Sunday, July 3, 2016

National sovereignty: the very first thing Jews did with it

The Brits just upset everyone by voting to put their sovereignty above their obvious economic well-being. Or maybe it was something else. I admit I don't know what they were thinking with their Brexit vote, and unlike most pundits, I don't have the foggiest notion how the decision will look a year from now, a decade from now, or 25 years from now. (I chose the word foggy advisedly).

It just so happens, however, that over the Brexit weekend I was struck by a thought I hadn't previously had about the time the Jews reclaimed their sovereignty after some 2,000 years without it. Recently I completed the reading of Zeev Shaerf's classic book "Three Days" (written in Hebrew in 1958), describing May 12, 13 and 14 1948.  The book looks at the battlefields of the final three days of the British Mandate in Palestine; at the first engagement of a formal Arab army (Transjordan's British-led Arab Legion) in the campaign to prevent a Jewish State, and the last-minute half-hearted attempts by the international community to stave off a war by preventing the creation of Israel; at the political and administrative efforts of the Yishuv to launch an independent state; and many other things that were crammed into those last three days.

The British Mandate was to terminate at midnight between May 14th and 15th. As the date approached, the Jews realized they had to declare their sovereign nation then, or perhaps never. Then, however, would have been the night between Friday and Saturday. Declaring the state on the Sabbath wasn't an option, so the declaration was brought forward till Friday afternoon, technically eight hours before the end of British rule.

It's hard for us today to remind ourselves how momentous a decision it was. Declaring Jewish sovereignty for the first time in some 2,000 years; and declaring sovereignty at a moment of intense international confusion and tenacious Arab determination to destroy the new State before it managed to find its feet and begin to function, killing as many Jews as it might take.

Yet even before doing all that was the decision to respect the Sabbath by not waiting for the official end of the Mandate. Zionism, a movement of mostly secular Jews who had given up on the religious project of waiting for the Messiah, chose to respect the Sabbath as its very first act of sovereignty.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit and the Jewish Question

Back in 2003 Tony Judt, an otherwise important historian, took to the pages of the New York Review of Books to explain why Israel was destined to disappear:
The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.
The part about exclusive privileges etc was of course always nonsense, as the good professor knew perfectly well even at the time. The part about the end of nationalism in favor of all that international verbiage could, if you squinted hard enough, just have seemed plausible enough for an ivory-tower academic to have toyed with its implications.

A mere 13 years later it seems the announcements about the death of nationalism may have been a bit exaggerated and premature, and the celebration of the international world order of border-less communities of gooey-eyed-human-rights-and-general-nirvana was, well, totally wrong. It didn't take 13 years, either; Judt's thesis was always wrong but it's been glaringly so for a number of years already.

Which brings me to a second and related point. About the time Judt was being celebrated by the NYRB readers for his prescience and courage of his opinions, it was rather common for European intellectuals and Left-wing Israelis to dangle the prospect of EU membership in front of Israelis and Palestinians who were stubbornly not behaving well. Any number of times I was asked by well-meaning European colleagues (many of them Germans, because those were the folks I often dealt with in those days) if we didn't think that making peace would be an excellent step towards Israel joining the EU. They always meant well, my interlocutors, and were proud of themselves for offering us such a valuable prize; surely I would appreciate the great honor and recognize the advantage of relinquishing a handful of anachronistic habits and geographic baggage. I always thanked them for their sentiments but said I could think of no reason why, after 2,000 years without sovereignty, we would straightaway chuck it out. Invariably they were a bit offended though I assured them no offense was intended.

Some decisions made by one generation will form the world in which  following generations live their entire lifespans.  The terms of peace which Israelis and Palestinians will someday agree on will be like that: they'll create borders and conditions which will be solid for a very long time (assuming the peace holds). Creating a viable and long-term peace will be sufficient justification for those arrangements; adapting to a passing historical fad is neither a justification nor a motive. Imagine if in 2002 Israel had agreed to jettison its interests in the name of being part of the Zeitgeist of the future, without waiting to know if that particular future would happen.

(PS. Tony Judt died a few years ago and didn't live to see the Arab 30-years-war, nor the collapse of freedom of movement in the EU, nor tens of thousands of refugees perishing just outside its locked borders, terrorist forcing curfews in European capitals, the rise (so far) of Donald Trump, nor, obviously, Brexit. Yet before he died I made my peace with him and we even had a cordial e-mail exchange. He was a fine historian even if a poor pundit).

