Who Was Aharon Lichtenstein?

Remembering the extraordinary rabbi who received Israel’s highest honor.

Who Was Aharon Lichtenstein?
April 30 2014 4:00PM
About the author

Elli Fischer lives in Israel. A writer and translator, he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.  From 1998-2002, he studied for rabbinical ordination in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s institutions.

Note: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein died on Monday, April 20, 2015, at the age of 81. In his honor, Mosaic is reposting the following profile, which ran on the occasion of his receiving the Israel Prize last year.

Among this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, is the eminent thinker and educator Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. To those many Jews in Israel and elsewhere who are acquainted with or have been touched by his life and work, this award, to be conferred on May 6, Independence Day, will signify one of those rare instances when government committees get things right.

In America, where he was raised and educated, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s name is bound to resonate much more faintly. Within the Orthodox community, it may be familiarly known that he is the leading sage of “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy; that he holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard; that he is clean-shaven; and that he is the son-in-law of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the towering figure widely regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. In other Jewish circles, most will have never even heard of him. In mentioning his name a few years ago, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg cited “Orthodox informants” to the effect that the rabbi was “quite the genius of Jewish law” and a “great dude of halakhah.”

With this in mind, my goal here is less to summarize his achievement, a daunting and ultimately futile task, than to offer a portrait of the man sufficient to motivate readers to learn more. (A place to begin might be the online bibliography of his myriad published essays, books, and lectures.)


Aharon Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. Eight years later, his family fled Vichy France to the United States on visas arranged by the courageous American diplomat Hiram Bingham, Jr. After brief stops in Baltimore, where the young boy was already recognized as a prodigy of traditional learning, and then Chicago, they settled in New York in 1945. There he entered a yeshiva before his bar mitzvah and subsequently went on to undergraduate studies and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University (YU). The following years, spent studying English literature at Harvard, were crucial to the development of his particular strain of religious humanism; Boston also afforded the opportunity to study closely with his future father-in-law.

Upon returning to YU in a teaching capacity, Rabbi Lichtenstein oversaw the rabbinical school’s program for its most advanced students. Then, in 1971, he accepted an offer to join with Rabbi Yehuda Amital in heading a new yeshiva south of Jerusalem in the Etzion Bloc (in Hebrew, Gush Etzion, with Gush pronounced goosh as in “push”). He has been there ever since. Formally known as Yeshivat Har Etzion but universally called “the Gush,” the school represents his (and Rabbi Amital’s) vision for the role of the yeshiva as a unique educational institution within Jewish society; it is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Increasing in stature and influence over the decades, the Gush and its satellite initiatives are famous for providing an open, intellectually curious, and non-dogmatic alternative to other Israeli yeshivas. This is no accident; having spent virtually his entire adult life within the yeshiva world, Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that, properly conceived and managed, these schools can be places not only for single-minded devotion to talmudic excellence but also for the development of moral character and leadership. In his holistic vision, the moral goal is not self-mastery or ascetic self-discipline (as in some yeshivas of old) but, to the contrary, well-roundedness and other-directedness.

The same moral vision explains Rabbi Lichtenstein’s readiness to cite sources outside the Jewish tradition that, even as they complement and support the uniquely Jewish system of values and virtues, are reminders that immersion in Torah must not come at the expense of universal responsibilities. The thinkers to whom he regularly returns—Matthew Arnold, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and F. H. Bradley, to name only a few—are precisely those who best articulate how to combine a life of devotion with fruitful engagement in the outside world, an alien and sometimes problematic reality.

Of course, this is not to say that moral and religious development takes priority in his mind over his students’ intellectual growth and erudition. For one thing, he views the two spheres not as distinct but as interrelated. For another and more important thing, Rabbi Lichtenstein is staunchly within the Lithuanian rabbinic tradition that views Talmud study as the ultimate religious act, a merging of the minds of God and man.

As a talmudist, Rabbi Lichtenstein is a proponent of the “Brisker” method, for which his wife’s family is renowned. In this pedagogical approach, legal disputes or contradictions within the Talmud may be understood by analyzing the logical or “conceptual” underpinnings that account for the divergent rabbinic rulings under examination. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s hands, the method has been further abstracted so that it can be employed at the very outset of any exercise in talmudic analysis.

Brisker-type interrogations thus become hermeneutical keys, to be tested in a variety of settings. Does a given rule require the attainment of a particular result, or does it mandate a specific act? Is a particular rabbinic enactment an expansion of a biblical law, or a separate institution? Does a speech-act hinge on the technical or the commonsense meaning of the words uttered? Taking the metaphor of “key” questions still further, Rabbi Lichtenstein has spoken of developing a “key ring”: the more keys on a student’s ring, the more talmudic “locks” can be opened, and the larger and more complex become the conceptual structures within which one assimilates talmudic data.

This mode of discourse can be discerned in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s non-legal thinking as well. His treatment of “The Universal Duties of Mankind,” for example, begins with Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it (l’ovdah) and to guard it (l’shomrah).” He then abstracts these two verbal charges as fundamental yet distinct and often competing categories of mankind’s duties toward the world, to which the remainder of the essay is devoted:

Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “l’shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it—and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage. . . .

