Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

In Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, the author is careful to state, near the end of the work, that “terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.” 

If that statement sums up the book, the lesson is a sobering one. Fighting terrorism is always depicted as a moral battle which a superior force is bound to win.  Yet in Hoffman’s historical examination of the right-wing Jewish terrorist groups the Irgun and Lehi and their struggle against British rule in Palestine, he makes a good case that terrorism, and violence generally, is the most effective means to solve intractable political problems.

Yet if we look at this phrase carefully, there are many caveats. There must be the “right conditions” in this case, a British administration in Palestine that was underfunded and demoralized, backed up by a financially bankrupt country depleted by two world wars.  There must be “the appropriate strategy and tactics” and as Hoffman shows, Lehi, and in particular the Irgun and its leader, Menachem Begin, knew how to hit the symbols of British control in Palestine for the maximizing demoralizing effect to the occupiers.  Then, terrorism may succeed “in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”  Here, 'some' is the operative world.  The Irgun and Lehi had grand designs for the Jewish state, and most of them were not realized.  The Irgun became a political party after independence, and did not have substantial power in the State of Israel until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. Yitzhak Shamir, the head of Lehi, did not have significant power in Israel in the 1980s

So, Hoffman leaves us with a disturbing vision.  We don’t want violence, especially terrorism, to achieve its goals, yet in the example of the Irgun and Lehi, Hoffman makes a good case that the departure of the British from Palestine in 1948 was if not caused, than at least hastened the end of British rule.  But much of the fault also lay with Great Britain.

Hoffman examines a trove of documents relating to the British government and the governance of the Palestine during the Mandate, and it is apparent that Britain fell far short in two key ways: 1. it failed to have a consist policy on Palestine regarding Zionism, and 2. In the face of the urban terrorism of the Irgun and Lehi, the British intelligence service, police and military were particularly inept.  They simply did not have the drive or creativity to fight effectively, and to fix Palestine, and we live with the legacy of their errors to this day.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Greater Consummation: Salter's A Sport and a Pastime

Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime… –Koran, LVII19.  

James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime has this Quranic quote as an epigraph.  Given the book's content, it is hard to know if Salter is wielding these words as irony or cautionary tale.  In this book of total sensual immersion of both main characters, a sexual oblivion that orders reality in a mysticism light, it appears to convey both meanings.   Dean and Anne-Marie's story of love and eroticism, although successful, ultimately fails as it encounters the rock bottom of the human physical and spiritual trajectory.  This books shows how the great oblivion which sex and love seek and often find is easily swallowed up in the greater consummation of death.

Monday, September 21, 2015

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser sheds light on the not always exciting or racy framer of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States.Brookhiser paints a portrait of a man both idealistic and practical, caught somewhere in the middle of the reality of how things are, and his dreams of how things should be.  

This is fitting with Madison’s position among Americas first leaders: he was young during the revolution, and was among the second wave of leaders to came after the mighty Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton.   Yet he was never completely overshadowed by them, even if he did not share their gifts.   He lacked Washington’s martial prowess, Adams’ aristocratic bearing, Jefferson’s philosopher’s detachment, or Hamilton’s business acumen. 

Or, if he had these qualities, they were always measured against the men who came before.  In that sense, Madison gets shafted in the historical record.  But in quite another the Madison which Brookhiser provides us is often a small man, concerned with petty ideas and political dealings. Brookhiser stresses that he was America's first true politician.

So, we get many Madisons in Brookhiser’s biography.  This, perhaps, is the greatest measure of this man complex man.  His ideas evolved over time to meet the exigencies of the moment.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Song of Longing

Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey is part travelogue, part memoir, and part coming of age tale of a young scholar in search of intellectual and emotional fulfillment.  It is also the story of the degeneration of a country; its plunge into chaos, war, and famine. 

Shelemay went to Ethiopia in the early to mid-seventies to study the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia (which she calls Falasha throughout the work).  In the process, she met her future husband, a scion of a wealthy Adenite Jewish family living in Addis Ababa.

This book evolves into an exploration of some of the more distant areas of the Jewish diaspora, but is also about the gathering together of Jews.  Shelemay, an Ashkenazim, marries a Sephardi man as she makes contact with the Beta Israel.  During her studies of Beta Israel and Christian liturgy (mainly through song), she is one of the originators of the origins of the Beta Israel, a theory which still holds currency among scholars today.