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Politics and wars are about emotions

Bernie Sanders never made much sense. He may have had appealing ideas about some of the wrongs of American society, but the rational numbers of his proposals never added up, and you didn't need to be an economist to know it. Yet he racked up, what, 12 million votes? Quite a number.

Trump doesn't make any rational sense, not if you keep in mind the extreme complexity of running the United States and being the single top figure in international politics. Yet here he is, the presumptive nominee of the Republican party, which, like it or not, is one of the most important political parties in the world and in history, along with the Democrats. Observed rationally, there's no contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet given the numbers of votes cast, clearly there is.

The idea of Brexit is ridiculous. There's more or less total unanimity among economists that the UK leaving the EU would be a bad idea, one no sensible person would entertain for more than 3-4 minutes if it was early morning and they were still a bit groggy. Yet so far as we know, the voters of Britain are about to vote to leave, just next week, a prospect the polls are now giving more than an even chance of happening. (UK polls, as in other countries, can be seriously wrong).

Most people don't vote because of the numbers. Not on the Left, not on the Right. They vote mostly for emotional reasons of one sort or the other. That's in the venerable and functional democracies, of which the UK and USA are the two sizable oldest. So they can't be swayed by rational arguments, either. Marketing 101 will teach you that, and if it doesn't, go to sales 101.

All of which is generally forgotten when people discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, suddenly, the calm and rational outsiders look at the warring locals, tut-tut, and admonish them to be reasonable and rational just as they, the observers, are; and to make calm and rational decisions, since those are the only kind possible. Whenever we, the locals, try pointing out that the conflict we're embroiled in isn't about rational matters at all, it's about other and much more powerful issues, the observers roll their eyes and proclaim that we don't understand how reality works.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Neveh Dror - the town of the datlashim

The crazy kaleidoscope that is Israel is about to become just a bit crazier, with the creation of Neveh Dror, a new town which is being marketed to the datlashim.

No, datlashim wasn't a word you missed in Sunday School or when you were learning just enough Hebrew to squeak by your bat mizva. It's not really a word at all, or wasn't until quite recently. It's the initials of DATiyim LeSHe'avar, formerly religious. By which is mostly not meant people who grew up Haredi and became secular. Datlashim are the children of national religious (i.e. the Israeli version of Modern Orthodox) who have become, well, secular, sort of, in a way. Had they become fully secular, they would be secular. And they sort of are, secular, but with the added twist that their orthodox background still plays a significant role in their secular lives. Hence they need a moniker; one I think they themselves invented. It's not pejorative, and not even particularly judgmental, at last not in the way Israelis like to be judgmental.

How do they know they're it? Or how do the rest of us know? It's hard to say, but it's not at all insignificant. I think of two of my colleagues, one roughly my age and thus technically too old to be a datlash, a term invented over the past 10-15 years. Yet even today, probably 40 years after he left the fold, every now and then he'll refer to "us", meaning not us but those of you whom I used to resemble and still have a special affinity for and whom I rather resemble every now and then, when we all look askance at the secular Israelis who don't have our cultural baggage. Even tho he doesn't carry the baggage most days of the year. The other is about a decade his junior and thus a decade less into the secular fold, but she really has left all the baggage behind: she's not a datlash because she'd never regard herself as part of the old world she left behind, and she seems to have acquired some of the cultural ignorance she didn't grow up with.

So now that's all crystal clear, right?

Anyway, the forces of the market being the very delicate and perceptive mechanism that they sometimes are, someone has figured out there's money to be made by developing a real estate project aimed specifically at the datlashim, promising them a community where they'll feel just like everyone else: confused in their special way, which is recognizable, shareable, and distinctive. People with other confusions should go live in other communities.

I have no idea if this is a Good Thing. But clearly, it's a Thing.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Jerusalem Day and Yoga

It's Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. According to the Jewish calendar, 49 years since Israeli troops took East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Temple Mount.

Someday someone needs to write the story of Jerusalem in the past half century. Who knows, perhaps I'll even do so myself if I find the time. One of the most complicated parts of the story is the relations between Jews and Arabs. They've never been particularly good, yet as I've repeatedly written, beneath the headlines about terror and inequality, animosity and enmity, the past 10-15 years have also seen a growing sort of partial and halting and mostly undeclared integration.

For example: The proprietor of the Yoga institute I go to recently mentioned that the assistant who runs the administration is an Arab woman, and though her efforts there is a growing number of Arab Yogi at the center, to the extent that next year they may even open an Arab-language group; in the meantime she's about to launch a marketing campaign, which will be tri-lingual.

