Archive for category Sandbox

Martin Luther King and Israel, then and now

Not a year goes by without an attempt by someone to associate the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Palestinian cause. It’s particularly striking because while he lived, no one had much doubt about where he stood. Here, for example, is the late Edward Said, foremost Palestinian thinker of his day, in a 1993 interview:

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s—and particularly in ’66-’67—I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war.

With the passage of time and memory, some have suggested that King would have supported the Palestinians, if only his life hadn’t been cut short by assassination in 1968. So argued New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander on last year’s Martin Luther King Day. Her conclusion: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.”

But as I pointed out in an essay last March, King didn’t lack opportunities to condemn Israel while he lived, during the twenty years between 1948 and 1968. Instead he praised it.

Not only that: he knew the “plight” of the Palestinians perfectly well, having visited Jordanian-held East Jerusalem in 1959, where he got a tutorial over dinner from the leading lights of Arab Palestine. Yet he never left a quote in support of any aspect of the Palestinian Arab cause.

This is a source of Palestinian frustration on every Martin Luther King Day, since supporters of Israel have their pick of King quotes that favor Israel (“an oasis of brotherhood and democracy,” in King’s words). A few years back, I myself validated the origins of one of the most contentious of these quotes: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”

It’s not that King didn’t have a solution in mind for the region. He believed that the Palestinian refugee problem, if not the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, could best be resolved through “a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the mainstream of economic security.” Today that would be called “economic peace,” and it’s had a succession of champions, up to and including Jared Kushner.

On one occasion right after the 1967 war, King echoed the proposition that Israel should trade land for peace with the defeated Arab states: “I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.” (This was in a televised interview on June 18.) His position was in line with the emerging American view that Israel’s conquests, while neither illegal nor immoral, should be exchanged for peace.

And this was pretty much the outer limit of King’s vision for the Arabs. True, his carefully worded support of Israel wasn’t ebullient, and he never got around to visiting it. (The 1967 war scuttled his one concrete plan to do so.) There is also clear evidence that he wished to be seen as balanced in his approach to peace. But he regarded Israel’s creation as just (he said Israel had “a right to exist”), and whatever cost it involved was an unfortunate injury that needed repair, not a moral blight on the scale of Vietnam or segregation.

A Reciprocal Deal?

It’s sometimes claimed that King kept his silence on Israel to win Jewish financial or political support for the civil rights movement. That’s the claim of UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley in a recent article. King was “growing more critical of Israel but remained silent” for fear of “losing valuable allies and financial support.” He didn’t want to “further jeopardize what was already a dwindling funding stream.”

One imagines that King’s advisers never lost sight of the money. But this notion of a quid pro quo takes no account of the spiritual dimension of King’s ties to Zionist Jews. The two who were closest to him were refugee rabbis from Hitler’s Europe, who regarded the creation of Israel as redemption. And just as the Holocaust drove their passion for civil rights, it steeled their devotion to Israel.

The first was Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), a social activist, pulpit rabbi, and Zionist organizer, who personally knew nearly all of Israel’s leaders. Prinz allied himself with King in 1958, and at the 1963 March on Washington, he spoke in the slot before King’s historic address. The following year, Prinz consciously emulated King’s protest tactics by getting himself arrested near the Jordanian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. (The pavilion featured a “bigoted” mural putting the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel.) That summer, Prinz told Golda Meir: “It is the greatest tragedy of my life that I did not come to Israel.”

The second was Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), philosopher and theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an heir to one of the great Hasidic dynasties. King described Heschel as “a truly great prophet,” who famously marched in the front line with King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Immediately after the 1967 war, Heschel wrote one of the most ecstatic Zionist tracts ever compiled, his Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1968). “One of the insights learned from the great crisis in May, 1967,” he wrote,

is the deep personal involvement of every Jew in the existence of Israel. It is not a matter of philanthropy or general charity but of spiritual identification. It is such personal relationship to Israel upon which one’s dignity as a Jew is articulated.

For King, these men were not “supporters,” they were fellow visionaries, with whom he shared prophetic values. They spoke too as personal victims of racism, and gave voice to the millions who had perished in the Holocaust. The idea that their eloquent commitment to Israel didn’t affect King underestimates both him and them.

What would King think of Israel today? It’s an idle question. But he thought well of Israel then, and its flaws in his day weren’t far fewer, nor were its virtues much more numerous, than they are in ours. Whether he deserves to be called “a tremendous Zionist,” as Edward Said claimed, is a matter of perspective and definition. But the attempt to make him into an advocate for Palestine is an offense to history.

(Cross-posted at The Times of Israel.)

Choice books on Israel, 2019

Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.

Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.

David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.

Tom Segev, Ben-Gurion

Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.

But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.

Matti Friedman, Spies of No Country

We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95)tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.

Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.

In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.

Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike

Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israels Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99)It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)

It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.

Jerold Auerbach, Fit to PrintFinally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.

