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

 

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

 

Unknown Musicians of a Wandering Race

A remarkable concert reintroduces three Jewish composers who fled fascist Europe to America, where two of them pioneered a new art form—the symphonic film score.

Unknown Musicians of a Wandering Race
The ARC Ensemble, who performed in Pro Musica Hebraica's "Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe" at the Kennedy Center in May 2015. The ARC Ensemble via Facebook.
 
Observation
May 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Edward Rothstein, critic at large for the Wall Street Journal, was chief music critic for the New York Times from 1991 to 1995. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.


In his program notes to the Pro Musica Hebraica concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington earlier this month, the historian James Loeffler points out that in 1927—just before the period in which the music on the program was written—a Russian-born musician by the name of Gdal Saleski published a “classic, biographical lexicon” under the title Famous Musicians of a Wandering Race.

At the time, this well-worn description of the Jews as a “wandering race” could still be invoked with pride, or innocence. Not for long, however. Loeffler observes that the post-Holocaust edition of the book would refer instead to composers of “Jewish origin,” and by then the book was more of a memorial volume. Still, that earlier phrase remains strangely resonant, evoking bards doomed to migratory journeys, singing of epic pasts, embodying the age-old fate of the disenfranchised Wandering Jew of Western mythology. And there was a certain element of truth in all of that—as the evening’s program bore out.

The concert, titled “Before the Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe,” offered music written between 1928 and 1931 by three composers of the “wandering race”: Jerzy Fitelberg (1903-1951), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). But the pieces themselves, beautifully played by the Canadian-based ARC Ensemble, make no allusions to the Jewish origins of the composers; nor do they hint at how Saletski’s phrase fits these figures, all three of whom, in fleeing the Nazis, took a path that ultimately led from their respective nations of birth—Poland, Italy, and Austria—to the United States.

So, aside from their creators’ shared background, in what way were these works “Jewish”? That is a question, indeed, that one might ask of almost any of the offerings of Pro Musica Hebraica (PMH), whose concert series is now in its eighth season. The aim of PMH, a marvelous brainchild of Charles and Robyn Krauthammer, is to draw attention to “lost and neglected masterpieces of Jewish classical music.” (Selections from earlier concerts can be heard here.) Is, then, the main mark of identification simply the fact that most of the composers happen to have been Jews?

At least in the case of this particular concert, it might seem so. In the pieces performed at the Kennedy Center there was nothing like the melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer used by Max Bruch in his 1881 piece of that name for cello and orchestra (even though Bruch himself was, he said, not Jewish). Nor were there Jewish folk melodies of the kind to be found in works by Charles-Valentin Alkan or Maurice Ravel (two composers represented in earlier PMH concerts, the first of whom was Jewish and the second is sometimes alleged to have been), or narrative motifs and coded references of the kind that can be heard in some works by Dmitri Shostakovich (who, though not Jewish, made use of Hebraic melodies).

Nor were we, in listening to the music, meant to place it within the tragic context of 20th-century European Jewish history. We were advised both by Loeffler in his concert notes and by Charles Krauthammer in an onstage introduction that it should not be heard as if foreshadowing the cataclysm to come. Rather, we were to regard our experience of it as an adventure into a less familiar or “neglected” corner of musical modernism.

And this is indeed how it must be heard. At first.

 

The surprise of the evening was the String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Jerzy Fitelberg, a work that in its skittish, aggressive dissonances, its edgy sweeps and mordant gestures, seems to give Slavic modernism a sensuous surface, as if merging the crispness of Sergei Prokofiev and the outbursts of Shostakovich with a love of sheer sonority. Fitelberg, the son of an influential Polish composer and conductor, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory and then moved to Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he fled to Paris, from there made his way to Italy, and finally left by ship for the United States where he settled on New York City’s Upper West Side.

In 1936, Fitelberg received an award from the Library of Congress, and enjoyed an international reputation. But today his name is hardly recognized, and he has no entry in the 29 volumes of the last printed edition (2001) of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The score for this quartet was found in his papers at the New York Public Library; performed by the ARC Ensemble, it will be featured in a forthcoming CD devoted to his work.

The second item on the Kennedy Center program, the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1931-32) by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, made a less indelible impression, though its sweet lyricism and robust nostalgia were marked by exuberant stagecraft. In his autobiography, the composer claimed this as his best chamber work: emotional, vivacious, meditative.

