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

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

Intermezzo — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

10 July 1922

To the editor of Kuntres:

My fellow music lovers in the Yishuv, tilling the land and laboring on the roads as they whistle and hum the works of the great composers, will no doubt be interested to hear of my encounter with the man who is perhaps the most notable of our nation’s musical representatives in the great cultural metropolis of Paris. However, they may be disturbed to hear that said representative is a broken man from a dying world.

The story begins with my arrival in Paris just last week, after the successful conclusion of my agronomy studies in Toulouse.

illustration by Avi Katz

Eager to sample what the great city had to offer, I immediately examined the billboards and proceeded to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (yes, the same place where, just nine years ago, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps caused a riot!) to hear a program of piano concerti. One of the pieces was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 2 in G major, and the other a work in E major by a composer I was not acquainted with, one Moritz Moszkowski.

I will reluctantly pass over a description of a wonderful performance of the Russian composer’s great work, which I am sure is familiar to all your readers. Some will complain that it is overly long, but I maintain that its every moment contributes to a whole that is a sublime expression of the Russian national spirit.

I could not have been more astounded to find that the conductor chose to follow up Tchaikovsky’s great work with a piece so devoid of weight that it simply wafted through the air of the concert hall like chaff thrown to the winds.

Read moreIntermezzo — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Counter-Demonstration– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Last Friday, as I mulled over whether to go to the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration, I came across a poem by Natan Zach that I clipped from the newspaper last summer. Zach, whose poems often find him alone in his apartment, afraid to connect and frozen in inaction, declares: “Greater is the courage to wait / Than the courage to pour out one’s heart.” Indeed. As has happened every Friday so far, I decided not to go, and then felt guilty for the rest of the weekend.

illustration by Avi Katz
By all rights I should be in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday. The cause is just and important. And it’s the in place to be for every self-respecting progressive Zionist. I’ve written op-eds, blog posts, and satires in support of the campaign to halt the eviction of Palestinian tenants from their East Jerusalem homes and against the idiotic policy of settling Jews in Arab neighborhoods. But I’ve got complex issues with political demonstrations. Every time I go to demonstrate, I feel like demonstrating against my fellow demonstrators.

I could tell the story of my life as a chronicle of demonstrations past, demonstrations missed, and demonstrations attended but regretted afterward.

Read moreCounter-Demonstration– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

For Whom the Pole Knells– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My friend Frank is a man unto himself, a person apart. He stands up for what he believes. He always tells me: “I countenance no compromises in the venue of values. I care about the indigent in India, about the glaciers in Greenland, and about the war-weary in Waziristan.”

illustration: Jerusalem Post
He is involved in mankind, but as a Jew he is particularly troubled about how Israel is falling short of his ideals. “I cannot be unconcerned,” he says, “about the ultimatums of the ultra-Orthodox, the subjugation of the Sephardim in Sderot, and the plight of the Palestinians.”

And he’s got a way with words. Sometimes his rhetoric sweeps me away and lodges in my head like a leitmotif that doesn’t let go. Still, Frank is sincerely concerned about my moral fiber, as a good friend should be.

“Every time you pick up your phone in benighted Baka to engage me in enlightened LA,” he always assures me, “I’ll be ready with compassionate counsel about how you should be living your life. I’ll keep you in line, ensuring that you’ll be a better human being and a more genuine Jew.”

While by now I’m used to Frank catching me off guard with precipitous pronouncements about how I should better my behavior and polish up my priorities, he staggered me when I Skyped him last week to wish him a sheyne Shmini Atzeret.

Read moreFor Whom the Pole Knells– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Hazony Today, Kuhn Tomorrow

Haim Watzman

Poor Thomas Kuhn . Superzionist, a.k.a. Yoram Hazony, author of the quirky The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, has drafted the author of the seminal but flawed classic of the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explain why everyone hates Israel.

I’m late in getting to Hazony’s essay, Israel Through European Eyes which he e-mailed to his fans last July 14. But it just reached me, through a series of forwards long enough to man every team in the World Cup. Like all of Hazony’s writing, it displays great erudition, has lots of footnotes, and makes some obvious points while parsing them all wrong.

Behind the excess philosophical baggage, Hazony says something that has been said before—that the antipathy that Europe, and especially Europe’s political left, displays toward Israel is deeply rooted in the Holocaust. Hazony correctly notes that Zionism and the European left learned two disparate lessons from Hitler’s genocidal program. Zionism claimed that no one would defend the Jews if they did not defend themselves, while the Europe emerged from World War II horrified at the death and destruction wrought by chauvinistic nationalism and concluded that national feelings were too dangerous to be left to politics.

The Zionists established a Jewish state, while the Europeans sought to create a pan-European political framework that would make it difficult for the fanatics of any one European nation (but those of Germany in particular) to persecute outsiders and to seek to impose hegemony on the entire continent. So we have Israel, and we have the European Union.

