For My Money, I’ll Take the Al-Kuwaitis

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at the Daily Beast:

I bought a pair of tickets to Dudu Tassa and the Andalusia Orchestra performing the works of Tassa’s grandfather and great-uncle, the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, the forgotten Jewish maestros of Baghdad. The tickets set me back two Yitzhak Ben-Tzvis, the equivalent of one Zalman Shazar, which is to say two 100-shekel bills or one 200-shekel bill. By next year, when Israel’s new banknotes are in circulation, that will be two Leah Goldbergs or one Nathan Alterman. Poets are replacing politicians on our money.

The concert cost considerably less than classical European music does at the same Jerusalem hall. Marginalized culture comes at a discount, and its icons don’t appear on cash. The chances that portraits of Daud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti will ever adorn a 200-shekel bill seem slim. But you never know. After much controversy, Jerusalem has named a street after dissident philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The gates of commemoration are forever open.

The Leibowitz fuss had barely ended when the shouting about the banknotes began. Last week, at the Bank of Israel’s request, the cabinet voted to approve the new bills.

Read more

Yeshayahu Leibowitz Is Not a Street Name

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at the Daily Beast:

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, by Bracha L. Ettinger, via Creative Commons

Yeshayahu Leibowitz
(Bracha L. Ettinger)


Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. The street was named by Menachem Ussishkin himself. An early Zionist leader, prideful, pugnacious, Ussishkin headed the Jewish National Fund for nearly 20 years. In 1931 he built an imposing house on what was then Yehudah Halevi Street, named for the 12th century philosopher-bard. All the streets in the new neighborhood of Rehaviah were named for poets and philosophers of the Spanish Golden Age. For his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided to honor himself. He ordered JNF workers to remove all the signs saying “Yehudah Halevi” and replace them with ones that bore his own name. And so the name of the street is Ussishkin unto this day.

You can’t imagine Yeshayahu Leibowitz doing this. If Leibowitz knew that city council members would one day propose naming a street after him and that the proposal would cause so much loud opposition that the mayor would have to drop it from the agenda, as happened last week, he would have felt honored by the controversy: The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Memorial Upheaval.

The last time I visited Leibowitz was 19 years ago, on Israeli Memorial Day, 1994. I came to his home to pick up a handwritten article

Read more

Refuge Beyond Reach

Gershom Gorenberg

And now, from somewhere else. My new article on Australia’s controversy over boat people is up at The American Prospect:

Hikmat wore small frameless glasses and a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, and the dark waves of his hair were combed perfectly. He looked as if he might have just stepped out of the office of his export firm in Karachi. In fact, it’s been nearly three years since he fled Pakistan. His uncle, a Taliban supporter, had been trying to extort money from him for the organization, and saw him and his wife as “infidels”: Hikmat was clean-shaven; his wife wore no hijab. Twice, gunmen ambushed him on the street. The first time, bullets ripped his intestines; he spent two years in the hospital. After surviving a second shooting, he left his homeland.

Hikmat met me at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. The nonprofit works out of a converted house in Surry Hills, a gentrifying neighborhood of bike paths, cafés, and spreading eucalyptus trees. He came to Australia, Hikmat said, because he could to get a short-term business visa quickly and bring his wife and three children with him. Afterward they applied for asylum. They live in housing provided by a church-funded group. He’s 44 years old, beginning to gray. Starting over in business requires money he doesn’t have. On and off, he works as a security guard.

Among refugees here, Hikmat is a lucky man.

Read more

Vote For Me—I’ve Done Nothing

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The Daily Beast:

Avigdor Lieberman quit last Friday as foreign minister a few moments before Shabbat began, the preferred timing for Israeli politicians to do something uncomfortable and hold news coverage to a minimum. Lieberman’s goal was to keep his resignation a non-issue. It was a gambit entirely in keeping with the surrealistically issueless non-campaign that he and his senior partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are conducting on the way to the January 22 election.

The day before, Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein announced that after an investigation so long that no one agrees when it began, prosecutors had too weak a case to indict Lieberman for laundering millions of dollars allegedly received from foreign millionaires while he held public office. (One witness has had a stroke, another committed suicide, a third recanted…) But Weinstein did say he would indict Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust in a cover-up of one small piece of the larger case. A legal battle before the Supreme Court on whether the alleged crimes were weighty enough to obligate Lieberman to leave office would have focused public attention on the indictment and on corruption as a national problem. The standard speculation is that the Lieberman wants a quick plea bargain, but he may assume that the courts will get around to trying him “after the holidays,” as Israeli bureaucrats like to say without specifying which holidays in which year.

Read more

Meet the New Bibi, Nastier Than the Old

Gershom Gorenberg

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

Is Obama Campaigning for Bibi?

Gershom Gorenberg 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 … Read more

The Manna Stops Falling

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox is a diversion. It’s more important for their kids to learn math and English

Gershom Gorenberg

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

When Bibi’s Iran Obsession Meets His Free-Market Fetish

Gershom Gorenberg

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

Republicans and the Quality of Sodom (Chapter II)

It’s About Policy, Not Charity

Gershom Gorenberg

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

Rebellion in Ramallah?

Israel has managed to outsource the occupation—until now.

Gershom Gorenberg

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

Jerusalem Syndrome

Gershom Gorenberg

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

Keep the Peace, Mr. Morsi

Gershom Gorenberg

I admit to being AWOL from South Jerusalem recently. So I’m catching up, posting several columns I’ve published elsewhere in the past week or so. This one is from The American Prospect – written before the embassy riot, but all the more relevant now:

Dear President Morsi,

I know you have a lot on your mind….

So relations with Israel may be at the edge of your peripheral vision. Still, I hope you’ll take this Israeli’s suggestion: You should do more to preserve Egyptian-Israeli peace. Rather than imply commitment to the peace treaty, express it clearly. Egypt’s welfare depends on it, as do future Mideast peace efforts.

In domestic terms, you certainly did not waste the first crisis on the Israeli border. Just a month ago, the armed forces still had more power than you did. Then militants attacked a base at the eastern edge of the Sinai, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, and crossed into Israel, where Israeli troops finished them off. Stunning the world, you used the blow to the army’s prestige to dismiss the top commanders and to void the military decree limiting your authority. Afterward, the army began its crackdown on Islamic extremists in the chaotic Sinai, sending troops, and reportedly tanks and helicopters.

There was a glitch, though. The Israeli government has an unavoidable ambivalence: It wants Egypt to impose order in the Sinai, so that neither jihadists nor Palestinian militants can attack Israel from there. But to prevent war between Israel and Egypt, the 1979 peace treaty restricts the forces and weapons that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Changes have to be coordinated with Israel. This time, it seems, your side skipped consultations, at least at the outset.

Read more