December 6th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
If you haven’t seen Moshe Feiglin’s satisfied smile or Ze’ev Elkin’s scowl in news coverage of Israel over the past week, you have evidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be grateful for the U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood: It has diverted attention from his Likud Party’s choice of far-right candidates for parliament.
Israel goes to the polls on January 22. Conventional wisdom is that the election can bring no change: Netanyahu will stay on for another term as prime minister, heading a coalition of the right. This is an illusion, or at least a distortion. Barring a miracle—a world-class gaffe or scandal, a public threat from the Obama administration to reevaluate relations with Israel, a preternatural move by the parties of the left and center to unite—the next prime minister will indeed be Netanyahu. But not the soft cuddly Netanyahu of the past. [Read more →]
December 3rd, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My latest post at The Daily Beast:
“Counterproductive.” That’s the adjective that National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor used to describe the Israeli government’s first reprisal for the U.N. vote on Palestine: announcing that Israel was moving ahead on plans for a neighborhood linking Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, and authorizing 3,000 new homes for Israelis beyond the Green Line. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, choosing her words as carefully, said the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior cabinet forum had “set back the cause of a negotiated peace.”
Washington is a long way from Israel, culturally even more than physically. In the polite diplomatic tones of Washington, these statements were meant as harsh censure. But the Obama administration needs to know that something got seriously lost in transmission. Here on the east edge of the Mediterranean, the message was that President Obama was practically campaigning for Netanyahu’s reelection.
Harsh censure makes sense. Besides opposing settlement in general, the United States rightly objects to developing the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Construction there will create a wall of Israeli settlement virtually cutting the West Bank in two.
So why doesn’t the administration’s intent come across? First, because polite diplomatic understatement is not a language widely spoken in Israel. Second, saying that Netanyahu is making it harder to achieve a two-state solution is not a terribly sharp criticism. That’s what he wants to do, and the Israeli electorate knows it.
Third, American administrations have been rebuking Israel with similar understatement since the first cabinet approval of a settlement in the West Bank in September 1967. Back then, a State Department spokesman said the move was “inconsistent with the Israeli position as we understand it.” These words did not prevent establishment of that settlement, Kfar Etzion. The government project of settlement-building has continued ever since, and polite American objections have become background noise. …
Read the rest here.
November 9th, 2012 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
The third and final of my guest posts on the Jewish Book Council’s Prosenpeople blog.
Are Israeli guys real men? Yes, I mean the tank commanders and pilots and infantry sergeants. The ones who are viewed in so many places as the type specimens of the tough macho Jew.
That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret’s short story “Cocked and Locked,” about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.
Read the rest on “The Prosenpeople”
Tags: Etgar Keret·gays in the military·IDF·masculinity
November 7th, 2012 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
The second of this week’s guest posts on the Jewish Book Council’s ProsenPeople blog.
“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that… (continue reading on The ProsenPeople)
November 5th, 2012 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
I’m guest blogging this week on the Jewish Book Council’s “The Prosenpeople” and My Jewish Learning’s “Members of the Scribe” blogs.
My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night. … Read the rest on Members of the Scribe or on The Prosenpeople .
Tags: elections·Jewish Book Council
October 31st, 2012 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
Written while reading Jane Austen at election time
Mr. Gary Melman, of Lowry, in Denver, was a man, who for his own amusement, never took up anything but the Wall Street Journal, there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there is faculties were roused into admiration and respect for the resourceful and responsible; there any unwelcome sensations arising from the state of the economy, the terrorist threat, and the future of the state of Israel changed naturally into anger at and contempt for the man in the White House.
Mrs. Beverly Melman was a wife of very superior character, an excellent woman, sensible and amiable, whose had humored, or softened, or when necessary headed off her husband’s habit of collaring strangers on the street and telling them in no uncertain terms that, in his long career as a job-creating small businessman, he had never had the such displeasure with a president, a man who sought to raise taxes on the income brackets to which Melman had long aspired to accede.
When Gary Melman met the then Miss Beverly Freund at a dorm Halloween cider and keg party during their senior year at the University of Washington in St. Louis, he had been quite taken with her perky smile and the manner in which she had, when Gary inadvertently vomited on the carpet, politely looked away and engaged in an animated conversation about the weather with his roommate Norman the Geek [Read more →]
Tags: election 2012·Jane Austen·Obama·satire
Drafting the ultra-Orthodox is a diversion. It’s more important for their kids to learn math and English
Prospect Magazine in the UK has posted my portrait of the crisis facing Israel’s haredim – and all the rest of us.
“The system just isn’t relevant to life,” says Asher Gold. He wears black trousers, a black velvet skullcap, and a pale lavender shirt, one shade from white, one shade away from the standard dress of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish male. The other four young men at the table are more circumspect about dissidence; they wear white shirts. The café where they’ve chosen to meet me is in a courtyard one flight down from street level in a Jerusalem commercial district: a place both public and removed from sight, appropriate for scathing words.
Gold, 25, is talking about the accepted course of ultra-Orthodox life in Israel, in which men devote much or all of adulthood to religious study rather than to making a living. “At some stage a person looks at the situation and says, ‘This just cannot continue,’” he says. “‘No one is throwing loaves of bread from heaven. You have to go to work.’”
“The manna,” says Elimelech, another of the men, “isn’t coming down.”
“There was an ideal society, a society that can’t exist in the real world, and yet it existed,” says a third.
“People lived in a utopia,” says Gold, “until the reality shattered.”
