Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 16, 2007

Weekend Reading

Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century “false messiah,” remains one of the most enigmatic and seductive figures in the whole of Jewish tradition. He has had no better contemporary exegete than the great philologist and historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a towering figure in in his own right. Scholem, who emigrated from Germany to pre-Israel Palestine in the early 1920′s and taught thereafter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, more or less singlehandedly created the academic study of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), an area of Jewish religious thought and experience long overlooked or repressed by Jewish historians.

The Holiness of Sin,” Scholem’s landmark essay on the later followers of Sabbatai Zevi and the implications of their catastrophic turn toward antinomianism, appeared in English for the first time in COMMENTARY in 1971. To mark the 25th anniversary of Scholem’s death in February 1982, we offer this monumental work of modern intellectual history, along with Robert Alter’s sensitive and incisive introduction to Scholem’s life and works, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem.” Enjoy.

Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century “false messiah,” remains one of the most enigmatic and seductive figures in the whole of Jewish tradition. He has had no better contemporary exegete than the great philologist and historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a towering figure in in his own right. Scholem, who emigrated from Germany to pre-Israel Palestine in the early 1920′s and taught thereafter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, more or less singlehandedly created the academic study of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), an area of Jewish religious thought and experience long overlooked or repressed by Jewish historians.

The Holiness of Sin,” Scholem’s landmark essay on the later followers of Sabbatai Zevi and the implications of their catastrophic turn toward antinomianism, appeared in English for the first time in COMMENTARY in 1971. To mark the 25th anniversary of Scholem’s death in February 1982, we offer this monumental work of modern intellectual history, along with Robert Alter’s sensitive and incisive introduction to Scholem’s life and works, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem.” Enjoy.

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Tough Diplomacy

I agree with Max Boot that the administration’s deal with North Korea sounds like a sell-out. The giveaway was Condi Rice’s pledge of “tough diplomacy.” What in the world is that? And what kind of diplomacy do we usually practice, soft diplomacy? How does that work? “Welcome to the store, Mr. Kim. Help yourself to whatever tickles your fancy. It’s on the house.” Well, if that’s soft diplomacy, how is our recent exercise in “tough diplomacy” any different?

To give the administration its due, the North Korean knot is plenty vexing. Since Pyongyang now has a nuclear bomb, military action becomes dicier than it already was with Seoul in range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces. We have no economic leverage to speak of, and while no country on earth is a worthier candidate for regime change than North Korea, we have almost no ability to influence its internal politics.

This is one more reason why we must bomb Iran before it completes its nuclear weapon. An internal EU report, leaked to the Financial Times on Tuesday, acknowledges that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.” The “tough sanctions” that the administration talks about are just as spurious as “tough diplomacy.”

“The EU has agreed to pursue sanctions through the United Nations if the Iranians continues [sic] to reject the decisions of the IAEA Board and the UN Security Council,” says the report. The trick to this formulation is that it means the Europeans are prepared only for sanctions adopted by the Security Council, i.e., only sanctions that Russia and China will agree to. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear last week, and Beijing has made clear often, they regard the U.S. as a bigger threat to their ambitions than Iran. They will not cooperate in tightening the vise on Tehran. And even if they did, it is extremely doubtful that Ahmadinejad, Khameini, et. al., will give up their birthright to dominate the Islamic world (or perhaps rule the whole world) for a mess of economic inducements.

I have explained elsewhere why the emptiness of other measures to stop Iran’s bomb and the terrible consequences that would ensue from a nuclear-armed Iran lead to only one conclusion: military action. But here is one more reason. Bombing Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons facilities is one way—perhaps the only way—to turn Pyongyang around. Kim Jong Il would no longer sleep easily worrying about whether his turn was next and might finally agree to trade in his nukes. Now that is what I call tough diplomacy.