But Hazony can’t just say that.

Read moreHazony Today, Kuhn Tomorrow

My Very Own Genre

Haim Watzman Once again I’ve been called on to review a book about an American who served in the Israeli army. This time it’s stand-up comedian Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade, in The Jerusalem Report. (Four years ago I reviewed Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners in The Washington Post.) The American-in-the-Israeli-Army book has become an annual … Read more My Very Own Genre

Helen Thomas: The Proto-Palin

A guest post from my father, a former Washington correspondent by Sanford Watzman I didn’t know Sarah Palin then but I did know Helen Thomas and, believe me, Helen was a Sarah. I’m going back some 45 years when, as a correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I would sometimes attend a White House news … Read more Helen Thomas: The Proto-Palin

South Jerusalem Wins Moskowitz Prize!

South Jerusalem is proud to announce that Gershom Gorenberg and Haim Watzman have been awarded this year’s Moskowitz Prize for Zionism . The award is given each year to people who act “for the benefit of the common good in order to ensure the strength and resilience of the national Jewish homeland.” It’s a distinct … Read more South Jerusalem Wins Moskowitz Prize!

Where the Extremes of Zionism and Anti-Zionism Meet

Haim Watzman

Many of the comments on my post First Sheikh Jarrah, Then Baka?, here and at The Forward, constitute textbook examples of how the mere mention of Israel acts like a gravitational lens that bends the rays emanating from extreme Zionism and anti-Zionism until they merge into a single image.

Let’s take, as an exhibit on the anti-Zionist side, Phillips Brooks. Brooks argues that the land on which the state of Israel was created belonged to the Palestinians. Therefore, it is stolen. Therefore, Israel is founded on a crime. Therefore there is no difference between the land Israel took in 1948 and in 1967; it’s all stolen and held illegitimately and the Jews should return whence they came.

Now, that might sound like a voice of conscience to the unthinking. But if you think it through, it’s based on a concept of originalism that makes no sense in the real world. In other words, for Brooks’ logic to work, there has to be some particular point in history in which the world’s territory was divided up fairly between different nations. Then bad nations started conquering peaceful ones to gain territory. Peace and justice can be regained if everyone goes back to where they came from.

But of course there was no such point in history.

Read moreWhere the Extremes of Zionism and Anti-Zionism Meet

My Big Fat Iraqi Hummus Joint–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Hummus from Robobby's photo streamIlana’s got that look on her face.
“It’s August,” she says, “and all our friends are going to Corfu, Barcelona, and Antalya. But us?”
“If you wanted fancy European vacations, you shouldn’t have married a freelance writer,” I reply. Although, I have to admit there was something quite enticing about exploring the Island of Corfu in a rental car from
“J.K. Rowling is a freelance writer,” Ilana observes, “and I bet she’s not vacationing in Baghdad this summer.”
“Who wants to go where everyone’s going?” I say. “Seasoned travelers know that the best spots are the ones no one’s discovered yet. Besides, don’t you want to reclaim your inheritance?”
“A burned-out store in the shuk? What good is that going to do me?”
“It may not be much now, but it’ll be prime downtown property in a few years when Iraq is a flourishing Western-style democracy and staunch Israel ally.”

Read moreMy Big Fat Iraqi Hummus Joint–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

In Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

Haim Watzman

Is the cultural freedom of marginal and minority groups violated by the promotion of a standard central culture by a state or society? In contemporary sociology and cultural theory, “central” and “standard”—more often called “hegemonic”—are dirty words. Such scholarship, veering from the descriptive into the prescriptive, seeks to rescue the lost and oppressed voices of marginal groups and to defend them against the dictatorship of the official, mainstream culture.

     Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
I encounter this view frequently in scholarly works that I translate. Right now I’m pondering it as I work on the introduction to a book on the poetry of Israel’s Mizrahim—that is, of Israeli Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world—by Yochai Oppenheimer, a poet and writer about poetry.

Indisputably, when Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the great wave of immigration in the 1950s, they encountered a central Zionist culture that believed itself to represent the only viable future for the Jewish people. That culture rejected Jewish religious tradition, and drew considerable inspiration from modern Europe. It viewed the Orient, and its Jews in particular, as a backward and primitive place. Therefore, its leaders and doers were not, for the most part, interested in fostering or respecting the native culture of the new immigrants. Instead, it sought to assimilate the Arab Jews and make them into Hebrew-speaking moderns.

Read moreIn Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

My Day in Loyalty Court–“Necessary Stories” column, Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman “What number you got?” asked the puffy-eyed guy sitting in the metal chair next to me. He hadn’t shaved in two days, from the looks of it; his clothes were stained and his breath bad. Blue and white stripes flashed across the LCD screen hanging on the far wall of the Ministry of … Read more My Day in Loyalty Court–“Necessary Stories” column, Jerusalem Report