At the same time, there is the task of “l’ovdah” (to cultivate it), which is essentially creative: to develop, to work, to innovate.

I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general.

This example also typifies another salient feature of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: a frank acknowledgment of the tension and equivocation between competing claims. Numerous demands are made on one devoted to the path of Torah, demands that must be ordered within a hierarchy of values and then implemented in life. Neglect of even a trivial demand can denote failure to maintain proper balance, a flaw in one’s discharge of his duties. In an essay in this vein, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulates the desired ordering of study of Torah with the duty to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.


Clearly, the resulting approach to life is itself very demanding. But it can also be characterized as both moderate and balanced: moderate not because it shuns extremes, but because it embraces competing extremes; balanced not because it stands on many legs at once but because it seeks a subtle equilibrium that will allow one to remain upright amid the swirl of external forces.

It is also an approach that countless students have found inspiring and life-changing. And that is because Rabbi Lichtenstein, in addition to being its master exponent, is also its greatest role model. Far from flamboyant or charismatic, he is shy and unpretentious to the point of sometimes seeming aloof. But that impression is deceptive: a video produced in honor of his 80th birthday includes footage in which he is pictured doing the dishes, in a rowboat, playing with his children and grandchildren. The canonical stories about him do not recount his genius or erudition but his humility: answering the yeshiva’s public phone with a simple “Aaron speaking,” or, after students in an army classroom have all fallen asleep, continuing an involved talmudic lecture so as to allow them to get some much-needed rest.

Such stories abound. They may help to explain why, in the end, his many disciples can only describe him by speaking personally of what he has meant to them. And so I will now proceed to do.

In recent years, the Orthodox spirit in Israel and the U.S. has suffered shock after shock. Leading and respected rabbis have been exposed as frauds, bigots, or manipulators entangled in political jockeying for plum appointments. Other renowned figures have been revealed as racists, plagiarists, protectors of sexual predators, abusers of power. Intellectual and moral lightweights have promoted themselves as Orthodoxy’s exponents and arbiters, influencers and opinion-makers.

All this has had a traumatic effect. Every saint who turns out to be a sinner further erodes the bulwarks of religious commitment. Was it, we wonder, only ever thus? Were our revered rabbis and sages always so petty, self-absorbed, and power-hungry?

On May 10, 2013, among the 1,500-some students who gathered to celebrate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s 80th birthday with him, I experienced a powerful restorative of my faith in God and in the Torah transmitted to us through the generations. To adapt a Shakespearean tag favored by Rabbi Lichtenstein (though never to describe himself), I was reminded that one figure doth bestride this phalanx of fallen saints and discredited chief rabbis like a colossus, his erudition fully matched by his humility and humanity, and by the harmonious balance and wholesomeness of his life. Such multifaceted greatness is wholly unattainable by me, but acquaintance with it helps me believe that such paragons of service to the Almighty have existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.

This may seem a strange basis for faith. Can one’s faith in God and in the halakhic tradition really be rooted in love and reverence for a human being? Is it appropriate for a fellow human to be treated as an object of reverence in the first place?

According to the Talmud (Pesahim 22b), the answer is yes: reverence for Torah scholars is indeed an extension of reverence for God, their greatness being a reflection and refraction of His. The same idea is developed in a 1996 article by Rabbi Lichtenstein himself.

The article is about his mentors, and he begins by quoting the first line of Matthew Arnold’s sonnet “To a Friend”: “Who prop, thou ask’st in these bad days, my mind?” About this formulation of Arnold’s he comments that, “In my case, at least, the critical factor is indeed ‘who’ rather than ‘what,’” and he proceeds to describe how three men—Rabbis Aharon Soloveichik, Yitzhak Hutner, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik—constitute, in part, the source and grounding of his faith in God and the Jewish tradition.

As for my own feelings of gratitude toward Rabbi Lichtenstein, they are well expressed in another passage in Arnold’s poem:

But be his/ My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul/ . . . saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

The same feelings are expressed, most beautifully, in words of the Psalms (84:6) that in the original are clearly addressed to God. In singing them, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students are altogether right to have in mind, as well, their peerless guide and mentor:

Ashrei adam oz lo bakh

Fortunate the person who finds strength through you.

More about: Aharon Lichtenstein, Har Etzion, Israel Prize, Rabbi, Yeshiva University


Why Ariel Sharon Thanked Scooter Libby

At a critical juncture in the early 2000s, the White House adviser helped repair a fraying U.S.-Israel relationship.

Why Ariel Sharon Thanked Scooter Libby
Former White House adviser Scooter Libby in 2007. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta.
May 6 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Arie Genger, a businessman and political adviser, served as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s private emissary to the White House.

On January 3, 2006, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel did something he had been meaning to do for a long time. Sitting in his office on the eve of his hospitalization for surgery, he picked up a copy of his autobiography, Warrior, and inscribed this message:

Dear Scooter!

A dedicated servant to your country, a true friend, always there when needed!

With deep appreciation,

Shalom from Jerusalem,


Ariel Sharon

The next day, a devastating stroke effectively brought Sharon’s life’s journey to a shocking end. As a friend and close adviser to the prime minister, I can’t help thinking that, in paying tribute to I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, he had somehow sensed that, for him, it was now or never.