I agree with Max Boot that the administration’s deal with North Korea sounds like a sell-out. The giveaway was Condi Rice’s pledge of “tough diplomacy.” What in the world is that? And what kind of diplomacy do we usually practice, soft diplomacy? How does that work? “Welcome to the store, Mr. Kim. Help yourself to whatever tickles your fancy. It’s on the house.” Well, if that’s soft diplomacy, how is our recent exercise in “tough diplomacy” any different?

To give the administration its due, the North Korean knot is plenty vexing. Since Pyongyang now has a nuclear bomb, military action becomes dicier than it already was with Seoul in range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces. We have no economic leverage to speak of, and while no country on earth is a worthier candidate for regime change than North Korea, we have almost no ability to influence its internal politics.

This is one more reason why we must bomb Iran before it completes its nuclear weapon. An internal EU report, leaked to the Financial Times on Tuesday, acknowledges that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.” The “tough sanctions” that the administration talks about are just as spurious as “tough diplomacy.”

“The EU has agreed to pursue sanctions through the United Nations if the Iranians continues [sic] to reject the decisions of the IAEA Board and the UN Security Council,” says the report. The trick to this formulation is that it means the Europeans are prepared only for sanctions adopted by the Security Council, i.e., only sanctions that Russia and China will agree to. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear last week, and Beijing has made clear often, they regard the U.S. as a bigger threat to their ambitions than Iran. They will not cooperate in tightening the vise on Tehran. And even if they did, it is extremely doubtful that Ahmadinejad, Khameini, et. al., will give up their birthright to dominate the Islamic world (or perhaps rule the whole world) for a mess of economic inducements.

I have explained elsewhere why the emptiness of other measures to stop Iran’s bomb and the terrible consequences that would ensue from a nuclear-armed Iran lead to only one conclusion: military action. But here is one more reason. Bombing Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons facilities is one way—perhaps the only way—to turn Pyongyang around. Kim Jong Il would no longer sleep easily worrying about whether his turn was next and might finally agree to trade in his nukes. Now that is what I call tough diplomacy.

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At Home in Auschwitz

Tadeusz Borowski, short-story writer, poet, and kapo in Auschwitz, took his own life at the age of 29. He left behind him one of the most important bodies of literary work about the Holocaust, a corpus doubly important for its proximity to the abyssal horrors of the camps and for its author’s tremendous literary talent—a confluence at times missing in the larger sphere of such literature. (One of Borowski’s most famous stories, “This Way for the Gas,” appeared in English for the first time in the pages of COMMENTARY.) Arno Lustiger, the German historian and author, yesterday reviewed Borowski’s new, posthumous collection Bei Uns in Auschwitz (“At Home in Auschwitz”), which has just been translated and published in Germany, for the indispensable Sign and Sight:

Borowski is among the important but little known writers to have bestowed an almost metaphysical dimension on Auschwitz. Although his oeuvre offers no contribution to the debate on “theology after Auschwitz”, it does help the reader to comprehend the unbelievable and the monstrous in the lives and deaths of Homo auschwitziensis, even if only to a limited extent. Borowski’s stories are characterized by great precision. He refrains entirely from moral value judgements, and there is not the slightest hint of empathy, making the book’s brutal, horrific passages a torture to read. Is this nihilistic indifference, this lack of empathy feigned? Was it the author’s provocative literary means of awakening empathy in the reader?

The whole piece (translated by Nicholas Grindell) deserves your attention.

Tadeusz Borowski, short-story writer, poet, and kapo in Auschwitz, took his own life at the age of 29. He left behind him one of the most important bodies of literary work about the Holocaust, a corpus doubly important for its proximity to the abyssal horrors of the camps and for its author’s tremendous literary talent—a confluence at times missing in the larger sphere of such literature. (One of Borowski’s most famous stories, “This Way for the Gas,” appeared in English for the first time in the pages of COMMENTARY.) Arno Lustiger, the German historian and author, yesterday reviewed Borowski’s new, posthumous collection Bei Uns in Auschwitz (“At Home in Auschwitz”), which has just been translated and published in Germany, for the indispensable Sign and Sight:

Borowski is among the important but little known writers to have bestowed an almost metaphysical dimension on Auschwitz. Although his oeuvre offers no contribution to the debate on “theology after Auschwitz”, it does help the reader to comprehend the unbelievable and the monstrous in the lives and deaths of Homo auschwitziensis, even if only to a limited extent. Borowski’s stories are characterized by great precision. He refrains entirely from moral value judgements, and there is not the slightest hint of empathy, making the book’s brutal, horrific passages a torture to read. Is this nihilistic indifference, this lack of empathy feigned? Was it the author’s provocative literary means of awakening empathy in the reader?

