What Was He Thinking?

By seeking reconciliation with Iran, Washington alienates its allies and contributes to ever greater mayhem in the Middle East.
What Was He Thinking?
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Observation
Aug. 6 2014 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.


On Friday July 25, as war raged in Gaza, John Kerry delivered a draft ceasefire agreement to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who then presented it to his security cabinet for consideration. Because the proposal granted Hamas a significant political victory—acquiescing, up front, in a number of the terrorist group’s key demands while failing even to mention Israel’s two primary concerns of infiltration tunnels and rockets—the ministers unanimously rejected it.

When unnamed officials leaked the document to Israel’s habitually left-leaning press, along with an account of the government’s thinking, a firestorm of indignation erupted—not, however, at Netanyahu but at the American Secretary of State. The views of one highly respected journalist were typical. Kerry’s proposal, he wrote, “raises serious doubts over his judgment. . . . It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation but an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East.”

The journalist in question, Barak Ravid, is the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, the flagship publication of the Israeli Left. Remarkably, Ravid was not alone among his colleagues. Some of the most vituperative attacks on Kerry came from critics of Netanyahu—columnists and others who regard the prime minister’s support for Israeli settlements as the greatest impediment to peace with the Palestinians.

What accounts for this unprecedented show of unanimity? Wartime solidarity, in part—but only in part. No less dismaying to the Israeli Left was the way Kerry’s proposal shunted aside both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a mad rush to embrace Hamas, Turkey, and Qatar as trusted interlocutors. In the eyes of Israeli leftists, the PA and Egypt are essential to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, and any proposal that diminishes their standing is ignorant and misguided.

“It’s not clear what Kerry was thinking,” Ravid wrote. Indeed, Kerry’s Israeli critics assumed that he was not thinking at all. One commentator accused him of a “rookie mistake.” But this evaluation assigns responsibility to the wrong man, and incorrectly identifies the nature of the miscalculation. The true architect of the fiasco was not Kerry but President Obama, and the blunder was no tactical mishap. Rather, it was the logical product of a grand strategy, and fits seamlessly into an unmistakably broad pattern.

All across the Middle East, the traditional allies of the United States, just like the Israeli Left, feel that Obama has betrayed them. Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis, and Turks, despite the very real differences among them, nurture grievances similar in kind to those expressed on the pages of Haaretz. Ravid’s question—“What was Kerry thinking?”—deserves to be recast. It would get closer to the heart of the matter to ask what the president was thinking.

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: the president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

 

During the latter decades of the cold war, American presidents developed a strong sense of “our team” and “their team” when it came to the Middle East. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that attitude persisted—even as “their team” transformed itself from the Soviet camp into Iran’s so-called Resistance Alliance, which includes such otherwise disparate partners and proxies as Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Obama has abandoned that conception entirely. To be sure, he still pays lip service to countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. But in practice, nothing could be farther from his mind. Last January, he offered what is undoubtedly a more accurate account of his thinking when he mused about Iran becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . [Sunni] Gulf states and [Shiite] Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

Two key assumptions inform this line of reasoning. First, the president posits that Iran is now a defensive power. Holding on for dear life in the volatile Middle East, it has no sustained interest in undermining the United States, which might even serve as its ally in countering Sunni extremism. Second, Hamas and Hizballah are similarly defensive—and ready, under the right circumstances, to moderate their aggressive hostility.

In brief, President Obama now thinks of the region’s politics in terms of a roundtable. Everyone seated at it is potentially equal to everyone else, and the job of the United States is to narrow the gaps among antagonists in an effort to bring the system to the desired state of “equilibrium.” It was precisely this concept that informed American diplomacy over the Gaza ceasefire. Although the administration was quickly forced to backpedal and abandon its proposal in the face of opposition from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the incident illustrated starkly how its Ahab-like fixation on a grand bargain with Iran has created a culture that makes stiffing American allies just a normal part of doing business.

Is it necessary to point out that those allies see the politics of the region very differently? They envisage not a round table but, at best, a rectangular one, with their team sitting on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. They expect the United States either to join their side or to tilt heavily in their favor.

