The New Middle East War

A single conflict now stretches from Baghdad to Beirut. How many sides are there—and whose side is the U.S. on?
The New Middle East War
Responding to a public call to arms against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, thousands of Iraqi Shiites spill out into the streets of Baghdad on June 27. Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
 
Observation
July 2 2014 5:22PM
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.


With the June 10 capture of the city of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a debate promptly reopened in the American media over America’s role in the fate of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Typifying one side of the debate was former President Bill Clinton, who on network television laid the blame for today’s problems squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration. “If they hadn’t gone to war in Iraq,” he said, “none of this would be happening.” On the other side, there are suggestions that President Obama’s neglect of Iraq has been at least as harmful as was the interventionism of his predecessor, if not more so.

But the Iraq war as we once knew it is no longer, and the debate over it leaves us mired unprofitably in the past. The rise of ISIS is a subset of a new conflict, one that stretches all the way from Baghdad to Beirut. That conflict has its own unique character. What is it about? Who are its primary participants? Where do America’s vital interests lie, and what should America’s strategy be?

 

The new war is, in brief, a struggle over the regional order. In the balance hangs the future shape of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—their political shape no less than their contours on a map. On the battlefield at any given moment, one can find a dizzying array of actors, but at the basic strategic level the conflict has three sides: Shiite Iran and its proxies; ISIS and likeminded Sunni extremists; and the traditional allies of the United States: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. 

Which side is the United States on? Surprisingly, not the side of its traditional allies. Instead, Obama supports Iran. One can argue about whether this pro-Iran tilt is accidental or intentional, but one cannot deny its existence.

To see this picture clearly, we must ignore what the Obama administration says and focus on what it actually does. On Syria, for example, the White House continually repeats the tired line that we are working to convince President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow the opposition and the government to negotiate a caretaker authority. Yet who any longer gives any credence to this claim? It has long been clear that Washington wants and expects Assad to stay. Post-Mosul, the United States and its European allies even see the Syrian regime as a potential asset against ISIS.  

What about the $500 million in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the administration has lately requested from Congress? Simply put, the purpose of that aid is to keep the beleaguered FSA on life support lest ISIS swallow it up. Even after having made the request, the administration has explicitly resisted providing the FSA with the kind of weapons and training it would need to change the local balance of power. Instead, the administration remains wedded to its policy of “preserving regime institutions”—a euphemism for Assad’s murder machine, which is thoroughly integrated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—and turns a blind eye to the deployment in Syria of Iraqi Shiite and Hizballah militiamen supported by Tehran. 

The upshot is that when the president says he opposes the presence of foreign fighters in Syria, he is referring exclusively to Sunni jihadis. He has given Shiites a pass.

 

This brings us to Iraq, where the alignment between Washington and Tehran is even more transparent. On June 16, President Obama sent up to 300 military advisers to Baghdad, while also increasing our intelligence operations; two weeks later, he augmented the force by nearly 200 soldiers, amid reports that they would fly Apache helicopters and deploy surveillance drones. Unfortunately, however, since the departure of American troops in 2011, the Shiite regime of Nouri al-Maliki has itself become a satellite of Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards have thoroughly penetrated Iraqi security services. For all intents and purposes, then, the American troopers dispatched to Iraq are working to harden Iranian defenses, since any intelligence that we share with Maliki’s security services will inevitably land on the desk in Tehran of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force.

Where Iraq is concerned, the United States and Iran now resemble two men walking single file down the street, repeating the same messages to everyone they encounter. Their silent coordination was recently on clear display in Kurdistan. After the fall of Mosul, the Iranian government urged Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, to fight ISIS and support the government in Baghdad. A few days later, John Kerry appeared in Erbil to deliver an identical message.

But the effort to build an anti-ISIS coalition with Iran will inevitably fail—and spectacularly so. There are many reasons why, but one deserves special attention: Iran is incapable of making it succeed. Consider: over the last three years, Obama gave Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq to counter Sunni jihadism. The result is a revitalized Iranian alliance system—and an al-Qaeda safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq to Aleppo in Syria.

Yet Tehran is less discomfited by that safe haven than the Obama administration appears to think. Lacking the capability to defeat ISIS militarily, it thinks instead of managing the conflict to its own advantage. Two benefits have already accrued. In the absence of a strong American effort to shape the new order, opponents of ISIS have almost nowhere to turn but Iran. At the same time, longstanding American hostility to Iranian regional adventures has all but evaporated. 

On top of these obvious advantages, the Iranian leadership probably also calculates that, by pretending to be partners in counterterrorism with the West, it has magnified its leverage in the nuclear negotiations, which is Iran’s number one foreign-policy priority. This calculation may well be correct.

In any case, Iran and its allies lack not only the military capability to defeat Sunni jihadism but also the requisite political legitimacy. If the Iraq war taught us anything, it was that the defeat of al-Qaeda requires enlisting Sunni partners on our side. The best way to do that is to provide those civilian partners with a security regime they can trust. But today the non-jihadi Sunnis of Iraq and Syria fear both Maliki and Assad—who can blame them?—and have no reason to trust either America or Iran. In Iraq, the moment American troops departed, Maliki set to work shutting Sunnis out of the political system, without so much as a peep from Washington. In Syria, Assad has been savagely raping Sunni society. Iran, for its part, having directly aided both leaders in their respective sectarian projects, is toxic to Sunnis of all political stripes. 

With counterterrorism partners like these, Obama has no chance of attracting reliable Sunni allies. Absent the positive vision of a future political order they would be willing to fight for, the FSA forces trained by the U.S. in Syria, who do not regard ISIS as their primary enemy, will melt away when confronted with opposition from that quarter. As for America’s traditional Muslim allies in the region—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey—they can be counted on for, at most, qualified support. Although ISIS poses a significant threat to their security, they will be reluctant to join a coalition destined to advance the interests of Iran and its allies.

 

For Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of war, identifying a conflict’s “center of gravity” is of key importance. Herein lies “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything [in war] depends.” Obama’s strategy ignores the center of gravity in today’s war, which is the struggle against the Iranian alliance system. The heart of the battle today is in Syria, where Assad, Iran’s closest ally, presents the alliance at its most brutal, if also its most vulnerable. Until Assad is gone, Syria will remain the region’s most powerful magnet of global jihad. So long as the jihadis enjoy a safe haven in Syria, they will continue to dominate the Sunni heartland of Iraq.  

When a state misidentifies the center of gravity, writes Clausewitz, its blows, no matter how hard, strike only air. President Obama is now winding up to throw a big punch at ISIS, but it will never connect. Regardless of his intentions, the effect of his policies is to deliver large portions of Iraq and Syria to ISIS while simultaneously empowering Iran.

This outcome bodes ill for the United States. But it will be especially dangerous for those countries that the U.S. used to call allies: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, to name just three. Israel is in particular peril. American policy is partitioning Syria between Iran and the global jihadis—the two worst enemies of the Jewish state, now digging in right across its northern border. There can be no happy ending to this story.

_______________

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

More about: Foreign Policy, ISIS, Israel, Middle East, War

 

The Zombie Doctrine

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

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

Yagil Henkin is an Israeli military historian.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about: Islamism, Politics & Current Affairs, Zombies

 

A Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends

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

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

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


Dear Congregants of Adas Israel:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your friend,
Michael Doran

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

 

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best

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

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best
From the cover of a 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
 
Observation
May 27 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did It Really Happen, or Was It a Dream?

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

Did It Really Happen, or Was It a Dream?
From The Prophet Hosea by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311. Wikipedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
May 22 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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