Commentary Magazine


Topic: Theodor Herzl

The Palestinians, the Pope and Peace

Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

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Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

The context of the papal visit is the desire of Francis, a man already renowned for his caring persona and a desire to create outreach with all peoples, to plant a flag of ecumenism in the midst of a steadily worsening environment for Christians in the Middle East. The rise of Islamism has made the situation of all non-Muslim minorities in the region difficult and none are in a more precarious situation than that of Palestinian Christians, who have left the administered territories in large numbers since the Oslo Accords that handed over effective control of these areas to the Palestinian Authority. But, instead, a bogus campaign of incitement has sought to convince the world that Israel, the one nation in the region where freedom of religion prevails, is the problem for the Christians.

Nevertheless, tensions between Palestinian Arabs and Jews have at times bubbled over into religious tension. Far right extremist Jews appear to have been guilty of vandalism at some churches, a deplorable development that has generated international outrage that is notably missing when Jewish institutions are routinely given the same treatment by Arabs.

The dispute at Mount Zion is typical of the kind of disputes that develop at the holy places. The shrine there has been under Jewish control for decades. Indeed, prior to the unification of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Western Wall, it was considered by many to be the most sacred spot inside pre-1967 Israel. While the Israeli protests about the mass seem intolerant, they are generated by fears that the site will be handed over to the church, which would compromise Jewish sovereignty over the capital as well as possibly infringe on Jewish worship there. The Israeli government is clearly opposed to such a transfer and if they allow Christians more access to the site for their worship, it is to be hoped that both sides will live and let live.

Israelis would have preferred that the Vatican not jump the gun and recognize “Palestine” without the Arabs first being required to make peace. Such recognition lessens the pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith, but there is little rancor over the pope’s desire to visit what is, for all intents and purposes, a separate country in the West Bank. But the Herzl dispute is more serious than just another tit-for-tat argument.

In venting their anger about a wreath for Herzl, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating that their real problem with Israel isn’t West Bank settlements or where the border should be after a peace treaty. It is, instead, an argument about the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders wind up being drawn. Herzl, who died in 1904, isn’t connected in any way to the grievances Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders vent their spleen about. But he is, in no small measure, responsible for the birth of the movement responsible for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the historic homeland of his people. If Palestinians have a problem with Herzl, it’s because they still can’t bring themselves to change a political culture that regards rejection of Zionism as integral to their identity as a people.

Jews rightly see the pope’s presence at Mount Herzl as a much needed act of historical justice. During his campaign to gain international recognition for the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and create their own state, Herzl visited Francis’s predecessor Pope Pius X 110 years ago. That pope contemptuously rejected Herzl’s plea, a response that was very much in keeping with Catholic doctrine at the time that regarded perpetual exile as an appropriate punishment for the Jewish people for their refusal to accept Christianity. Fortunately, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have already changed the church’s attitude toward Judaism and Zionism. While most Jews may disagree with some of the Vatican’s policies with regard to the Palestinians, there is no question that the two faiths are now closer than they have ever been. By paying his respects to Herzl, Francis is solidifying that bond.

Until the Palestinians give up their war on Zionism and find a way to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the papal visit may not change much about interfaith relations but, rather, that one stop on his itinerary demonstrates just how unlikely peace remains.

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Is Wagner Worse Than the Nakba?

It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

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It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

Many denounced the decision to allow an event devoted to trashing the existence of the State of Israel (and, by extension to the existence of both the university and the city in which it is located) as treason. But TAU defended its approval for a gathering where activists read Yizkor (the prayer of mourning) to denote Israel’s founding as an expression of the country’s democratic values. The result was a travesty that speaks to the sickness at the heart of the country’s intellectual elites. By the standards of America’s free speech practices that are defended by the First Amendment, such a demonstration would not be noteworthy. But in Israel, holding such a demonstration at a state-funded institution was a big deal and rightly shocked many citizens. Nevertheless, so long as it was just talk, opposition to Zionism and sympathy with Israel’s enemies can be defended by democratic values even if cannot be justified morally.

But apparently, when it comes to the mere playing of compositions that are more than 130-years-old and are part of the standard classic repertoire wherever music is played around the world, TAU has more stringent standards. For the school, the sound of those denouncing the existence of the country that gave it life is more melodious than Wagner’s tunes.

It bears repeating that the arguments for Israel’s Wagner ban are based in emotion and do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. I’ll reiterate some of what I wrote here last year about this touchy subject:

The question of whether or not it is appropriate to perform Wagner’s music is a complex one. There is no doubt he was an anti-Semite. His essays about the supposed role Jews had in undermining higher art and music are utterly despicable. They are even worse when you consider that far more people were exposed to them in print than probably heard live performances of Wagner’s music during his lifetime. To say he inspired a subsequent generation of Germans (the composer died in 1883) to think ill of Jews is probably an understatement. But that is not quite the same thing as saying he was a Nazi. The same cannot be said for his widow, children and grandchildren, some of whom allowed Hitler and his followers to hijack the Bayreuth Festival and turn it into a prop of the Nazi regime.