They also see something else: the complex and multiform divisions on the ground that make the Middle East so challenging. In addition to the rift between Iran and its opponents, there also exists a rivalry between those states, preeminently Turkey and Qatar, that support the Muslim Brotherhood and those, preeminently Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that oppose it. Because Hamas is both an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a proxy of Iran, these two rivalries have intersected in the Gaza war—which is why, in the eyes of Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Hamas represents a double threat. Even though the spectacle of a Jewish military victory over a Palestinian adversary is profoundly unpopular on their own streets, they are eager to see Israel crush that threat.

When John Kerry developed his ceasefire proposal, he largely ignored all this, and particularly the preferences of Riyadh and Cairo. Not only was he enhancing Hamas’s power and prestige but, through his courtship of Turkey and Qatar, he was also offering it a path out from under the thumb of the Egyptians. Still worse, Kerry’s proposal was a windfall for the Iranians, who have played an indispensable role in building Hamas’s military machine and who, even as Kerry was working to settle the conflict, egged Hamas on against Israel. Whether Kerry consciously intended to benefit Iran is immaterial. The roundtable approach to Middle East problems, the fruitless search for equilibrium, automatically works to Iran’s advantage.

 

No wonder, then, that Obama’s policies are in a shambles. It is impossible to succeed in the Middle East without partners, and so long as he remains bent on empowering Iran and its proxies (who, for their part, continue to make no secret of their loathing for the United States), America’s traditional allies will withhold their own support for Washington’s initiatives. This fact raises a question: when it finally becomes obvious not only that the president’s policy will never work but that it has, in fact, contributed to producing ever greater mayhem and carnage in the region, will he reverse field? 

The answer is no. Early on his presidency, perhaps even before he was inaugurated, Obama resolved that he would be remembered in history for pulling the United States back from the Middle East—for ending wars, not starting them. The roundtable approach is his scenario for what should replace the American-led order of yesteryear. To admit that an equilibrium with Iran is a chimera—and that instead of ending wars he has helped prolong and multiply them—would be tantamount to renouncing his cherished legacy.

The president has already displayed an extremely high tolerance for turmoil in the Middle East, and he will display an even higher one before entertaining the notion that his strategy is profoundly misconceived. “Apparently,” Obama said in a recent press conference, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world, and so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backward. That’s been true in the Middle East.”

Our current step backward will undoubtedly last for at least two more years—at untold cost to the region, to us, and to “our team.” As Libya crumbles, Syria and Gaza burn, and the “caliphate” leaves a trail of headless corpses from Baghdad to Damascus, more rivers of blood will flow. America’s allies are on their own. 

_______________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the 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: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Hamas, Iran, John Kerry, Middle East

 

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"
Photo by Edsel Little/Flickr.
 
Observation
March 25 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.


From Ken Ehrenburg comes this query:

A fellow shul-mate and I are engaged in a small dispute that I hope you might settle or illuminate. He has maintained for a long time that calling the repast that precedes the end of the Sabbath shalosh se’udot in Hebrew is grammatically incorrect, since this means “three meals” rather than “the third meal” [the first two being Friday-night dinner and Saturday lunch], which would be ha-se’udah ha-shlishit. I, on the other hand, have argued that this usage could be a form of synecdoche, whereby a part is referred to by means of the whole. What do you think?

The oddity of calling the Sabbath’s third meal “three meals” has struck me, too. Until now, I must say, I thought Ken Ehrenburg’s fellow synagogue-goer must be right. In Eastern Europe, the Sabbath’s third meal was called sholesh suddes, as it continues to be by many Orthodox Jews today; this is the Yiddish pronunciation of Hebrew shalosh se’udot, and I had always assumed it to be a Yiddish garbling of Hebrew grammar that was subsequently introduced into Hebrew itself. Such an assumption made historical sense, because the se’udah shlishit was accorded special importance in Jewish ritual by the Eastern-European movement of Ḥasidism, which observes it in the synagogue with singing and chanting in a highly charged religious atmosphere, and Ḥasidic authors were notorious for their mangling of the rules of Hebrew.

Still, I was never quite satisfied by this. Even Ḥasidism mangled Hebrew only so far, and sholesh suddes, which substitutes the Hebrew cardinal number shalosh for the ordinal number shlishit, and puts it before the noun it modifies rather than after the noun where it belongs, would seem to go well beyond that. Could there be another explanation? Ken Ehrenburg suggests what this might be.