Born into a Florentine Jewish banking family that traced its roots back to 16th-century Tuscany, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was drawn to the great texts of world literature as subjects for his music; he often used Jewish themes as well. In the early 1930s, he became concerned about the fate of Italian Jewry. When the virtuoso Jascha Heifetz commissioned him to write a violin concerto, he seized the occasion to express his pride in his “so unjustly persecuted” people. The concerto, called I profeti—“The Prophets”—glorifies, in the composer’s words, “the burning inspiration that inflamed the [biblical] envoys of God.” Within a few years, his career in Italy had come to an end. After the passage of Mussolini’s racial laws, his music was banned. He and his family made their way to Los Angeles.

And then there was Erich Korngold. Compared with his demonstrative theatricality, Castelnuovo-Tedesco pales. At the Kennedy Center concert, Korngold was represented by his Suite for 2 Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand), Op. 23 (1930). It is, in some ways, extraordinary, forcibly demanding attention from the very start, freely discarding convention, experimenting playfully with form and manners. The suite opens with a declamatory, impassioned solo for piano, followed by an almost provocative response from the cello, eventually leading to a nervous fragmented fugue.

Not all of the work is as compelling as this first movement, but Korngold, who was certainly one of the century’s great musical prodigies, was hailed by Gustav Mahler (who called him a “genius”) and Richard Strauss (“one’s first reaction is awe”). His father, Julius Korngold, an immensely powerful music critic for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, championed his son’s music, but the help was hardly needed, so extensive was the acclaim. The pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother to the philosopher Ludwig), who had lost his right arm in World War II, commissioned Korngold to write a piano concerto for left hand and, later, this suite. Ultimately, like Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Korngold, too, made his way to Los Angeles.

 

So here we have three finely crafted and intriguing works, each showing the influence of a different national style (Polish, Italian, Austrian) and each displaying unusual mastery. It is tempting to hear all of them as reflections of European Jewry’s last stand “before the night”—as music anticipating or heralding the darkness soon to fall. But, as I noted earlier, Loeffler suggests that this is fallacious, if not injurious. All three composers, he writes, have been faulted by critics who find their work lacking in the requisite “pathos and foreboding they imagine music by interwar Jewish composers must possess.” That is why he urges us to approach their music not “as a prelude to war and genocide” but rather “as an expression of a restless moment when Western music was still engaged” in modernist struggles—that is, to hear it “on its own terms, without the aural backshadows” of the Holocaust.

But I don’t really see those backshadows as the main issue here. Nor does the perception of backshadows, where relevant, strike me as different from the general effort to place any work of art within its historical context, to think about what led up to it and in what ways it may have anticipated or prefigured or perhaps even helped to bring into being what would come after. We who arrive on the scene later cannot get away from the knowledge of our situation; we cannot listen with the ears of a composer’s contemporaries. We may even hear more subtle prefiguring than they could have imagined.

Besides, there is more than one way that music relates to its encompassing history. Who, for example, can listen to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera and fail to notice the overripe German cynicism that held the cultural seeds of so much that was to come? Even at the time, this was evident to some listeners. Attending a performance of The Threepenny Opera in the early 1930s, the great scholar Gershom Scholem was dismayed to find himself in an audience “that had lost all sense of its own situation,” cheering a work “in which it [itself] was jibed and spat at with a vengeance.” By the same token, there are also works about which it can be distracting, and detracting, to historicize. We don’t listen to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and visualize the stark wartime landscape of 1944, the year of its premiere. We don’t want to. And perhaps that is the point: neither did Copland want to, or want us to. That is one way we hear this piece in context.

As for our three composers, I don’t think they faded from view because of obtuse critical expectations. The reasons were simpler, and Loeffler makes them evident: their lives were interrupted—largely as a result of their being Jews. In that sense, they are properly thought of as Jewish composers of their time. Nor was their displacement only a biographical phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon, with an immense impact on the course of all of European musical life.

In Forbidden Music: the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, Michael Haas points out that by the first decade of the 20th century, about a third of the piano and violin students at Vienna’s conservatory were Jews. The prevalence of Jews in all aspects of European music was startling, and already then of long standing. By 1940, when the Nazi Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (“Dictionary of Jews in Music”) appeared, there was no shortage of examples, each name carefully labeled with its proportion of Jewish “blood.”

Think, then, of what happened to the musical life of Europe. The 1920s had been a decade of great cosmopolitan ferment. Within five years or so after 1933, it was all over, demolished. The musicians left behind were certainly consequential; they included Hebert von Karajan, Kurt Fürtwangler, Karl Böhm, Walter Gieseking, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, and more. And there were composers, too, like Carl Orff—who wrote fresh incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream so that Germans need no longer be subjected to the music of the Jew Felix Mendelssohn. But an entire stratum of musical life had been stripped away.