Yet to assert, as some do, that Wagner’s operas are anti-Semitic is simply not true.

While Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds are today read only by scholars, his life-affirming music dramas continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world who know little or nothing of his politics. Those who seek to project the composer’s racial and political opinions onto the broad canvas of his myth-based theater works are inevitably reduced to strained analogies and symbolism that never holds up to scrutiny. Attempts to classify any music as intrinsically good or evil always fail.

It is understandable that those who lived in Germany during the 1930s might think there was something about Wagner’s compositions that inspired mass murder. But the power of music is ethically neutral. As evidence, I would note that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was himself a great supporter of Wagner’s music. Herzl confided to his diary during the period when he was planning to write The Jewish State, “Only on those nights when no Wagner was performed [at the Paris Opera] did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea.” He later insisted that music from Wagner’s “Tannhauser” be played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

No one should be forced to listen to music that conjures up terrible associations with the Shoah for them, and it is likely the informal ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel itself will continue for a while. But this is not a restriction that can last. … Wagner is not the only great artist who can be credibly labeled an anti-Semite. So long as the work itself is not something that promotes hatred (as can be said of a play such as The Merchant of Venice even though we do not ban Shakespeare), those who love music must separate the man from his art.

The planned concert and discussions that were part of the event would have explored some of these ideas as well as the love of Wagner’s music on the part of Herzl and the anti-fascist conductor Arturo Toscanini who presided over the founding of the Israel Philharmonic.

The concert would have done no harm to anyone in Israel, and those who would have been offended by Wagner need not have attended. Its suppression will achieve nothing other than to satisfy a rule that honors neither the Holocaust nor Israel’s culture.

Can the same cannot be said for the Nakba event? It was part of a concerted campaign for whose adherentsthe goal is nothing less than the end of the State of Israel. One has to wonder about the sanity of a university or a country that would move heaven and earth to ban music but would allow the enemies of their existence free rein to advocate their destruction.

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The Difference Between Drefyus and al-Qaeda

I have not read novelist Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which received a favorable review in today’s New York Times Book Review section. However, there are some things that may be confidently asserted even without having perused that tome.

One is that there is absolutely no analogy to be drawn between Captain Alfred Dreyfus on the one hand, and Khalid Sheik Muhammad and the other al-Qaeda operatives on the other, who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay over the last several years.

A second is that there is no analogy between the machinations of the French Army’s High Command, which covered up the identity of the real German spy in Paris in the 1890s and instead chose to place the blame for a security breach on a loyal French Jew, and the efforts of the Bush administration to defend the United States against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

A third would be to note that if there is any common thread between the actors of 9/11 and those of the Dreyfus affair, it is not between the anti-Dreyfusards and the Bush administration but rather between the former and their fellow Jew haters in al-Qaeda, not to mention the lunatic Left, which has rationalized Islamist terrorism and attacked those who fight it.

One would think that such elemental facts would be known to the editors of the Book Review or to Ruth Scurr, who gave Begley’s book a rave. But apparently in this case political prejudices trump even the barest knowledge of history. Scurr applauds Begley when he asks: “Will some day in the near future the crimes of the Bush administration, like … the crimes against Dreyfus, disappear under the scar tissue of silence and indifference?” She goes on to note approvingly his desire for the emergence of “an American Zola or Proust” to speak up against Bush as those French writers did against the Dreyfus persecutors.

What can one say about such nonsense? Most Americans probably know little of the Dreyfus Affair. So it’s worth pointing out a few facts about the difference between our contemporary war on terror and the political and cultural conflict that turned France upside down over 100 years ago.

Unlike the al-Qaeda murderers who planned and executed 9/11, Dreyfus was innocent. One may criticize the zealousness of the Bush administration in their counter-offensive against al Qaeda. One may even criticize Guantanamo though when compared to the Devil’s Island accommodations offered Dreyfus, it looks more like a stay at the Waldorf than a prison. But in the end, the notion that KSM and other al-Qaeda members are the victims of persecution and, as Scurr put it, of “kangaroo trials,” is beyond absurd.

Unlike Bush’s critics, those who defended Dreyfus were speaking up for a genuine victim of injustice, a patriot wrongly accused and convicted solely because he was a Jew. But it is a telling insight into the depth of the political bias that Bush-haters have descended to observe that some are even prepared to analogize Dreyfus and al-Qaeda. The bizarre notion that virtually everything done by Bush after 9/11 was an attack on American liberty has become so firmly ingrained in the popular imagination that anything can and will be said to besmirch his administration. That it occurs to neither Begley nor Scurr that the anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards finds its echo in the forces that Bush sought to fight speaks volumes about the tone-deaf nature of their political vendetta.

Of course, the Dreyfus Affair does matter. For those who want to actually learn about the Dreyfus Affair, there is still no better place to turn to than Jean Louis Bredin’s 1986 The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.