The tradition of a third Sabbath meal goes at least as far back as the early centuries of the Common Era, there already being mention of it in the Talmud. In talmudic times, it was the practice, with the exception of Sabbaths, to eat only twice a day, once in mid-morning and once in the evening. Yet even in our own age, when three meals a day are the norm, Orthodox Jews skip breakfast before the Shabbat-morning prayer, with the result that they, too, would eat only two Sabbath meals were it not for the se’udah shlishit. The talmudic tractate of Shabbat gives as the tradition’s source a verse in Exodus (16:25) about the manna: “And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for it is the Sabbath today, today you will not find it in the field.” Three “today’s,” the rabbis reasoned, equal three portions of the manna provided by God in the desert, which was not gathered on the Sabbath.

Although this exegesis probably served to rationalize an already existing custom of celebrating the Sabbath by eating an extra meal, it lent the meal rabbinic authority. Still, only in 16th-century Palestine, with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the Sabbath’s third meal come to be considered the time of special divine grace that it was later thought to be by Ḥasidism as well. And it was only in Eastern Europe that the se’udah shlishit became the shalosh se’udot or sholesh siddes.

I asked an acquaintance steeped in Jewish sources if he knew the reason. His answer was that he believed there was a discussion of the matter in Divrey Emet or “Truthful Points,”a collection of homilies by the Ḥasidic master Yakov Yitzḥak Horovitz (1745-1815), also known as “the Seer of Lublin,” but he couldn’t remember where in the book I would find it. Fortunately, Divrey Emet is a short volume, and three-quarters of the way through it I came across the passage in question. In commenting on the verse in the book of Numbers (24:19), “And out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,” Horovitz writes:

The rabbis of blessed memory have said that whoever eats three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three calamities: the pangs of the [coming of the] messiah, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the retribution of hell. And I have heard it said that the reason the third Sabbath meal [se'udah shlishit] is called “three meals” [shalosh se'udot] is that partaking of it is [like] partaking of all three. For, in the first two, the eater is hungry and enjoys his food while observing the commandment “And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight” [Isaiah 58: 14]. But this [third] meal is entirely for the sake of heaven, since, having no appetite, he [who eats it] acquits himself of all [three]….This is why it is called “three meals,”’ because a commandment is named for what completes it.

In other words: eaten a few hours after a large lunch, at a time when one does not really feel hungry, the third meal alone truly fulfills the commandment to eat three Sabbath meals, the other two of which would be eaten anyway. This explanation, which testifies to the Yiddish usage of sholesh suddes being common in Eastern Europe already over 200 years ago, is precisely the one offered by Ken Ehrenburg: the third meal is called shalosh se’udot because it stands for all three. The term is indeed a synecdoche.

Whether the Horovitz-Ehrenburg thesis is historically correct, I can’t say. All in all, though, it seems to me more likely than the mangled-Hebrew theory. And in case you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the biblical Jacob, kabbalistic tradition associates each of the Sabbath meals with a different patriarch: the Friday-night dinner with Abraham, the Saturday lunch with Isaac, and the se’udah shlishit with Jacob. Forcing oneself to eat once a week when not hungry is a small price to pay for being spared the apocalypse of Armageddon and the fires of Gehenna.

More about: Religion & Holidays, Shabbat, Talmud

 

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh

You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind. What’s the point of such a Shakespearean portrayal?

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh
From Pharaoh Notes the Importance of the Jewish People, 1902, by James Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 19 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 Sabbath service this week marks the imminent onset of the month of Nisan, in which Passover occurs. Appropriately enough, a special reading from the Torah, harking back to the portion of Bo in the book of Exodus, is added to the week’s regular portion of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). Here I want to concentrate not on the specific verses (Exodus 12:1-20) from Bo that are read, or rather reread, on this Sabbath but on its overall narrative of the unfolding relationship between Pharaoh and the Lord as mediated by the Lord’s instrument Moses.

The central issue of Bo is what is within the body of Egypt, whether the body in question is that of Pharaoh, or the body of the people of Egypt who are an extension of the sovereign’s body, or the body of the land of Egypt. And not only what is within the body but outside it, what belongs and what should be expelled, what will enter without permission and what will finally be released unwillingly, spat out like poison or bile.