 

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A sleepless night in Room 16

A couple of months ago, my wife and I took a 24-hour vacation in Jerusalem, spent entirely at the historic American Colony, one of Jerusalem’s oldest hostelries. The hotel originated in a messianic Christian commune whose members had arrived from Chicago toward the end of the 19th century in anticipation of the Second Coming. While waiting, they diversified into economic activities, including hospitality. Over the last century-plus, the American Colony has hosted an A-list of dignitaries and celebrities from T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to the British rock star Sting.

The hotel’s location, on the edge of the Arab downtown, has long facilitated its role as a neutral ground for meetings of Israelis and Palestinians; I’d dined there a few times in the distant past for just that reason. Today its old stone buildings remain charming and its many gardens enchanting—nowhere more so than where they conjoin around a bubbling fountain to form the enclosed patio of the main building.

Since ours was not a business trip but a holiday, to be devoted to rest and relaxation, the setting suited us just fine. To our delight, on check-in we received an upgrade to a suite: Room 16.

A bit of intrigue heightened our excitement. A year ago, the London Daily Mail had run a feature on “the ten best history-making hotel rooms.” It included, among others, Lenin’s room at the Hotel National in Moscow, the “Scandal Room” at the Watergate in Washington, and the Plaza Hotel suite that hosted the Beatles on their 1964 visit to New York. Tenth on the list was Room 16, “our” suite at the American Colony.

And what happened in that suite to merit such distinction? According to one telling of the story, a 1992 meeting in Room 16 was the first step in the “Oslo process” between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the accord signed at the White House in September 1993. “We concocted the start of what became the Oslo channel in Room 16 of the American Colony Hotel,” testifies Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian mediator. “And the rest is history.”

In a new essay at Mosaic Magazine, I look into that history. I discover that Room 16 didn’t lead up to Oslo, but it led down the “road not taken”: namely, the road to an agreement between Israel and the so-called “inside” leadership of the West Bank and Gaza, personified by Faisal Husseini, that would have bypassed the PLO. It didn’t happen that way, but was it even a possibility?

For my full essay on the forgotten alternative to Oslo, continue here.

(And as a special bonus for my subscribers, go here for a look inside Room 16. The lovely woman is my wife.)

American Colony Hotel lobby

 

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The Balfour Declaration and the “Jewish problem”

The anniversary of the Balfour Declaration falls on November 2 (it’s 102 years), and I mark it with an essay on a neglected question. The record shows that British issuance of the declaration originated in the necessities of war. After the war, what kept Britain from throwing the declaration in the trash bin? Especially since it had already become a burden, poisoning Britain’s relations with millions of Arabs?

It’s a question that weighed very much on the mind of Chaim Weizmann, the chief Zionist lobbyist for the declaration. Fearing that the end of the war would erode support for the declaration, he made a provocative rationale for Britain to honor it. If millions of desperate Jews weren’t given a place in Palestine, they would turn into a violent, wandering horde, which would prevent the world from ever knowing peace. To learn how this argument evolved, and ultimately collapsed, read my latest at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

Balfour and Weizmann on Balfour's visit to Palestine, 1925.

Balfour and Weizmann on Balfour’s 1925 visit to Palestine.

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Seven black swans in the Middle East

New York Times covers 9/11The subject of strategic surprise is a large one, and it has inspired a fair amount of theoretical literature. The following catalogue isn’t intended as a contribution to theory. It is the evidence behind my personal observation that, for as long as I have studied the Middle East, all of the profoundly formative events have been “black swans,” imagined or predicted by almost no one. For an expert, that’s humbling (or should be).

But, first, what is a black swan? For centuries, it was assumed in Europe that all swans were white. The phrase “black swan” was used as we would use “flying pig”: a metaphor for something that couldn’t exist. But then a 17th-century Dutch explorer observed a black swan in Australia. That single sighting demolished an assumption that had stood since time immemorial.

The concept of a black-swan event was popularized a few years ago in a bestselling book with that title. Its flamboyant author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, argued that the most dramatic changes in politics, economics, and technology come out of the blue. A black-swan event, ran his definition, “lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility” (my emphases).

So a black-swan event is more extreme than a low-probability event. A black-swan event has no prior indication that it’s even possible. It’s unthinkable. And yet, Taleb concluded, while black swans themselves are rare, we live in a world largely fashioned by such once-unthinkable events. This wasn’t an entirely original argument, but his showmanship turned “black swan” into a common figure of speech.

Of course, what constitutes a black-swan event is a matter of perspective. Your assumptions may be upended by a surprise attack, but it’s no surprise to the attacker. For example, the June 1967 Six-Day War, preemptively initiated by Israel, was a black-swan event for Egypt, but obviously not for Israel.

In what follows, the perspective I assume is American. My seven black-swan events not only took Washington by surprise, but had far-reaching impacts on U.S. interests and policies. Also, while it’s tempting to go way back in time for more examples, I’ll limit myself to events within living memory, which (depending on your age) you probably remember, too.

Discover the black swans by reading the rest of this article at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.