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

 

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

 

Unknown Musicians of a Wandering Race

A remarkable concert reintroduces three Jewish composers who fled fascist Europe to America, where two of them pioneered a new art form—the symphonic film score.

Unknown Musicians of a Wandering Race
The ARC Ensemble, who performed in Pro Musica Hebraica's "Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe" at the Kennedy Center in May 2015. The ARC Ensemble via Facebook.
 
Observation
May 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Edward Rothstein, critic at large for the Wall Street Journal, was chief music critic for the New York Times from 1991 to 1995. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.


In his program notes to the Pro Musica Hebraica concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington earlier this month, the historian James Loeffler points out that in 1927—just before the period in which the music on the program was written—a Russian-born musician by the name of Gdal Saleski published a “classic, biographical lexicon” under the title Famous Musicians of a Wandering Race.

At the time, this well-worn description of the Jews as a “wandering race” could still be invoked with pride, or innocence. Not for long, however. Loeffler observes that the post-Holocaust edition of the book would refer instead to composers of “Jewish origin,” and by then the book was more of a memorial volume. Still, that earlier phrase remains strangely resonant, evoking bards doomed to migratory journeys, singing of epic pasts, embodying the age-old fate of the disenfranchised Wandering Jew of Western mythology. And there was a certain element of truth in all of that—as the evening’s program bore out.

The concert, titled “Before the Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe,” offered music written between 1928 and 1931 by three composers of the “wandering race”: Jerzy Fitelberg (1903-1951), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). But the pieces themselves, beautifully played by the Canadian-based ARC Ensemble, make no allusions to the Jewish origins of the composers; nor do they hint at how Saletski’s phrase fits these figures, all three of whom, in fleeing the Nazis, took a path that ultimately led from their respective nations of birth—Poland, Italy, and Austria—to the United States.

So, aside from their creators’ shared background, in what way were these works “Jewish”? That is a question, indeed, that one might ask of almost any of the offerings of Pro Musica Hebraica (PMH), whose concert series is now in its eighth season. The aim of PMH, a marvelous brainchild of Charles and Robyn Krauthammer, is to draw attention to “lost and neglected masterpieces of Jewish classical music.” (Selections from earlier concerts can be heard here.) Is, then, the main mark of identification simply the fact that most of the composers happen to have been Jews?

At least in the case of this particular concert, it might seem so. In the pieces performed at the Kennedy Center there was nothing like the melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer used by Max Bruch in his 1881 piece of that name for cello and orchestra (even though Bruch himself was, he said, not Jewish). Nor were there Jewish folk melodies of the kind to be found in works by Charles-Valentin Alkan or Maurice Ravel (two composers represented in earlier PMH concerts, the first of whom was Jewish and the second is sometimes alleged to have been), or narrative motifs and coded references of the kind that can be heard in some works by Dmitri Shostakovich (who, though not Jewish, made use of Hebraic melodies).

Nor were we, in listening to the music, meant to place it within the tragic context of 20th-century European Jewish history. We were advised both by Loeffler in his concert notes and by Charles Krauthammer in an onstage introduction that it should not be heard as if foreshadowing the cataclysm to come. Rather, we were to regard our experience of it as an adventure into a less familiar or “neglected” corner of musical modernism.

And this is indeed how it must be heard. At first.

 

The surprise of the evening was the String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Jerzy Fitelberg, a work that in its skittish, aggressive dissonances, its edgy sweeps and mordant gestures, seems to give Slavic modernism a sensuous surface, as if merging the crispness of Sergei Prokofiev and the outbursts of Shostakovich with a love of sheer sonority. Fitelberg, the son of an influential Polish composer and conductor, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory and then moved to Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he fled to Paris, from there made his way to Italy, and finally left by ship for the United States where he settled on New York City’s Upper West Side.

In 1936, Fitelberg received an award from the Library of Congress, and enjoyed an international reputation. But today his name is hardly recognized, and he has no entry in the 29 volumes of the last printed edition (2001) of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The score for this quartet was found in his papers at the New York Public Library; performed by the ARC Ensemble, it will be featured in a forthcoming CD devoted to his work.

The second item on the Kennedy Center program, the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1931-32) by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, made a less indelible impression, though its sweet lyricism and robust nostalgia were marked by exuberant stagecraft. In his autobiography, the composer claimed this as his best chamber work: emotional, vivacious, meditative.

Born into a Florentine Jewish banking family that traced its roots back to 16th-century Tuscany, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was drawn to the great texts of world literature as subjects for his music; he often used Jewish themes as well. In the early 1930s, he became concerned about the fate of Italian Jewry. When the virtuoso Jascha Heifetz commissioned him to write a violin concerto, he seized the occasion to express his pride in his “so unjustly persecuted” people. The concerto, called I profeti—“The Prophets”—glorifies, in the composer’s words, “the burning inspiration that inflamed the [biblical] envoys of God.” Within a few years, his career in Italy had come to an end. After the passage of Mussolini’s racial laws, his music was banned. He and his family made their way to Los Angeles.

And then there was Erich Korngold. Compared with his demonstrative theatricality, Castelnuovo-Tedesco pales. At the Kennedy Center concert, Korngold was represented by his Suite for 2 Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand), Op. 23 (1930). It is, in some ways, extraordinary, forcibly demanding attention from the very start, freely discarding convention, experimenting playfully with form and manners. The suite opens with a declamatory, impassioned solo for piano, followed by an almost provocative response from the cello, eventually leading to a nervous fragmented fugue.