The very first verb of the reading is bo, come, and this divine instruction to Moses (“Come unto Pharoah” . . .) uses precisely the same verb that in Genesis instructed Abraham to “come unto” and impregnate Hagar, the barren Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the Lord instructed Moses to enter Pharaoh physically. But the appearance of that particular verb at this particular juncture alerts us to a whole series of intimate and unjust relationships in the Torah. The series begins with Sarah’s oppression of Hagar, continues with Joseph’s enslavement of all Egypt, rebounds upon the Israelites in Pharaoh’s subsequent enslavement and oppression of them, and enters into its culminating episode here as the Lord instructs Moses to come unto Pharaoh before the Lord Himself will enter into Pharaoh’s most private and intimate space: his mind.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh
For I’ve given him a heavy heart and his servants, too,
To put these marks of Mine in him
And to make you tell your son and grandson how I abused Egypt
And My marks that I put in them, so you’ll know I am the Lord.”
And Moses and Aaron came unto Pharaoh and told him,
“So says the Lord, God of the Hebrews:
‘How long will you refrain from responding in My presence?
Send out my people to worship Me.
For if you refrain from sending My people
I’ll bring locusts over your border
And they’ll cover all visible land,
You won’t be able to see the land.’” . . .

And he turned and he left Pharaoh’s presence
And Pharaoh’s servants said to him:
“How long will this ensnare us—
Send the men to worship the Lord their God.
Do you not realize yet, Egypt is lost?”
So Moses returned with Aaron to Pharaoh
And he told them, “Go, worship the Lord your God;
Who’s who that’s going?” And Moses said,
“We’ll go with our boys and old men, with our sons and our daughters,
Our sheep and our cattle we’ll go
For it’s God’s festival for us.”
And he told them, “Let it be so, the Lord be with you when
I send out you and your children—
Look how there’s evil over your face.
Not so; kindly go, just the males, and worship the Lord
Because that’s what you’re asking.”
And Pharaoh drove them out from his presence.

In addition to what you might call the special effects of the ten plagues, which I’ll largely omit here, what’s beguiling in this portion is the acute portrayal of Pharaoh as petulant villain. But he’s not two-dimensional; he’s more than three-dimensional. You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind, turning on a dime, arriving almost at the point of cooperating and then withdrawing again like an insecure businessman not quite capable of closing a deal. The irony of his consenting to Moses, swiftly followed by the outburst about how Moses and Aaron are scheming to deceive him, followed by the noblesse-oblige condescension of his polite “request” that the males go without their children, followed finally by the curt dismissal of Moses and Aaron, gives you a Shakespearean portrait in just two or three lines.

And it’s not over.
But Pharaoh was quick to call Moses and Aaron
To say: “I’ve sinned to the Lord your God and you.
But now bear with my sin just this once
And petition the Lord your God to remove from me just this death.”
And he went out from Pharaoh and petitioned the Lord
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart
And he didn’t send out the children of Israel.

Rabbis over the centuries have tied themselves in knots to prove that Pharaoh had freedom of choice, free will, that he was able at any point to release the Jews but chose not to. A literal reading of the text shows that this was not the case. Not only does the Lord declare at exactly what point He will allow Pharaoh to come to his senses, He also tells Moses that He’s not interested in Pharaoh’s coming to that point. He wants to pummel Pharaoh into submission, and it does not suit His purposes for Pharaoh to have free choice, let alone to make an intelligent call.

Time and again, the Lord reinforces Pharaoh’s heart. Two different verbs are used for this action, which is often flattened in English translation into a single “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” On the one hand, He makes Pharaoh anxious, literally makes his heart heavy; on the other hand, He makes him proud—literally strengthens his heart. This is the cycle by means of which a losing hand or two become a total bust. Pharaoh is meant to be left incapable of running a lemonade stand, let alone the mightiest empire on earth.

And Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go worship the Lord
Just your sheep and cattle will be deposited,
You children can go with you, too.”
But Moses said, “You shall also put sacrifices and offerings in our hands
To make for the Lord our God,
So our livestock will go with us,
Not a hoof will be left behind
For from them we’ll select to worship the Lord our God
And we won’t know how we’ll worship the Lord till we get there.”
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart and he balked at sending them
And Pharaoh told him, “Get away from me,
Take good care you don’t see my face again
Because the day you see my face you’ll die.”
And Moses said, “Just as you say. I will not look on your face again.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “One more ache
I’ll bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt,
After that he’ll send you from here as he’d send a bride,
He’ll drive you in droves out of here.” . . .

