Thursday, November 14, 1996
On the issues of war and peace in Israel
On the 1st anniversary of the assasination of Yithsac Rabin, an Israeli visitor, a mid-level government official, offers the following explanation of the struggles that raise the fears of war in Israel:
Since the election victory of the conservative Likud Party and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Labor Party, the coalition government (empowered by 67 members of the 120-member Knesset, made up of 32 Likud, 28 religious and Russian immigrant, and 7 Ariel Sharon party members), has slowed down the expansion of the limited Palestinian rule in the West Bank. This is Galilea and Judea, the Jordanian territory conquered by Israel in the 6-day war in 1967, that was the subject of the 1993 Oslo treaty agreed to by the PLO and the Labor government. The palpable causes are concerns over the security of Israeli settlers and the fate of Jerusalem.
Phase A of the implementation of the treaty involved passing the control in Gaza (the world's most populated non-urban 5x30 mile strip, with 800,000 inhabitants) and Jericho to the new Palestinian Authority and its President Yassior Arafat. The action is now in Phase B, involving the successful transfer of control to the Palestinian Authority in key Arab towns. The last town on the schedule is Hebron in Judea, a holy place for both Jews and Moslems. Its Cave of Machpelah (the Arab name is Ibrahimye Mosque) is the burial site of the three Patriarchs Abraham (Ibrahim), Isaac and Jacob, who are also Prophets in the Muslim religion, and their spouses, the Matriarchs. Hebron is also the place where in 1929, 67 Jews were slaughtered by Arabs, and the sanctuary over the Cave is where the Brooklyn immigrant Dr. Baruch Goldstein shot and killed over 20 Arabs while they were at prayer during the Ramadan, in February of 1994, in the mad notion that he could renew the war between Jews and Arabs, stop the peace movement and keep the West Bank - ancient kingdoms of Samaria and Judea - as part of Israel.
About 100,000 Arabs and 450 Israeli settlers live inside Hebron town proper. The settlers' rights were guaranteed by the Oslo pact and accepted by Arafat as well as by the then Prime Minister Yithzak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The crux of the present negotiations is the control of traffic in the Hebron area. The discussions are bogged down in minutia that are extremely significant to the parties. One issue is patrolling of two roads (less than 10 miles) by joint Israeli and Palestinian Authority police patrols in separate cars - this is accepted, but currently Israel wants the patrols extended about 200 feet into adjoining side roads, the distance at which rock throwers can operate, to enable "hot pursuit." Next, the armament of the PA police; the number and percent of rifles vs. handguns is at stake, as is the availability of tractor gear vs. tires for the Palesinian Authority police patrol cars. The road under discussion leads from the militant Israeli Kiryat Arba settlement of 20,000 inhabitants ouside of Hebron, through a passage between mountains to the in-town enclave of the 450, then on to the Cave on the outskirts of Hebron, located on the main Jerusalem highway. Army patrols on the road are extremely vulnerable to snipers from the hills; the soldiers are unnecessarily exposed; the 450 settlers, half of them American (as are the Kiryat Arba inhabitants) endanger their children to uphold the principle of their right to live there, amid an Arab population still chafing from the Goldstein murders. The Arabs see the "hot pursuit" as an unwarranted addition to the Oslo agreements, and the Jews view the arms issues in like fashion.
The issues are significant. In both Israeli and PA eyes, rifles transform the police into an army, as do tank-like tracks on the cars. Members of the uncompromising far-right faction of the Likud coalition want to bog down the disputes, in the expectation that they would stall forever. This could lead to resumption of war, and withdrawal of the aspects of independence granted to the Palestinian Authority in Oslo phases A and B. That was the objective of the terrorists Goldstein and Yigal Amir (who killed Rabin). Now the atmosphere has grown more tense because early in November the right-wing Infrastructure Minister Gen. Ariel Sharon announced a plan to move 100,000 new Israeli settlers into the West Bank, which Netanyahu claims to be only a proposal, to be studied by the government. Arafat has demanded that new settlements be frozen (that also impacts the sale of some Israeli residences already built on the West Bank), before the Hebron issues can be further worked on.