Of such materials are larger, historical developments made.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Israel's lost souls of the sixties

Here's a story I'd never heard before about Israel in the 1960s, which this week I heard independently from two people who don't know each other.

I first heard it from Prof. Oded Heilbronner, a historian at the Hebrew University, who gave a lecture at a conference last week. Heilbronner is a social historian who has written about Weimar Germans, the Beatles and other similar topics. In his lecture he told how he had decided to take a look at Israel's second decade (1958-1967), commonly described as Israel heyday of normality: after the tremendous dramas of the creation of the state, and before the Six Day War and the beginning of the occupation. A time, you would think, and he had been told, of near normality, when Israel was like other countries.

Or not. His findings are that Israel was awash with tension, tense people, and - the focus of his study - crazies. People who barked at the full moon. People who screamed on hot summer nights and whose neighbors were endlessly calling the police to shut them up. People who walked the streets like zombies. "I grew up in Jerusalem, and often passed Pauipeleh and Roizeleh, the two crazies who lived on the corner in front of the Yeshurun synagogue" - at which some of the people in the audience nodded in agreement. "Only many years later, actually rather recently, did it occur to me that they must have been camp survivors unable to create new lives".

This afternoon, skimming over the weekend newspaper I came across an interview with Emuna Allon, an orthodox author who lives in a settlement and is married to Benny Allon, formerly a prominent right-wing politician. She's the same age as Heilbronner, and grew up in the same little town of Jerusalem, and she's recently written a novel about the Shoah. In the interview she tells how although her family were here before the Second World War and there were no survivor stories in the home she grew up in, still "there were all those crazies in Jerusalem, such as Pauipeleh and Roizele, the two lost souls who lived on the street with empty eyes".

Helbronner went on to present statistics, about how the largest number of Israelis with identified and recorded mental health problems came from Eastern Europe, followed by the Sabras; the Mizrachi Israelis were much healthier, it appears. It was the generation of the 1940s, as he calls them; the cohort who went through the traumas of the 1940s when they were young and impressionable, then held on during the crises years of the 1950s, when they had no other choice, and started to fall apart in the 1960s, when Israeli society seemed to be getting on track.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln: the transcendent political hack (1)


I just finished reading Michael Burlingame's magisterial 1,600-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It's been on my reading list ever since a review described it as the single most important Lincoln biography, and I can see why. Burlingame has spent decades on this project, he's apparently seen just about all the documentation and has read mountains of secondary literature, and so far as I can tell his work needs to be the starting point and constant reference for any serious student of Lincoln - which I'm not. I've read a bit here and there, and of course I once wrote, on this very blog, about Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. In choosing to read this door stopper, I was looking for a really good biography which would enable me to know enough about the man and his time so as not to have to read another twenty books. I'm not certain I've achieved that, and may yet have to read the William Lee Miller biography, which I'm told deals well with the single most intriguing part of Lincoln's story, his morality.

Burlingame mostly stays away from overt interpretation or philosophizing. He tells the story in detail, to the extent that at times the book reads almost like a catalog, or a who's-who of 19th century American politics - not something a casual reader such as myself needs. He stops to read at least eight editorials of different long-forgotten newspapers at each juncture in the tale, so as to tell what the various parts of American society thought about Lincoln as he went along. (Most of them didn't much like him - more on that below). This makes for slow reading, and if you've lost the ability to do slow reading of long books, don't try. (But you should try to regain that lost ability. Trust me).

Yet the slow reading isn't actually a drawback. It's a lifetime we're trying to understand; spending lots of hours over a few months (that's how I did it) has the advantage of forcing us into at least a vague semblance of taking our time to follow what took the man himself a lifetime.

As a final introductory thought: Burlingame is no Robert Caro. His subject will remain with the reader not for the Shakespearean ability of the biographer, but for the startling greatness of the subject.

Instead of writing a structured review of the book, here are things I noticed as I went on, in the order of their appearance, and thus, the chronology of Lincoln's life.

First, there was the fact of his childhood of extreme poverty. Once upon a time I lived in Chicago, and remember its winters. The mere thought of a child living in a three-sided shack in an Illinois forest, with only a fire serving as the fourth wall between "inside" and the elements, makes me shiver with horror. Add the near total intellectual poverty: school was a remote shack children sometimes visited, while books and ideas were things other folks might have had use for.