Other Israelis would dismiss the assertion that ultra-Orthodox society was ever a utopia, noting that the manna that feeds it comes not from heaven, but from the government, and that too much is still falling. But they would not disagree that ultra-Orthodoxy as lived in Israel has become unsustainable. [Read more →]
September 30th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My latest column at the Daily Beast:
All the talk about war with Iran didn’t make me nervous, even during the past year, when Benjamin Netanyahu has talked about the uselessness of sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear program day and night, when carefully placed leaks in American papers predicted Israeli air strikes in the spring or, when spring was past, before the U.S. election, when Israeli military experts have warned that not only Iran but also Hizbollah and Hamas could retaliate with missiles against Israeli cities, when analysts have discussed whether the Assad regime in Syria would welcome the diversion and rain chemical weapons on us, when Netanyahu declared he was ready to take full responsibility before the commission of inquiry that would follow the war as inevitably as Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah.
I stayed calm because I remembered how Israel prepared in the past for a potential attack on its cities. That was in late 1990, as the U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait approached and we wondered whether Saddam Hussein’s missiles would have chemical warheads. Within weeks, the IDF supplied gas masks to everyone in the country. During the recent tensions, in contrast, distribution of gas masks has been lackadaisical. Ergo, Netanyahu’s bellicosity was posturing, intended to put pressure on Washington.
Lately, though, I’ve realized that Netanyahu may really be committed to war. [Read more →]
The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might have come from a second-hand shop and a dusty black kipah. He stroked his short beard as he walked up and down the rows of graves as the ox plows, stopping for a few beats at each to read the headstone. In the row in front of me he had to detour around t-shirt and shorts-clad twenty-somethings from a Birthright group, listening to a guide I couldn’t hear. Finally he arrived at the last full row, the one where I sat, with the lawn in front of it waiting for new tragedies.
He nodded at me, hugging himself. I nodded back. After a moment of hesitation he spoke.
“It’s cold here in Jerusalem,” he said
I shrugged. “Here we’re used to the seasons starting to change the week before Rosh Hashannah. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?”
“Tiberias,” he said. “Also Sura.”
I looked at him quizzically. “You mean the one just west of the Euphrates?” [Read more →]
Tags: Bar Zabda·Bavli·mourning·Sukkot·Talmud
It’s About Policy, Not Charity
My latest at The Daily Beast, on why “getting government out of the way” defies Judaism’s insistence on social solidarity:
Allow me to talk about Sodom again.
A few weeks ago, I argued on this page that the Republican Party is committed to the “quality of Sodom” as that quality is described in Judaism: the conviction that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Sodom, I wrote, is Jewish shorthand for a polity where redistribution of wealth is seen as immoral, where the government’s role is to protect private property but not but not to insure the well-being of the people.
Despite provoking some fire-and-brimstone responses, I didn’t plan to look back at Sodom. But Mitt Romney has since chosen a veep candidate, Paul Ryan, who was an acolyte of Ayn Rand, apparently until he noticed her atheism. Together, they’re running on a platform of cutting taxes for the rich and cutting holes in the safety net for the sick and old. More than ever, what the Republicans are offering runs counter to a Jewish understanding of just politics. Allow me to answer a couple of objections to that claim. …
The more trenchant and subtle criticism was that Republicans aren’t bad people. A blogger at Commentary argued that conservatives give generously to charity. They just want government to get out of the way so that individuals can do well and choose to help others. [Read more →]
September 13th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Israel has managed to outsource the occupation—until now.
My latest in The American Prospect:
Thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. In Hebron, demonstrators burn an effigy. In Tul Karm, Ramallah, and other cities, they block streets and set tires ablaze. Teens hurl stones. All of the West Bank’s bus, truck, and taxi drivers go on strike for a day. In Bethlehem, truckers park sideways, blocking streets. In Nablus, kindergarten teachers join the strike; elsewhere storekeepers shut their shops. Universities announce they, too, will strike.
These are updates from the West Bank over the past week. They sound as if taken from the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel 25 years ago. But the leader burned in effigy in Hebron was Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government in Ramallah, rather than Israel, is the direct target of protest. Economic frustration sparked the fury. This sounds like a variation on revolts in other Arab states—except the Palestinian Authority isn’t an independent state. Set up as to provide short-term, limited autonomy until a peace agreement, it has become the lasting means by which Israel outsources its rule over Palestinians in occupied territory. Donor countries foot the budget; the PA provides local services. Israel’s current government acts as if the arrangement can last forever. The protests show how unstable it really is. [Read more →]
September 13th, 2012 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
And here’s my take on the slightly unhinged discussion of Jerusalem’s place in the Democratic Party’s platform:
When I first read that the Democratic platform said nothing about Jerusalem, I was quite impressed. Quietly, by omission, the party had brought a moment of honesty to the fantasy-ridden American political discussion about Israel.
Alas, honesty is ephemeral. Republican attacks, news editors eager for a daily controversy, and Democratic wimpishness have defeated it. In Wednesday night’s voice vote, the Democrats added some words to the platform: “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel … It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.” The first part is an implied promise that after re-election, Barack Obama will officially recognize Jerusalem’s status as capital and move the U.S. embassy there. The second piece pretends that Jerusalem is presently united and accessible to all.
This is hallucinatory for at least three reasons: First, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, independent of what is or isn’t written in American party platforms. Second, no American administration will formally recognize it as the capital before an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Third, virtually no one in America will decide how to vote based on this issue. [Read more →]