It may well be that the threat of new settlements is to create a strong playing card for Israel in the impending Phase C negotiations, particularly in retaining Israeli control over Jerusalem. The Laborites fear that it will provoke a bloody large-scale war.
Arafat, who is an opportunist with a long-term objective of a Palestinian State, is eager to continue talks which will give him West Bank territories targeted in the Oslo agreements, and is holding down the Arab militants. He sees that it is easier to acquire territory through negotiations than war: Phase C of the talks, to come after Phase B (Hebron) is concluded, determines the disposition of the land of the West Bank ("occupied territories"); decides on the degree of Palestinian rule of the West Bank; establishes the final relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, looming in the background of the continuation of the talks, Phase C also involves the fate of Jerusalem, to be decided by the year 2000. It is the spiritual home of Judaism and the 3rd most holy city of Islam. For Jews, both Peres and Netanyahu, the thought of dividing Jerusalem is blasphemy.
Even those who mistrust and hate Arafat recognize that today he is a definite advocate of peace, not because the former terrorist has changed his stripes, but for palpably evident selfish reasons. Even when he talks "struggle, fight, jihad" in the camps and implores refugees to have 12 children, it is recognized as rhetoric by Israelis and shrugged off. He has to show anger among his adherents, to overcome the stigma of being seen as an Israeli and American puppet, as he is depicted by certain Arab militants.
While seeking a compromise, both Jews and Arabs must beware of the destroyers of peace on both sides. Another Goldstein or Amir might next attack the obvious high-profile target, Yassir Arafat, and cause another breakup, bringing Hamas and Hebzollah back on war status. Arafat is the most likely target for the enemies of peace on the Arab side too. There is some serious concern among Israelis about providing all-around protection for him against potential provocateurs from both sides. The same concerns apply particularly when he visits America and Europe. His selfish objectives are transparent need for Western support, in view of his loss of Soviet and Saudi contributions, is palpable. He has no alternative but to be the emissary for peace - and, as such, be exposed. Terrorists/provocateurs can assume many identities.
Israel is a country of 4.5 million Jews, half a million Arab citizens, flanked by 1 and 3/4 million Palestinians under Israeli control, and surrounded by over 100 million inimical Moslems, including millions of Palestinian refugees. It has not been at peace since its establishment in 1947. In response to attacks in 1948, 1956 and 1967 it occupied Egypt's Sinai Strip, Lebanon's Golan Heights and Jordan's West Bank (Samaria and Judea); and over the 19 years, 150,000 Israeli settlers built some 50 settlements in the West Bank territories, rightly or wrongly. That is where the trouble lies. A peaceful settlement with co-existence may be on its way, if the enemies of peace can be held back, on the Right Bank and in the Golan Heights, an arid and economically useless but strategically significant hotly disputed area triple the size of Gaza, barring no disturbances. President Clinton, who backed the Oslo agreements, may be the most important player, since he is trusted by both Labor and Likud voters. Let us hope that he will do the right thing. We may not be able to stop the trouble in Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda, or Cambodia, Somalia and former Yugoslavia, but in the Middle East we have a better chance, and we will not have to send in the troops.
Monday, November 11, 1996
Sensational Revelations in The Good Book
How long before we have an upscale sitcom, Abraham's Walk (nice touch of East Hampton chic there), or Adam's Family or Babylon 50210 (sort of like Dallas), with weekly ads ("Will Onan give Tamar the baby she desires? Be prepared for a surprise!")?
Over the past several decades revisionist biographers have had a field day, deconstructing great literary and political figures, and digging out sensational private facts and making outrageous surmises about them.Not that all of these were secrets - President F.D.Roosevelt's disability was an open secret, and he was protected by the media, to preserve respect and dignity, particularly in a time of war and crises. Now there is great outcry when Bob Dole stumbles and falls off the speaker's stand.The drinking and womanizing in Washington since the White House was rebuilt in 1812 had not been a secret; the press had made no great bones of it because it was then the culture; now, all of it is held under a microscope and gleefully exposed. Not that the mores have changed for the better - our sports and entertainment role models are not censured for what is deemed immoral behavior. Nevertheless, news and biography to us is no longer interesting unless someone is tweaked, whether it is a moralist like Willa Cather or a humanitarian like Eleanor Roosevelt; analysis of facts and figures to reach a meaningful conclusion is too dull.
