To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Saturday, March 7, 2015

As Per A Possible 'Nuclear Iran,' Someone Really Should Tell Netanyahu That 'Hitler Is Dead'

In keeping with his penchant for political rhetoric that places Israel within a mythic framework, Benjamin Netanyahu filled his speech to Congress last week with references to the 4000 year long history of various efforts “to destroy the Jewish people.” He sounded the alarm on the specter of a nuclear Iran by invoking the evil Persian viceroy Haman who unsuccessfully plotted against the Jews, as depicted in the Book of Esther. He also referenced the worldwide menace of Nazism, not merely its peril for European Jews, and underscored the Holocaust by giving a shout-out to Elie Wiesel, who was seated right next to Netanyahu's wife, Sara. Netanyahu closed his address with a scriptural reference to Moses, noting the image of him emblazoned on gallery of the Congressional chamber. “Moses gave us a message that has steeled our resolve for thousands of years,” against enemies, the Israeli Prime Minister reminded the audience before shifting into Hebrew. “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them.”

Jim Fallows at the Atlantic has explored the what he has called Netanyahu’s “use and misuse of history,” although he does so in a very careful manner, with one eye on the Atlantic’s reigning  pro Israel pieties. Rather than holding forth in his own voice, he quotes from his reader mail. Netanyahu’s bringing up of the Holocaust, a history professor from the Southwest tells Fallows, is the “historical  equivalent of hollering.”

To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.

Another correspondent, who identified himself to Fallows as Jewish, took Netanyahu to task for that for implying that “it will always be 1938 for Israel and for the Jews of the world.” 
In Bibi's mind, does Israel—and do the Jewish people—lose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present?  He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iran—or Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)—in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat?  In my humble opinion, nothing could.

Fallows’ Atlantic colleague Peter Beinart pushed back too on Netanyahu's loose historical (and mytho-historial) analogies. He chose to do so in Haaretz, however, and stressed that “Netanyahu did not invent this way of thinking.”  
From the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to the end, Jewish texts speak of an eternal, implacable enemy: Esau, Amalek, Agag, Haman. On Tisha B’Av, Jews link the catastrophes of our history – from the destruction of the Temples to the beginning of the First Crusade to the Expulsion of Jews from Spain – by insisting they occurred on the same day. And, of course, less than a century ago, the mightiest power in Europe did try to exterminate the Jewish people – and succeeded in butchering one-third.
But Jewish tradition also warns against allowing analogies with the past to obscure our understanding of the present. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks , Maimonides insisted that since the nations Jews fought inbiblical times no longer exist, we cannot identify any contemporarynation with Amalek. (Or, by implication, with Amalek’s heir, Haman).
In his speech to Congress about Iran, Netanyahu violated that tradition. And he violated the obligation of any wise leader: To see current foes not as a facsimile of past ones, but as they really are.

Another Atlantic writer, former TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier, has not yet weighed in on the Netanyahu speech. Leon, of course, tends to be a bit dismissive of the whole blogging thing, as per his infamous, and culturally chauvinistic, 2010 smear of Andrew Sullivan and what Wieseltier insinuated was Sullivan’s theologically inferior Roman Catholic reverence for the Trinity.    

But at the risk of using the historical archive to challenge Netanyahu’s misuse of historical analogies, a re-reading of Leon Wieseltier’s Hitler Is Dead from the New Republic of 2002 during an earlier period of Jewish “panic” offers a preview of sorts of what he might say when he get around to sharing it with us. This piece came as the second Palestinian Intifada had bought terrorist violence to the cafes of Tel Aviv,  and as the Israeli security establishment, backed up by its neoconservative echo chamber in the States had begun to beat the war drum for invading Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein. (Jeffery Goldberg’s alarmist, badly-sourced New Yorker report on Saddam’s WMD program had been published just two months before.) It was also written in the shadow of rising anti Semitism, in the Arab world and in Europe. “All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews,” Wieseltier wrote. 

As if answering Netanyahu speech, Wieseltier denounces the historical view that  “every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy,” along with the idea that “there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war.” This kind of thinking “is a political argument disguised as a historical argument. It is designed to paralyze thought and to paralyze diplomacy.”

Whether Wielseltier will agree with the New York Times editorial board who scored the speech as “exploitative political theatre,” I think this essay suggests that he’ll appreciate the Netanyahu address more in terms of its  histrionic value than as an actionable assessment of history.

As Wieseltier so elegantly wrote:

Has history ever toyed so wantonly with a people as history toyed with the Jews in the 1940s? It was a decade of ashes and honey; a decade so battering and so emboldening that it tested the capacity of those who experienced it to hold a stable view of the world, to hold a belief in the world. When the light finally shone from Zion, it illuminated also a smoldering national ruin; and after such darkness, pessimism must have seemed like common sense, and a holy anger like the merest inference from life.

But it was in the midst of that turbulence, in 1948, that the scholar and man of letters Simon Rawidowicz published a great retort to pessimism, a wise and learned essay called "Am Ha-Holekh Va-Met," "The Ever-Dying People."

 "The world has many images of Israel," Rawidowicz instructed, "but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be. ... He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel's chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up. ... Often it seems as if the overwhelming majority of our people go about driven by the panic of being the last."

In its apocalyptic season, such an observation was out of season. In recent weeks I have thought often of Rawidowicz's mordant attempt to calm his brethren, to ease them, affectionately and by the improvement of their historical sense, out of their tradition of panic.

For there is a Jewish panic now. The savagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the rise in anti-Jewish words and deeds in Europe: All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews. And the Jews of the United States significantly exceed the Jews of Israel in this morbidity. The community is sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster. There is a loss of intellectual control. Death is at every Jewish door. Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere.

Wieseltier’s closing section argues that the real challenge, at least of that historical moment, is “To prepare oneself for the bad without preparing oneself for the worst.” The first requirement of security is to see clearly, he advises. "The facts, the facts, the facts; and then the feelings.”

… The acknowledgment of contemporary anti-Semitism must be followed by an analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism, so that the magnitude of the danger may be soberly assessed. Is the peril "as great, if not greater" than the peril of the 1930s? I do not see it

It is easier to believe that the world does not change than to believe that the world changes slowly. But this is a false lucidity. Racism is real and anti- Semitism is real, but racism is not the only cause of what happens to blacks and anti-Semitism is not the only cause of what happens to Jews. A normal existence is an existence with many causes. The bad is not always the worst. To prepare oneself for the bad without preparing oneself for the worst: This is the spiritual challenge of a liberal order.

The Jewish genius for worry has served the Jews well, but Hitler is dead. The confict between Israel and the Palestinians is harsh and long, but it is theology (or politics) to insist that it is a confict like no other, or that it is the end. The first requirement of security is to see clearly. The facts, the facts, the facts; and then the feelings.

Arafat is small and mendacious, the political culture of the Palestinians is fevered and uncompromising, the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo and Baghdad pander to their populations with anti-Semitic and anti-American poisons, the American government is leaderless and inconstant; but Israel remembers direr days.

Pessimism is an injustice that we do to ourselves. Nobody ever rescued themselves with despair. "An ever-dying people is an ever-living people," Rawidowicz sagely remarked. "A nation always on the verge of ceasing to be is a nation that never ceases to be." It is one of the lessons that we can learn from the last Jews who came before us.

No comments:

Post a Comment