February 10th, 2014 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
April 15, 1492
To her most royal Catholic highness, Isabella, Queen of Castille and Leon:
The Genoan madman who bears this letter assured me that he will be received into your august presence this very week. Knowing, as I do, how intelligent you are and how efficient you always have been in acquitting your duties as sovereign, I cannot give much credence to the claims of this man whose breath smells of sausage and whose speech consists mostly of arm-waving. But at this point I am desperate and have no other prospect for conveying a message to court.
illustration by Avi Katz
I perhaps may take credit for teaching you to first read the second paragraph of every document as a way of deciding whether it is worth your time, so let me get to the point. I have been incarcerated this fortnight in a so-called open detention facility somewhere in Andalusia, on the grounds that I am an illegal infiltrator into your majesty’s kingdom.
You may recall that at the end of last month I requested your leave to travel to outlying areas of your realm to ensure that your highness’s taxes are being collected efficiently. Just outside of Toledo I was abducted by a gang of gendarmes claiming to be in Your Majesty’s service. They served me with a warrant for my arrest—which I am sure was fabricated by Her Majesty’s enemies, or perhaps by lackeys of your most royal but not always very sharp husband, who could easily have been tricked into signing a document unread—on the grounds that I reside in Spain illegally. [Read more →]
Tags: Abravanel·Christopher Columbus·illegal immigrant·Inquisition·Refugees·satire·Spanish Jewry
February 6th, 2014 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
… and my latest column is also up @theprospect:
Outside of being celebrities and having Jewish mothers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Scarlett Johansson aren’t usually thought of having a lot in common. But they’ve been displaying another shared quality of late: the ability to act clueless about the suddenly snowballing economic boycott of Israeli settlements.
To be fair, it’s a lot more likely that Netanyahu is the one putting on an act. Johansson sincerely appeared to have little idea about what she was getting into when she agreed to be the straw-sipping poster girl of SodaStream, the Israeli maker of home fizzy-drink devices that produces wares in the industrial park of a West Bank settlement. “I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement… or stance,” she said in a press statement responding to criticism of her role advertising the firm. This sounds painfully naïve: Nothing having to do with Israeli settlements in occupied territory comes packaged without a political stance, but Johansson may have noticed this only after the ink was dry on the contract. Politics isn’t her profession.
It is Netanyahu’s trade, though. So when he responded to a comment by John Kerry as if the secretary of state had personally threatened Israel with economic sanctions, either Netanyahu knew better or he should have. [Read more →]
My review of John Judis’s “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” is now online at The American Prospect:
On May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.”
Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has. [Read more →]
January 10th, 2014 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
On Sunday morning it seemed that Israeli scientists, or perhaps John Kerry, had learned how to do personality transplants. The first operation was reserved for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, heretofore the growling voice of unreconstructed Israeli ultra-nationalism.
“I want to express my true appreciation of the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who works day and night … to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Lieberman told a conference of Israeli ambassadors who were home from posts around the world. Kerry’s positions on a peace agreement, Lieberman added, were better than “any alternative proposal that Israel will receive from the international community.”
Two days earlier, Lieberman had met with Kerry and issued an upbeat statement declaring that the American-brokered negotiations “must continue.” Was this the same man who began his first term as foreign minister in 2009 by declaring that the previous round of U.S.-sponsored talks—the ones between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas—were over, dead, and that Israeli concessions would only bring “pressures and more war”? That declaration fit the Lieberman we knew before and set the tone for everything he said after. Had one magical conversation with Kerry transformed him?
Well, not completely, and probably very little at all. In the same conference this week with Israeli diplomats, the foreign minister said that his “basic condition” for supporting an agreement with the Palestinians was an “exchange of territory and population.” This is the Lieberman we know, and his demand is one that Kerry, much less the Palestinians, cannot accept.
There are two ways to understand Lieberman’s sudden change in tone toward peace talks. One reading is that Lieberman is in the first stages of becoming a recovered right-winger—a hawk who finally notices that the status quo of occupation can’t go on….