As America undergoes yet another electoral season and the raising of billions to pay for it, it's nice to read on page 238 how Lincoln used the $200 his supporters raised for him the one and only time he ran for Congress (and won):
"I did not need the money," [he] said as he returned the balance of the cash. "I made the canvass on my own horse; my entertainment, being at the houses of friends, cost nothing; and my only outlay was 75 cents for a barrel of cider which some farm-hands insisted I should treat them to". 
They did things differently in 1843.

A bit further on, Burlingame spends pages 241-247 on the poetry Lincoln loved, sometimes composed, and often repeated in front of friends and colleagues. The themes he returned to time and again dealt with the many loved ones who had died, and the irretrievable past. One of his favorite poems was by Oliver Wendel Holmes, "The Last Leaf":
The mossy marbles rest
On lips that he has pressed
In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
He would have been thinking, among others, of his mother, his sister, various friends and relatives, the young woman who appears to have been the most important love of his life Ann Rutledge, and in later years, the two of his sons who died before him. Death was still a common part of life in the mid 19th century.

For most of his career Lincoln was a small-time lawyer in frontier Illinois. How good was he? As with every single point of his life, there were varying opinions; I chose this description, from a newspaper in Danville:
When examining witnesses "he displays a masterly ingenuity and a legal tact that baffles concealment and defies deceit. And in addressing a jury, there is no false glitter, no sickly sentimentalism to be displayed.... Bold, forcible and energetic, he forces conviction upon the mind, and by his clearness and conciseness stamps it there, not to be erased... [Lincoln] may have his equal, but it would be no easy task to find his superior."
Reentering politics in the mid-1850s, Lincoln showed a profound sense of fairness towards people whose positions he abhorred. By this time he made no secret of his compete rejection of slavery; yet pondering on how it might be ended:
I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up... Some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south and become most cruel slave-masters. [When southerners state that] they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we, then I acknowledge that fact. When it is said that the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. (p.321)
It is nigh inconceivable, even in our day and age of cynical talk of subjective narratives and insistence on the right of each perspective to its own legitimacy, to imagine any politician or pundit of any stripe using such scrupulously empathetic language to describe sworn adversaries. Go ahead: try to find one. Representatives of mildly different political viewpoints aren't even allowed to speak on campuses these days.

In 1858 Lincoln first came to national attention by debating Senator Stephan Douglas (a very prominent figure of his day who lives on in history only because of these debates). Douglas had a standard stump speech; Lincoln gave a different two-hour speech each day. Asked how and why, he explained:
He could not repeat today what he had said yesterday. The subject kept enlarging and widening in his mind as he went on, and it was much easier to make a new speech than to repeat and old one. (p.481)
Just imagine. A politician who listens to what he's saying, thinks about what it means, and works on improving his thoughts.

Towards the end of 1858, having lost his bid for the Senate, Lincoln wrote about politicians striving for or against an end to slavery, and consoled himself with the story of the British movement to end the African slave trade:
I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain was agitated a hundred years before its final success... Remembering these things I cannot but regard it as possible that the higher object of this contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life. But I cannot doubt either that it will come in due time. Even in this view, I am proud, in my passing speck of time, to contribute an humble mite to that glorious consummation, which my own poor eyes may not last to see. (p. 551)
As of this writing, it appears that in spite of some conjecture over recent months, neither the Democratic nor the Republican conventions of 2016 will be contested. Burlingame's chapter on the decidedly contested Republican convention of May 1860 reads like satire. Lincoln himself was an honest man, but his henchmen at the convention shied away from none of the dirty tricks in the book. At one point he sent them a brief message that they must make no deals in his name. His chief operator, David Davis, laughed out loud: "Lincoln ain't here, and don't know what we have to meet, so we'll go ahead as if we hadn't heard from him, and he must ratify it". A supporter acquired an entrance permit to the Wigwam, the large structure built specially for the convention; he had a printer make 5,000 copies and by early morning most of the seats had been taken, forcing supporters of other candidates to remain outside, permits or no permits. Seating arrangements were calculated to give Lincoln's supporters the appearance of outnumbering everyone. There were procedural shenanigans galore. Just before the voting began there was a shouting match between supporters of front-runner William H Seward and Lincoln. An observer described the outcome:
Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going together, and you can conceive something of the same nature. A Seward man pessimistically remarked "We may easily guess the result". (p.624)
Lincoln may have been the most noble of American presidents, but he didn't get there by being saintly.