Not all great figures have been demeaned; Theodore Roosevelt is still safely held in esteem, even by Public Television. However, now is is the turn of God and the Patriarchs of the Bible, as Public TV lays them out for your view, warts and all, in a series on Genesis. We had a preview of that, at a Barnes and Noble sponsored panel discussion.
Of the participants, Everett Fox and Robert Alter are both scholars, teachers and translators of Genesis, the Fox version being deemed closest ever to the original Hebrew. Burton Visotzky is a scholar of the Midrash, the interpretations of the Bible dating back to the Second temple, a period of 500 years before the arrival of Christianity. Karen Armstrong, a teacher in the College for Rabbis in London, is a former nun and author of the bestselling History of God. E.M.Broner (The Telling) originated the Seder Sisters, a group of interdenominational feminists who meet yearly for the traditional Passover celebration (Steinem,Abzug,Pogrebin).
Genesis, the 1st Book of Moses, is in two parts - the 1st 11 chapters describe Creation, banishment of Adam and Eve and the Flood, the 12th through 50th chapters deal with history - Abraham and Sarah, Lot and the fall of Sodom, Isaac and Rebecca and their sons Esau and Jacob; the latter's wives Rachel and Leah and the sons of Jacob (Israel); history of Joseph and his brethren.
The dysfunctionality and flawed family values of the Patriarchs came in for immediate attention - from Abraham's surrender, often deemed despicable, of his wife Sarah into the Pharaoh's harem, under the pretense that she was his sister, in fear for his life (Ch. 12; again, in Ch. 20; similar, Isaac and Rebecca, Ch.26). The Patriarchs were dictatorial; there was sibling conflict, fratricide and attempted fratricide (Cain and Abel Ch.4, Joseph Ch.37), theft of inheritance (Jacob and Esau, prompted by Rebecca, Ch.27), incest (Lot Ch.19, Reuben Ch.35, Judah Ch.38), treacherous massive revenge over rape (Dinah Ch.34), contrasted with treating women as chattel (the beautiful Sarah and Rebecca, also Lot's virgin daughters Ch.19), Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Ch.22) and let Ishmael go, at the risk of perishing (Ch.21), Laban's tricking Isaac into marrying both daughters (Ch.29), Joseph's crafty economic conquest of Egypt on behalf of his Pharaoh during the famine (Ch.47).
Some spice was added to the presentations by the feminist Marilyn French, who accused the women panel members of ignoring the anti-feminine bias of the Bible. This led to a discussion of the strong, wilful, even sarcastic women of Genesis (Sarah, Rachel, Tamar, Lot's daughters) imposing their will over complaisant or weakened men, the mores (polygamy) of the times, and the observation that the best writers -Shakespeare - could be likewise faulted. Boycotting the best observers as biased can lead to further discarding of the literature of the DWEM (dead white European males), grist to the mills of the multiculturalists.
Another significant concern brought out by a listener, that this discussion tends to discredit God and the Patriarchs, was countered by noting that the Bible has withstood such scrutiny for 2,500 years and can take care of itself. The writers of the word of God have been dispassionate, recording events and genealogy, without expression of criticism.
As to God, Genesis tell us that this was a period when the people of the Bible wavered between monotheism and the Baal family of gods. God walked the Earth, and spoke to the the Patriarchs directly (until Joseph; afterwards, only to the Prophets). Abraham, Isaac and Lot physically wrestled with God's emissaries, the angels. Note that the final committment to monotheism, in the ten -point extension of Abraham's two-point Covenant with God (one God and the promise of a homeland, from the river of Egypt to Euphrates), made with Moses on Mount Sinai ("thou shalt have no other gods before me"), came only in Exodus, 800 years after Abraham. This God of the Fathers is described by the panel as inconstant, overreacting (The Flood), impossible to predict, demanding of tribute, who tested the faith by requesting human sacrifice which he stopped at the point of execution (the Test, Ch.22); in other words, still in the process of maturing. He set up Adam and Eve for the fall, the loss of Eden (Chs. 2/3). After the Creation, he seemed to have lost control of humanity, letting it go every which sinful way. The Bible says that God Creates peace and God creates evil (Visotsky), and may have gone through a process of maturation.