And Moses said, “So says the Lord,
Around midnight I’m going out into Egypt
And every first born in Egypt is dead
From the first born of Pharaoh who’ll sit on his throne
To the first born of the maid behind the millstones
And every beast of burden’s first born
And there will be a great shriek in the land of Egypt
Such as has never been and such as won’t be again
And to all the children of Israel
No dog will wag its tongue, neither man nor beast
So that you know the Lord discriminates between Egypt and Israel
And all these servants of yours will come down to Me
And bow to Me saying, ‘Go, you and the people at your heels’
And after that I’ll go.” And he went from Pharaoh’s presence in a fury.
But the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh won’t listen to you—
So as to increase the examples I’ll make of the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh’s warning to Moses not to look on his face again lest he die is both pathetic and accurate. When Moses does see Pharaoh again, it is at Pharaoh’s request and it’s the middle of the night—when nobody can see anything. By then, Pharaoh’s the one begging Moses to intercede so that he himself won’t die in the general carnage.

And it was midnight and the Lord struck every first born in Egypt
From the first born of Pharaoh who’d sit on his throne
To the first born of the prisoner housed in the pit
And every beast of burden’s first born.
And Pharaoh rose that night
And all his servants and all Egypt did, too
And there was a great shriek in Egypt
For there was no house without a corpse in it.
And he called Moses and Aaron at night, saying:
“Get up and get out from inside my people,
Both you and the children of Israel, and go worship the Lord just as you said,
Your sheep too, your cattle too; take what you said
And go—and bless me, too.”

This is the final humiliation: Pharaoh is reduced to asking Moses to pray for him and, as Moses prophesied, to make a sacrifice in his name to the implacable God who has come over his borders, into his houses, and finally into his mind. When the text specifies that the Lord kills not the child of the maid (as promised previously) but the child of the prisoner in the pit, it is no slip of the pen. The Lord went walking to the place where Joseph started his great ascent in Egypt by foretelling what would happen to Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants.

In this portion of Bo, we revisit first Hagar, then Joseph, before seeing how the cycle of slavery and abuse is finally ended with the Hebrews having undergone a 400-year punishment for abusing Hagar, and with Egypt, in turn, being crushed completely in order to pluck the Israelites back out of it like pips from an orange. The Lord started a cycle with Abraham that he would complete with Moses, only to make the great point, reiterated a total of 36 times in the Torah: do not abuse the stranger, because you were a stranger in Egypt. The subtext is clear: do not do again what you did then, nor ever do what they did to you, because what I did to them I can do to anybody.

More about: Bo, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Pharaoh, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayikra

 

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?

When we ask for guarantees of our safety, we’re met with speeches and calls for patience. This is not living.

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?
In the wake of a nearby explosion, a man enters a Jewish community centre in Malmo, southern Sweden, in 2012. DRAGO PRVULOVIC/AFP/GettyImages.
 
Observation
March 18 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political adviser and an activist in support of Israel.


They canceled Jewish winter camp. It sounds like a little thing, but in Sweden, where we have very few venues in which to lead our Jewish lives, it means a great deal. Winter camp is a yearly highlight, a place where our children can learn and play with other Jewish children, without worry. This year, they won’t be able to go, and for a simple reason—because it’s not safe.

The decision to cancel the camp was a reaction to the terrorist attack in neighboring Denmark, where Dan Uzan, a volunteer security guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue, was shot dead while protecting a bat-mitzvah party in progress inside. The Jewish community in Sweden was already reeling from news of the massacres in Paris a month earlier; with this latest murder, the peril came too close for comfort.

Of course, things did not start with these particular events. In a 2013 survey conducted by the European Union’s agency for fundamental rights, 76 percent of European Jews said that anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years, and 29 percent said they contemplated emigrating. Perhaps most astonishing, of those who said they had suffered a physical attack, fully two-thirds had chosen not to report it since they were convinced the police would react passively. Since that time, we European Jews have experienced some of our darkest days in over 60 years, from defaced synagogues and cemeteries to riots and assaults on Jews in broad daylight. This past summer, the floodgates opened wider as Israel’s war in Gaza erased any subtle (and largely disingenuous) distinctions that may have existed between anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism.

