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 →]
October 13th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My recent piece at The Daily Beast brings new evidence that the government presented a deceptive cover story to the Supreme Court about the building of Road 443.
I arrived back in Israel on a pre-dawn flight and decided to take the minibus shuttle to Jerusalem rather than splurging on a taxi. At that hour, it took time for the van to fill. I stood on the sidewalk, happy not to be breathing airplane cabin air. Just when some German tourists showed up to take the last seats, I noticed the writing on the side of the shuttle, advertising that it took Road 443. Unhappy at the prospect of making the other passengers wait for another traveler to show up, I climbed in, and spent the ride home feeling even more unhappy about the route.
As a journalist covering settlements, I can’t avoid West Bank roads. In fact, no Jerusalemite can really avoid highways cutting through occupied territory; the main route from Tel Aviv to the capital briefly crosses the Green Line. But I have a particular distaste for 443, the secondary route, a highway built on layers of deception. And practically the last thing I’d done before vacation was digging through the most recently declassified layers.
Earlier posts at South Jerusalem on the Road 443 deception:
Road 443, for those unfamiliar with the local geography, runs from the town of Lod into the West Bank hills to the north end of Jerusalem. Israel built it in the 1980s, partly along the route of an older road that connected Palestinian villages with Ramallah.
Highways take up space, and the Israeli military expropriated land from local Palestinians. Some of them petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, arguing that the road served Israeli transportation needs, and that International law doesn’t allow an occupying power to seize property for its own benefit. The state’s answer was that the project was really meant to give the growing Palestinian population a modern highway. The court accepted the state’s claims at face value. …
Read the rest here.
September 28th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
As the prime minister prepares for his next White House appointment, my latest piece at The American Prospect lays out the weaknesses in Bibi’s position on Iran:
When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling Monday, I doubt he’ll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren’t in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.
Netanyahu’s political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama’s electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.
Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu’s goals are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu’s stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins. [Read more →]
September 28th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My latest column is up at The Daily Beast:
Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn’t news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.
That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren’t living in vast tent cities; they’re in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I’m told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.
There are also lessons about 1948 to be learned—very carefully—from today’s crisis. Not that history repeats itself. The Syrian catastrophe can’t resolve arguments about what happened 65 years ago. It can, however, raise necessary questions about the narratives that both Israelis and Palestinians tell about 1948. [Read more →]
September 14th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering
My new piece is up at The American Prospect:
Two million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria’s poison-gas arsenal.
Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East’s wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war.
Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement. [Read more →]
August 13th, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
Hooligan oil? Did you say hooligan oil? I’m so sorry, I was deep into this letter from my sister back east, I didn’t even hear you come into the store. It’s so quiet this time of day, in the early afternoon, sometimes I just close up and go for a walk.
illustrations by Avi Katz
Alaska’s spring is so beautiful this year, the lupines are blooming early and it’s simply glorious. I always tell my girls, Sarah, Minnie, I say, there is so much to look at in this world, I mean irises the color of the purple of Sidon. Turn your gaze on them, not on Harry and Joe, the ships’ boys on the passenger steamer from Dyea. You might notice that the irises, unlike Harry and Joe, don’t have pimples. Max, Simon, I say, don’t walk with your eyes on the ground, look around you, see what an Eden God has given you here in Skagway.
Now let me see, hooligan oil, not many people ask for that any more, but you know that they used to call it “liquid gold,” before they discovered the solid stuff it was made the natives’ fortune, such as they had. I know some women who say it prevents wrinkles, but others can’t stand the smell. Once Max, he is only twelve but a true rascal, got hold of a bunch of those fish, hung them from the rafters in their bedroom, and lit the tails. Nearly burned the house down! He said that he wanted to see if what the old-timers said was true, that you could use the fish as candles. You want to be scientists, I’ll send you to Harvard, I say. No experiments at home. But better they should study medicine. It’s one profession where we people can make our mark, where we get some respect.
No need to say it in such a low voice. Nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, Jews. [Read more →]
Tags: Alaska·fiction·Gimbels·Gold Rush·Skagway
July 18th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new article is up at the American Prospect:
This is the chronicle of a crisis foretold years in advance,” said the Israeli ex-ambassador to Germany, in that petulant tone of a diplomat working very hard not to sound infuriated. Shimon Stein was trying to explain new European Union sanctions against Israeli settlements. Neither journalists nor politicians should sound so shocked by the EU move, he lectured the anchor of state radio’s morning news program. He was right, but he was trying to outshout a hurricane of public anger and disbelief. The anchor herself had begun the show with a riff of indignant surprise that the EU considered her Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem to be a settlement.