The effect this had, not just on Europe but also on the countries lucky enough to take in those lucky enough to escape, has yet to be fully appreciated. Most of the exiles seem to have ended up in the United States, and many in California: not just Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Korngold but Arnold Schoenberg, (the non-Jewish) Igor Stravinsky, and others. In many ways, the prime decades of American art-music can be traced to this influx of émigré musicians. In particular, the great American orchestras were transformed by exiled Jewish conductors, among them Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Bruno Walter, William Steinberg, Serge Koussevitzky (who arrived pre-war), and Georg Solti (who came postwar).

Still another transformation in American culture owes much to the influence of two of the composers featured at the Kennedy Center concert. Moving to Los Angeles in 1940, Castelnuovo-Tedesco began writing film music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other major studios, scoring more than 130 (!) movies in all. Along the way, he taught a new generation of composers, many of whom, including Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and John Williams, also wrote for films.

Korngold is an even more remarkable example. While still living in Austria, he had visited Hollywood in 1934 in order to collaborate with the director Max Reinhardt on the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; just as the Nazis were undertaking to replace Jewish music, Korngold created a score woven out of Mendelssohn. He went back to Austria, but returned here in 1938 when Warner Brothers asked him to write music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Nazi Anschluss in that year made it necessary for him to remain in the U.S., where he proceeded to write the music for, among others, Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, Anthony Adverse, and The Sea Hawk, and thereby, as the New Grove Dictionary puts it, “pioneered a new art form, the symphonic film score.”

Until recent decades, when the model shifted, American movie scores, thanks to Hitler, were orchestral tone-poems, operas without voice, shaping our understanding of what is seen. Which is one reason why, to return to the fascinating concert at the Kennedy Center, I don’t mind backshadowing. Actually, however, it wasn’t the Holocaust that I heard latent and prefigured in the music that night; it was the nascent flowering of an American art form and the incomparable enrichment of American entertainment, an enrichment that lasted for three or four decades—at least until it started to turn into something else.

More about: Arts & Culture, Classical music, Film, History & Ideas, Jewish music

 

Fiction and Foreign Policy

To the president, foreign policy isn’t just about safeguarding the country. It’s also, as the Iran deal makes clear, about fashioning a creative personal narrative of the effort.

Fiction and Foreign Policy
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and President Barack Obama edit a speech on Air Force One in 2013. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Observation
May 19 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.


In his memoirs, Duty, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells a story that could only have occurred in the Obama White House. In February 2011, as crowds occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a debate swirled over the proper American response: should the U.S. force Mubarak to abdicate, or support his plan to manage an orderly transition of power over the next seven months?

On one side stood Gates and the other principal members of the National Security Council. Mubarak, they argued, though a dictator, had been a reliable ally for 30 years, and toppling him would unleash chaos in Egypt, with no guarantee that the forces replacing him would be sympathetic to Washington, to America’s regional allies, or to democracy. On the other, pro-ouster side stood White House staffers vocally represented by Ben Rhodes—who, though only in his early thirties, bore the grand title of Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication and Speechwriting. In addition to his youthfulness, Rhodes had limited experience in international politics; his master’s degree was in creative writing, and his official role was that of a “communicator,” or spinmeister.

In the end, the president sided with the Rhodes faction, thus placing himself, in a phrase that soon emerged from the White House, “on the right side of history.” That side led, as Gates had warned, to a political vacuum in which the only established and well-organized party was the Muslim Brotherhood, which soon took power.

One might conclude from this story that Ben Rhodes has a deep influence over the president, but in truth he is simply his mouthpiece, or his clone. As Obama’s own two memoirs attest, he himself has long practiced a literary approach to his profession, acting simultaneously as author and as heroic protagonist. In this conception, the exercise of foreign policy is not simply about safeguarding American interests abroad; it is also about fashioning a creative and compelling personal narrative of the effort.

To be sure, all politicians impute pure motives to themselves and malign ones to their rivals. But Obama, raising the practice to the level of art, has recognized a simple but profound truth about political life: if you can convince people that you are well-intentioned, they will tend to side with you even if you fail to achieve your stated aims. In the Middle East, especially, the list of the president’s failed efforts is already long and growing longer by the day; it includes, among many other debacles, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, launching a humanitarian intervention in Libya, and promoting a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Becoming painfully obvious is the last and greatest item on this list of pious failures: the president’s promises on Iran, embodied most recently and dramatically in the deal struck in Lausanne on April 2.

Obama has presented this deal as an effort to solve, through entirely peaceful means, the most consequential dispute in the Middle East. At the same time, he is signaling that his Iran gambit heralds much more than that. It is nothing less than the birth of a new vision of the American role in the world—an antidote to the military approach that allegedly characterized our foreign policy for decades.