But it matters not just because speaking out against injustice is the duty of all decent persons but also because the forces that sought to delegitimize Jewish identity in the 1890s are once again on the march in Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in our time is due, in no small measure, to the influence of political Islam and the unwillingness of many Westerners to defend their democratic traditions. If any analogy is to be found today for the persecution of Dreyfus, it is in the lies that are hurled by Europeans and their Islamist friends against the State of Israel.

The spectacle of Dreyfus’s degradation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris – as Dreyfus’s pitiful cries of his innocence and loyalty to France were drowned out by a mob screaming for the death of the Jews — helped motivate Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” and launch the modern Zionist movement. Today, as then, there are many in Europe and elsewhere who cry out for Jewish blood or attempt to portray Israel’s terrorist foes as innocent victims. Those like Begley and Scurr — who seem to think the fight against Islamist terrorists is the real evil of the day – have the bully pulpit of venues such as the Times from which to vent their spleen against Bush. But there is no resemblance between such jeremiads and a defense of Western values or of the Jews for which Zola is better remembered than his novels.

I have not read novelist Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which received a favorable review in today’s New York Times Book Review section. However, there are some things that may be confidently asserted even without having perused that tome.

One is that there is absolutely no analogy to be drawn between Captain Alfred Dreyfus on the one hand, and Khalid Sheik Muhammad and the other al-Qaeda operatives on the other, who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay over the last several years.

A second is that there is no analogy between the machinations of the French Army’s High Command, which covered up the identity of the real German spy in Paris in the 1890s and instead chose to place the blame for a security breach on a loyal French Jew, and the efforts of the Bush administration to defend the United States against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

A third would be to note that if there is any common thread between the actors of 9/11 and those of the Dreyfus affair, it is not between the anti-Dreyfusards and the Bush administration but rather between the former and their fellow Jew haters in al-Qaeda, not to mention the lunatic Left, which has rationalized Islamist terrorism and attacked those who fight it.

One would think that such elemental facts would be known to the editors of the Book Review or to Ruth Scurr, who gave Begley’s book a rave. But apparently in this case political prejudices trump even the barest knowledge of history. Scurr applauds Begley when he asks: “Will some day in the near future the crimes of the Bush administration, like … the crimes against Dreyfus, disappear under the scar tissue of silence and indifference?” She goes on to note approvingly his desire for the emergence of “an American Zola or Proust” to speak up against Bush as those French writers did against the Dreyfus persecutors.

What can one say about such nonsense? Most Americans probably know little of the Dreyfus Affair. So it’s worth pointing out a few facts about the difference between our contemporary war on terror and the political and cultural conflict that turned France upside down over 100 years ago.

Unlike the al-Qaeda murderers who planned and executed 9/11, Dreyfus was innocent. One may criticize the zealousness of the Bush administration in their counter-offensive against al Qaeda. One may even criticize Guantanamo though when compared to the Devil’s Island accommodations offered Dreyfus, it looks more like a stay at the Waldorf than a prison. But in the end, the notion that KSM and other al-Qaeda members are the victims of persecution and, as Scurr put it, of “kangaroo trials,” is beyond absurd.

Unlike Bush’s critics, those who defended Dreyfus were speaking up for a genuine victim of injustice, a patriot wrongly accused and convicted solely because he was a Jew. But it is a telling insight into the depth of the political bias that Bush-haters have descended to observe that some are even prepared to analogize Dreyfus and al-Qaeda. The bizarre notion that virtually everything done by Bush after 9/11 was an attack on American liberty has become so firmly ingrained in the popular imagination that anything can and will be said to besmirch his administration. That it occurs to neither Begley nor Scurr that the anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards finds its echo in the forces that Bush sought to fight speaks volumes about the tone-deaf nature of their political vendetta.

Of course, the Dreyfus Affair does matter. For those who want to actually learn about the Dreyfus Affair, there is still no better place to turn to than Jean Louis Bredin’s 1986 The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.

But it matters not just because speaking out against injustice is the duty of all decent persons but also because the forces that sought to delegitimize Jewish identity in the 1890s are once again on the march in Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in our time is due, in no small measure, to the influence of political Islam and the unwillingness of many Westerners to defend their democratic traditions. If any analogy is to be found today for the persecution of Dreyfus, it is in the lies that are hurled by Europeans and their Islamist friends against the State of Israel.

The spectacle of Dreyfus’s degradation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris – as Dreyfus’s pitiful cries of his innocence and loyalty to France were drowned out by a mob screaming for the death of the Jews — helped motivate Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” and launch the modern Zionist movement. Today, as then, there are many in Europe and elsewhere who cry out for Jewish blood or attempt to portray Israel’s terrorist foes as innocent victims. Those like Begley and Scurr — who seem to think the fight against Islamist terrorists is the real evil of the day – have the bully pulpit of venues such as the Times from which to vent their spleen against Bush. But there is no resemblance between such jeremiads and a defense of Western values or of the Jews for which Zola is better remembered than his novels.

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