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

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy

 

On the Interpretation of Kebabchik

After a friend comes to him with a strange dream, Philologos wonders if the unconscious mind can do Hebrew numerology.

On the Interpretation of Kebabchik
A painting of Hebrew letters by the Israeli painter David Rakia. Wikipedia
 
Observation
Jan. 14 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Ever since Freud’s pioneering investigation of dreams, we have known how capable the unconscious mind is of puns, complex verbal allusions, and intricate word play. But can dreams also put this ability to use in performing arithmetical calculations that most of us would have difficulty doing in our heads when awake? As one says in Yiddish, hert a mayse: Listen to a story.

I was chatting not long ago with an American-born friend living in Israel. “You know,” he said, “I had a dream last night that I can’t make any sense of. In it, I’m reading a memoir by an American author who describes a course he took in college with a famous professor. Now and then, he writes, this professor would interrupt the class he was teaching and say, ‘Let’s kebabchik.’ That meant something like, ‘Let’s just enjoy ourselves now.’ That was my whole dream—or at least as much of it as I remember.”

“Kebabchik?” I asked.

“Yes. I have no idea where that came from.”

“Did you have any association with kebab, either as a word or a food, when you awoke?” I asked. “Do you have any now?”

“No,” said my friend. “None at all.  I’ve eaten kebab like everyone, but it has no special meaning for me. The only thing to come to mind when I awoke was the word ‘jitterbug,’ but don’t ask me what that has to do with it.”

I didn’t, and my friend soon turned to another subject that was preoccupying him more than his dream. He owned, he told me, a piece of land that a building contractor had approached him about buying. Although they hadn’t discussed price yet, he thought he might ask 1,200,000 shekels, from which the contractor would try to bargain him down. But though he and his family could certainly use the money, the capital-gains tax, which in this case a real-estate lawyer had estimated at about 39 percent, would gradually drop the longer he held on to the property, so that he wasn’t sure whether to sell now or to wait. It was a dilemma.

I had no particular advice to give him, and after we parted, my mind reverted to his dream. “Kebabchik?” “Jitterbug?” The two words had nothing in common. No, wait: they both had three syllables. Not only that, but if you took the last syllable of “kebabchik” and made it the first one, you got “chikkebab.” That had some of the sounds and the rhythm of “jitterbug” (and jitterbugging was all about rhythm!) and was close to “shish kebab.” And “shish” suggested shesh, Hebrew for “six.”Was I getting somewhere?

But where?

It was then that I thought of a dream that an uncle of mine, a Hebrew poet, had told me about many years ago. He had dreamed, at a time in his life when he was feeling weary and depressed, of receiving an envelope from his bank in which was a bounced check for $28.00. “Twenty-eight?” he said to me. “Don’t you get it?” I confessed that I didn’t. “That’s koah in gematria. The dream was telling me I have no strength.”

Gematria is the age-old technique of computing the numerical value of the letters in a Hebrew word and deriving meaning from it, and koah means “strength” and is spelled with the letters, kaf, whose numerical value is twenty, and het, whose value is eight. La voilà!

Fine: my uncle was a Hebrew poet and dreamed in gematriot. But what reason was there to think my friend did, too?

Still, I decided to give it a try. Suppose “kababchik” was “shish kebab” and “shish kebab” was “sixkebab.” What did that come to?

Kebab in Hebrew is spelled kuf-bet-bet. The numerical value of kuf is 100 and that of bet is two. 100+2+2 is 104, and six times 104 is 624. Could that be connected, I wondered, to the sale of my friend’s land?

A nice idea—but no help. Thirty-nine percent of 1.2 million was 468,000, not 624,000. And if you took, not the 39-percent tax, but the 61 percent that would remain after it, you got 732,000. It quite literally didn’t add up.

I wasn’t ready to surrender, though, There was another way of doing it. Although it wasn’t the traditional way of figuring gematriot, it was possible to think of the 100 and two 2′s of Hebrew kebab as 122 rather than 104. And six times 122 was 732.

732? I had just calculated that 732,000 shekels would be my friend’s share of the sale after taxes! Could I be making a mistake? I did the arithmetic again: no, it was correct.

A coincidence? But how could it possibly be a coincidence that of all the numbers in the world, my friend’s projected income would be exactly equal to six times the gematria of Hebrew kebab?

I phoned him. “For what it’s worth,” I said, “your dream was telling you to sell your land. Not only that, it was saying, ‘Take the money and enjoy it with your family now, because who knows what will happen later?’ That’s the meaning of ‘Let’s kebabchik.’”

Since then I haven’t spoken to him and don’t know what he’s decided. But if you think it’s impossible that a sleeping mind could do all that, you’re welcome to suggest a better interpretation of his dream.

More about: Gematria, Philologos, Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud

 

In Light of Recent Events

Looking back at disturbing years for Europe’s Jews.

In Light of Recent Events
An injured person is transported to an ambulance after the January 7 attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. AP Photo/Thibault Camus.
 
Observation
Jan. 9 2015 3:11PM

Over the last two years, Mosaic has asked the question several times: Is there a future for European Jewry?

In light of recent events in Paris—the January 7 attack on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and the January 9 taking of Jewish hostages at a kosher grocery store—we look back at our answers.

 

More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, France