The first volume of the biography ends with Lincoln parting from his neighbors in Springfield:
My friends - No one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of its people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I leave now, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good let us confidentially hope that all will be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell. (p.759).
The second installment of this review is here.

Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln: the transcendent political hack (2)


(The first installment of this review is here.)

One of the main themes of the second volume of Michael Burlingame's biography of Lincoln is the consistent contradictory ways his contemporaries saw him. So far as I noticed, there was not a single occasion of his presidency where all his observers saw the same thing. No matter how unified posterity's memory of him or his actions may have been, some of his contemporaries damned, disdained or pitied him at every single moment. Arriving at Congress (where he had once been a member), here's how some saw him:
Henry L Dawes, (R MA): "Never did a God come tumbling down more suddenly and completely than did mine.. as the unkempt, ill-formed, lose-jointed and disproportionate figure of Mr. Lincoln appeared at the door". Alexander Doniphan of Missouri thought it was "very humiliating for an American to know that the present and future of his country is in the hands of one man, and that such a man as Lincoln - a man of no intelligence - no enlargement of views - as ridiculously vain and fantastic as a country boy with his first red Morocco hat - easily flattered into a belief that he is King Canute and can say to the waves of revolution "Thus far shalt though come and no further". (p.45)
 In May 1861 Lincoln called up more troops than he was constitutionally permitted, explaining that:
he did not know of any law to authorize some things he had done; but he thought there was a necessity for them, and to save the constitution and the laws generally, it might be better to do some illegal acts, rather than suffer all to be overthrown. (p.150)
Try that in Washington DC in the early 21 century.

In October 1861 Lincoln dismissed Major General John Fremont, who had run too fast ahead of him towards emancipating slaves, thus endangering Lincoln's determination to do things only when society was ready for them. He later explained that Fremont may have been like Moses, who needed his successor, Joshua, to complete the entrance into the promised land:
It looks as if the first reformer of a thing has to meet such a hard opposition, and gets so battered and bespattered, that afterwards, when people find they have to accept his reform, they will accept it more easily from another man. (P.210).
(I took that comment personally, but that's for another post, someday. Or not.)

He tried not to read too much of what was written against him, nor to refute it:
If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for all other business. I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the very end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference (p.288)
Lincoln's critics came from many political camps. Here's a small roundup of vituperation directed at him in the summer of 1862 by abolitionists who didn't see much chance that any good would ever come from his administration:
An administration without a policy is an administration without brains... Lincoln and his cabinet have fought the rebels with the olive branch. The people must teach them to fight with the sword. (Frederick Douglass).
The President is a first rate second rate man... No mind whatsoever. He may be honest - nobody cares whether the tortoise is honest or not; he has neither insight, nor prevision, nor decision. (Wendell Phillips).
A rather slow intellect, with slow powers of perception... has no experience of men and events and no knowledge of the past (Adam Gurowski).
Has no spark of genius, element of leadership, or particle of heroic enthusiasm (Henry Ward Beecher) (p.397)
This defamation went on incessantly until April 15th 1865, though the identity of the critics often changed.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1862 Lincoln waited for a military victory, so as to announce his determination to free the slaves. He understood that the announcement must come as a reflection of military strength, and although he was viciously castigated for doing nothing he bode his time giving no sign of the coming event; the timing had to be right else the move would fail to garner sufficient public support. In September the time came. He convened his cabinet and asked their opinion on the form, not the content, of the proclamation of emancipation. He also spoke of the responsibility, and of destiny:
Many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can; and if I were satisfied that the public confidence was more fully possessed by any one of them than by me, and knew of any Constitutional way in which he could be put in my place, he should have it. I would gladly yield it to him. But although I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some time since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take. (p.408)
Did the abolitionists praise him for the historic proclamation? Well, sort of, in a miserly sort of way. By way of example, here's Lydia Maria Child:
The ugly fact cannot be concealed that it was done reluctantly and stintedly, and that even the degree that was accomplished was done selfishly; was merely a war measure, to which we were forced by our own perils and necessities; and that no recognition of principles of justice or humanity surrounded the politic act with a halo of moral glory. (p.410)
Keep that in mind for future use: some folks will never be satisfied, and some people hold their theoretical principles so high that no grubby politician can ever reach their level, and no mundane consideration will ever be legitimate. Springing forward so as not to soil the end of the story, it's noteworthy that some radicals found satisfaction even in Lincoln's death: he had done his part and freed the slaves, but now a firmer man would lead the reconstruction without a surfeit of mercy. (p. 820).