Libby, who during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency served as chief of staff and national-security adviser to Vice-President Richard Cheney, has been back in the news thanks to a recently published memoir by the veteran journalist Judith Miller. In it, Miller reveals that in 2007, she was tricked by the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into mistakenly incriminating Libby, thereby helping to convict an innocent man of perjury.

As others have written, Libby’s prosecution and conviction, in addition to dealing a crushing blow to his career and good name, robbed the American government of an exceptionally sage and courageous counselor. Until he was forced to resign in October 2005 following his indictment by a grand jury, Libby had vigorously lobbied for a change in strategy in the Iraq war—one that, prefiguring the 2007 “surge” by years, could have saved the lives of American servicemen.

Here, though, I want to write about a no less important contribution made by Libby in those years: years that happened to coincide with Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Israel’s prime minister.

The story of the two men’s relationship began shortly after Sharon was elected in February 2001, just weeks after George W. Bush had been sworn into office in Washington. In one of my early meetings with him as prime minister, “Arik” expressed his concern about how the new American administration would view him personally, what it would make of his plans for dealing with Palestinian terror—the second intifada, launched a few months earlier, was already in full force—and whether or not, amidst this turmoil, it would welcome his thoughts about how best to advance the cause of peace.

The following month, Sharon’s concerns were reinforced by his first, ill-prepared American visit. When it came to the Middle East, President Bush had entered office determined to reverse the foreign-policy hyperactivism, as he saw it, of the Clinton White House, and in particular to pursue an essentially neutral approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In practice, and at a time when Palestinian terrorism was raging, the White House contented itself with deploring the “cycles of violence” for which it seemed to hold equally culpable both Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s response to that terrorism. As for Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who was then the national-security adviser, it’s fair to say that both of them harbored doubts as to Sharon’s intentions, his direction, and his commitment to peace. In those quarters, the prevailing attitude might best be summarized as “respect him, but suspect him.”

Worried that poor relations with leading American officials would seriously complicate and endanger Israel’s position, Arik asked me to help establish a direct, private channel with the administration and especially with the White House. It was around then that, through a mutual friend in Washington, I met Scooter Libby.

As I soon learned, Scooter, too, was frustrated by the poor communication between Washington and Jerusalem. Researching Sharon on his own—he had by then read Warrior—he combed through Israeli and Palestinian public statements, studied intelligence reports, and sought out Clinton-administration officials to learn their view of the Israel-Palestinian impasse. From our first meeting on, Scooter became an invaluable partner and sounding board, taking the time to understand Sharon the man, the depth of his commitment both to the survival of the Jewish state and to realistic progress toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, and the nature of his strategic vision.

As time passed, Scooter and I regularly exchanged views and developed a strong U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue. He brought to these discussions tactical insights, knowledge of the region, and a nuanced grasp of American strategic interests. Intimately familiar with White House thinking, he was very inquisitive as to Arik’s real commitment to the peace process, his approach to stopping Palestinian terror, and his view of Yasir Arafat’s behavior and intentions. All this helped him assess the prime minister’s actions and test his “deliverables” over time.

Our talks soon led to a very friendly meeting with Vice-President Cheney at the White House, marking the beginning of a new period of mutual respect and trust. During his eight years as vice-president, Cheney again and again proved staunchly supportive of Israel’s security needs. In the meantime, Scooter also helped expand and improve my contacts with the National Security Council.


A watershed moment in U.S.-Israel relations, and in the evolution of American perception of Arafat as either an actual or potential “peacemaker,” came in January 2002. Israel had captured a ship, the Karine A, carrying 50 tons of Iranian arms for the PLO at the height of the intifada. With Cheney and Libby out of town, the State Department and National Security Council agreed on a course of action designed to retain America’s diplomatic outreach to Arafat. Returning to Washington at the last minute, Libby blocked the move while Cheney persuaded the president, who was already outraged at Arafat’s transparent duplicity, to take the measure of the arch-terrorist’s essential nature and speak out accordingly.

The following months saw further attempts, often led by the State Department, to persuade Bush to give Arafat another chance, even absent any evidence or assurance that he would change his ways. By March, Arab leaders were exerting their own pressure on Washington, asking in particular that the administration force Israel to end the “Arab humiliation” inflicted by its confinement of Arafat to his Ramallah compound. Meanwhile, many in the West were denouncing Sharon’s offensive to wipe out the PLO’s terror infrastructure in Jenin and its surrounding areas.

We know from insider accounts, and I know from my own day-to-day discussions with American officials, how central a role in internal administration debates during this crisis was played by Scooter’s and the Vice-President’s insistence that Arafat must be held to account. Those debates culminated in President Bush’s June 2002 speech announcing his refusal to deal any longer with Arafat and calling on the Palestinian people to “elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror, . . . [and] build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.” When that happens, the president concluded, the U.S. “will support the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Thereafter, Bush and Sharon were largely in agreement on the essentials of a new, no-nonsense approach to peace: ending terror, helping to build Palestinian civil society and responsible governmental institutions, and encouraging the formation of a viable Palestinian leadership that was prepared to make peace.

