The Walter Benjamin Brigade

How an original but maddeningly opaque German Jewish intellectual became a thriving academic industry.
The Walter Benjamin Brigade
 
Observation
Walter Laqueur
April 3 2014 12:05AM

The German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, dead by his own hand on the French-Spanish border in 1940, remains a man of mystery. Anything but prominent in his lifetime, he has emerged in recent decades to unvarnished acclaim as the greatest thinker of the 20th century in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology, aesthetics, literary theory and criticism, and a half-dozen more. This in itself is mysterious. Among the ranks of mid-century Central European intellectuals, the reputation of Benjamin’s contemporaries and colleagues (with the possible exception of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno) continues to shrink; his continues to rise and rise. The number of books and articles devoted to him is staggering; a huge new biography, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Lifeco-written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings and published by Harvard, is only the latest addition to a seemingly unending stream.

How to explain the Benjamin vogue? Eiland and Jennings cite such cultural signposts as the radical student movement of the 1960s and the attendant revival of Marxist thought. But 60s radicals were hardly great readers, and Benjamin’s writings are, to say the least, maddeningly opaque and often altogether inaccessible. As for his Marxism, such as it was: if that is the main point of attraction, by rights the real culture hero should be his contemporary Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)—once famed as the “father of the New Left” but, these days, decidedly not a name to conjure with.

More likely, Benjamin owes his fame to the rise of cultural studies and its various academic subdisciplines: post-modernism, post-structuralism, women’s and gender studies, and the rest of the lot. In these precincts, Benjamin’s gnomic style may well count as a plus, an outward sign of inward profundity that, simultaneously, invites the most fanciful flights of interpretive ingenuity. Likewise contributing powerfully to his allure is the sorry story of his life. Quite apart from his tragic end—he swallowed poison while fleeing from Nazi-occupied France—he was always the frustrated outsider par excellence, the very type of the marginal man. Indeed, had he lived, one can hardly picture him as a happy soldier among the academic janissaries of contemporary cultural studies.

My own interest in Benjamin arose from my work in the early 1950s on the pre-World War I German youth movement, in which he had been a passionate but by no means leading member. In connection with this project I met some friends of his youth, including, in Germany, the pioneering educator Gustav Wyneken, who had served as one of his early gurus. In Italy, I encountered a number of his former associates in the radical youth journal Der Anfang. In Jerusalem there lived the librarian and poet Werner Kraft, an early friend but later a critic, and above all Gershom Scholem, who had been Benjamin’s closest friend both in Berlin and later on and who would become, with Adorno, the figure most responsible for launching his posthumous reputation.

The Scholems’ living room in Jerusalem was dominated by a drawing—Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920)—which had been owned by Benjamin and played a central role in his thinking, and which Scholem had inherited after the war. (It is now in the collection of the Israel Museum.) At tea in the Scholem household, sooner or later, the conversation would turn to the Benjamin Question. Yes, he was highly educated, widely read, and engaged in diverse areas of inquiry. Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.

To some, the problem is simply that most of Benjamin’s major work remained unfinished. I refer above all to his monumental Arcades Project, inspired in part by an abiding obsession with the urban poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). The arcades in question were the glass-enclosed passages in central Paris when that city was, in Benjamin’s terms, the capital of the 19th century. A central emblematic figure for Benjamin was that of the flâneur, the stroller or urban explorer who habituated these environs. Having gathered a mountain of materials, Baudelaire’s poetic masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal being prominent among them, Benjamin wanted to show how urbanization had revolutionized not only culture, as evidenced in art and architecture, urban planning, and new ideas of beauty, but life in general. Traditional critical approaches, whether historiographical or philosophical, were, he pronounced, inadequate to grasp this new epoch of high capitalism and what it had wrought. A new, Marxist-tinged “materialist” theory was needed; he, Benjamin, would provide it.

Did he? Apologists point to the impediments that beset him at every stage of his career. Even his “habilitation”—the major piece of scholarship, in addition to the doctoral dissertation, that had to be submitted by anyone hoping for an academic career—had been rejected. Later, his plans to establish a new journal with the playwright Bertolt Brecht came to nothing. He never held a permanent job, regarding it as the duty of his family and his estranged wife to support him. After 1933, there were handouts from Adorno’s Frankfurt School, which had wisely transferred its funds to Switzerland and later to America, but this was no substitute for a steady source of income.

