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. (Tho, truth be told, the book give a pinch of immortality to hundreds of people, almost all men, who would be lost to history if not for their often minor roles in the life of Lincoln; a man whom many of them probably never took much notice of at the time if it was before 1858.) 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: Bulingame 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. And onto that 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, perhaps, who knows why.

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 on 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, like politicians to this day, 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 wither 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, is 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 1960 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 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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Sovereignty means being sovereign to decide: two decisions Israel makes differently

The New York Times has two very different but equally troubling stories. One is about Donald Trump and his relationships with women ; the other is about Hart Island, where the city of New York has dumped more than a million (!) dead people over the past 150 years.

Well, maybe they aren't equally troubling. The one about Trump has a bit more to redeem it than the one about the island. But they're both mighty troubling. Together, they tell something significant about how Israeli and American societies go about their business in very different ways.

Trump first. It turns out that he's quite the womanizer and always has been, no surprise there; that many women he's encountered over the years have come away hurt or mortified and sometimes scarred; that his memories differ significantly from those of the women; and also, perhaps a bit more surprisingly, that he has repeatedly promoted women, launched their careers, and supported them in important ways. None of these outcomes are mutually exclusive. Sometimes it was "all of the above".

As an Israeli, you look at this story with disbelief. Over the past 25-30 years Israeli society has put in place a series of stringent laws about sexual harassment, and powerful Israeli men who act the way Trump does go to jail. Itzik Mordechi, retired general, minister of defense, then a viable candidate for prime minister. Moshe Katzav, previously Israel's president. Nowadays there isn't even the need for due process: Yinon Magal, a charismatic young-ish MK, was banished from politics after a young journalist wrote on Facebook that he'd made a lewd comment to her; Silvan Shalom, one of Likud's top figures, was recently ejected from politics when a number of his erstwhile staffers alleged to the media that he'd made passes at them... poof, he was gone. And these are just prominent politicians who come to mind; were I to start naming the generals and police commissioners whose careers have ended abruptly this would be a long and repetitious post indeed.

The story of Hart Island is more depressing, and many shades darker. Over the past 150 years New York has dumped more than a million people in its trenches. Almost 7,000 a year, almost 20 people a day, decade after decade, generation after generation. Who are the people are buried there? The poor who can't afford a proper burial. The rich who have lost contact with their families. People with burial insurance who sink into dementia and are allocated by a court to the tender care of lawyers whose primary interest is to collect their fees. Regular folks who are sent to a medical school to serve as teaching props for future physicians, until there's no use in them any longer and they're cast into a trench, three boxes deep. If these are the dregs of society, you must have a very wide definition of dregs.

And even if dregs, what kind of a society treats its dregs thusly?

It's easy, as an Israeli, to read these two articles and feel smug. In Israel, powerful men who abuse the women around them cease to be powerful, they don't launch political campaigns and garner millions of votes. In Israel, the basic funeral service, paid for by the state, is good enough that almost everyone uses it, it being dignified enough; cadavers are treated with dignity and undertakers apologize to the deceased before covering their graves for any inadvertent indignity they may have caused. Most important of all, people don't slip through the cracks of society and vanish with no trace, not before they die, and not afterwards.

Better to refrain from the sensation of superiority, so as to make a more important point, which is that the single most important reason to have and maintain sovereignty is to make sovereign decisions. Israelis make different ones than Americans. Israelis care less about political correctness, they raise their children to be respectful of concepts such as enemies and using violence as a legitimate tool when others don't suffice; they don't think same-sex marriages are something they wish to have (civil unions have been legal for many years), and they live - while kvetching - with interventions by clerics in marriages and divorces in a way Americans cannot begin to accept. Ah, and the concept of  gender-free public bathroom seems as ridiculous to them today as it did to Americans a decade ago. We're told that Israel is distancing itself from the Liberal values many American Jews hold dearly, and this may be true. Yet this doesn't mean they don't have values. It means they've chosen different ones. Not to abandon anyone to limbo; not to accept sexual harassment at least in public figures and hopefully nowhere else, either; not to cast lost souls into trenches on remote islands within the view of a teeming city of millions.