Throughout this often trying period, Scooter, together with Elliott Abrams, then a senior director of the NSC and special assistant to the president, sought to identify policies that would advance longer-term American interests in the region while resisting the perennial tendency of politicians and government officials to be swayed by momentary events or clamor from the media. Scooter was always there, always level-headed, always prepared to probe deeper for the facts and for the best judgment of those facts.

Needless to say, we did not always agree. How could we? Just as American and Israeli circumstances differ, so occasionally must their interests and positions. But I always knew our views were heard and that the U.S. understood our motives and our purposes. Whenever a difficulty arose, Arik’s standard question to me was “Have you had a chance to discuss it with Scooter?” Sometimes, those discussions led us to re-examine our own views.


By autumn 2003, Scooter was beginning to come under vicious attack for having allegedly leaked the name of a CIA agent. Thanks in part to Judith Miller, we now know definitively that he had nothing to do with the leak. (Apparently, the special prosecutor who led the charge against him knew this all along.) As the scandal unfolded, Sharon would repeatedly ask me how Scooter was holding up, and would just as repeatedly conclude: “Tell him to be strong.” Then came October 2005, and the news of his indictment. Arik was especially worried about Scooter’s family—how would they cope with the pressures that were certain to intensify? A few months later, just before the prime minister’s ability to express his feelings was brutally curtailed, he penned his note of appreciation to this brilliant, true, and courageous friend of Israel.

Judith Miller’s re-playing of the record should remind us of the price paid by the loss of Scooter’s Libby’s voice in the formation of American policy during the Iraq war. It has certainly reminded me, and impelled me to remind others, of the truly momentous role he played, and would have continued to play, in strengthening and cementing the relations between America and Israel at a crucial juncture in their history. Now that the true facts have been made public, one can only hope that Scooter’s reputation and honor will be restored, and that he will receive the gratitude he so richly deserves.

More about: Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs, Scooter Libby


How to Say You're Welcome in Yiddish and Other Languages

And why we say it at all.

How to Say You're Welcome in Yiddish and Other Languages
Image by Mosaic staff using Imgur.
April 30 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].

Mosaic reader Paul Socken writes to ask: “How do you say ‘You’re welcome’ in Yiddish?”

There are a number of ways to say “You’re welcome” in Yiddish, just as there are in English (in which, depending on the situation and speaker, one has such additional options as ” My pleasure,” “Don’t mention it,” “Think nothing of it,” “Any time,” “Forget it,” and “No problem,” let alone the ungrammatical but widespread “You welcome”). Probably the most common of these is nishto far vos, literally, “There’s nothing for which,” i.e., “There’s nothing to thank me for.”

Nishto far vos was not originally indigenous to Yiddish, which is probably why my friend Ruth Wisse, the scholar and critic of Yiddish literature, writes me that even though she uses it in Yiddish conversation, she finds it “not very couth.” It entered the language, most likely sometime early in the last century, as a translation of an idiom found in a number of European tongues, such as French il n’y a pas de quoi, Spanish no hay de qué, Russian ne za chto, Polish nie ma za co, and so on. This is no reason, however, to challenge its Yiddish credentials. Although it was probably borrowed from Polish or Russian, the Poles and Russians took their versions of it from French, which quite rightly didn’t bother them at all. Linguistic borrowing is a universal phenomenon for which there’s no need to ask permission or apologize.

Still, Yiddish does offer, as I have said, other alternatives. Indeed, Nahum Stutchkoff’s classic Yiddish thesaurus, Der oytser fun der yiddisher shprakh, lists no fewer than twenty of these. Among them are berotsen, “With pleasure”; mitn gantzn hartzn, “With all my heart”; mitn grestn koved, “It’s a great honor”; zikher, “Sure thing,” and adrabbe. The last, which comes from Hebrew like several of the others, means “On the contrary” and is a shortened way of saying “There’s no need to thank me—quite the reverse.”

Nor is Stutchkoff’s list all-inclusive. While a few of its expressions are rarely used, some common Yiddish ways of saying “You’re welcome” are missing from it. One of these is zol es aykh voyl bakumen, literally, “May it be received well by you”—in other words, “Enjoy it.” Another is zol aykh zayn tsu gezunt, “May it be for your health,” which can be abbreviated to tsu gezunt. Neither of these phrases is an all-around substitute for “You’re welcome.” You might use either if you were thanked for giving someone a gift, taking him or her out to dinner, or even passing the saltshaker, but for holding an elevator door open, nishto far vos would be more natural. It’s all a matter of context, though. If the door is being held for the rabbi of your synagogue or your daughter’s nursery-school teacher, mitn grestn koved would be just fine.

“You’re welcome” or its equivalents are generally optional in all languages. If I perform a kindness for you and you fail to say “Thank you,” I’ll consider you rude; but if I don’t respond to your thanks with a phrase of my own, you’re unlikely to think the same of me. There’s a limit in every culture to how long two people have to go on being demonstratively polite, and “You’re welcome” seems to represent that limit pretty much everywhere. No language that I know of has a rote expression that means, “I appreciate your saying ‘You’re welcome.'” The appreciated person might then have to express his appreciation at being appreciated, and where would it ever end?