But let us assume that he’d succeeded in finishing his great project. Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)

 

It is much easier to write the life of a man of action than to write about a thinker, and Benjamin was nothing if not a man of inaction; in view of the difficulties this poses to a biographer, Eiland and Jennings deserve much praise. By necessity, their book is based mainly on Benjamin’s essays and correspondence. Admirably comprehensive as it is, however, there are also some strange omissions. Notably underrepresented is Asja Lācis, Benjamin’s great love; it was she who broke up his marriage, was instrumental in his conversion to a peculiar brand of Marxism, and engineered his personal introduction to Brecht. Latvian-born, a militant Communist, she lived in Moscow until suddenly disappearing in 1938. Although Benjamin must have known that she had been sent to a gulag (where she spent the next ten years), and although losing her must have had a major impact on his life and work, there’s barely* a word about this aspect of things in the Eiland-Jennings book—probably because it does not figure in his correspondence.

Since Benjamin’s death in 1940, two issues in particular have been endlessly debated: the nature of his Marxism and his attitude to Judaism. From the 30s onward, he thought of himself as a Marxist, and so he is regarded by others among his many admirers. But Scholem, who from the beginning considered Benjamin’s “materialist” orientation not only wrong but deluded—hard as he might try, Benjamin would never be able to transform himself into a materialist—dismissed this description of him as a misunderstanding. Similarly skeptical was Max Horkheimer, the leading figure in the Frankfurt School, who called Benjamin a mystic; as for Brecht, his denunciations of Benjamin’s mystical aberrations were especially harsh. More recently, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton has dubbed him a rabbi.

The confusion over Benjamin’s politics is easily explained. Of all the Weimar intellectuals and eventual emigrants, he was perhaps the least politically minded. Reading his essays and correspondence from the 30s, one cannot fail to be struck by the breadth of his interests and the depth of his knowledge—and the almost complete dearth of anything on politics. As the world was going up in flames, Benjamin was writing about the motifs of Baudelaire’s poetry. Of course he hated the Nazis and all they stood for, but I doubt he read much or anything by Marx except for the newspaper dispatches collected in The Class Struggles in France, for the light they shed on the Paris scene in the mid-19th century. As for his enduring devotion to Baudelaire, an arch-reactionary whose guru was Joseph de Maistre, a sworn enemy of the French Revolution, one has to look elsewhere than to politics for an explanation. The same goes for his admiration of Proust—hardly an idol of the Left—and his interest in Kafka.

Similar inconsistencies plague any attempt to understand Benjamin’s attitudes toward things Jewish; although this subject has given birth to a small industry, seldom has so much been written about so little. His family background lay in the highly assimilated Berlin Jewish upper-middle class. His deep friendship with the young Scholem did greatly help to stimulate an interest in Judaism—but how deep did it go, and how long did it last? He read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921) not as a theological but as a philosophical text, and in later years it played no role in his thinking; it certainly did not bring him closer to God or to the synagogue.

Scholem, who had moved to Jerusalem in 1923, tried for years to persuade Benjamin to join him at the Hebrew University. He toyed for a while with the idea of a visit or even emigration, but eventually gave it up even though it held out the prospect of an academic career, friendships, and a salary. Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics who admires Benjamin and frowns on Scholem’s attempts to lure him away from Paris, observes that he had no reason to find Zionism, or the desert, appealing. This is quite correct. European culture was infinitely more interesting to him; besides, there were no arcades in Jerusalem, and no keys to modernity in Mea She’arim.

 

Benjamin’s place was in Europe; unfortunately, Europe had no room for him. The strictures of the professor of political aesthetics aside, had he followed Scholem’s pleas to join him in the “desert”—that is, the verdant and congenial Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia—he would have lived another decade or two or perhaps even three. Instead of dying a miserable, self-administered death on the French-Spanish border, he could, had he so wished, have returned to his beloved Paris after the war. I can well imagine him in 1944, sitting in a Rehavia café, discussing philosophy with Natan Rotenstreich or photography with Tim Gidal or physics with Shmuel Sambursky, playing chess with the folklorist Emanuel Olsvanger, and debating with the three Hanses (Jonas on Gnostic religion; Polotsky on linguistics; Lewy on Greek philosophy). Most of these figures belonged to the Pilegesh (“Concubine”) circle of German Jewish intellectuals and scholars presided over by Scholem.

One way or another, Rehavia would have taken care of Benjamin: not the most padded existence, perhaps, and perhaps a little boring after Paris—but a fate worse than panicked suicide in a shabby hotel? The impressive memorial by the sculptor Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Port Bou is no compensation.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that there is “not a word” in Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life about Lacis’ internment. It is mentioned on page 321.

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Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, Weimar, A History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, was published by Transaction in January.

More about: German, Gershom Scholem, Intellectual, Marxism, Walter Benjamin

 

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

 

The Latest "Breaking the Silence" Report Isn't Journalism. It's Propaganda.

The Israeli NGO won international attention last week for claiming to expose IDF malfeasance in Gaza. It exposed something else.