Back in the summer of 2013, I read Michel Gurfinkiel’s sweeping essay in Mosaic on the threatened state of European Jewry and was moved to write him a letter. The editors then kindly published it as a response to his analysis. In it I described the particular difficulties and dangers facing a Jew in contemporary Sweden, and announced my intention to stay and fight for the future of Jewish life in the European Diaspora. As the situation in my country worsened, I ended up—as I again reported in Mosaic—filing for asylum in my own country on grounds of religious discrimination. My act was aimed at raising public consciousness and eliciting from my government at least an acknowledgment of reality. But despite the publicity my filing attracted, no such acknowledgment was forthcoming. Nor did my action garner any significant support within the official Jewish community itself; to the contrary, I was not spared ridicule for my alleged hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Now that there are policemen with automatic rifles outside our children’s schools, guards outside our synagogues, and no go-zones in our cities, the community has at last awakened to the harsh truth. This is no longer a matter of fighting a ban on kosher slaughter, or of retaining the right to circumcise our sons; at risk is the security of each and every Jew in the country, whether affiliated with the community or not, whether religiously observant or not, whether politically left, right, center, or none of the above.

As more and more people, including communal leaders, are voicing their anxiety and alarm, and attracting the notice of the media, the sheer intractability of the problem is also emerging, sometimes with startling nakedness. A couple of weeks ago, a major public-radio station interviewed Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador to Stockholm. ‎During the interview he was asked: “Do the Jews themselves have any ‎responsibility for the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?”‎ Naturally, the ambassador was stunned. “I reject the question ‎altogether,” he said. “It’s like asking a woman how she has contributed to the fact ‎that she is being raped. I don’t think there is any provocation on the part of the Jews; they just exist.”

‎After the show, Sveriges Radio issued an apology; but the cat was out of the bag. Starkly illuminated by this “unfortunate incident” (their term) was the extent to which anti-Semitism, far from being the property of marginalized and uneducated individuals, as the comfortable trope would have it, is built into the psyche of the establishment. The apology itself was but a gesture, and gestures, in lieu of change, are mainly what the European Jewish minority is seeing.

 

Rallies, speeches, a solidarity ring around a synagogue as in Oslo: these are no substitute for the actual guarantee and protection of civil rights, for actual inclusivity, for actual religious freedom; they are at best a way of treating symptoms while ignoring the disease. We are being urged to join others in striving for peace and understanding, as if all along we have been striving for something else and need to assume our share of responsibility for the campaign being waged against us. The marches, the one-off visits of dignitaries to synagogues, the solemn frowns of sympathy: all instruct us to be patient and do nothing until we reach the point where there will be nothing left to do.

They canceled the Jewish winter camp, and men with automatic weapons are guarding our schools. Our children will not forget this; fear and hate—their fear, others’ hate—are now somehow coterminous in their minds with the very nature of Jewish life. We European Jews have been here before.

In 2014, immigration to Israel from Western Europe went up by 88 percent over the previous year, corroborating the trend already emerging in the 2013 survey. Jews are leaving Europe in record numbers, and more are thinking about it. I am now one of them. In my first contribution to Mosaic I wrote that I was absolutely determined to stay and fight for a strong Jewish life in the Diaspora. “We want to live,” I said. Today I don’t know what’s next for me, or for Europe. But I know that for my children and for me, this is not living.

More about: European Jewry, Jewish world, Politics & Current Affairs, Sweden

 

How Lev Tolstoy Became Leo Tolstoy

Why do we Anglicize some names and not others?

How Lev Tolstoy Became Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1908. By Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a pioneer in color photography. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
March 11 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].

Margalit Tal of the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati has a question that is shorter than the name of her workplace. “When and why,” she asks, “did Lev Tolstoy become Leo Tolstoy?”

It would seem that Tolstoy, who had the given Russian name of Lev and the patronymic of Nikolayevich, was himself responsible for becoming Leo in English. A member of the nobility, he published his books in Russian as “Graf [Count] L.N. Tolstoy,” and when in 1878 the American translator Nathan Haskell Dole put out the first English edition of one of them, Tolstoy’s youthful war memoir The Cossacks: A Tale of the Caucasus in 1852, the name on the title page, phonetically spelled, was ” Lyof N. Tolstoy.” Dole’s 1889 translation of War and Peace did the same. But an earlier, anonymous French rendition of the novel, published in St. Petersburg in 1879, gave its author’s name as “Comte Léon Tolstoȉ.”