Are there languages in which there are no expressions like “You’re welcome” at all? Probably not, although I’m told that in Japanese the proper response to “Thank you” is either “No, no” or “Thank you,” since anything suggesting that the thanked party thinks he deserves gratitude for an ordinary act of human courtesy would be considered haughty and even impolite. Before we categorize this as exaggerated, we might consider that nishto far vos, or the English “Don’t mention it,” are not very different. Here, too, we are saying, “There’s really no need to thank me, I haven’t done anything that calls for it.”

Expressions of politeness are often interchangeable, as “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” are in Japanese, because they’re all ways of saying, “Let’s be nice to each other.” This is why, for example, a word like the Italian prego can mean “You’re welcome,” “Please” (as in “Please come in”), and “Excuse me” (as in “Excuse me, is this seat taken?”), and why you can have a conversation in German that goes:

Möchten Sie eine Zeitung?” (“Would you like a newspaper?”)

Bitte. (“Please.”)

Bitte.” (“Here you are.”)

Danke schön.” (“Thank you.”)

Bitte.” (“You’re welcome.”)

Bitte comes from the verb bitten, to ask, beg, or entreat, which is close to beten, to pray, just as prego comes from pregare, which means all those things; both resemble the archaic English “prithee,” a contraction of “I pray thee,” whose functions were identical. (So, as a result of German influence, are those of Hebrew b’vakashah, which originally meant only “Please.”) And if you’re looking for one more way to say “You’re welcome” in Yiddish, bitte is perfectly acceptable, too. It’s no less couth than nishto far vos.

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

More about: Jewish world, Philologos, Yiddish


Remembering the Mighty Slepak

Youthful encounters with the late Vladimir Slepak, the “stately bull” who helped win freedom for Soviet Jews.

Remembering the Mighty Slepak
Vladimir Slepak.
April 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Maxim D. Shrayer, born in Moscow in 1967, is a professor at Boston College and the author, most recently, of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. He is also the editor of Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories by David Shrayer-Petrov, a Wallant Award finalist.

Vladimir Slepak, lionhearted warrior of the Soviet Jewry movement, died in New York on April 23. He will rest in Israel, which became his home in 1987 after seventeen years of fighting the Soviet regime for the right to live there.

Vladimir (Volodya) Slepak was one of the leading figures among the refuseniks—Jews who had applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union but were illegally held back, disenfranchised, and severely persecuted by the KGB and other branches of the regime. He was also a member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, a human-rights organization founded in 1976 and made up mainly of Soviet dissidents. As a dissident, Slepak sought the reform of the ideologically bankrupt Soviet system; as a Jewish activist, he sought to free his own family and others from captivity.

The grandson of a Jewish teacher, Vladimir Slepak was born in 1927. His father Solomon (Semyon)—like thousands of boys and girls of his generation—had abandoned Judaism and embraced the shadowy promise of revolutionary equality. A decorated hero of the civil war in the Russian Far East, Solomon Slepak served as the prototype of Iosif Levinson, a Jewish knight of the Bolshevik revolution in Aleksandr Fadeev’s novel The Rout (1927), a canonical work of early Soviet literature. Seventy years later, his son Vladimir would become the central figure in The Gates of November, a nonfiction account of the Slepak family by the novelist Chaim Potok.

An electrical engineer by training, Volodya, together with his wife Maria (Masha), a medical doctor, joined the Soviet Jewry movement in the late 1960s. Along with countless others, they heard the call in June 1967. Galvanized by Israel’s glorious victory in the Six-Day War, stung by Moscow’s open pursuit of an anti-Zionist (read: anti-Jewish) line, Jews all over the USSR awoke to a shocking awareness of their status as the unwelcome stepchildren of Soviet history. But it took Slepak’s uncompromising commitment to Jewish identity, and his moral and physical strength, to rise in open opposition to the regime.

Slepak’s legacy, a starkly illuminated page in the history of Russian and Soviet Jews, is one of fearlessness, audacity, and valor. Among his fellow refuseniks, he was famous for his heroic conduct during protest demonstrations when he would charge KGB thugs with his mighty torso before they had a chance to strike and haul him away. The Slepaks’ day of glory fell on June 1, 1978, when Volodya, Masha, and Ida Nudel, another legendary activist, flew banners of protest from the balconies of their apartment buildings in Moscow. The Slepaks were living right on Gorky (now Tverskaya) Street, the city’s central thoroughfare, and the slogan on their banner resonated with that age-old supplication of Jewish history, “let our people go.” They acted, moreover, in broad daylight, in plain sight of the public, their banner aimed almost directly at the equestrian statue of the medieval Grand Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy, often regarded as the city’s founder.

Of course, the three protesters were immediately arrested and tried in court. Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were sentenced to five years of forced exile; Masha Slepak received a suspended sentence. Although formally they had been charged only with public disorder, the harsh verdicts were meant to send terror into the hearts of Jews throughout the USSR. But the refusenik movement was not thwarted. In the eyes of much of the world, Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel had become “Prisoners of Zion,” members a pantheon that would also include Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, and others condemned to serve time in jails, labor camps, and faraway places of punitive exile.


