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On the Eve of Meeting Obama, Is Netanyahu Listening to Himself?

September 28th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

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 →]

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Between Two Catastrophes: Look at Syria, and Question Everyone’s Stories about 1948

September 28th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

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 →]

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Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

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

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at The American Prospect:

UNHCR map of Syrian refugees

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 →]

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Hooligan Oil — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

August 13th, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas

Haim Watzman

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

       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 →]

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Europe Draws The (Green) Line

July 18th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

My new article is up at the American Prospect:

Survey of Israel map 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 →]

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For Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

July 18th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

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 →]

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The Devil and Theodor Herzl — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

July 1st, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas

Haim Watzman

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

    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 →]

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On the Chutzpah of Serving Kneidel at a Spelling Bee

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 →]

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The War Next Door

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

Gershom Gorenberg

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 →]

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Revolution Until Imprisonment:

June 22nd, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Culture and Ideas, Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column at The American Prospect:

PosterSidney Rittenberg’s face fills the screen in a college auditorium where The Revolutionary is being shown. His eyebrows are bold brushstrokes of white above narrowed, intent eyes. His lips are firm. He has the wrinkles and gnarled neck of an old man. He does not, however, look like a man who is 90 years old, or like one battered by spending 16 of those years in solitary confinement in China for the offense, ultimately, of believing too deeply in the Party and the revolution. “If you put one drop into the long river of human history, that’s immortal … You either make a difference or you don’t make a difference,” Rittenberg says to the camera in his Southern gentleman’s drawl. This is his credo. Outside the auditorium windows, night has fallen. Rittenberg’s larger-than-life face is reflected, translucent, in the glass, as if his memory were speaking out of the darkness. “History,” he says wryly, “rolled right over me.” [Read more →]

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I Don’t Text on Shabbas

June 18th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece at The Daily Beast:

I was sitting in a café and talking to a friend on the phone while naturally checking text messages that kept popping up on the little screen, when I got a tweet with a link to Jonathan Safran Foer’s article, the one on how each new form of electronic communication leaves us less in touch, more alone. I was so captivated that I didn’t respond to several incoming emails, and my friend hung up. He was talking about his marriage, or maybe it was his divorce. Whatever. I wasn’t quite paying attention.

Most of our communication devices, Foer writes, began as “diminished substitutes” for activities that were otherwise impossible. The telephone allowed us to keep in touch when we were too far apart to talk; then the answering machine allowed us to talk when no one answered. Email eliminated the voice; text messages could be sent quicker but shrank the mail. Each invention communicates less, which people often treat as an advantage. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” Foer writes. To which I’d add: Each step forward marches us further into misunderstanding. The voice on the phone has no unhappy shrug of the shoulders; the email has no ironic tone; the text message has no room for politeness. And the more easily a message can be forwarded, the less wise it is to say anything that matters. [Read more →]

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Our Lady of the Wall — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

June 11th, 2013 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Haim Watzman

llustration by Pepe Fainberg

illustration by Pepe Fainberg

My back thudded on paving stones worn smooth by millions of pious Jewish feet. I cried out, gasping for air as a twelve-stone policewoman with a Meg Ryan coiffure sat herself on my chest and lit a cigarette. She seemed quite at east despite the chants of “Nazis!” “Heretics!” and “Anti-Semites” coming from the black-cloaked men and long-sleeved woman who were pressing forward in their battle to halt the desecration of the Kotel. Why not? They were not yelling at her.

Noticing that my face was turning blue, she shifted her weight off my diaphragm. I took a deep breath and she blew smoke into my face.

“I’m innocent!” I coughed before once again going into severe oxygen deprivation.

“Right. That’s what they all say.” She considered my Arapahoe Basin t-shirt and Levis. “Although you do stand out in this crowd.”

I shook my head and she lifted herself up ever so slightly. “Respirate,” she ordered [Read more →]

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