The Latest "Breaking the Silence" Report Isn't Journalism. It's Propaganda.
An IDF soldier stands a few hundred meters from Gaza in August 2014. Marcus Golejewski/Geisler-Fotopr/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.
 
Observation
May 14 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Matti Friedman’s first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr prize for Jewish literature. His second, Pumpkinflowers: A War Story, will be published in April 2016.


Last week, a report by an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence made headlines in the U.S., Britain, and most of Europe, becoming one of the week’s biggest international stories. The subject was the Gaza war of 2014. The headline in the Washington Post was representative:

New report details how Israeli soldiers killed civilians in Gaza: “There were no rules.”

This report is worth dwelling on because there will be more rounds of fighting in Gaza, and more reports like this one, and more reporting of this kind—and because, for all observers of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is important to understand the sources of information that shape our thinking.

Let’s look first at the report itself. Breaking the Silence, usually identified as an organization of Israeli veterans, says its goal is to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.” In recent years, expanding that mandate to Israeli warfare in general, it has released numerous reports. For this one, which was published in both Hebrew and English, the group’s staff interviewed “over 60” soldiers. There are no dates or names. In most cases we are given a rank and the section of the army (“infantry,” “armored corps”) to which the soldier belongs; in a few cases there is no identification at all.

The soldiers’ accounts, presented in short excerpts, are interesting, offering a gritty, personal, and frequently awful look at the kind of combat that has become common in this century, and at its toll on combatants and civilians. A reader of the English report notices that in some places the translators and editors could have been more knowledgeable or careful: there is confusion between mortars and artillery (in the Israeli military, these are considered different classes of weapons and are employed by different units), and between a platoon and a division, and one editor believes that an M16 rifle is a weapon mounted on a tank.

More seriously, having promised to reveal the secret of the civilian death toll in Gaza in the form of systematic Israeli misdeeds, and having selected, with that purpose in mind, the most incriminating segments from much longer interviews, the report fails to deliver. Perhaps that is why, instead of letting readers examine the interviews and decide for themselves, the activist-editors of Breaking the Silence felt compelled to add a heated introduction announcing that their report “exposes” the true face of the Gaza operation—namely, its “disturbing” and “unprecedented” violence directed at civilians by the Israeli military. This is probably also why each testimony opens with a headline like “If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal,” or “Those guys were trigger-happy, totally crazy.”

The editors seem to want readers to believe there were “no rules” in Gaza, and that the IDF acted without taking civilian life into consideration. In fact the interviews themselves show the army taking numerous steps to avoid harm to civilians. The soldiers regularly mention warning leaflets, “roof-knocking” rockets, phone calls, warning shells, warning shots, lists of protected sites like UN facilities, and drones vetting targets for civilians before an airstrike. All of the action we encounter in the report is happening in areas where the army had already warned Gazan civilians (and, of course, Hamas guerrillas) that soldiers were about to arrive. Indeed, what is truly striking is that the soldiers simply take all of these steps for granted, as if they were obviously part of warfare, when in fact many are unique to Israeli military practice.

We encounter good behavior, ugly behavior, and two or three instances that would warrant prosecution. One, in which a soldier describes firing with his tank at civilian vehicles and a bicyclist for no reason at all, should result in a lengthy jail term. If it’s true, that is, and this incident strikes me as less credible than any of the others—not because I doubt a teenage soldier’s capacity for thoughtless cruelty but because it’s unlikely that a tank gunner could fire multiple shells and machine-gun bursts at easy targets and miss every time, as he claims. But even here no one is reported killed. In fact, nowhere in the entire report are there rapes, massacres, or anything similar, or a single incident in which a civilian is shot in circumstances that could not be defended as either warranted or as a legitimate error on a battlefield where even a grandmother could have been (and, in 2006, was) a suicide bomber.

The activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. It’s propaganda. That’s fine if you understand what you’re reading, but I suspect most people don’t. Equally important, at least to me, is the question of whether the soldiers who cooperated with Breaking the Silence understood what kind of use would be made of their stories abroad. I can’t ask them because none of them is identified. But as someone who knows many combat soldiers, who was a combat soldier himself and still serves as one in the reserves, and who has both heard and expressed criticism of the army as a civilian and as a soldier, I am willing to guess that in many or most cases the answer is no: these soldiers did not fully understand whom they were talking to, or what they were participating in.

 

If I believed the activists from Breaking the Silence were merely trying to complete or correct the picture presented to the Israeli public about service in the Palestinian conflict, I would be supportive of their efforts, and have been in the past. Like any corporation or government agency, the army is fully capable of lying in its public statements, at least by omission, and much information goes unreported.

