Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.
Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.
Passover begins on Monday evening. This weekend is an excellent time to read up on the holiday, and COMMENTARY’s archive is the most lucid entry point, as well as the most accessible (both physically and spiritually). A terrific introduction that lays it all out is Theodor Gaster’s “What Does the Seder Celebrate?”
Many anecdotal accounts of the seder have appeared in our pages, too. Leslie Fiedler wrote about a “Seder in Rome” in 1954, and Sidney Alexander wrote about Passover in Venice in 1951. Closer to home, perhaps, is Morris Freedman’s “Grossinger’s Green Pastures,” the fabled Catskill vacation resort and site of many 20th-century American Jewish seders.
If scholarly is what you have in mind, COMMENTARY published (March 1953) selections from an 11th-century commentary on the Song of Songs, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon that is read at the synagogue during Passover. The commentary is by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi. A more recent meditation on the same biblical book is “Levels of Love,” which appeared in COMMENTARY’s April 1958 issue; this essay is by Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish return to the land of Israel. Still more recent, not to say with-it, is Hyam Maccoby’s “Sex According to the Song of Songs” (June 1979).
Finally, if you think that the Wall Street Journal’s kosher wine lists are a modern invention, check out “Wine Like Mother Used to Make” (May 1954), which begins: “Kosher wine, once bought exclusively by Jews and only during Jewish holiday seasons, seems on the way to becoming as popular as the cola drinks.” Indeed. And if you think Passover nouvelle cuisine is really nouvelle, read Ruth Glazer’s review of “The Jewish Festival Cookbook” (March 1956). Glazer opens: “Not the least of places in which the Jewish revival has caused added bustle is the kitchen.” To quote from a different book by King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun.
In his article in the April issue of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman has provided a valuable service by increasing awareness of David Galula and the French experience in Algeria. I agree with much of what he has to say but feel compelled to register some disagreements as well.
First, a minor peeve: I dislike the breakdown of warfare into four generations—a conceit launched by William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation and picked up by Herman in this article. “4GW” theorists, as they are known in military circles, posit that insurgency has now replaced traditional “maneuver” warfare, just as in World War II maneuver warfare replaced industrial warfare. The reality is considerably more complex: maneuver warfare still exists (an example: the three-week U.S. blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003), and terrorism and guerrilla warfare, though growing in importance, are nothing new—they date back to the dawn of warfare. This isn’t meant to deprecate the importance of low-intensity conflict; rather to suggest that it isn’t new and it isn’t necessarily the sum of all warfare today. (Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College, London, has written a good refutation of 4GW theory.)
This is a relatively minor matter of categorization. A more serious flaw with Herman’s article is his presupposition that the U.S. will have the same level of purely military success that the French had in Algeria. Maybe so, but there’s little evidence of that yet. Even with the small successes that General Petraeus has registered with the initial stages of the troop “surge,” Baghdad remains infinitely more dangerous than Algiers ever was. We are not close to military victory in Iraq—certainly not as close as the French were in Algeria in the late 1950′s.