Of course, the EU position has consistently been that the country called Israel is defined by its pre-1967 borders, or Green Line—and that anything built beyond those borders is not part of Israel. The sanctions are designed to give more teeth to that position. Under new budget guidelines, EU bodies must make sure not to fund any Israeli activities in occupied territory. Any future agreements between the European Union and Israel must explicitly state that they apply only within the pre-’67 lines. Let’s be clear: This is not an economic boycott of Israel, nor a declaration that Israel is an apartheid state. Rather, the EU is drawing the distinction between legitimate Israel and illegitimate settlements with a thick marker. In the sanctions debate, the Europeans are taking a moderate stance: pro-Israel, anti-occupation. [Read more →]
I explain why in my latest piece at The Daily Beast:
The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there’s anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it’s the idea of official state Judaism.
The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia’s choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to “putting an idol in the Temple.” On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. “Anti-Semites” would be much too soft a translation.
None of this has added any honor to Judaism. [Read more →]
Herzl carefully adjusted his mouse-gray gloves and followed the young secretary through a massive door held open by a uniformed footman.
“Mr. Herzl, Your Excellency,” the secretary said crisply, standing as stiff as a sentry at a military tomb.
illustration by Avi Katz
The man at the desk carefully penned notes in the margins of a document. His desk testified to his assiduous and deliberate character. Dossiers and documents were piled to the Interior Minister’s left, a large brass telephone with a wooden housing stood at his right hand. In front of him, partly blocking Herzl’s view of his host’s gray head, were the gilded accoutrements of a high imperial official—two tall candlesticks, two inkwells, a paperweight in the shape of a crouching lion, and a small, triumphant angel that served, it seemed, as a pen stand. All were carefully polished; they glinted in dappled August sunlight that filtered in through the oak outside a north-facing bay window. Behind the desk hung a large portrait of Czar Alexander III and a smaller icon of St. Mary Magdalene. Herzl felt faint and his beard itched. But he steeled himself. [Read more →]
June 25th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Culture and Ideas
As you may remember, the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States stirred up a storm in a soup pot when it asked contestants for the one correct English spelling of the Yiddish word for matzah balls. The Scripps spelling czars, working from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, said the word must be spelled knaidel and only knaidel. The YIVO Institute For Jewish Research said that the proper spelling, as per YIVO’s transliteration method, is kneydl.
The New York Times, misreporting on the fuss, said that “historically,” YIVO’s spelling was the “preferred” one. The Times didn’t say who preferred it, besides the mavens at YIVO. Asserting that there’s just one right way to write a Yiddish word in English, as I tweeted at the time, requires chutzpah, or hutzpa, or maybe ħutzpah, or perhaps hutzpah.
My 140 characters eventually reached my son, somewhere in the Himalayas. He wrote back (with a laptop on which he needed to make some small substitutions in the international phonetic alphabet):
Yehonatan Avraham Gorenberg
Besides the absurdity of putting this word in the spelling bee, there are a few points that YIVO seems to have missed:
The general point: Precise transliteration is impossible because languages are different phonetically and alphabets vary in their use of the letters. The international phonetic sign for Hebrew’s fricative kaf is the Greek letter chei, almost identical to x. If we used x to transliterate the Hebrew sound, native English readers would read it as ks. But x is useful for transliterating the latter consonant combination, which is common in Greek and Nepali (Sanskrit ksh). In old Spanish and Malti (and sometimes in Portuguese), x is used for sh. If we use ch for the fricative kaf, we cause the reader to confuse it with an existing English sound. Yet this is the most common transliteration. If we use kh, we create confusion with transliterations of Tibetan and Indian languages, in which the sound k+h is common. In fact, that was apparently the classical Greek value of chei in the first place.
The obvious Jewish point: Hebrew words are a large component of high-register Yiddish, and of Yiddish in general. Yiddish has indeed affected the pronunciation of these words in American English. However, transliteration is often based on the original Hebrew, especially with religious terms. So even if Americans Jews say xa:nikə (or some, ha:nikə), [Read more →]
June 25th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Horrifying as the Syrian civil war is, Israel’s best policy option is to stay out
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
In an age-long past—we’re talking about more than two years ago—the country to Israel’s northeast was ruled by a stable but despotic regime. After the battering that it took in its 1973 war with Israel, Syria carefully kept the de facto border quiet. But the regime outsourced the conflict to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that the bloodletting between the countries never really stopped. Meanwhile the ruling Assad dynasty stockpiled missiles and poison gas.
It would be hard to say that anyone in Israel is exactly nostalgic for those bad old days. Then again, it’s hard to find anyone who expects better days ahead. The first thing that a local Syria-watcher or ex-general will tell you is that the Israeli government hasn’t managed to decide what it wants to see happen in Syria. The second thing that she or he will say is that this doesn’t really matter: Israel can’t influence the outcome, and all the realistic possibilities look awful. Right now, even the meager hope for a stable regime in Damascus, no matter how anti-Israel, sounds utopian. The direct, public involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war hasn’t significantly changed this pessimistic perspective. [Read more →]