But there is, to borrow a phrase from the group’s own report, a “yawning gap” between what Breaking the Silence says it is and what it actually is. For a group ostensibly trying to influence Hebrew-speaking Israelis, why invest so much to produce, at considerable expense, an English translation of all 237 pages of this report? We learn from the news item filed by the Washington Post’s Jerusalem correspondent that Breaking the Silence arranged a meeting for him with one of the soldiers. Are Israeli ex-pats the people Breaking the Silence is trying to influence in Washington, D.C.?

The list of the group’s current donors includes the Danish Lutheran organization Dan Church Aid, the French Catholic group CCFD-Terre Solidaire, the governments of Norway and Switzerland, and many others along similar lines, none of them Israeli. This, too, raises questions. Do Norwegian taxpayers fund an organization that encourages, say, British soldiers to reveal British army wrongdoing to the international press? Does Switzerland try to get Hamas soldiers to open up about things they’ve done?

Funding is not a technical detail. Were the Israeli army to adopt what Breaking the Silence appears to recommend—that is, to act with less force and expose soldiers to greater risk—Hamas would have an easier time fighting Israel and more Israelis would die. Let’s say the Israeli death toll was doubled, and the Hamas death toll halved. Israelis of nearly all political persuasions would agree that this is a negative outcome. But is it a negative outcome for Dan Church Aid? What about the Norwegian government?

Breaking the Silence’s money is foreign, not Israeli, and the primary customers for its product are foreign, not Israeli. At its extensive English website, Jewish soldiers are presented for international consumption as a spectacle of moral failure, a spectacle paid for by Norwegians, French Catholics, and Germans. This being so, it is completely reasonable for Israelis to wonder what exactly this group is and which side it is on.

 

In analyzing trends in the press I have found it most helpful to keep an eye on the mainstream and avoid extreme cases. So let’s look again at the Washington Post, a good U.S. paper, to see how a report of this kind becomes major international news.

The Post receives a document about Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza war that has been produced in English by a group of Israelis funded by European organizations and governments. The paper’s correspondent, recently arrived in Jerusalem from a posting in Mexico, takes at face value that this is an “Israeli” organization and also an organization of “veterans,” perhaps not grasping that, because Israel has a mandatory draft, the term is quite meaningless; most people can plausibly claim to be “veterans.”

The correspondent then selects some of the most egregious examples in the report, summarizes them, and presents them as representative not only of the report but of the entire Gaza operation. He takes the words of people whose identity is not known to him, who have been interviewed by people whose identity is similarly not known to him, the interviews edited and redacted in a process not known to him, and pastes them into his article. As a reporter, you wouldn’t be able to get away with publishing purely anonymous testimony that you have collected, but it is one of the peculiarities of Israel-related journalism that you are allowed to use anonymous material if it has been pre-packaged for you by a political NGO.

To set up the story, the reporter suggests that Israel’s rules of engagement in Gaza were “permissive,” without comparing them with those of any other army, and also that civilian casualties were “high,” without comparing them with any other conflict. He duly notes that the information in the report is “impossible to independently verify.” And then, the gods of ethical journalism having been placated, he writes not one but two articles in which he treats the whole thing as completely true.

The idea that there has been “silence” about Israel’s actions in its conflict with the Palestinians cannot be taken seriously; over the past two decades, probably no international story has been covered more than this one. But there are important silences at work, and the frenzy surrounding this latest Breaking the Silence report offers a good opportunity to point them out.

For years prior to last summer’s war, Hamas was busy building an impressive network of tunnels under residential areas in Gaza, some of them leading under the border into Israel; stockpiling rockets; and raising and training a large fighting force, including a naval commando unit. That meant thousands of people, mostly Gazans, were about to die. The local contingent of the international press, one of the world’s largest, was silent about this.

As presented openly in its charter, Hamas’s ideology holds that Jews control the United Nations and the world media, were responsible for both world wars as well as the French and Russian revolutions, and “sabotage” societies through the Freemasons and the Rotary Club. It also asserts that God wants Jews to be murdered. The unwritten rule of the press corps requires silence about this. For a good example, take a look at the charter and then at this “summary ” of it once published by the Associated Press.

The vast media coverage devoted over the past week to this little piece of agit-prop from a little country—its claims parroted without proof, shorn of context and comparison, and presented as journalism to people around the world—must lead us to ask what, exactly, is going on. What is motivating all of this? No one observing our planet of violence and injustice in 2015 can claim any longer that Israel is covered the same way other countries are covered; that the coverage is proportional to the scale of events; or that the tone of moral condemnation—growing in its hysteria, and crawling from the fringes deeper and deeper into the mainstream press—is in the realm of reasonable reportage.

In all the talk purporting to be about the Gaza war, many are beginning to see more clearly the outlines of another war entirely. What is the nature of this war? That is where the real silence lies.

More about: Breaking the Silence, Gaza War, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict