On the day that the enemies of the Jews had expected to rule over them, the situation was reversed, and it was the Jews themselves who ruled over those who hated them. The Jews gathered themselves in their cities in all the provinces of Ahashverosh the king, to lay their hands on those who sought to harm them, and no man could stand before them, for fear of them had fallen on all the peoples. The king said to Esther the queen: “In Susa the capital the Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men, and the ten sons of Haman.”…The rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered together and fought for their lives, gaining respite from their enemies and killing 75,000 of those who hated them. But the spoils they did not touch.A
from Chapter 9 of the Book of Esther
s the book of Esther reaches its climax, the Jews of Persia have turned political defeat into political triumph. Esther, the young Jewish queen of Persia, has taken on the Hitler-like vizier, Haman, deploying political and sexual innuendo to drive a wedge between him and the king, Ahashverosh (whom the Greeks called Xerxes). It was Haman who had persuaded the king to order the extermination of every Jew in the Persian Empire, and this royal edict remains in force. But Esther’s attack on the vizier has brought about a dramatic shift in power. Esther succeeds in having Haman deposed and hanged, and she positions her cousin Mordecai as the new vizier in his place. And after two months of nail-biting tension, she is able to get the king to issue a second decree, which permits the Jews of Persia to raise up a military force with which to defend themselves.
When the day Haman had appointed for the massacre comes eight months later, the Jews use this strength to deal a deathblow to anti-Semitic power in the empire. They kill more than 75,000 men, lay waste to its leadership, and establish a deterrent against future threats to the Jewish communities of Persia. Perhaps most significant, the crushing of the anti-Semitic nemesis establishes the position of the new Jewish vizier with the king, ensuring that Ahashverosh’s authority will be wielded in such a way as to protect the Jewish interest for years to come.
The narrative in the Book of Esther only touches on these final stages of Mordecai and Esther’s efforts, but there is enough for us to understand what happened. After months of feverish diplomatic work, Mordecai had succeeded in parlaying the fact of the new decree’s existence and the feeble mumblings of Ahashverosh into a widespread belief that he in fact had the influence, authority, and power to make good on it: “The man Mordecai grew greater and greater,” “his reputation had gone out to all the provinces,” and with that “the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them.” By the opening of the actual war, the influence of the Jews in the empire had become overwhelming. The hard core of anti-Semitic power had been isolated, as “all the princes of the provinces, and the satraps, and the governors and those that conduct the king’s affairs supported the Jews.” Many of those who had been willing to support the anti-Semites had switched sides or disappeared into the woodwork, and it appeared that the Jews and their allies would score a terrifying victory. Thus the “fear of them had fallen on all the peoples,” and “none could stand before them.”
Some have suggested that Mordecai now had the option of restraining the fury of the promised Jewish onslaught: There was no longer much question of a real anti-Semitic assault, and if he feared there would be an anti-Semitic resurgence should he relent, he could have opted just to arrest or execute a few hundred gang leaders across the empire. Would this not have sufficed? Mordecai obviously did not believe such a minimalist response would have been enough, and his decisions are straight out of Machiavelli’s textbook of power politics:
For it must be noted, that men must either be caressed or annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance.
Moreover, a ruler or a prince
must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful; for, with a very few examples, he will be more merciful than those who, from excess of tenderness, allow disorders to arise, from whence spring bloodshed and rapine….And of all princes, it is impossible for a new prince to escape the reputation of cruelty.
In other words, a minimalistic response to a genuine threat all but ensures two undesired consequences, both of them deadly. First, the defeated enemy will nurture the hope of revenge, and continues to be an active threat as he seeks an opportunity to reassert his challenge. Second, the mildness of the response encourages others to take advantage of what can be perceived as hesitancy or weakness on the part of the ruler. The only hope to avoid future outrages is thus the assertion of overwhelming power in the first instance.
Strength attracts strength, and power attracts power. Thus the weak, to the degree they can make themselves seem strong, can attract the support of the strong, thereby becoming strong in reality.And this is what Mordecai chooses to do: “The Jews struck at all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying, and they did as they pleased to those who hated them. And in Susa the capital the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred….The rest of the Jews who were in the king’ s provinces gathered together and fought for their lives, gaining respite from their enemies and killing seventy-five thousand of those who hated them.”
Throughout the empire, the Jews enter into battle with the anti-Semitic forces, in most cases with the active assistance of the allies who have rallied to support Mordecai’s position. Abandoned by most of their former supporters among the people and in the government, the anti-Semitic inciters and those who had actively advanced their cause are brought low in province after province. The carnage is so great that (i) the anti-Semitic basilisk is in fact beheaded, its life and leadership burned out of the body politic; and (ii) the lesson is learned by all future challengers to the safety of the Jews and the power of Mordecai in the king’s court. Nowhere in all the vast reaches of the Persian Empire does there any longer exist a leader capable of inspiring the peoples to rise and harm the Jewish communities, nor can anyone imagine becoming one while Mordecai’s influence persists.
ut there is a third reason for the decision to go to war that perhaps even surpasses the others in importance: the position of the king himself toward the Jews, and toward Mordecai as their leader.
When, earlier in the story, Ahashverosh had expressed an opinion on the subject of saving the lives of the Jews of Persia, he had managed to leave no question as to how little the subject concerned him. Pressed by the queen, the best he had been able to do was to reply that he had already done something good for the Jews once (“Behold, I have given Haman’s house to Esther, and he himself has been hanged on the gallows”), and that although there was nothing else to be done (“an edict written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked”), Mordecai and Esther were free to try if they so chose (“And you, write concerning the Jews as seems good in your eyes”).
Ahashverosh is a scoundrel. Not only is there no reason to believe his present professions of sympathy for the Jews, but his original complicity in the plan to destroy them, especially when combined with his subsequent statements on the subject, suggests that there is every reason to fear for the future. Who is to say that some turn of events will not take the Jews out of favor and return Ahashverosh to the original course he and Haman had set? With these facts constantly before him, Mordecai has another, crucial reason to bring the war against the enemies of the Jews to its spectacular conclusion: Strength attracts strength, and power attracts power. Thus the weak, to the degree they can make themselves seem strong, can attract the support of the strong, thereby becoming strong in reality.
Ahashverosh has made it clear that he is not the slightest bit inclined to become the protector of the Jews so long as they are a diffuse and contrary minority, and therefore “it is of no benefit for the king to tolerate them.” If Mordecai is to make the reversal of the Jews’ fortunes complete—and if he is to lend this reversal a measure of stability and permanence—he has no choice but to make it perfectly obvious to Ahashverosh that the Jews are strong, and that it is in fact of very real benefit to tolerate them, to ally himself with them, and to protect them against future threats that may arise.
This, the final transformation in the king’s relationship with the Jews, is depicted in an exchange between Ahashverosh and his Jewish queen at the height of the tension on the day of the war between the Jews and their enemies. Reports from the provinces have not yet begun to arrive, but the dimensions of the catastrophe that has befallen the anti-Semites in Susa have already become known. For the first time in the narrative, we see Ahashverosh initiating a conversation with Esther, and telling her: “In Susa the capital the Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men, and the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king ’s provinces?” Immediately after this, there tumbles from the king’s lips a statement that one is tempted to mistake for a non sequitur. He says to Esther: “And whatever your wish, it will be given you, and whatever more you may request, it will be done.”
The change in the man is obvious when one considers what he has said on the three previous occasions on which he has used this expression in speaking to Esther: upon her first forbidden approach to him in the throne room, and at the two banquets of wine that she prepared for him. On all three previous occasions, the king responded to the queen’s approach with a variation of the formula: “Whatever your wish, it will be given you. Whatever your request, up to half the kingdom, it will be done.”
Ahashverosh’s largesse on this occasion differs from these earlier gestures. The king now seeks out Esther to find out what she wants in the absence of any initiative on her part. With visions of blood dancing before his eyes, and afraid as to what may happen next, Ahashverosh’s relationship with his Jewish queen undergoes a final, dramatic revision. It is Esther who now embodies power in the king’s eyes, and it is he who offers his favors—his service—in an effort to gain favor with her. Their relationship is finally and completely reversed: Esther, who had come into Ahashverosh’s bedchamber five years earlier in search of a way of winning him over so as to avoid the life of a discarded harem girl, now finds the king anxiously seeking to win her pleasure.
In this context, Ahashverosh demonstratively (or perhaps unconsciously) drops the hedge setting an upper bound on her request to “only” half the kingdom, the implication being that she can now ask for the entire kingdom if she so wishes. In practice, once it is the king who is seeking her favor, he does not even need to make this offer explicit, for it has already been granted. In fact, Esther asks for much less: “If it please the king, let the Jews in Susa do tomorrow according to the law for today, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.”
Like the king, Esther has no way of knowing what has happened in the rest of the empire, and news from the farthest provinces will not be available for weeks. In the best case, the war in the provinces will have come to an end that night, with the anti-Semitic menace eradicated. In the worst, the war will have to be extended by a decree from the palace. Her request is that the Jewish reign of arms in Susa be allowed to continue until there is news of what has happened at least in those neighboring cities from which reports can arrive after a day’s ride. The point is that in the capital, the initiative should remain in Mordecai’s hands until he is able to determine what should happen next. The Jews and their allies are therefore permitted to continue holding the streets of Susa at sword point for another 24 hours, flushing out of hiding another 300 of their enemies. Moreover, the bodies of Haman’s sons, in life the very symbol of continued anti-Semitic power and the possibility of revenge for Haman’s death, are transformed into a symbol of Jewish effectiveness when these grisly relics are put on display for potential opponents to consider.
By the time the streets of Susa have grown quiet after the second day’s battle, reports have begun to arrive from other cities and towns. Everywhere, the victory of the Jews has become a rout. Men have been hounded out and struck down, the specter of the massacre of which Haman had dreamed is dead, and the decree of death that has hung over the heads of the Jews for so long has been lifted. The day on which the enemies of the Jews had hoped to rule over them has been transformed, miraculously, into a day of honor and glory, with the Jews themselves achieving rule over those who hated them.
ll this is considered a triumph by the narrative itself and by later Jewish tradition. But contemporary readers who gather on the holiday of Purim to read the Book of Esther aloud, as Jews have for 2,000 years, often find it difficult to look upon the account of the Jews’ war against their enemies in this way. They tend to lose interest in the story after the death of Haman. Indeed, many synagogues in the United States and elsewhere end the reading of the Megillah right there. This is despite the fact that Haman is hanged well before the actual turning point in Mordecai and Esther’s struggle to save the Jews, and long before the actual war itself, which is the event that in fact brings the Jews redemption.
There is good reason why the account of the Jews’ bloody and overwhelming victory, which in other societies would be remembered and savored with pleasure, is often underemphasized, passed over in discussion, and even, in some cases, avoided as if it were an object of shame. The liberal societies of our time are founded on the principle of nonviolent resolution of disputes. The doctrines of the social compact, the rule of law, the voluntary division of labor, and the mutual benefits of contractual exchange—all these are the basis not only for our political order, but also for a prevailing consciousness, whose hold is all the stronger as one approaches the more educated populations within Western society. Individuals who have grown up in this culture have few life experiences to suggest to them that there is any real need for force, violence, and war; and their educators strain to inculcate in them the belief that it is a virtue to “outgrow” the use of force. On such a view, reason and appetite are the only familiar and appropriate springs of human action. And all that is sought by reason and appetite—food, possessions, sex, and knowledge—can be obtained in quantities by most members of an industrialized and free society without recourse to force, and even, it is thought, without the subjugation of any individual by any other.
For those who see the world this way, the functioning of the human spirit, which, for lack of understanding, they refer to using pejoratives such as the “lust for power,” is a mystery. They tend to deny the existence of a real need for power and control within themselves, and they sincerely profess incomprehension when such needs manifest themselves in others. Thus, a great many individuals, recognizing no need for power, force, and war in themselves, come to consider these things to be objectively undesirable. Then evil, to the extent that it continues to exist as a concept at all, comes to be associated with power, force, and war and with those who have recourse to them.
Among Jews, such disregard for power and force is always strongly present. It was the prophets of Israel who introduced into the world the ideal of an end to violence among nations, with Isaiah calling for swords and spears to be beaten into agricultural implements, and Jeremiah going so far as to call for a “new covenant” to be instilled in every breast at birth, so that men should no longer desire iniquity.
Jews have always been exposed to these ideas, and the history of the last centuries, in which they were largely cut off from the experience of armed conflict and high politics—and driven into ever-deeper familiarity with the realm of ideas—did much to refashion the Jews as a caste of dream-thinkers and idealists, for whom every step toward the establishment of societies based on the principle of nonviolent resolution of disputes has served to reconfirm the idea that power and violence are simply unnecessary.
For such readers, the story of Esther up until Haman’s demise seems quaint and harmless. Unable to understand the terrifying contest of spirit and rule that leads to Haman’s execution, they find in it nothing more than a dead coincidence: As it happens, the king’s wife turns out to be a Jew, and so Haman’s plot is foiled. The fact that Mordecai and Esther then go on to orchestrate a rampage that soaks the empire to its farthest reaches in blood is for them an embarrassment and a mystery. What need was there for this? What rejoicing and holiday could there be in this? What moral teaching could there be in this?
Yet the narrative itself is unambiguous in making the power and control that the Jews consolidated in the fighting a cause for celebration—and one of the book’s central moral themes. The summary that immediately precedes the account of the war therefore touts the fact that “on the day that the enemies of the Jews had expected to rule over them, the situation was reversed, and it was the Jews themselves who ruled over those who hated them.” The passage that caps the war footage speaks of the relief gained in “killing seventy-five thousand of those who hated them,” making the morrow “a day of feasting and gladness.” And the summary that accompanies Mordecai’s official interpretation of events underscores the fact that Haman’s “evil plan, which he had intended against the Jews, should be turned on its head, and they hanged him and his sons on the gallows”—where “turning the evil plan on its head” means the death of all those who had planned to perpetrate the massacre against the Jews.
The trouble with this account for the contemporary reader is that today we are not supposed to permit ourselves any kind of pride or satisfaction over a victory that involves wholesale bloodshed, even if we do recognize it as having been necessary. In our time and place, being good is thought to be closely allied with the revulsion we have learned toward killing, not only of noncombatants but even of those participating in the fighting against us. Our own moral sensibilities are in this sense “higher” than those that drove the wars of liquidation in the books of Joshua and Samuel, and even the ending to the book of Esther. On the other hand, one need only think of the foolishness of certain pacifists, ecologians, vegetarians, and abstentionist sectarians who insist that the use of force, the expansion of industry, the killing of animals, or sexual intimacy are inherently immoral in order to recognize the possibility of wandering lost in endless, false, and dangerous “higher” moralities—that is, moralities that are supposedly higher than our own—whose pursuit bears no fruit other than destruction. As the saying of Ecclesiastes has it: “Be not overly righteous, and strive not to be too clever, for why should you destroy yourself?”
But stop and ask yourself this: Is there not some terrific hypocrisy in taking such pride in the moral heights we believe ourselves to have attained in comparison with the past—and yet finding ourselves appalled and annoyed at the demands of so many of those who, in their sanctimoniousness, their naiveté, their utter irrelevance to the world and its doings, hawk their ever-more-suffocating formulas for what we must and must not do to remain decent members of society? Should we not, after all, be grateful when we come across someone who is willing and able to apply moral principle more seriously, more thoroughly, and more consistently than we are willing to do?
Our society presses relentlessly for us to believe this—for us to admit that our biblical forefathers really knew little about justice and goodness, and that we ourselves are no great shakes either. For us to admit that some future morality that is just coming into being holds the key to being truly good. But in fact, we should think that people who are constantly raising the moral bar in this way, insisting on an ever-steeper hierarchy of value systems extending from the “highest” moralities of our time down to the supposed non-moralities of previous eras, are gravely mistaken. We are repelled by certain standards of behavior that still pertained in the time of biblical Israel—standards with respect to warfare, for example, or polygamy or slavery. But at the same time, there is something equally repellent about the idea that because of such hard-won improvements in the moral standards according to which we live, we must now, as a logical consequence of this, agree to be judged today in accordance with a framework that asserts it is the more enlightened view from the future. The fact that each of these two poles repels suggests that there is not one ideal at work in circumscribing and prescribing our behaviors as human beings, but two—and that the truth lies in the balance between them.
an’s consciousness is challenged by objective conditions that prevent him from living in an inertial introspection and pull him, often against his will, toward action in the world. These conditions are essentially two: first, the needs and urges of his body; and second, the needs of others, of his family, his people, and his world. It takes little experience to discover that these two influences are fundamentally and irreconcilably contrary to each other, producing antithetical impulses within philosophy and religion. Each vies with the other and against it, and they must be kept distinct for religion and ethics to be able to speak coherently. These are the ideals of purity and morality.
Purity. The needs and urges of one’s body and spirit have always been seen as demanding that man pull away from ideas and truths to occupy himself with eating, digestion, infatuations and sex, clothing and shelter, natural and chemical intoxications, sleep, discomfort and illness of various kinds, honor and anger, phobias, depressions and other impairments of the spirit, and death. They are a bottomless pit, into which all life’s energies and abilities easily disappear without a trace. After a lifetime preoccupied with the pursuit of them, man finds that he has nothing to show for his efforts other than having worn out a body that had started its career fresh. It has therefore been considered a virtue to minimize one’s concern for the needs and urges of the body and of the spirit to whatever degree possible so as to free the mind for its confrontation with higher things. This virtue, when found in men, has been called purity or holiness—the Hebrew word for holiness being kedusha, meaning “separation,” from the body, the concerns of men and the world. And its most basic ethical form is the command of the books of Moses: “Holy shall you be.”
Morality. The needs of the world, on the other hand—the protection of innocent life, the dissemination of truth and the establishment of justice, the alleviation of suffering, the development of productive talents and capacities, the facilitation of happiness, and the attainment of peace—all these have been held to be the noblest of efforts, and the pursuit of them has been held to be a virtue. Yet if they are to be pursued to any worthy effect, they demand the greatest possible concentration of the individual’s worldly resources, the maximal use of his body and his spirit to attain high levels of experience and skill, reputation, respect and wealth, allies and power, in order to have a hope of achieving whatever betterment of the world can possibly be achieved. And this virtue has been called morality or justice—the Hebrew word for justice being tzedek, meaning “that which is right,” its purport being one of involvement with the concerns of men and of the world. And here, too, the books of Moses speak in the language of a command: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”
The saint makes a token effort toward power and leaves the rest to God, while the hero leaves nothing to God until he himself reaches exhaustion.The crux of the contradiction between these two ideals is man’s relationship to power. Purity requires that man renounce power; but morality requires that man have power in order to pursue right. This is true on the individual level, in which one can give to others only if one has something to give. But it is even truer when one considers moralities of scale, which require vast amounts of political power, economic power, and military power. Without power, there is no police force capable of defending the innocent, no court capable of doing justice, no army capable of wresting peace from the aggressor, no surplus capable of feeding and clothing the poor, or of paying to teach truth to the young. Morality requires power, and morality on a vast scale requires power on a vast scale.
For a saint, a man of perfect study and prayer, power is essentially exorcised as a motive, and so the entire world of spiritual blemishes—the obsession with honor and wealth, tantrums and rages, depressions, competitiveness, cruelty—are not found in him. But power is lost to him as a tool: He may give charity from what he has, but the good he can do is of necessity circumscribed; he may wish to do right in the world, but he has few resources and does not really know how. For the hero, the man of great deeds, the endless game of accumulating power and the preoccupation with wielding it, of learning the rules and building alliances, of consolidating the wins and recovering from the losses, of gradually growing to the point where one is in fact able to move an immovable world—all this leaves him relatively little time for contemplation, for study and thought, for prayer. He may include such activities in his daily routine, but he finds it difficult to concentrate as the world presses in on him, demanding that he return to it. The saint and the hero may be religious men both. Yet the saint makes a token effort toward power and leaves the rest to God, while the hero leaves nothing to God until he himself reaches exhaustion.
Purity and morality are untranslatable ideals, a vertical axis against which man measures how inwardly removed he is from the world, and a horizontal one measuring the degree to which he outwardly affects it—so that it is forever difficult to advance in one direction without doing damage in the other, a dilemma that appears in Jewish tradition again and again. Thus David, Israel’s greatest king, was responsible for the moral achievement of uniting the fragmented Jewish tribes and leading them to victory against the enemies that had caused them such suffering. Yet the Bible held that these very acts disqualified him from building the Temple in Jerusalem because he had “shed much blood upon the earth”—so that the construction of the sanctuary was left to his son Solomon.
Even more difficult is the rabbinic story told of the arrest of the Rabbis Eleazar ben Parata and Hanina ben Teriadon who are to be brought to trial for their activities by the Roman authorities during the persecutions of the Emperor Hadrian in Judea in the 130s CE. Hanina was a well-known representation of saintliness, of whom it is said that his only sin was that he once allocated Purim alms as though they were regular charity, a mistake that he then corrected by replacing the misapportioned alms with money from his own pocket. Yet according to the Talmud, Hanina tells his cellmate: “Happy are you who have been arrested on five charges but will be delivered. Woe is unto me, who have been arrested on one charge but will be condemned. For you have occupied yourself with study of Torah as well as deeds of kindness, whereas I have occupied myself with Torah alone.” When Eleazar is brought before the tribunal and accused, this worldlier rabbi refuses to give a straight answer, dodging and maneuvering until he succeeds in confounding the court, eventually winning his release. But when Hanina is asked by the court why he occupies himself with Torah though it is against the law, he replies with words of purity: “Because I was commanded to do so by the Lord, my God.” Having confessed his guilt, he and his wife are put to death, and his daughter is consigned to serve the Romans in a brothel.
Lest the point somehow be missed, the Talmudic account refers in this context to the opinion of Rabbi Huna: “He who only occupies himself with the study of Torah is as if he had no God.” That is, even divine assistance depends on making sacrifices in purity in order to gather ability in the ways of tribunals and occupying armies.
From the earliest times, the response of the Jews to the conflict between the demands of purity and the moral need to achieve power in the world was for each individual to strike a balance between them. Jews were to seek power in the world for six days of the week and seek purity by withdrawing in the seventh; to seek worldly power through sexual relations and raising up heirs, yet maintain purity through the institution of marriage and periods of monthly abstinence; seek power through the consumption of meat, yet strive for purity in the choice of the livestock and the manner of their slaughter, as well as periodic fasts; and so forth. Yet to maintain an entire nation on course along this middle path, it was thought necessary to appoint individuals whose work would be the embodiment of each ideal, the possibility of embodying both at once apparently being intolerably remote. Thus, from the time of Moses, the Jews instituted what amounted to a division of labor between the judge and the priest, between the man of morality and the man of purity—and even between Judah and Joseph, the tribes responsible for the pursuit of justice and national well-being, and Levi, the tribe of purity. Similarly, when the Jews entered the land, rabbinic tradition suggests that three strategic necessities became incumbent upon them as a nation: that they appoint a king, build the Temple, and destroy the evil Amalek tribe—these representing the establishment of justice (the king, Amalek) and purity (the Temple) in Israel.
The idea that the political and military leader is essential to morality and religion—that he is, in other words, an important moral and religious figure in his own right—sits uneasily with our tendency to believe that politics is “immoral” or amoral, an opinion that has been handed down to us from antiquity. The last centuries have seen endless confusion on this score, as moral thought, which in the time of the prophets had been inseparable from human exploration of the political realm, has become the preserve of men who have removed themselves from the affairs of the world, the better to pursue “pure reason” and similar projects. Contrary to their own protestations, such individuals are not particularly adept at formulating moral systems, precisely because they have so little experience with what is required to achieve anything in practice. Kant, in particular, insisted on the equation of morality with the eradication of self-interest—that is, he insisted that morality was identical with purity—and thus was forced by his own reasoning to conclude that worldly actions are perhaps never actually moral. But this has not prevented generations of his disciples from applying this misguided standard to the actions of governments and politicians (all of which actions are “self-interested” in that they are taken to enhance the power, interests, and cause of that government or politician) and determining them all to be, for this reason, tainted and “immoral.”
The appearance of things associated with impurity break the spell of the higher being that we strive to be, and so such intrusions are proscribed and even deplored.Lending plausibility to an argument that would otherwise have little to recommend it is this: Politics is “dirty.” That is, people who are not known to lie, cheat, deceive, break agreements, blackmail and blacklist, to engage in dual loyalties and false loyalties, in campaigns of espionage and character assassination, in bribery and incitement to violence, suddenly find themselves doing so and more when political power is at stake. There is an objective sense in which what is accepted and even necessary in the political arena is neither necessary nor acceptable among family or friends, or even among rival businesses. Politics is dirty because it is in fact impure, relative to the world of family, house of prayer, school, and business in which most individuals spend most of their lives.
But this does not make it immoral. There are many activities that are impure in this sense: The modes of behavior accepted in the bedroom, the graveyard, the operating room, the slaughterhouse, the lavatory, and the battlefield are none of them activities suited to relations of family, synagogue, school, and business. This is not because any of them are inherently immoral, but because they are impure. They are activities that focus attention on the body, its various organs, their functioning and malfunctioning, their decay and mortality—whereas family, school, and business are relatively pure, allowing us to focus on the minds of those who are with us and the unique human relations in which we are engaged with them. The house of prayer is held to be purer still, and here even much of what takes place in the realm of business, school, or family life is held in abeyance for a time so that we may attend more carefully to God and to his teaching.
This ability to distinguish spheres of greater purity from other, lesser ones is what allows mankind to step into civilization, leaving behind the physical organs and bodily fluids, decay and illness, the corpse, and death itself, in order to enter into a “safe space,” a bubble that is “separated” from the world, in which it is possible to concentrate on things that are at once more essential and more personal. When we enter into such times and such places, the appearance of things associated with impurity break the spell of the higher being that we strive to be, and so such intrusions are proscribed and even deplored.
The same may be said concerning the accepted behaviors of politics. Here, too, many of the activities are brutal, and in fact they have often been referred to as “naked power,” verbal actions whose meaning is pure force, acts of the spirit that are in their essence violence, whether accompanied by physical blows or not. Yet in order to achieve power to do good, one must be experienced, talented, and expert in the ways in which power is in fact allocated and applied. One must know war as it is waged by others, and be able to wage such wars more effectively than they. One must know finance as it is waged by others, and be able to build an economy more effectively than they. One must be able to gain influence and wield it as it is wielded by others, but be able to use this influence more effectively than they. Power is a matter of beating one’s opponents at their own game and using the results for good. Participating in the ways of the political world as one finds it is not inherently immoral, any more than the activities of the lavatory are immoral. In neither case does a habitually pious person desire to behave in such ways. He does it neither for pleasure nor for some kind of personal gain, but because there is presumably no choice. And it would be absurd if each time an individual took it upon himself to achieve right and justice, even at the expense of his own personal purity, he would also have to be castigated for being immoral besides.
Indeed, the biblical narrative and subsequent rabbinic tradition reserved the appellation of tzadik, meaning “the righteous,” for precisely those figures whose lives are spent in outward political and moral action, immersed in power and evil, but who nonetheless manage to maintain a level of relative purity in these circumstances. This is the meaning of the oft-repeated Talmudic appellation “Joseph the righteous”: It is not that Joseph, while ruling amid the despotism and brutality of ancient Egypt, somehow manages to maintain an unparalleled standard of purity in the way he leads his life. Rather, the significance of his great act of self-discipline—the refusal of the Egyptian temptress that results in his being falsely accused of rape and thrown in a dungeon—is in the fact that he is able to maintain any standard of purity at all in the polluted realm in which he flourishes, and despite the ways in which he must accommodate this realm to attain success. Others referred to as “righteous” are of this sort as well. Noah saves mankind from the flood and is referred to as righteous in the books of Moses despite the fact that in his time “the evil of man was great upon the earth, and the whole nature of the thoughts of his mind was only to evil all day long.” Lot risks his life and that of his family to save perfect strangers from the mob and is referred to as righteous in the books of Moses despite living amid the depravity of Sodom. Jacob, who wrests control of his father’s inheritance from his powerful brother and makes a fortune at the hands of the Mesopotamian idolaters, is called righteous by the rabbis despite spending the best years of his life serving his father-in-law surrounded by immorality and idolatry. And Mordecai, who saves the Jews of Persia, is called righteous by the rabbis despite likewise living amid the iniquity of the Persian court.
f course, the fact that the political world is a sphere of lesser purity does not legitimize every means to any political end. One cannot make great sacrifices in one’s purity and humanity where the ends being pursued are immoral or unimportant. The political struggles of municipal zoning boards, for example, or the notorious politics internal to academia, cannot justify relinquishing civilized behavior. In high politics, on the other hand, it is, as Joseph says in Genesis, “the preservation of the multitude of men alive” that is in fact at stake, so that it can always be reasonably argued that departures from our accustomed standards of purity are justifiable, and even obligatory.
Left to the hands of others who would use the power of the state for their own gain, the law would serve the few, the country would engage in oppression and unjust wars, and thousands would die for nothing. Indeed, it is the political world, with all its impurity, that makes it possible for the civil world of daily life to exist as it does. It is politics that musters the ugly power necessary for higher society to live oblivious of the muck, just as the body marshals the resources needed for the mind to do its work, although most of the time the mind is unaware of what is taking place beneath it. If the political world should one day fail in its impure task when faced by malevolent challenges from outside society or within, the bubble of civilization in which we spend most of our adult lives would come crashing down into the lava of impurity below.
There is no point in attempting to count the strata of impurity upon which our world floats, and upon which it depends for its existence. But it bears emphasizing that the impure sphere of politics floats like a bubble on top of other, yet impurer worlds: The realm of wars, both foreign and domestic, is one such, in which even today nations use the most gruesome means in order to survive—means that would be unthinkable even in an arena such as that of domestic political life. And beneath this lies another, even fouler world, which exists now only in the farthest reaches: that of the idolaters, in which murderous violence was acceptable even within the family, and in which no safety truly existed anywhere. It was this realm in which the genocides of antiquity took place: in which Rome put all of Carthage to the sword and sowed the soil of its lands with salt so that no human being should ever be able to persist there again. And it was in this world, according to the hideous exigencies of its wars, that Joshua entered the land of Canaan, after 40 years in the desert, with an imperative to secure a stable Jewish nation and faith:
You will beat them and you will utterly destroy them, you will sign no treaties with them, nor will you show them any mercy. And you will not make marriages with them: You will not give your daughter to his son, nor will you take his daughter for your son. For they will turn your son away from following me, and they will serve other gods….You will destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their asherim, and burn their idols with fire….The idols of their gods will you burn with fire. Do not desire the silver and gold that is on them nor take it for yourself, lest you become ensnared by it, for it is a horror to the Lord, your God. You will not bring a horror into your house, lest you become accursed as it is, but you will loathe it and abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.
The point is all too clear: “They will turn your son away,” “lest you become ensnared,” “lest you become accursed as it is.” Without an end to the murderous Canaanite presence in the land, the moral life of the Jews, so we are told, cannot come into existence, for the Jews would rapidly become Canaanites themselves: perverse, murderous, idolatrous. Indeed, the subsequent narrative tells precisely this story. It tells of how the Jews, having failed to live up to the imperative of driving the Canaanites from the land, sank into a thousand years of assimilation following the ways of the idolaters.
It is the curse of politics that in certain cases such monstrous acts of impurity may be considered the most moral option given the paucity of alternatives.The modern world is quick to decry this war against the Canaanites. But if we are honest, we have to admit that contemporary warfare has resorted to the categorical destruction of innocents for less. The “counter-value” warfare waged against Hiroshima and Dresden was not aimed at saving the United States or even Western civilization. The war had long since turned in favor of the Allies. Yet these enormities were deemed necessary to bring the war to a speedier conclusion. Japanese and German children were considered worthy of destruction to save the lives of American servicemen. The premise of the war against the Canaanites is, if anything, less cynical, since it assumes what was clearly not the case when the decision was taken to use the first nuclear weapons: that the possibility of Jewish civilization—indeed, of moral civilization itself—could not persist without the banishment of the worst level of impurity from the land.
That there may be a place in moral argumentation for such acts is not easily assimilated. Within the confines of our own world, the rules are different: One may not take the life of an innocent person to save one’s own life under any circumstance. When the individual violates this principle, it is rightly understood as the greatest of crimes. Yet most of us can glimpse our own descent into the realm in which our accepted norms of behavior dissolve in contemporary scenarios in which the free world is faced with annihilation, or in which the State of Israel stands to be destroyed in war with the Arabs or Iran. Would we refuse to order a nuclear strike in such a case? The harsh truth is that the immorality of such a strike, killing countless innocents to save a civilization, cannot be deduced from the immorality of murdering an innocent individual to save another.
From this, it is evident that the political arena is not merely “dirty.” In certain cases, it leads rapidly into a pollution in which man is transformed into a beast of the lowest grade: not merely killing individuals for his own survival, but destroying cities and bringing nations to ruin. This, at any rate, is what we find in the most horrifying of the biblical accounts of ancient warfare, which assume that there can be an imperative to wage war of this kind if the world has fallen into otherwise irreparable evil. It is the curse of politics that in certain cases such monstrous acts of impurity may be considered the most moral option given the paucity of alternatives. But, of course, it is always possible instead to preserve one’s own purity—and in doing so to allow the world to fall ever further.
IN THE BOOK OF ESTHER, Mordecai’s war is fought in the world of his time and place. It is fought by its rules because any other choice in that time and place would have been folly. Thus if one were to ask why so many men had to die on the day of the fighting if the results were by then practically assured, the answer is just that which we have read in Machiavelli’s politics. Without decisive action against an enemy that had been preparing to murder all the Jews, Mordecai would have guaranteed himself a reputation of hesitancy and mildness—a reputation that would have breathed new life into the anti-Semitism of the empire and left the king doubting the Jewish vizier’s abilities.
And if one were to ask why Haman’s 10 sons had to die, it is wishful thinking to argue that every one of them was active as a leader in the camp of the anti-Semites, although some of them were exactly that. Rather, their deaths are sought, as was accepted in the course of warfare and politics in antiquity, to prevent Haman’s enmity from leaving heirs, as well as to degrade his memory and emphasize the enormity of his defeat. The book of Daniel tells of Darius issuing a parallel order for the destruction of those who persecuted Daniel, along with their families: “And the king commanded, and they brought those men who had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the lion’s den, they, their children and their wives.” In Herodotus, Artabanus, uncle to Xerxes, similarly offers to wager his life and those of his children on the outcome of a war he opposes: “If things go well for the king, as you say they will, let me and my children be put to death. But if they fall out as I prophesy, let your children suffer, and you too, if you come back alive.”
And if one insists that Mordecai should have conducted the war without resorting to the impure norms of Persian politics, even though such a nod to purity might have jeopardized the endeavor, the first answer must be that of Ecclesiastes: “There are righteous men who perish through their righteousness, and there are the wicked who flourish by their wickedness. Be not overly righteous.”
Yet harsh as is Mordecai’s onslaught, he nevertheless does demand that the Jews carry on their war on a purer level than that which they expected to have waged against them. Thus Mordecai’s decree, copied more or less verbatim from Haman’s, speaks of the death of children and women, as well as the appropriation of all the property of their enemies, all with the intention of inspiring counterterror in the enemy camp. When the day itself is described in the narrative, however, there is no suggestion that the Jews followed through with these threats. No casualties are mentioned among the dependents, and indeed, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the Jews did not even touch their enemies’ property.
The issue of respecting the property rights of one’s enemies and their families is one that has its roots in the earlier stages of the plot, when Haman first approaches Ahashverosh with the hope of convincing him to destroy the Jews. In making his case, Haman seeks to engage every interest of the king’s to which he can appeal, including a possible financial interest: “If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed, and I will weigh out ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.” This is an outrageously large sum, in the range of what Herodotus reports to have been the income in silver of the entire Persian Empire for a year, and the only imaginable source for such a fortune would have been the plunder of the Jews’ property. Yet Ahashverosh, ever eager to demonstrate his power by wasting state moneys, assures Haman that “the silver is given to you, and the people, to do with them as you see fit,” thus clearing the way for the vizier to offer the Jews’ property as an incentive to the murderers. In so doing, he greatly expands the circle of those who will potentially be willing to do the work of annihilation, including not only those who hate Jews, but those who want their property.
All of this is in contrast to the wars against the Canaanites and Amalek, in which plundering was proscribed. In the case of the Canaanites, the fear was principally that in claiming the property of the idolaters, the Jews would end up with idols in their homes to which they would be inevitably drawn. But in the case of Saul’s effort to destroy Amalek, there is no mention of idols, and the issue, once the plundering takes place, seems to be completely different: “But Saul and the people took pity on Agag, and on the best of the sheep, and the oxen, and the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and did not destroy them, but everything that was of little value and poor, they destroyed.” When confronted by the prophet Samuel, Saul explains: “I have transgressed the instruction of the Lord and your words, for I feared the people and listened to their words.” For this crime, of giving in to the desire of the people for plunder, Saul is stripped of his kingdom.
At stake in the argument over the right to plunder is the motive for destroying Amalek. In Samuel’s eyes, Amalek’s history of unlimited terror, bloodshed, and evildoing justify what is otherwise a horrendous act. But if the Jews begin claiming Amalekite cattle for themselves, the war will turn out to have been fought, in fact, for another reason altogether. Far from engaging in an act whose purpose is to make the world safe from Amalek’s predations, they are in that case just engaging in an act of murder for the sake of stealing, itself a very great evil. Samuel instructs Saul to kill, horribly, so that a better life may become possible for mankind, but his fighting men want to kill for plunder. In Samuel’s eyes, the choice is between right and evil, and Saul chooses the latter.
The distinction between just war and murder is today referred to in Israel as the “purity of arms.” And this is what is at issue, too, in the story of Esther, in which Mordecai’s war against the Persian anti-Semites is recounted as a revisiting of the Amalekite war in the book of Samuel. Here, the emphasis on not touching the property of the anti-Semites is intended to indicate the purity of the cause. Men are killed because they had been planning to murder the Jews, and as a preemption against future threats. The fact that this is understood by the Jews to be the sole motive raises their warfare to a level of purity much higher than that of Haman, and higher too than that which had been practiced by their forebears in the time of Saul.
It is for this reason that rabbinic tradition refers to Mordecai as “the righteous”: because in successfully raising Jewish military action to a higher level of purity relative to the fearsome acts required by the politics and warfare of his place and time, he provided the kind of political leadership for which the Jews should hope in every generation.
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Mordecai’s Challenge: An Essay on War, Leadership, and Purim
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Few left-wing pressure groups are as vicious and mendacious as the Southern Poverty Law Center. Founded in 1971, the SPLC today mainly exists to smear opponents of full-spectrum progressivism as “bigots” and “extremists.” Once the Montgomery, Alabama-based outfit mislabels an individual or an institution this way, it becomes nearly impossible to clear the taint, since many reporters appear to imagine the SPLC acts in good faith.
So it’s good to see the SPLC held to account for at least one of these smears. On Monday, the group publicly apologized to Maajid Nawaz and agreed to pay his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, some $3.4 million to settle a defamation suit.
The SPLC in 2016 included Nawaz, who has spent years peacefully combatting both Islamism and anti-Muslim bigotry in Britain, in its Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, alongside a litany of genuine haters. As evidence, the SPLC cited the fact that Mr. Nawaz had once tweeted a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “despite the fact that many Muslims see it as blasphemous.” Dissidents across the Muslim world and in too many Muslim communities in the West risk beatings, torture, and worse for daring to criticize their religion and its founder. The SPLC in effect lent its liberal, “civil-rights” imprimatur to their mistreatment at the hands of their coreligionists.
“Given our understanding of the views of Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement, “it was our opinion at the time that the Field Guide was published that their inclusion was warranted. But after getting a deeper understanding of their views and after hearing from others for whom we have great respect, we realize that we were simply wrong to have included Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam in the Field Guide in the first place.”
Damn right. But Nawaz wasn’t the only victim of SPLC smears. Another was the Somali-born author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has written for these pages. In the same Field Guide, the SPLC seemed to question Hirsi Ali’s personal story–she suffered genital mutilation in her native land–and accused her of bigotry for emphasizing the religious and ideological dimensions of Islamic terrorism. She, too, deserves a retraction and apology from the SPLC.
As for journalists who regularly rely on SPLC, the religious-liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, another victim of the group’s smears, got it exactly right in its statement on the Nawaz settlement: “SPLC has become a far-left organization that brands its political opponents as ‘haters’ and ‘extremists’ and has lost all credibility as a civil-rights watchdog . . . SPLC’s sloppy mistakes have ruinous, real-world consequences for which they should not be excused.”
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Ben Cohen reviews Lyn Julius's "Uprooted"
Foremost among these is the Holocaust, commonly regarded as a purely European episode, yet one whose German architects intended ultimately to include the Jews of Arab lands. That ambition was checked when the Allies stopped the Nazi advance in North Africa at the close of 1942. Then there is the outflow of approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arab refugees during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, still presented in many Western and Arab circles as the origin of the region’s present problems. The Arab-refugee issue has become grossly expanded in another way as well: The Palestinians, uniquely among the world’s refugee populations, are compelled by the United Nations to transfer refugee status from parents to children. Thus there are currently 5 million Palestinian “refugees.”
Because of these events, the Jewish exodus from the Arab world is commonly perceived as simply one more misfortune among the myriad population transfers and ethno-national conflicts that followed World War II. Yet according to the historian Nathan Weinstock, it remains an exodus with no precedent in Jewish history, “even when compared with the flight of the Jews from Tsarist Russia, Germany in the 1930s, or massive emigration from Eastern Europe after the war.”
Julius, herself the product of a Jewish family driven from Iraq, cogently explains how the Jews of the Arab world effectively became denationalized. She argues persuasively that the rapid unraveling of these Jewish communities, whose presence in these areas predated the emergence of Islam, should be understood above all else as an offense against the elementary codes of human rights.
The inherent danger with these kinds of accounts is that the victims end up as a beatified collective, at which point historical writing quickly becomes apologia. Julius avoids this basic trap. She makes it clear that there is no archetypal “oriental Jew,” and no literary sleight of hand can encompass the vastly different experiences of Jews from cowed, closed Yemen and from open, ebullient Morocco. Nor can Cairene Jews, educated in European private schools, be lumped in with those crammed into the Jewish quarters of Fez or Meknes. Insofar as these communities began exhibiting more and more similarities as the 20th century progressed, it was the result of the draconian, discriminatory legal regimes imposed on them by the Arab governments under which they lived.
By the late 1950s, the vast bulk of these communities, from the western reaches of North Africa to the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia, had been brutally wrenched from their roots. Typical measures along the way included stripping Jews of their citizenship, freezing their property and assets, systematically intimidating them through mass arrests and detentions, proscribing Zionism as a crime, and subjecting them to humiliations both large and petty in the workplace and in schools.
Drawing on the scholarship of historians such as Matthias Kuentzel and Jeffrey Herf, Julius spotlights the ideological overlaps between German National Socialism, the various strains of Arab nationalism, and the overtly anti-Semitic Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The root cause of the post-1948 exodus of over 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa,” Julius writes, “was pan-Arab racism, itself influenced by Nazism.” That truth has become more and more evident as the years have passed, especially in Israel, where historians and politicians are beginning to grasp the significant ties between the Holocaust and the uprooting of the Jews from the Arab world. The clearest example of this trend, which Julius cites approvingly, was the decision by Israel’s Finance Ministry in November 2015 to extend Holocaust-survivor benefits to Israelis who survived Nazi-era persecution in Morocco, Algeria, and Iraq. In the words of Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, this was “the righting of a historical wrong.”
If Kahlon’s characterization appeals to Julius, it is perhaps because she sees her task as correcting a series of historical wrongs that, 70 years after the fact, still confound our appreciation of the Jewish exodus from the Arab world. The critical difference between the Middle East’s uprooted Jews and the Palestinian Arabs is that, excepting a handful of cases from Egypt and Libya, these Jews were never assigned refugee status. This discrepancy, Julius asserts, has “narrowed the [Middle East] conflict to the Israel-Palestinian dispute and excluded the larger Arab context in which the expulsion of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries is central.”
Israel’s approach to the claims of these Jewish refugees has evolved. The idea of kizzuz—according to which Jewish losses were thought of as being offset by Palestinian losses—has given way to recognition of the judicial importance of individual compensation. Julius credits former President Bill Clinton for inaugurating this idea in 2000, when he opined that one element of an eventual Palestinian–Israeli agreement would be the creation of a compensation fund for refugees that included “the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel.” Clinton explained: “Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own lands.”
Julius accepts that the parallel between the Palestinians and the Jews of the Arab world is not a neat one. She believes, in fact, that attempting to draw such a parallel does a disservice to the Jews, who were the targets of government-sanctioned discrimination mainly during peacetime. The Palestinian refugees, by contrast, were displaced as a result of the fierce fighting between the Haganah and the invading Arab League armies. The very act of raising this issue, Julius contends, challenges the “unchallenged sway” that the Palestinian-refugee issue has held thus far. At the moment, “Jewish refugee rights are dismissed as an impediment to peace, denigrated, or ignored, while Arab rights—including the much-vaunted Right of Return—are put on a pedestal.”
As a corrective, Julius puts forward the idea of the Arab world’s Jews as having endured three successive “colonizations.” In the seventh century, there was Islam; in the 19th century, there were European powers; and, finally, in the last century and this one, there has been a “colonization of facts” by which “the story of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa has been erased and falsified.” Uprooted will surely not be the last historical examination of the Arab world’s exiled Jews, but it is among the first to launch a frontal assault on the myths and preconceptions associated with their plight. For that alone, its value will endure.
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Elliot Kaufman reviews Yossi Klein Halevi's "Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor"
I fear these words made me want to roll my eyes, as did the book’s title: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. After so many years of Jewish frustration, so much process but so little peace, what else is there to say to the Palestinians? And when will Yossi Klein Halevi stop trying to hug everybody?
This was unfair. As his powerful and eloquent book proves, Halevi suffers no illusions about the Palestinian national movement. He knows that the Palestinians have rejected every peace offer and partition plan, denied Jewish peoplehood and history, and, to the extent that they countenance it at all, see the two-state solution as a prelude to a maximalist victory—one Palestine from the river to the sea. “In supporting the Oslo process,” he reflects, “I had violated one of the commanding voices of Jewish history, the warning against naïveté.” Halevi includes all of this and more in the ten letters that form his book.
It is precisely because he has no more time for leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas that Halevi turns to a hypothetical Palestinian neighbor. The risk, both rhetorically and in actuality, is that because he has given up on official Palestinians, he is merely creating a fictional Palestinian with whom he can negotiate from his study in French Hill. But he’s up to something more interesting.
Capturing the enduring Jewish love of the land of Israel and the magic as well as the dilemmas of Zionism, the letters are highly compelling. There is no one better suited to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people than Halevi—and not just to Palestinians. An inspired reading of the Israeli soul, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor should be recommended to non-Jews and Jews alike.
Halevi offers Jews a model of productive engagement, teaching by example how to speak about Israel not just with sensitivity but also with honesty and integrity. And yet Halevi would be the first to admit that if only Jews buy his book, it will have been a failure. In order to reach everyday Palestinians, Halevi has released the Arabic translation of his book for free online. But of course he cannot compel his Palestinian neighbor to read it. Crucially, Palestinians still must choose to read Halevi’s letters and be exposed to the Israeli perspective. It is not altogether clear why Halevi thinks Palestinians will make that choice now, or even why listening to one another’s stories will help break the deadlock and achieve some real understanding. At times, the best reason he can offer is “the possibility of miracle—especially in this land,” noting that “as a religious person,” he is “forbidden to make peace with despair.” Elsewhere, he speculates that, because Israel has changed often since the 1980s, “if the past is any indication, we are due for another drastic shift in the Israeli story.”
Many readers will want reasons more solid than the winds of history or the possibility of miracles. For them, Halevi suggests that intimacy between Palestinians and Israelis could create a “basis for political flexibility, for letting go of absolutist claims,” and for fighting through the pain of trauma. “We must know each other’s dreams and fears” so both parties can work around some of their own.
Here, Halevi is at his best. He recognizes that until the Palestinians understand the Jewish attachment to the entire biblical land of Israel, any partition will remain unthinkable. Exchanging stories matters because Palestinians must realize that “partition is an act of injustice” not just to their side, but to the Israelis, too. After all, political moderation makes sense only in the face of worthy yet compelling claims to justice.
Storytelling is not the only path to intimacy. In a previous book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Halevi wrote of Jewish–Muslim brotherhood through the mystical search for God. Indeed, he has predicted in these pages that “the next step in the evolution of the interfaith encounter will be shifting from dialogue to shared spiritual experience. Interfaith will become a great spiritual adventure, providing access to one another’s inner worlds.”
While Halevi may verge on the sentimental in matters of religion, when it comes to politics, he hopes for only enough intimacy to convince the Palestinians that they must respect a border. “No two people who have fought a hundred-year existential war,” he writes, “can share the intimate workings of government.” Furthermore, he recognizes that even a Palestinian cold peace would probably require a miracle, and to my relief, he makes clear that he will not give away the house until that miracle occurs.
If, one day, a Palestinian of Halevi’s stature publishes Letters to My Jewish Neighbor, and his book is imbued with the same understanding, charity, and dignity, we will know that the miracle is under way. Hugging will be superfluous.
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Tod Lindberg reviews "The Tyranny of Metrics"
Alas, a better title for the book would be Why Metrics Don’t Measure Up. It’s not metrics as such that vex Muller but the misuse of metrics, as well as the unintended consequences that flow when managers rely on them too crudely in assessing and rewarding performance. Far from overthrowing the tyrant, Muller ends up trying to counsel him on how to do his job better.
The Tyranny of Metrics is a short book, and it is typically a virtue when authors take the time to be concise, a practice that comes naturally to few. To work from an authoritative body of knowledge, to discern a theme worthy of exploration, and to eliminate all that is extraneous from its judicious development—these are the achievements of a master. They constitute the greatest gift an author can bestow on a reader. Unfortunately, there is another kind of short book, and that is a book that should have been a magazine article. Here, the problem is filling out enough pages to achieve plausibility between cloth covers. This is the problem The Tyranny of Metrics faces and doesn’t quite manage to overcome. The text of The Tyranny of Metrics is perhaps 40,000 words long. But in truth, about an eighth of that would have been sufficient for Muller’s argument. In a nutshell—indeed, the first chapter is called “The Argument in a Nutshell”—Muller holds that society has fallen prey to “metric fixation,” whose “key components” are the beliefs that numerical indicators of performance can replace experienced judgment; that transparency, or publicizing such indicators, brings accountability for performance; and that “the best way to motivate people…is by attaching rewards and punishments to their measured performance.” Now, to be sure, Muller does not intend “to claim that measurement is useless or intrinsically pernicious.” But he argues that a fixation on metrics may lead the fixated into numerous flaws. These include measuring what’s easiest to measure rather than assessing whether it’s the best gauge of desired outcomes; measuring “inputs” (say, how much you spend on education) rather than outputs (how much students learn); and excessive standardization (measuring college graduation rates in calculating “human capital” without acknowledging “the fact that all B.A.s are not the same”).
Worse, when metrics lead to rewards for good performance and punishment for poor performance, human beings will “game the metric.” They will engage in “creaming” by selecting an easier path to a higher score (surgeons who avoid operating on patients with complications, for example). They will seek lower standards for success (administrators who boost high-school graduation rates by lowering requirements). They will omit or distort data (police departments that reduce the rate of serious crime by booking potential felony offenses as misdemeanors). And they will outright cheat (teachers who alter student scores upward on standardized tests to show improved year-end performance).
Muller, a professor at Catholic University and the author of Capitalism and the Jews and many other works of economic history, offers a series of examples of these problems and how they play out in areas from medicine to the military. He calls them “case studies,” but that really isn’t what they are; a case study would entail detailed examination of both the pluses and minuses of measuring and counting. Muller offers a nod to the positive aspects, but it’s drawing up the indictments that interests him.
Muller has done no original research on these examples but rather is reporting on the work others have done. What is perhaps most striking, then, is how familiar the problems associated with metrics are. Muller tells the story of New York City’s undertaking an experiment in performance-based teacher pay, only to have a program evaluation conclude that there was “no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance,” etc. But what we really have here (and there are examples throughout The Tyranny of Metrics) is a metric rebuttal to “metric fixation.” The New York City case actually seems to be an example of numbers doing what they are supposed to do.
As for the possibility of a broader critique, Muller does offer some quotations from big-picture-type thinkers thundering against—well, it’s not entirely clear what they’re against except straw men. Here’s Isaiah Berlin: “To demand or preach mechanical precision, even in principle, in a field incapable of it is to be blind and to mislead others.” Fine. But does this mean our practitioners of politics should not authorize experts to evaluate through clinical trials the safety and efficacy of new medications before they go on the market? No, that’s not what Berlin means, or Muller by quoting him.