Read the rest here.
December 31st, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
She laughed and shook her head as she unrolled the clingy plastic from around her slug-shaped sandwich. Down below, raucous teenagers gamboled in a spring that seemed to be the source of the river along which she and her companions had hiked all morning. She laughed at how easy it had been not to think about it, how well her plan had gone. Her companions were no longer visible ahead. Soon they’d wonder about her and send someone back in search. In the meantime, she’d have something to eat.
illustration by Avi Katz
The rains had not yet come, yet the Tzipori River had flowed gently but surely along its terraced channel as they walked beside it that morning. At one point it bowed and nearly circled a low hill on which a tiny village perched. Children played in a schoolyard. The leader had given the village a name that she could no longer remember. Further on was an old millhouse that you could now rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs. There the trail had crossed the river (all of three meters wide) and she had followed the others over half-submerged stones. The water, which the leader said was partly sewage, washed over her boots. Last to cross, she had probed the riverbed with her poles to steady herself. She thought of turning back but did not.
She hadn’t hiked seriously since her teenage scout years, which were three decades past by now. Back then, at tough spots, like the river crossing, the boys were always ready and eager to help. Some were very serious about it, as if pulling her up a boulder or guiding her over a narrow spot in a path above a canyon was the very reason that they had been placed on this earth. Others had laughed at her fears, in a big-brotherly way (she was the oldest in her family, and had always wanted a big brother). In this group, today, the others were obliging but cool.
She signed up for the hike because she knew it would be good for her. [Read more →]
Tags: Israel Trail·Israeli fiction
December 20th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Photo by Gershom Gorenberg
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
They simply left.
As soon as they got the chance, the refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan and from Eritrea walked out of the guarded camp in the Negev desert and marched north in bitter winter weather toward Jerusalem. There they stood Tuesday afternoon, on an icy sidewalk facing the Knesset, holding up brown cardboard signs with handwritten slogans, chanting in eerily subdued voices halfway between determination and desperation, until they were arrested, manhandled onto buses and sent back to the desert.
This is the condensed version of the refugees’ dramatic three-day protest this week. It is also a condensed version of their lives: They are people—young men, almost all—who made the dangerous decision to leave their countries because staying was even more dangerous. They headed north into Egypt, then crossed the Sinai desert into Israel, hoping for freedom and safety, and were imprisoned as “infiltrators.” But the end of the protest this week is not the end of story. The battle continues—not just between the refugees and immigration authorities, but also between Israeli human rights advocates and a government with contempt for constitutional restraints. [Read more →]
December 2nd, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
illustration by Avi Katz
Ilana elbowed me and eyed the couple sitting to our left in the Hirsch Theater. Shaken out of the reverie brought on by the Tarshiha Orchestra’s rendition of Um Kulthum’s hit song “Raq al-Habib
,” “The Servitude of Love,” I followed her gaze. The woman to my left was tapping out a text message on her Android as she whispered to her husband, who had a large knitted blue-and-white kipah on his head.
“Hadas,” she said, apparently in response to his question.
“Did you tell her?” he asked.
“Doing it right now,” she nodded.
I caught her eye and put a finger to my lips. I also pointed to the phone, as if to say that the glow was distracting me. She shrugged and muttered “Almost done.”
“Did she say anything about Ya’akov? Why he didn’t come home?”
The young woman who was standing in for the late great Egyptian chanteuse finished the song with a flourish and the audience cheered. Nasim Dawkar, the concert master and conductor, called another member of the chorus up to the solo microphone to sing another song composed by Muhammad al-Qasabgi, to whose works the night’s concert was dedicated. The woman at the mike, plump and heavily made up, launched into an Um Kulthum favorite, “Inta ‘Omri
,” “You are My Life.” Ilana smiled and mouthed the words silently—it’s a song her mother used to sing to her and which Ilana sang to our own children.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Arab music. Now I know why it sounded like annoying noise at first—it’s based on an entirely different scale than music in the West, [Read more →]
Tags: Arabic music·Israeli fiction·Tarshiha Orchestra·Um Kulthum
November 25th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
To explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife’s desk.
Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having “defense kits” in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they’re a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat.
What’s more, they’re apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was successfully reducing Syria’s poison-gas arsenal. In other words, the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is working, and one result is a significant improvement in Israeli security.
To put it mildly, this isn’t what Prime Minister Netanyahu expected in September when President Barack Obama opted for a diplomatic solution rather than a punitive attack on the Assad regime for using chemical arms. [Read more →]
The American ambassador wearily removed a cleaning cloth from the black case he’d placed on the prime minister’s desk. He shook it open, gazed sadly at the dust that danced in the beam of the ceiling light, puffed on his lenses, and rubbed the cloth over them. Holding his glasses up to the light, considered the flexible frames that had cost him an arm and a leg, and saw that they were still smudged. But at this point he no longer cared. Perhaps, he thought, Israel’s leader was better viewed blurrily. The prime minister seemed to be shouting in a deep, throaty voice.
illustration by Avi Katz
“Come on everybody, clap your hands!” the blurry premier seemed to be saying. “Are you lookin’ good?”
The ambassador tried to collect his thoughts. He knew he did not look good at all, and this did not seem to be the prime minister’s voice.
He felt two strong hands grab his and pull him out of his chair. “We’re gonna do the twist and it goes like this!” the voice explained.
“Weren’t we talking about American aid?” he mumbled as the body before him gyrated like a dervish with an inner ear infection.
Then he saw that the voice was coming not from the prime minister but from the large plasma screen on which the pm generally monitored the BBC for anti-Semitic news coverage. A black man in a suit was singing: “Yeah, let’s twist again, twistin’ time is here!” [Read more →]
Tags: Israeli political satire·rock and roll·twist
October 22nd, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Judaism and Religion
Ye of little faith: There is a job for you in the rabbinic bureaucracy
My new post is up at the Daily Beast:
The legitimacy index of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has just taken another plunge. That is, the state rabbinate has reduced the number of rabbis from outside its own bureaucracy whom it considers legitimate, and the number of people whom it trusts as being legitimately Jewish.
And, in the process, the Chief Rabbinate has shown yet again that there is no legitimate reason for its own existence.
The latest development: As reported in the New York Jewish Week, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from prominent American Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss affirming that two U.S. Jews wanting to marry in Israel are indeed Jewish and single. In the past, the rabbinate accepted Weiss’s letters. No longer. Speaking to the Jewish Week’s Michele Chabin, Weiss said the rabbinate’s reduced-trust policy affected “many rabbis”—by which he surely meant Orthodox rabbis, since the Chief Rabbinate already treated letters from non-Orthodox clergy as paper rendered worthless by the ink on it.
Weiss also speculated that he’d personally been blackballed because of “politics,” meaning his role in pushing for a more religiously liberal form of Orthodoxy. (Among other things, Weiss had the beautiful chutzpah to ordain Orthodox women.) It’s also possible that Weiss just doesn’t appear on a Chief Rabbinate whitelist of rabbis deemed sufficiently terrified of accidentally certifying a non-Jew as Jewish. [Read more →]
October 17th, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.
illustration by Avi Katz
When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”
Shlomo started laughing again. He shook his head. “That’s real talent,” he chuckled. “It takes real talent to tell a joke like that well. I mean, I can just picture them, the babushka and the rabbi and the convent girl! Where’d you learn to tell a joke that way?” [Read more →]
Tags: Holocaust·Israeli fiction·kapo·War of Independence·war story
October 13th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My latest column at The American Prospect debunks new and old arguments that a one-state solution will work because nationalism is dead:
From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D’Europa—”Catalonia, A New State in Europe.”
I’d taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali’s personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona’s medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer’s time off can so easily become a busman’s holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick’s very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism was passé, the great historian of modern Europe wrote; nation-states had been replaced by “pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural… as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.”
In Catalonia, as any visitor to Girona or Barcelona will know, nationalism is alive and very 21st-century. [Read more →]