Different values, not lack of them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Yom Hazikaron, 43 years later

A colleague told me the following story earlier this week:
I'm of the cohort that joined the IDF in 1973. We bore the brunt of the war that year. Literally dozens of my friends were killed; and six or seven of my close friends; and the best friend I ever had. Every year since then I spend most of Yom Hazikaron at the various military cemeteries. Visiting graves, talking with family members as we all grow older, one year at a time. No, I'd never come to work on Yom Hazikaron, no matter what.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Yom Hazikaron - commemorating Israel's fallen

It's Yom Hazikaron again. The second holiest day of the year, in my book, second only to Yom Kippur. Independence Day, tomorrow evening, is perhaps more important for its historical stature, but Yom Hazikaron is easily holier.

I'm reading Yuval Noah Harrari's fun book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, about which I may write sometime soon. One of his central ideas is that humankind is what it is because of its ability to tell itself stories and thereby create imagined realities which have no objective existence, such as the Catholic Church or the United Nations, and compelling ideas such as banks and human rights. He's a compelling storyteller himself, is Yuval. Having grown up in Israel, he would immediately recognize the power of Yom Hazikaron and everything it connects to, and would appreciate its centrality in organizing the world for Israelis.

The second most popular post I ever wrote here on this blog was the introduction to the Shirim Ivri'im series. (The most popular of all, sadly, was my dissection of that idiotic series of four maps which lies about the history of Israel and Palestine).

On this Yom Hazikaron I'm offering a random but chronological series of the songs with which Israelis come together and mourn.

Fania Bergman, Nigunim (Melodies). Bergman was born in what is now Poland in 1908, and spent her childhood dodging the calamities of the early 20th century in Eastern Europe. In 1930 she made aliya and joined a recently founded kibbutz, Gvat. She worked on the kibbutz as long as her failing health allowed, dying in 1950. She left behind a son, Giora, and many children songs which are taught to schoolchildren till this day. Nigunim, however, isn't for children, it's more about being a child. Written in 1944 and directed to her parents (who by then were already dead in the Holocaust), she tells how, try as she may to be a new sort of Jew in a new sort of life, the melodies they inculcated in her can never be erased, and indeed, they create a bridge from her to them over the impassable chasm.



Fania's only son Giora was killed in the Six Day War.

Speaking of the Six Day War, here's one of its quirkier songs: Jerusalem of Iron and of Lead and of Bereavement. It was written by one of the paratroopers, right after the battle for Jerusalem, who went on to become one of Israel's most original and unusual songwriters, Meir Ariel. The melody and structure are a copy of Naomi Shemer's Jerusalem of Gold, except that, as Ariel says in his song, Jerusalem is only mostly of gold.


40 years after the Six Day War Erez Stark wrote a poem for himself: Nothing Will harm Me. Stark was a soldier, and in his poem he promises that nothing will happen to him, he's promised his brother, his sister, his parents, his father keeps on saying "if anything happens to you what reason will I have to live" so he's promised nothing will ever happen to him, and if you're all standing around my grave I guess I didn't keep my promise and I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Erez was killed in 1997 in Southern Lebanon.


Finally, here's Ariel Horowitz's "20,000 brothers", from 2014. Sean Carmeli was killed in Gaza that summer, and when word went out that he had made aliya alone and didn't have family in Israel, the soccer team he'd been a fan of called on all the other fans to come to his funeral. His two sisters flew in from Texas, and thus the refrain "two sisters and 20,000 brothers, and you're in front". I suppose it's not great music, and the lyrics are spontaneous, not poetry, but you need to listen to them while watching the film. That will do it for you.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Burying Kitsch

Kitsch died on Shabbat.  A week or two ago he told his daughter he wished for silence, and she understood he didn't mean the silence of the small house he had lived in alone since his wife died. One day last week when his neighbor came to visit he suddenly managed to get out of bed and stand, straight, on his own two legs; wordless, offering no explanation. Just standing. Until his dying day he responded to all queries about his condition with a laconic "yehiye beseder". It will be OK.

I only met him once, during the shiva for his wife, which was also the shiva for the mother of a fellow on my staff. He told us interesting stories about the village they had founded back in the 1950s, and how his children had all been raised there but eventually left for the big city. He wasn't bitter, and he was clearly proud of them.