My parents and I met the Slepaks in Moscow in late 1983 or early 1984 upon Volodya’s return from exile in a remote province in the Trans-Baikal. Our family had just entered the second spiral of our struggle to break out of the limbo in which refuseniks typically found themselves after applying to emigrate. My father, David Shrayer-Petrov, had already completed the first part of Herbert and Nelly, a fictional saga of the refusenik ordeal that he had clandestinely sent out in microfilm for publication in Israel. In our Moscow apartment, located near the Institute of Atomic Energy, he and my mother, Emilia Shrayer, had created a salon for refuseniks as well as for writers, visual artists, and musicians banished by the Soviet system. Aside from personal affinities and a shared sense of mission, the Slepaks enjoyed the atmosphere of our home, where both poetry and history held court and where not only elders of the movement but young people congregated and—and much to the Slepaks’ delight—partied defiantly.

I was then eighteen, a university student and young refusenik living a double life. In the years 1984-1987, the Slepaks were regular guests at our Moscow apartment, and our families also saw each other frequently at various public and private occasions. Jovial drinking and an outpouring from the couple’s bottomless trove of activist stories and prison anecdotes accompanied our many shared meals. Like a stately bull who had miraculously survived years of fighting, Volodya would doze off during after-supper conversations in our kitchen, as imposing in slumber as when awake. I will never forget his weighty silver curls—the mane and the beard of a biblical prophet—and his grin, like that of a Judean zealot primed always for battle and self-sacrifice. My shoulders still remember the warmth and steely embrace of his bear hugs.

To me, the round, bespectacled face of Masha Slepak carried a special, dolorous beauty that I associate with certain Ashkenazi women in Slavic lands. Even in her lightest moments, sadness fluttered over Masha’s countenance. Both of the Slepaks’ sons, Leonid and Alexander, had been permitted to emigrate, but the parents themselves were still held hostage, and I sometimes felt that they, Masha especially, regarded me with an almost parental tenderness. In Masha’s big eyes I read an unspoken reproach addressed to all refusenik parents, both for the life they had chosen for their children and for having jeopardized the unity of their families. An unfair reproach, but understandable.

When we first met, the Slepaks were living in the same communal apartment from which they had unfurled the banner of refusenik protest back in 1978. To me, the site held mythological significance. On Friday nights, when we visited them at home, Masha would light the candles and then, eyes closed, whisper the Hebrew blessings interspersed with simple Russian pleas addressed to the Almighty: “Please let me see my boys this year.” Sometimes, without saying a word, one of us would gesture for the ever-ready pad and pencil so as to avoid the risk of sharing information with “listeners.”

I remember a day in October 1985, at the beginning of what would become the most trying period in our family’s own refusenik history. My father, Volodya, and I stepped out onto the balcony for some air. Down below, Gorky Street pulsated, Red Square on our right, the monument to Alexander Pushkin, the great poet and friend of fighters against tyranny, on our left. My father and Volodya were talking about the prospect of arrest and imprisonment. “The earlier you go to jail, the earlier you’ll get out,” Slepak said, the rays of his relentless smile converging in the corners of his mouth. My father said nothing in reply. Back then, so bleak did things look, we could hardly imagine that two years later, in June 1987, we would be leaving Moscow for good, and that the Slepaks would be seeing us off.

My father and I last saw Volodya on December 6 of the same year. The place was Washington, and the occasion was the now-historic Freedom Sunday when, coinciding with the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to the Reagan White House, as many as 250,000 people marched in solidarity with the plight of Soviet refuseniks. Only a couple of months earlier, the Soviet authorities had finally granted the Slepaks their long-awaited exit visas. A red scarf wrapped around his neck, Volodya stood at the podium next to U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, a steadfast supporter of our cause who had lost his right arm in battle fighting Nazism. “We are free now,” Volodya said, in English; the crowd issued a huge grunt of happiness. This, too, I will never forget for as long as I live.

Vladimir Slepak was the mighty Samson of the refusenik movement, a Samson whom even years of exile and persecution had not drained of strength or courage. He was one of the last heroes of a now bygone, tragic, tumultuous epoch of Jewish, Russian, and Soviet history.

More about: History & Ideas, Refuseniks, Soviet Jewry, Vladimir Slepak


The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy

A nuclear deal is only the beginning. The president’s goal, at the expense of America’s allies, is full-fledged détente with Iran.

The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
April 22 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.

When President Obama took to the podium in the White House rose garden on April 2, his mood was victorious. With evident pride, he announced that negotiators in Lausanne had reached a “historic understanding with Iran, which . . . will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In truth, the negotiators had reached no understanding, historic or otherwise. Obama was celebrating something that did not exist—at least not yet. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had failed to agree on a text describing the terms of the so-called “Lausanne framework.” In its place, each issued a separate “fact sheet.” On some key issues the documents contradicted each other; on others they were entirely mute. Statements from officials did little to clarify the discrepancies or rectify the omissions. One official statement even seemed to widen the areas of disagreement.

In his own speech dedicated to the Lausanne framework, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, flatly denied that an understanding had been reached. He also disputed specific provisions of the emerging deal as described by the Americans. For example, he dismissed Obama’s assertion that the framework would permit “intrusive” inspections. On the contrary, military sites were off-limits to inspectors, because, he explained, “one must absolutely not allow infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state on the pretext of inspections.”

If the gap between the two sides was this big, what possessed Obama to announce a historic breakthrough? The answer is that the president was eager to produce tangible proof of progress in order to prevent the Republicans in Congress from branding the negotiations a failure. He could fend off the Republican challenge, he calculated, by telling a tale of progress—by depicting the remaining disagreements as details to be ironed out rather than as insurmountable roadblocks.