This vision, however, is a fiction. Just as Robert Gates could see clearly in February 2011 that ousting Mubarak would deliver chaos and not democracy, it is clear to sober observers on all sides that the agreement with Tehran will fail to establish the elementary conditions for preventing the regime’s development of a nuclear bomb. Yet most people still do not appear to regard the president as either the cause of this disaster or as the solution to it. Will they ever?

 

The emerging deal with Iran has three obvious defects that will be impossible to solve in the final round of negotiations. First, instead of phasing out, over a decade’s time, the existing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iran, the deal, practically speaking, will lift the sanctions immediately. Second, the president’s assurance that sanctions will “snap back” in the event of Iranian misbehavior is absurd on its face. Re-imposition of sanctions will require concerted action by the United Nations Security Council, a body that no one has ever accused of being either speedy or efficient. Finally, Iranian leaders have asserted, repeatedly and explicitly, that they will never allow the United States and its partners to conduct the kind of “anywhere, anytime” inspections that the Obama administration has disingenuously claimed are part of the deal; without such a guarantee, international inspectors will be incapable of verifying Iranian compliance.

Thanks to these core deficiencies, the deal will enable the Iranians to pocket enormous benefits—diplomatic, economic, and military—up front. And once they have enriched themselves by playing nice, there will be nothing to prevent them from beginning to cheat again. Does the president believe otherwise? If so, he must assume that just by signing the deal, the Islamic Republic will be transformed into something other and better than the aggressively hostile and repellent regime we have come to know over the last 36 years. This is like the legitimate businessman who assumes that his new Mafioso partner will abandon his criminal ways once he develops a taste for honest profit. Even if the businessman manages to get out of the deal alive, it will be only after an arsonist’s flames have engulfed his shop and he’s been fleeced of the insurance money.

And yet, no matter how tortured and implausible the president’s claims may be, many respected public figures seem willing to set aside common sense and endorse them. These figures fall into four broad groups, the first of which is composed of Obama’s domestic political allies, some of them celebrity columnists, who are more than happy to parrot the White House line whether because they value their connection to power or because they habitually support Democrats over Republicans. In short, they want the president to win his contest with Congress.

A second group is made up of those in the foreign-policy elite who believe that aligning with Iran is actually a wise move. Regarding Israel as a drag on the United States, many of them see the Islamic Republic as a partner in the great task of stabilizing the Middle East. Moreover, they do not consider an Iranian nuclear bomb to be an unmanageable threat—certainly not one that would justify risking a war. This group is larger than one might think, and it might even include the president himself. Since, however, adopting a ho-hum attitude toward nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles is politically anathema, those who entertain such views usually content themselves with rehearsing the White House insistence that the emerging deal is full of promise.

The third group comprises America’s allies and international partners. Against their better judgment, many of these have stood up and publicly endorsed the deal. Among themselves, they rationalize their actions by reminding themselves that they do not have the power to stop Iran; only the United States can do that. In view of the fact that Obama is fully committed to a deal with the Islamic Republic, and has put them on notice that he will exact a painful price if they fail to support him, the better part of prudence is to go along—and to position themselves at the front of the line for lucrative economic and military contracts with the soon to be sanctions-free Iranians.

In the fourth group are those truly convinced by the arguments of the White House. Who are they? The only thing that can be said with certainty is that they are few and far between. In fact, one of the more striking aspects of the current situation is the dearth of genuine enthusiasm for the deal—anywhere. Among Democrats on Capitol Hill, it is common to hear rumblings of doubt even from the staffers of senators and congressmen who are publicly supportive of the president. Among allies, European as well as Asian, it is common to encounter officials who behind closed doors will express deep dismay at the seemingly unstoppable flow of American concessions.

For a taste of what some of America’s staunchest traditional allies are actually saying among themselves, one can do no better than to read Greg Sheridan, Australia’s leading foreign-affairs columnist. Sheridan writes in his own voice, but he is close to the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and what he has to say about the Iran deal certainly reflects the thinking of Australian officials who dare not express their views openly because they need Obama’s support in Asia. “This agreement,” Sheridan writes bluntly, “guarantees [emphasis added] Iran will acquire nuclear weapons eventually.” He adds: “Perhaps the key analytical question is this: is the fecklessness of present American policy entirely the fault of Obama, or does it reflect a deeper malaise in the U.S. and in Western civilization generally?”

Sheridan’s question is apt. That it has to be asked says bad things about us, who have gone so far as to allow our president to blur the distinction between foreign policy and creative fiction.

More about: Barack Obama, Iran nuclear program, Politics & Current Affairs