In the most recent war his son told me how much trouble Kitsch was causing, refusing to follow any orders or take any security precautions. "I had to go down there and drag him into the shelter; he had been driving in the fields next to the fence, quite oblivious of the shells flying around. Bring him out of there to us? Never a chance".

The old-time kibutzniks stood in front of the microphone on the edge of the grave, one after another, and told tall tales about Kitsch. How he had loved working with the goats, and how he had fought the decision to shut down that part of the business. He ran the "Economia", a word never used anymore which means, I think, he was in charge of distributing stuff - which would explain how two of the stories turned on the fact he held the keys to the ice cream refrigerator. He had been a doting grandfather, a talented gardener; he had demonstrated the full measure of love during the years he nursed his dying wife. "Saraleh-and-Kitsch", mused one of the old-timers, had been a single, 5-vowel word describing a single, two-soul entity; "and now you're together again".

The kibbutz archivist dug up an old document recording the explanations for the nicknames by which the founders were mostly known; we all perked up, expecting an explanation for the strange moniker: "The origin of the name Kitsch is not known. It must have been tacked onto him during his childhood".

 He was born, grew up, founded the kibbutz with his friends, married his girl-friend and fellow founder, raised four children, worked at whatever the kibbutz needed him to work at, was loved and respected by his neighbors, nursed his wife, enjoyed his grandchildren, died, and was buried in the cemetery at the edge of the kibbutz. Banal, heroic, just right.

We walked back on a dirt road between the graveyard and a broad field of golden wheat. At the other end of the field was the fence of Gaza, and beyond it, the towers of Gaza city.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Left-wing activists pile onto the Israel State Archives

Prequel: I warmly recommend reading my previous post, from a month ago, before reading this one. (Clearly, I don't blog often). That one was about how a left-wing NGO called Breaking the Silence and its defenders claimed that its working relationship with Israel's censor proved there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with BtS. A delicious irony to keep in mind as you follow today's installment.

A while ago I read William Doyle's The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Besides the good overview it gave of the events, I came away with an interesting thought he presented near the end of his tale, about the motivations of the Jacobins. Once people shed their allegiance to  traditional modes of thought and belief, and began to pride themselves on their pure rationalism, they often came to believe that their own understanding of the world, being rational, was the only possible one, and eventually, the only legitimate one.

Which means replacing the old systems with a new one made no-one any more tolerant. Instead of burning heretics at the stake, they guillotined them; the progress was in the decreased amount of pain inflicted upon the non-believers as they died.

Recently I've seen an example of the righteous indication of some of our own Jacobins from close up (no executions were involved, thankfully). It began when I announced, in February, that the approaching launch of our new website would mean the end of ordering paper files to the reading room. The catalog would be online, along with millions of pages of the scanned files; readers interested in seeing files we hadn't yet scanned would order them online and we'd upload them as quickly as possible.

The response, I admit, surprised me. There are any number of serious problems to the way the Israel State Archives (ISA) has functioned over the past 60 years, with the result that access to the documents is limited. No one ever took me to task for most of these deficiencies, and the staff and I have been laboring to correct things not as a result of public pressure but because we see tremendous room for improvement; we have been fortunate in convincing the powers that be in the relevant ministries that although the correction will require significant funds, it must be done. Launching the new website was to be the first time the general public would begin to see the improvements we've been laboring on for a number of years.

Well, within a week of announcing the imminent changes I was inundated by complaints from researchers, perturbed that those of them who regularly come to the reading room in Jerusalem would soon be required instead to remain at home and use the Internet. Assuming it was all a comic misunderstanding, I invited anyone who was worried to come to a meeting where I'd present the new website and answer any questions. (The website was already online at an unmarked URL). We spent a number of hours discussing the issues, at the end of which one of the researchers announced that he'd been convinced: it's a magnificent project you people are doing, he said.

Well, no. The campaign of letters of complaint grew, and soon was spearheaded by some of our NGOs. One sent me a six-page legal letter admonishing us, then wasted no time waiting for our response and leaked the document to the media. The thrust of the argument: 1. Nothing can replace the value of paper ind if we try we're effectively hampering historical research in Israel; 2. The fact that some security-related documents will be submitted to the censor will likewise be the end of free inquiry (never mind that this is the law, and isn't actually new). 3. The authorities will inevitably use this new ability to control who sees what to ensure the "wrong" people don't see the "wrong" documents.