Exaggerating the successes of Lausanne may have been a savvy maneuver against the president’s domestic critics, but it weakened his hand against the Iranians by telegraphing his deep personal investment in the negotiations. Failure to get a deal would now be a major embarrassment. Knowledge of this fact gave Khamenei an opening, which he exploited with his defiant speech. Not so fast, the speech signaled to Obama. In order to get the agreement that you’re already celebrating, you must pay—in the form of more concessions to me.

If past behavior is anything to go by, Obama will give Khamenei what he wants. Indeed, American concessions have propelled the negotiations forward at every stage. A good example of the established pattern is the fate of Fordow, the bunker under the mountain near Qom. At the beginning of the negotiations, Obama publicly stated that the existence of the facility was inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program. But after Khamenei announced his refusal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Obama agreed that Fordow would not close. In the latest round of negotiations, his position softened further. The bunker would not only remain open; it would also contain operational centrifuges.


Thanks to retreats like this one, it is Khamenei’s red lines, not Obama’s, that have determined the shape of the emerging deal—a fact that prompts the president’s critics to accuse him of fecklessness and/or naïveté. But these descriptions miss the mark. The president is not wedded to any set of specific demands. For him, the specific terms of the nuclear agreement are far less important than its mere existence. One of Obama’s greatest diplomatic successes is to have persuaded much of the world, including many of his critics, that the primary goal of his Iran diplomacy is to negotiate a nuclear arms-control agreement. In fact, the primary goal is détente with Iran.

In the president’s thinking, détente will restrain Iranian behavior more effectively than any formal agreement. In addition, it will also open the way to greater cooperation with Iran on regional security. Détente will permit the United States to pull back from the Middle East and focus more on its domestic priorities. Finally, it will vindicate Obama’s ethos of “engagement,” which he sees as a superior alternative to the military-driven concepts of American leadership championed by his Republican opponents. In short, détente will secure Obama’s legacy.

By contrast, Khamenei is pursuing highly specific goals. Three stand out above all others. He is seeking, first, to preserve Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure; second, to repeal the sanctions on the Iranian economy; and third, to abolish the international legal regime that brands Iran a rogue state. In all three areas, Obama has already satisfied his core demands.

True, significant disagreements still remain. One of the thorniest is the timing of sanctions relief, another dispute that Khamenei emphasized in his defiant speech. Whereas Obama says that sanctions should be lifted in a staged manner, Khamenei is calling for abolishing them immediately. Sanctions, he demanded, “must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement.”

How will Obama bridge the gap? He has two tools at his disposal. First, he will offer Khamenei what amounts to a signing bonus. Every piece of sanctions legislation passed by Congress gives the president the discretion to waive it if he perceives a national imperative for doing so. Using this waiver authority, Obama will unlock Iranian escrow accounts in China, India, Turkey, and elsewhere—accounts that hold somewhere between $100 and $120 billion. Some significant fraction of that amount, $50 billion according to one credible report, will be handed to the Iranians the moment they sign on the dotted line.

Next, the president will seek, and certainly receive, the UN Security Council’s approval of the agreement. Its stamp of approval will free the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, among others, to expand their commercial ties with Iran. And trade is not all that will grow. The deal will also generate increased Iranian-Russian military cooperation. Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of his intention to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran offered a foretaste of that cooperation.

The president’s offer of a signing bonus will be difficult for Khamenei to resist, because it will not limit his options in any way. On the contrary, it will increase them. Even if he has no true intention of honoring the terms of the agreement, it still makes sense for him to ratify it, if only to pocket the bonus and collect the other benefits that will thereupon accrue immediately. Later on, when Iran begins violating the agreement, the United States will likely try to re-impose sanctions. But it will now find the job of convincing the Security Council harder than ever before, for the simple reason that a powerful European commercial lobby will have come into being with a vested interest in doing business with Iran. Nor will there be any guaranteeing the support of the Russians and the Chinese for a resumption of sanctions. No matter what, Iran will negotiate from a position of much greater strength than currently.

Alarmed by this threat, the U.S. Congress is working on a bill that will give it the right to vote its approval or disapproval of the deal with Iran. However, a vote of disapproval can stop Obama only if it passes the House and Senate with a veto-proof majority—a very high bar to clear. So long as the president can convince just one- third of either the Senate or the House to support his diplomacy, he will be free to pursue his plan. Although there’s no guarantee the president will win the fight with Congress, the odds are strongly in his favor.


Détente may sound like a minor shift in American policy, but in truth it is nothing less than tectonic.

Obama has put an end to containment of Iran as a guiding principle of American Middle East policy. To be sure, he continues to pay lip service to the idea of countering Iran’s influence, but his actions do not match his rhetoric. In Syria and Iraq, especially, Obama has long been respectful of Iranian interests while treating Tehran as a silent partner against Islamic State (IS).