The whole piece (translated by Nicholas Grindell) deserves your attention.

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The Muslim Lobby

Europe’s democracies have changed dramatically in recent years in response to Islamic population growth, growth fueled by immigration and birth rates substantially higher than local norms. Great Britain, France, Italy, and other nations have been forced to accommodate the needs and preferences of their Islamic citizens, often at the expense of the global conflict with radical Islam.

Can it happen here? Suppose that the writer Mark Steyn is right to argue that “demographics are destiny.” What number of Muslims, agitating for their self-defined interests and agendas, would constitute a critical mass in the U.S.? At what point would American politicians feel compelled to take up their cause?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) all worked overtime this past election cycle to create the impression that, in American politics, Muslims are now a force to be reckoned with. They were especially emphatic about the country’s growing Muslim population—some 8 million souls, in their oft-repeated estimates.

So it comes as a useful corrective to read Patrick Poole’s “Numbers Don’t Lie” in this week’s Front Page Magazine. Poole cites two recent pieces (in IBD and the New York Sun) criticizing the methodology of the survey that produced the 8 million figure and citing new estimates drawn from survey work done at CUNY and the University of Chicago—estimates suggesting that there are, in fact, not 8 million Muslims in the U.S. but well under 3 million. Moreover, of these, only a minuscule 4,761 are dues-paying members of CAIR, which presents itself as the community’s authoritative voice.

Whether CAIR or any of the others truly represents the sentiments of American Muslims is a question that political strategists might consider before pandering to their radical demands or overlooking their questionable (or worse) political associations, all amply documented over the years by observers like Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson. But why be fooled by numbers? The readiness to inflate the size of their alleged constituency is only another tactic in a campaign of intimidation to which too many have already succumbed.

Europe’s democracies have changed dramatically in recent years in response to Islamic population growth, growth fueled by immigration and birth rates substantially higher than local norms. Great Britain, France, Italy, and other nations have been forced to accommodate the needs and preferences of their Islamic citizens, often at the expense of the global conflict with radical Islam.

Can it happen here? Suppose that the writer Mark Steyn is right to argue that “demographics are destiny.” What number of Muslims, agitating for their self-defined interests and agendas, would constitute a critical mass in the U.S.? At what point would American politicians feel compelled to take up their cause?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) all worked overtime this past election cycle to create the impression that, in American politics, Muslims are now a force to be reckoned with. They were especially emphatic about the country’s growing Muslim population—some 8 million souls, in their oft-repeated estimates.

So it comes as a useful corrective to read Patrick Poole’s “Numbers Don’t Lie” in this week’s Front Page Magazine. Poole cites two recent pieces (in IBD and the New York Sun) criticizing the methodology of the survey that produced the 8 million figure and citing new estimates drawn from survey work done at CUNY and the University of Chicago—estimates suggesting that there are, in fact, not 8 million Muslims in the U.S. but well under 3 million. Moreover, of these, only a minuscule 4,761 are dues-paying members of CAIR, which presents itself as the community’s authoritative voice.

Whether CAIR or any of the others truly represents the sentiments of American Muslims is a question that political strategists might consider before pandering to their radical demands or overlooking their questionable (or worse) political associations, all amply documented over the years by observers like Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson. But why be fooled by numbers? The readiness to inflate the size of their alleged constituency is only another tactic in a campaign of intimidation to which too many have already succumbed.

Read Less