to have ancient or early-medieval roots, the first documented appearance of “kiss of death” in English dates to 1944, three years before the Twentieth Century Fox movie—and then, in a context far removed from Christianity. This was an item in the weekly pop-music newspaper Billboard, which, under the caption “Amusement Biz Booming in War Work Center But Bands Losing Out On Dollar Divvy,” published a story from Philadelphia about the low pay given musicians despite the wartime prosperity. The problem, Billboard reported, was less acute for the big, nationally known bands, but if the job-seekers were Philadelphians who “carry a local tag, it’s the kiss of death as far as price is concerned.”

Second, it’s widely accepted that “kiss of death” was brought to America by late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century immigrants from Sicily, where, as bacio della morte, it was a Mafia term. In his Mafia Encyclopedia, Carl Sifakis defines the bacio della morte as a way of informing “an opponent by a kiss on the lips that his days are numbered,” and mentions the celebrated kiss supposedly given in an Atlanta penitentiary by crime boss Vito Genovese to his fellow mafioso Joe Valachi, who was so frightened by it that he turned state’s witness in a bid for protection. Wikipedia agrees, citing the 1972 Hollywood movie The Valachi Papers and a scene in Part II of the The Godfather in which Michael Corleone, the son of the legendary Mafia capo played by an older Brando, kisses the lips of his brother Fredo after commissioning his murder. Yet Wikipedia then hedges by adding: “However much is based on fact and however much on the imagination of authors, it [the kiss of death] remains a cultural meme and appears in literature and films.”

Third, Italian sources suggest that there may be good reason to hedge. On the one hand, the Neopolitan psychiatrist and criminologist Corrado De Rosa writes that in the Sicilian Mafia, “a kiss on the hand is a sign of fealty, one on the cheek of fraternal solidarity, and one on the lips of condemnation to death.” But De Rosa is an expert on the Camorra of Naples, not on the Mafia, and the Internet word site Cosa Vuol Dire states that the bacio della morte of the Sicilian Mafia is traditionally given not to the intended victim of an assassination but to his appointed assassin, “in order solemnly to seal the sentence and wish its executor success.” Although Italian speakers, too, Cosa Vuol Dire observes, commonly use the expression in the sense of the kiss of Judas, “this is a mistake.” The Internet Dizionario Italiano concurs with this, while still other Italians writing on the subject, unable to quote anyone in the tight-lipped Mafia, are reduced to citing American movies as their authority.

This leaves us, I would suggest, with a number of tentative conclusions: 1) “Kiss of death” in the sense of an act or occurrence that dooms is a recent idiom in both English and Italian; 2) The Mafia’s bacio della morte was a kiss given to a designated “hit man” and had nothing to do with the New Testament story of Judas; 3) The expression was indeed brought by Sicilian immigrants to America, where it was confused with Judas’s kiss; 4) The first documented evidence of this confusion, applied figuratively to the Philadelphia music scene, is found in the 1944 issue of Billboard; 5) Reapplied literally to the Mafia, the same confusion became a “cultural meme,” as Wikipedia calls it, and even fooled experts like Carl Sifakis and Corrado de Rosa; 6) Today, Judas’s kiss and the bacio della morte have merged inseparably in popular speech.

None of which, I might add, is related to the Hebrew expression mitat neshikah, “death by a kiss.” But that’s a story for another day.

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

More about: History & Ideas, Judas, Mafia, New Testament, Philologos