She is one of the last witnesses of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia before their immigration to Israel, and their complete evolution to Ethiopian Jews.  As such, her well written book is invaluable. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Holy Whistle

This High Holiday season I have been reading a book on “hanhagot,” or acts of personal piety. So far, this is the best I have encountered:

Once, Rebbe Zusya visited the holy genius, Rabbi Mordecai, who gave him a room for the night. After midnight, Rabbi Mordecai heard how Rebbe Zusya woke up and jumped around the room. After doing this for a while he called out, “Master of the World, I love You! What can I do for You? I can’t do anything!” Then he… repeated the same thing a number of times… [and]… ran around the room until he said, “I know what I can do! I can whistle for you!” He began to whistle with such fervor that Rabbi Mordecai said to his comrade who was standing near him, “Let us leave here quickly before we get burned by the breath of his holy mouth.” ----from Ohel Elimelech.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cheshbon HaNefesh: accounting for the soul

Cheshbon HaNefesh is in many ways characteristic product of mussar, an ethical movement which originated among Lithuanian Jews and spread from there.  Although used by all or any Jews today, originally mussar, with its emphasis on rational analysis of emotion to build solid character traits, was distinctly Litvak --- expressing the special concerns of Lithuanian Jewish scholars.  

What makes Cheshbon HaNefesh so interesting is that that author provides a  concrete system for self-improvement based on notebook notations of character traits and charts. It is very practical, and has a very modern feel; mussar, in many ways, anticipated certain self-help trends.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jabotinsky, a Life

Jabotinsky, a life, explores the life and work of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940).  All too often in  Zionist studies, Jabotinsky and the movement he created, Revisionist Zionism, is given short shrift in the official narrative of the creation of the State of Israel.  In fact many of his very early pronouncements on the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine have proven to be prophetically true, and his political descendants have more or less ruled Israel since the late 1970s.

Hillel Harkin wants to set the record straight in this biography, showing that Jabotinsky was not quite the Jewish fascist which his opponents claimed.  Rather, he was a man of many dramatic and self-contradictory impulses.  An ardent Zionist nationalist, he lived in Palestine on and off, but appeared to prefer the cosmopolitan life of Paris to the rustic Holy Land.  He fought hard for a robust, military Zionism, one expressed in the armed wing of his movement, the Irgun, but he was against tit-for-tat revenge attaches by Jews upon Arabs and urged restraint.  He was not nearly as radical as the organization he helped found.

This is an excellent book to read it you want to get at the bedrock foundation of right wing Israel politics. Jabotinsky is the political father of Bibi Netanyahu, yet, as Harkin points out, it is difficult to say if Jabotinsky, if he was alive today, would have agreed with all the policies and opinions of those on the Israel right.  He was far too independent minded and worldly to take narrow or parochial views on most geopolitical. He could embrace the little picture while keeping an eye on the wider field of events. His successors appear to lack this vital trait, to their detriment.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War

In a certain sense, the events depicted in the book Black Hawk Down very much reflect America’s concerns in the (recent, 1993) post-Cold War world.  The Iron Curtain was down, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and we were the world’s only superpower.

Along with this hubris came missions like that to Somalia, outwardly a humanitarian effort, inwardly a nation building exercise. This was American at its shining, superpower best, or so it seems: using its might to deliver food to starving people, right wrongs and defeat thugs around the globe.

But the sub-title of this book: 'a story of modern war', tells the other side of the Battle of Mogadishu.  It was written in 1999, before the bombing of the USS Cole, before 9-11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   The term modern war is prescient if we change the word modern to what they author really means :asymmetrical.  

For the Battle of Mogadishu clearly showed the major difficulties of fighting a very determined enemy, on his own turf, even with the benefit of the latest military, surveillance, and intelligence apparatus.  Things can still go terribly wrong, and in this new kind of new war, they certainly have.  Mogadishu was a herald of challenges to come; shades of a decade of war among hostile people intent on using their weakness to their own strategic and tactical advantage.  Forcing the United States to realize that being the only superpower on the block is not synonymous with invincibility.

Bowden’s book does not have this long view, as it was written in 1999.  But the inference is there: this is the face of 21st century warfare, and it is unlikely to change very soon.