Détente requires Obama to demote all of those allies who perceive a rising Iran as their primary security threat. The process, which has been under way for many months already, is most advanced in the case of Israel. Of course, Obama has never admitted that he is demoting Israel. He and his senior officials prefer, instead, to blame the deterioration in relations on the personal failings of the Israeli prime minister. They have spared no effort to inform us of Benjamin Netanyahu’s myriad faults. His attitude toward Arab citizens of Israel, we are told, is bigoted; his failure to reinvigorate the peace process is indefensible; his readiness to serve as a pawn of the GOP is abject; and his supposed readiness to conduct espionage against the United States is treacherous.

The attacks on Netanyahu have been extraordinarily personal. Since the Israeli prime minister is the most persuasive opponent of the Iran deal, Obama is working to discredit him much as a defense attorney works to tarnish the character of the prosecution’s star witness. He is also teaching a lesson to other allies who might be tempted to speak out. And potential critics of the Iran deal are not in short supply. In private, the French, the Saudis, and most other Arabs all bemoan Obama’s policy. None of them, however, has stood up and directly attacked it in the manner of Netanyahu.

To reinforce the lesson, the president has given the Gulf Arabs a small taste of the chastisement he is holding in reserve for them. For example, in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama discussed the Gulf allies’ fears of Iran. These fears, he implied, were misplaced. In fact, Iran was not the biggest threat to their security; of greater concern is internal unrest. Young people, he explained, have no legitimate means to express their grievances, and so the top priority must be domestic political reform. In his interview, the president expressed keen interest in discussing with the Gulf states “how we can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [Islamic State] to choose from.”

Obama stopped short of accusing America’s allies of fueling the sectarianism and violence sweeping the Middle East, but the veiled threat was obvious. A week later, moreover, he made it more explicit when, in a discussion of Libya, he said the Gulf states sometimes “fan the flames of military conflict.” Whether to Israel or to the Gulf countries, Obama’s general message is the same: Iran is not the problem; you are. Get your own house in order.

While criticizing allies for their parochialism, Obama and his senior officials have a habit of praising Iran for its supposedly ecumenical spirit. “I think what the Iranians have done,” the president said in an interview last August, “is to finally realize that a maximalist position by the Shias inside of Iraq is, over the long term, going to fail. And that’s, by the way, a broader lesson for every country: you want 100 percent, and the notion that the winner really does take all, all the spoils. Sooner or later that government’s going to break down.” To hear the White House tell it, Iran could even serve as a role model for the Gulf Arabs.


Behind such statements is a new vision of the American role in the Middle East. In Obama’s eyes, the United States no longer leads a coalition dedicated to bringing order to the region. Instead, it is the convener of a grand negotiation between Shiite Iran and the Sunni powers. For over a year now, when describing the goal of his diplomacy the president has repeatedly returned to the same word: “equilibrium.” If the United States does its job correctly, he told Friedman, “what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [IS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”

The president believes that his détente policy—especially his willingness to compromise on the nuclear program—will convince the leaders in Tehran that the United States no longer sees their regime as an adversary. They will then work more cooperatively with Washington, especially in places like Iraq and Syria, where we supposedly share a common interest in stability and in defeating the Islamic State. At first this shift may alarm America’s traditional allies, but thanks to American mediation they will eventually drop their paranoid fears of Iran, and equilibrium will ensue.

The Saudi answer to Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium came recently when Riyadh organized a coalition of Sunni allies and intervened in Yemen. The intervention is certainly an effort, as advertised, to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But it was also meant to send a message to Obama: if you won’t organize the region to contain Iran, we will. To drive home the point, the Saudis gave Washington only an hour’s notice before commencing the operation.

Riyadh’s project of organizing the Sunnis, however, is fraught with difficulty. The three most influential powers—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—all agree, generally speaking, that an Iranian-dominated Middle East is undesirable. But beyond that, they have no unified vision. The three cannot even agree on a common Syria policy, let alone a strategy for the entire region. The stark fact is that there is no such thing as a Sunni bloc.

There is, however, an Iranian bloc: the self-styled “resistance alliance” that includes Syria, Hizballah, and a network of Shiite militias now operating in Iraq, Syria, and, increasingly, Yemen. The glue holding this system together is the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. By means of subversion and extortion, and by playing on sectarian divisions, the Quds Force is expanding Iranian influence throughout the region. No Sunni state has a military branch analogous to the Quds Force.

In short, Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium is strengthening the player, Iran, with the greatest tools for projecting power and influence and with the least respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors.

Other than Iran, the only power in the region truly capable of projecting military power effectively is Israel. But its small size limits its ability to carry out a strategy regional in scope. Moreover, the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict hinder cooperation with the Sunni powers. While the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel now dovetail to a remarkable degree, a historical chasm continues to separate Riyadh and Jerusalem. The two sides can coordinate quietly, but the impediments to overt cooperation will likely prove insurmountable.

The disarray and atomization among the anti-Iranian states in the Middle East means that they (like the American Congress) will likely prove incapable of mounting a decisive opposition to Obama’s détente. But their inability to stop it does not mean they will ever accept it. They will remain dedicated to contesting Obama’s policy, and they will continue to fight back against Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—not to mention new venues that will appear over time.

Détente, therefore, will deliver disequilibrium, the exact opposite of the effect intended. By negotiating an arms-control agreement, the president has shifted the tectonic plates of the Middle East order. And for tectonic plates, it takes a move of just inches to level whole cities.

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