What was not not brought out sufficiently by the discussion is that religionists have wrestled over the meaning of these events for the past 2,500 years, and have found viable ethical explanations for the divine acts. The acts can even be looked at in today's corporate management terms. The Loss of Eden brought Adam and Eve out of a childlike Paradise existence into real Life, with hardships, need for developing self-sufficiency in eking ot a human existence ("free will") - a good parental, educational and managerial practice on part of God, who wants to get out of hands-on management, since He has an extensive and demanding span of control, a large Universe to administer. (That's a kind of Peter Drucker line - Descartes would have God as a watchmaker, who walks away when the kids start tinkering.) However, this introduced all the problems of relinquishing control, such as sin. God's answer? First, destruction, through the Flood (which raises the questions of the more recent parallels, such as slavery and the Holocaust), and saving the righteous, through Noah's Ark. Thereafter, a more humane venue of reconciliation through repentance, introduced by the Test (sacrifice of Isaac), a mechanism of return from sin by sacrifice, a means of reaching out and touching a personal God, valid and in use today, even though we have substituted the act of writing a check for the giving of a ram or a bullock. Either act helps to feed the priests, God's administrative staff, who have no farm or property to feed themselves. The obeisance of Abraham reaffirmed God's power, the reestablishment of control in the creation of two great nations (Isaac's and Ishmael's; Abraham is Ibrahim in the Koran) under God. That mankind continues to fail God since the Fall is a continuing corporate management problem. His administrators have not been without fault, regardless of their faith - witness Giordano Bruno and other victims of the auto-da-fe, as well as the 450 priests of Baal put to death; the Crusades, and the Muslim wars of faith.
It may well be that the current interest in Genesis is fed by the sensational nature of the events highlighted in the discussions, reflective of the TV Genesis series. Genesis ends with reconciliation, a positive result. If the positive aspects and interpretations of the acts of God are diminished in the discussion, and religion loses respect, on the balance, humanity has lost. If we religion descends to the level of soap opera, we have lost. In other words, to quote a non-biblical songwriter, we must accentuate the positive.
Hooray for the programs of readings in bookstores! In the 1960s-70s there were two emporiums that offered space for readings and book club meetings. The originator, Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, on W 47 Street, in the middle of the diamond market, held meetings of the Joyce club, reading and deciphering inner menings in the oeuvre of the master. This continued and expanded under Andreas Brown. The newcomer in the 1960s was Elias Wilentz's Eight Street Bookshop, now defunct, where Ginsberg, Oppenheimer and other poets of the Beat and successor generations read their works.
Today Barnes and Noble continues the tradition, with gusto. In the T&V country, the world's most literate community (proven by simple statistical analysis: we have five B&Ns, more than anyplace in the world) three B&N stores hold author book signings, readings and discussion groups: 17th St, Chelsea and Cooper Square. 17th St has up to seven events weekly, led by the affable Jessica Reighard, if you include the cook book events held outdoors in the Greenmarket. They set up 200 chairs on the fourth floor, one above the coffee and journal emporium (only in America!), and people arrive an hour early to get good seats, just like at the People's Symphony at Washington Irving High - in fact, may be the same crowd.
In Oct overflow crouds came out for the fibber Paul Theroux, and for Joyce Carol Oates,Andrew Young, Jocelyn Elders and B.B.King (alas he neither fibbed nor played) sessions. But the best was the Genesis mob, the group that came to hear the five biblical scholars, in conjunction with the Oct-Nov Public TV series on Genesis.
Thanks to J, E, D and P, the writers of God's word; to Rabbi Kushner, Dr. Gunther Plaut, Phillip Rothman, and the five wise people of the dias at B&N, and Johhny Mercer.