Lots of folks didn't like the Gettysburg Address at the time, before it was recognized as perhaps the single most important speech in American history. For example, a local Gettysburg newspaper wrote
We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of. (p.576).
I'll let the veil of oblivion drop over the name of the newspaper.

Burlingame tells repeatedly that Lincoln was an extraordinarily magnanimous man. Here's an example from a little speech he made right after his reelection in 1864:
While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man be disappointed or pained by the result. May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have? (p.725).
I, for one, certainly don't claim to be able to think that way.

The second Inaugural Address (March 1865) contained the idea that  the war was divine punishment for the whites of both North and South for having allowed slavery to continue so long. As Burlingame notes, coming from a pastor this would have been fine, but for the serving president it was startling, at the very least. Lincoln then summed up the reasons for the war in a few words:
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. (p. 769).
 A distinction many present day pundits seem incapable of grasping.

During the last days of the war Lincoln went to visit the army; he spent one morning visiting the beds of wounded soldiers and greeting each and every one of them. An observer wrote:
Mr. Lincoln presides over millions of people, and each individual share of his attention must necessarily be very small, and yet he wouldn't slight the humblest of them... The men not only reverence and admire him Mr. Lincoln, but they love him. 
Another observer managed to capture the crushing burden and the vital resilience which seemed, combined, to epitomize the man:
It was rare to converse with him a while without feeling something poignant... Mr. Lincoln was quite humorous, although one could always detect a bit of irony in his humor. He would relate anecdotes, seeking always to bring out the point clearly. He willingly laughed either at what was being said, or at what he himself had said. But all of a sudden he would retire within himself; then he would close his eyes and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep. After a while, as though it were by an effort of his will, he would shake off this mysterious weight under which he seemed bowed; his generous and open disposition would again reappear. In one evening I happened to count over twenty of these alternations and contrasts. (P.797).
There's an eerie neatness about the date of the assassination, which may even be part of its lasting impact on communal memory. One can count the hours between the successful end of Lincoln's gigantic historic mission and his felling. He was granted the gift of briefly savoring his success, then died before any post-war events had time to intervene and destroy the perfectness of the day:
Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch "Never saw Mr. Lincoln so cheerful and happy as he was on the day of his death. The burden which had been laying upon him for four long years, and which he had borne with heroic fortitude, had been lifted; the war had been practically ended; The Union was safe. The weary look which his face had worn for so long and which could be observed by those who knew him well even when he was telling humorous stories, had disappeared. It was bright and cheerful." James Harlan saw that his customary expression of "indescribable sadness" had abruptly become "an equally indescribable expression of serene joy, as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved" (p.806).
It will not be original of me, yet nonetheless fitting, to summarize his story with an epitaph written by The Bard 250 years earlier:
He was a man, take him for all in all
I shall not look at his like again.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On not divvying up political spoils

Back in the 1990s during one of our rounds of negotiations to set up a governing coalition it transpired that Moshe Shachal, a prominent MK in the Labor Party, was going to be left holding the Ministry of Police, a relatively minor portfolio. The minster oversees the police, but doesn't command it. Shachal was miffed, so Shimon Peres repackaged the position as Minister of Internal Defense, which sounds almost like the much more powerful Minister of Defense. And so it's called until this very day.

Back in April 1948 things were different, according to an anecdote I came across this afternoon. The Yishuv was gearing up to declaring independence, and this included delineating spheres of authority for the soon-to-be ministries, and appointing ministers. Yitzhak Greunbaum (1879-1970) was slated to be Minister of the Interior - but he had an objection. The ministry was intended to include overseeing the police, but he had a spot of aversion to police forces: "In [Czarist] Russia I didn't much like the police. In [post WWI] Independent Poland, I didn't much like the police. Here in Palestine, I haven't much liked the British police - and I certainly wouldn't want to be identified with the undercover police!" (Greunbaum was among the leaders of the Yishuv who was arrested by the British in 1946).
Yitzhak Gruenbaum 1948.jpg

So they hived off the police from Interior, and that's how the police ended up with a minister of their own.

Though, as a tragic postscript, there may have been an additional, even darker reason for this aversion. Gruenbaum's son, Eliezer, had been in Poland when WWII broke out, and eventually survived the camps. After the war he was identified as a kapo in Auschwitz, and was arrested and investigated by the French police; the case was eventually closed. A few weeks after his father refused to be in charge of the police, Eliezer was killed fighting in Jerusalem, apparently by friendly fire.