This was in itself a translation, the name Léon meaning “lion” in French as Lev does in Russian, and Tolstoy obviously approved of it and probably suggested it, since the St. Petersburg edition of La Guerre et la Paix was published, as stated on its title page, “with the authorization of the author.” And when a second English translation of War and Peace came out in 1904 in the now-classic version of Constance Garnett, a personal friend of Tolstoy’s who must have consulted him about it, Comte Léon Tolstoȉ was Anglicized to Count Leo Tolstoy. (Such an Anglicization had already appeared in Aline P. Delano’s 1894 English translation of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.) Although “Count” was eventually dropped, all subsequent English editions of Tolstoy’s books kept the Leo.

This was, it must be said, unusual. Dostoyevsky was always known outside of Russia as Fyodor, not Theodore, Chekhov as Anton, not Antoine, Antonio, or Anthony. The same has held true in recent centuries of practically every other well-know foreign author, painter, musician, or outstanding figure in other fields. Why should Tolstoy have wanted to be Léon or Leo rather than Lev?

Was he thinking of Russia’s Piotr Velikiy, called Pierre le Grand in French and Peter the Great in English, or of Ekaterina Velikaya, Catherine la Grande or Catherine the Great? Did he perhaps aspire to become a world-historical personage like them? Generally speaking, it is only the great whose names have sometimes been translated in passing from one language to another, so that apart from royalty, with whom it has been done commonly (e.g., Henry, not Henri, the First of France; William, not Willem, the Silent of Holland), we have in English such cases as Joan rather than Jeanne of Arc, Francis rather than Francesco of Assisi, and Christopher Columbus rather than Cristoforo Colombo or Cristóbal Colon. There are a few examples of this from modern times as well: Iosif Stalin is always Joseph in English and the current pope is Francis, too.

 

Yet Stalin, popes, and Tolstoy aside, modern name translations are almost never found in the public sphere. No one would dream of calling the French president Frank Hollande instead of François, or his Argentinean counterpart Christine Kirchner instead of Cristina. But has anyone noticed that, when they are not being Bibi and Buzhi, the two main contenders in Israel’s soon-to-be-decided electoral campaign are routinely referred to by the English media as Benjamin, not Binyamin, Netanyahu and Isaac, not Yitzhak, Herzog?

Is this mere coincidence? I’m not so sure. It’s true, of course, that Israeli politicians have not generally had their names translated in this way. Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir were always Yitzhak, Moshe Dayan never became Moses, and Shimon Peres isn’t Simon. Yet when one looks at contemporary history books, works of scholarship, and articles in the media, one encounters a curious phenomenon. Here are some entries culled by me from the index of a compendious 2002 collection of essays by noted scholars entitled Cultures of the Jews: A New History: “Bar Kokhba, Simon”; “Judah [not Yehuda] ha-Nasi”; “Ibn-Gabirol, Solomon” (not Shlomo); “Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon)”; “Abravanel, Isaac”; “Gaon of Vilna (see Elijah [not Eliyahu] ben Solomon [not Shlomo] Zalman)”; “Ba’al Shem Tov (Israel [not Yisra’el] ben Eliezer)”; “Kook, Abraham Isaac” [not Avraham Yitzhak]; “Tchernikhovsky, Saul” (not Sha’ul)”; etc. The list, needless to say, is partial.

Imagine picking up a book called Cultures of Europe and reading about Leonard da Vinci, Michael de Cervantes, John Sebastian Bach, John Jack Rousseau, Lewis van Beethoven, George William Hegel, Paul Picasso, and Frank Kafka! And yet this has been the norm in Jewish studies for the past 200 years and remains so, even though the scholars in question would never use anything among themselves but the Hebrew names that Jewish tradition has always used.

Why is this? The probable reason, I think, has been the desire of Jews to make accessible to the non-Jewish world a minority culture whose strange-sounding names become more familiar when translated into equivalents, like Israel, Judah, Moses, Solomon, and Elijah, that are known to most people from the Bible. Although it’s not necessarily any easier to say Johann Wolfgang Goethe than it is to say Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, the feeling has been that if Yitzhak becomes Isaac, readers will breathe easier—to say nothing of the TV viewers who will learn next week if Isaac beat Benjamin or vice-versa. I find this silly. Although Yehuda Halevi may be a bit more digestible in English as Judah, he is also a bit less himself. But I would say the same thing, I suppose, about Lev Tolstoy.

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