Not all of the work is as compelling as this first movement, but Korngold, who was certainly one of the century’s great musical prodigies, was hailed by Gustav Mahler (who called him a “genius”) and Richard Strauss (“one’s first reaction is awe”). His father, Julius Korngold, an immensely powerful music critic for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, championed his son’s music, but the help was hardly needed, so extensive was the acclaim. The pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother to the philosopher Ludwig), who had lost his right arm in World War II, commissioned Korngold to write a piano concerto for left hand and, later, this suite. Ultimately, like Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Korngold, too, made his way to Los Angeles.

 

So here we have three finely crafted and intriguing works, each showing the influence of a different national style (Polish, Italian, Austrian) and each displaying unusual mastery. It is tempting to hear all of them as reflections of European Jewry’s last stand “before the night”—as music anticipating or heralding the darkness soon to fall. But, as I noted earlier, Loeffler suggests that this is fallacious, if not injurious. All three composers, he writes, have been faulted by critics who find their work lacking in the requisite “pathos and foreboding they imagine music by interwar Jewish composers must possess.” That is why he urges us to approach their music not “as a prelude to war and genocide” but rather “as an expression of a restless moment when Western music was still engaged” in modernist struggles—that is, to hear it “on its own terms, without the aural backshadows” of the Holocaust.

But I don’t really see those backshadows as the main issue here. Nor does the perception of backshadows, where relevant, strike me as different from the general effort to place any work of art within its historical context, to think about what led up to it and in what ways it may have anticipated or prefigured or perhaps even helped to bring into being what would come after. We who arrive on the scene later cannot get away from the knowledge of our situation; we cannot listen with the ears of a composer’s contemporaries. We may even hear more subtle prefiguring than they could have imagined.

Besides, there is more than one way that music relates to its encompassing history. Who, for example, can listen to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera and fail to notice the overripe German cynicism that held the cultural seeds of so much that was to come? Even at the time, this was evident to some listeners. Attending a performance of The Threepenny Opera in the early 1930s, the great scholar Gershom Scholem was dismayed to find himself in an audience “that had lost all sense of its own situation,” cheering a work “in which it [itself] was jibed and spat at with a vengeance.” By the same token, there are also works about which it can be distracting, and detracting, to historicize. We don’t listen to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and visualize the stark wartime landscape of 1944, the year of its premiere. We don’t want to. And perhaps that is the point: neither did Copland want to, or want us to. That is one way we hear this piece in context.

As for our three composers, I don’t think they faded from view because of obtuse critical expectations. The reasons were simpler, and Loeffler makes them evident: their lives were interrupted—largely as a result of their being Jews. In that sense, they are properly thought of as Jewish composers of their time. Nor was their displacement only a biographical phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon, with an immense impact on the course of all of European musical life.

In Forbidden Music: the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, Michael Haas points out that by the first decade of the 20th century, about a third of the piano and violin students at Vienna’s conservatory were Jews. The prevalence of Jews in all aspects of European music was startling, and already then of long standing. By 1940, when the Nazi Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (“Dictionary of Jews in Music”) appeared, there was no shortage of examples, each name carefully labeled with its proportion of Jewish “blood.”

Think, then, of what happened to the musical life of Europe. The 1920s had been a decade of great cosmopolitan ferment. Within five years or so after 1933, it was all over, demolished. The musicians left behind were certainly consequential; they included Hebert von Karajan, Kurt Fürtwangler, Karl Böhm, Walter Gieseking, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, and more. And there were composers, too, like Carl Orff—who wrote fresh incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream so that Germans need no longer be subjected to the music of the Jew Felix Mendelssohn. But an entire stratum of musical life had been stripped away.

The effect this had, not just on Europe but also on the countries lucky enough to take in those lucky enough to escape, has yet to be fully appreciated. Most of the exiles seem to have ended up in the United States, and many in California: not just Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Korngold but Arnold Schoenberg, (the non-Jewish) Igor Stravinsky, and others. In many ways, the prime decades of American art-music can be traced to this influx of émigré musicians. In particular, the great American orchestras were transformed by exiled Jewish conductors, among them Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Bruno Walter, William Steinberg, Serge Koussevitzky (who arrived pre-war), and Georg Solti (who came postwar).

Still another transformation in American culture owes much to the influence of two of the composers featured at the Kennedy Center concert. Moving to Los Angeles in 1940, Castelnuovo-Tedesco began writing film music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other major studios, scoring more than 130 (!) movies in all. Along the way, he taught a new generation of composers, many of whom, including Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and John Williams, also wrote for films.

Korngold is an even more remarkable example. While still living in Austria, he had visited Hollywood in 1934 in order to collaborate with the director Max Reinhardt on the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; just as the Nazis were undertaking to replace Jewish music, Korngold created a score woven out of Mendelssohn. He went back to Austria, but returned here in 1938 when Warner Brothers asked him to write music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Nazi Anschluss in that year made it necessary for him to remain in the U.S., where he proceeded to write the music for, among others, Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, Anthony Adverse, and The Sea Hawk, and thereby, as the New Grove Dictionary puts it, “pioneered a new art form, the symphonic film score.”

Until recent decades, when the model shifted, American movie scores, thanks to Hitler, were orchestral tone-poems, operas without voice, shaping our understanding of what is seen. Which is one reason why, to return to the fascinating concert at the Kennedy Center, I don’t mind backshadowing. Actually, however, it wasn’t the Holocaust that I heard latent and prefigured in the music that night; it was the nascent flowering of an American art form and the incomparable enrichment of American entertainment, an enrichment that lasted for three or four decades—at least until it started to turn into something else.

More about: Arts & Culture, Classical music, Film, History & Ideas, Jewish music