No recognition that most of the documentation isn't open, and the entire effect of our actions is to open some of it immediately online, and the rest of it ASAP, while prioritizing the materials requested by readers.

On the day the new website limped online (I expect the teething problems to continue for another few weeks - this isn't a simple operation) the media swung into action. Haaretz went first. Then came 972 Magazine, online home for Israelis who really don't like most things their country does. Both writers had requested to talk to me, and neither had waited until the bureaucracy authorized me to respond. Once I did, the fellow at 972 found we're actually not as evil as he'd first reported, though interestingly his Hebrew-language report on our conversation was subtly more positive than its English-language version.

The kerfuffle soon attracted the attention of non-Israelis. Dan Williams of Reuters demonstrated the difference between journalism and activism, carefully talking to people and assuring he had the facts right. His report was considerably more balanced; he didn't find a tale of the Israeli authorities out to muzzle free inquiry but rather a tempest in a tea-cup.

The prize for Jacobinism went to a group of notionally professional and cool-headed American academics: the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). I saw no indication that anyone there reads Hebrew, nor made any attempt to contact me to learn what was going on. I don't think they even visited the website they were so robustly damning. They must have been contacted by some of our locals who cannot be bothered by nuance in their dash to damn us, and from these informants they gleaned a hodgepodge of data to draw the most damning indictment on what we're doing which they then publicly castigated us for.

The benefit to their intervention was their willingness to publish my response. So now there's an online, English language description of what we're doing, at the MESA website, and also on the ISA blog.

Ah yes - and the website itself, warts and all, is here. From now on, things will only improve.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A comment on Breaking the Silence

About 10 days ago Channel 2 TV, Israel's most popular channel, aired a longish report claiming Breaking the Silence (BtS) investigators are not limiting themselves to collecting stories from IDF veterans about ugly IDF behavior, but have branched out into what looks suspiciously like gathering general military intelligence. Following the ensuing uproar Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon tasked the relevant agencies to investigate. At some future date - easily weeks from now, perhaps many months - we'll hear either that the investigators found nothing worth criminal process, or that they did.

Lots of folks aren't waiting for either scenario to happen, and are using what we already know to bash their political foes, one way or the other. Much of this is predictable, and lacks any real value while convincing only the convinced.

One strand of the argument, however, has been a bit startling, and to my mind, noteworthy. This is the claim made by BtS defenders that the organization can't be doing anything wrong since all its publications go through the censor. (Here's an example of the genre). It's an odd line of defense, as the allegations were that BtS is collecting classified information, not publishing it; the mere collection, if proven, might be criminal - a matter I'll leave firmly for the experts.

The reason I'm blogging on this however, in spite of my obligation to stay firmly away from political matters, is that it shines a fascinating light on the IDF, on BtS, and on Israeli society.

In a better world, Israel wouldn't have a censor at all. In that world, Israel would be at peace. In the world we're in, Israel has never been at peace, and does have a censor. The censor's activities, however, are closely observed by the Supreme Court, and it's staff do their best to leave as light a footprint as possible, and to block as little information as possible.

Breaking the Silence, meanwhile, presents itself as a brave organization which stands up to Israel's establishment, especially it's military establishment, so as to tell its citizens (and the rest of the world) about the moral price its soldiers pay to maintain the occupation.

Or perhaps it's not so brave? For it turns out that everything it tells, it tells after it has gone to the censor (a military outfit), and the censor permits. One assumes (I haven't tried to check) that occasionally BtS goes to the censor with an item which for whatever reason can't be made public, and then BtS remains silent.

So where, pray tell, is the bravery? What silence exactly is being broken? Whatever BtS tells, it's not things the IDF wants kept secret, since the IDF could use the censor to keep it so; or conversely, even when BtS has an unpleasant story to tell, the IDF doesn't silence it. Rather than brave dissidents, perhaps we're seeing a military establishment which is open to public scrutiny to an admirable degree, and a society which supports the IDF, supplies occasional soldiers who dislike what they see, and enables them to publicly tell their tale and even take it on international roadshows?

That would mean it's not a tale of the moral damage occupation inflicts on Israeli society, but rather one of many methods Israeli society uses to try and preserve its moral standards.