I am firmly a member of the camp of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. But I am also a member of the editorial committee of the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, where a debate is raging over whether a “k-means cluster analysis” of issue importance among respondents offers a better way to understand voter behavior than demographic analysis. It’s not poetry, but it’s a debate worth having.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Kevin D. Williamson reviews Philip Hamburger's "Liberal Suppression"
Strapped into a chair, my field of vision dominated by a video screen there was no turning away from and no switching off, a uniformed operative shouting slogans into my skull through a loudspeaker, I felt myself beginning to break. Yes, yes, yes, I have come to love Big Brother. Yes, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, I will sign up for your stupid Aviator Red MasterCard with 50,000 bonus miles, if only you will make the screaming stop. An economy-class seat on American Airlines is unpleasant at the best of times, but after the fourth screeching high-volume credit-card pitch, I began to feel like poor Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
The great symbol of 20th-century-style totalitarianism is the loudspeaker. Censorship on the Lenin/Kim/Castro model is not oriented toward achieving silence but achieving its opposite: constant noise, always on message, pushing its victims toward homogeneity, conformity, and compliance. The great corporate dystopias of the science-fiction imagination have not come to pass and never will (for economic reasons that eluded Philip K. Dick and his ilk). But the naive libertarians among us should consider the great corporatist public-private partnerships of our time—airports, and air travel more generally—as an indicator of exactly how North Korean a corporation with the word “American” right there in the name can be when presented with a captive audience, temporarily delegated police powers, and the promise of credit-card profits, which are far fatter than those earned from ordinary airline operations.
It may be Mayor Eric Garcetti on the endless propaganda loop at LAX or Mayor Kasim Reed in ATL (I have not transited through Atlanta since the ascendancy of the comically named Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose announcements I am very much looking forward to), but the politicians are junior partners at best in this particular dystopia. This world belongs to Auntie Annie, and you will kneel before her.
Tyrants have always used the instruments of liberal democracy against liberalism and democracy. Political parties were a critical tool of oppression in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and remain so in China and Venezuela, where the United Socialist Party has been proclaimed the “political vanguard of the revolutionary process” that is currently starving children to death by the thousand. Elections themselves have been put to anti-democratic ends everywhere from Cuba to Iraq. But democracy’s greatest gift to the enemies of democracy has been the mass media: radio, television, Pravda, Völkischer Beobachter, RT, NPR, Coughlin, Hannity, Bannon, a dozen thousand Petersburgian trolls on Twitter and Facebook.
Obvious tyrants such as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán manage the media through such old-fashioned tools as murdering reporters and shutting down unfriendly outlets, but seduction is at least as effective as domination. Which brings us to the odd situation of Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code and Professor Philip Hamburger’s excellent new book on it. It bears the electric title Liberal Suppression—which of course calls to mind Jonah Goldberg’s smashing Liberal Fascism—above the considerably less sensational subtitle “Section 501(c)(3) and the Taxation of Speech.”
Readers should go into Professor Hamburger’s book with the foreknowledge that what’s between the covers is in tone and substance more like the subtitle than the title: an erudite, calm, straightforward, and illuminating legal argument that the current application of the U.S. tax code amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against churches and religious organizations threatened with the revocation of their nonprofit status—granted and governed under the auspices of Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code—should they engage in speech that is not to the liking of our would-be masters in Washington.
Hamburger, a professor at Columbia Law School, makes his argument with great intelligence and admirable modesty, and he does so in a way that is not only digestible by those of us with no legal training but also a genuine pleasure to read, something that cannot often be said of the lawyers who so often write about our public affairs with all the grace and wit of…lawyers.
Condensation will do some inevitable violence to the breadth and complexity of his argument, but Hamburger’s case is roughly this: The historical record is clear that American progressives have long sought to put a leash on the religious traditionalism that is the main impediment and alternative to American-style progressivism. This is evident from the Ku Klux Klan–inspired limitations on religious education—the Blaine amendments dating back to the 1870s that remain in force in 38 states—and other nativist insults to the Catholic Church that have come to be applied to other ornery Christian critics of contemporary liberalism.
Under the leadership of Hiram Evans—who exalted equally in the title Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and his Congressional Country Club membership—the Klan and the wider nativist movement it represented spelled out a specifically liberal case against Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology, holding that American Protestant congregations were naturally tolerant and democratic whereas the Catholic Church was authoritarian and illiberal. Presaging both Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” and German-style “militant democracy,” Evans argued that taking a liberal and tolerant view of Catholicism put liberalism and toleration themselves in mortal danger.
“Any church which violates the principle of tolerance should thereby lose its own right to tolerance,” Hamburger quotes Evans arguing, insisting that liberals who “believe in free thought and free speech” should not “tolerate the Catholic propaganda on these grounds,” because that propaganda is, in Evans’s telling, “founded on denial of free thought and speech to Catholics themselves, and aims at a denial of those rights to all men.” (The moral hysteria of the old Ku Klux Klan is strangely at home in the 21st century.)
American liberalism eventually incorporated a theological position—that churches should forgo direct involvement in politics as such—into its purportedly secular program. The historical record suggests strongly that Section 501(c)(3) imposes liberal Protestant theological dogma on the nation at large in clear violation of the First Amendment, insisting that everyone from Catholics to Orthodox Jews comply with the liberal idea of how a religious congregation ought to conduct its affairs.
Later came Lyndon Baines Johnson. Hamburger writes:
Prior to 1954, federal tax law did not limit the campaign speech of tax-exempt organizations. . . . Johnson’s role in this suppression is well known. As documented by (among others) James Davidson and Patrick O’Daniel, the enactment of section 501(c)(3)’s campaign restriction was engineered by Johnson in response to events in Texas. But Johnson’s contribution needs to be understood as part of the broader liberal demands for the segregation for speech.
In 1954, Johnson’s senatorial primary opponent was a Catholic named Dudley T. Dougherty. Johnson supporters sent around materials warning against the danger of the Roman Catholic–Mexican vote, and they were criticized for it. “Much of the criticism came from conservative anti-Communist groups, especially Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government, both of which enjoyed exempt status as educational organizations,” Hamburger writes. “During the campaign, therefore, in June 1954, Johnson arranged for Representative John McCormack—the Democratic whip—to ask the commissioner of the IRS to reconsider the exempt status of the Committee for Constitutional Government.” The commissioner reported that the committee had not violated section 501(c)(3)’s existing restrictions on using propaganda to influence legislation.
Johnson found out about this on July 1, 1954. And so, Hamburger reports, “on July 2, Johnson proposed an amendment that Section 501(c)(3) organizations ‘not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.’” Say this much for Lyndon Baines Johnson: He was not a procrastinator.
From the KKK to LBJ to Senator Bernie Sanders, who desired to gut the First Amendment in order to regulate political speech as a matter of “campaign finance,” the question is always the same: Who is permitted to speak? When the New York Times savages Donald Trump in the run-up to an election, that is, in the progressive view, constitutionally protected free speech. When Citizens United, a nonprofit, does the same thing to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the same progressives argue that this represents the baleful influence of “big money” in politics, a species of bribery, in effect. (That is what the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United case was about: whether a group of citizens has the right to show a film critical of a presidential candidate without the government’s permission.) Citizens United was a nonprofit, while the New York Times is part of a substantial for-profit corporation with economic interests of its own—and a heck of a lot more “big money” at its disposal than some piddly right-wing nonprofit. It is worth remembering that Democratic leader Harry Reid and every Democrat in the Senate voted to gut the First Amendment’s protections for political speech when the Supreme Court ruled against empowering the federal government to censor a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Vladimir Lenin was correct in his assessment that the only real question in politics is: “Who, whom?” Hamburger argues convincingly that 501(c)(3) is in effect an unconstitutional licensing regime for political speech.
Liberalism enjoys various explicit subsidies for its media outlets, most notably public radio and public television. The giant media corporations enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, while Senators Sanders, Warren, Schumer, etc. would strip those protections from citizens’ associations and grassroots groups that tend, at the moment, to lean conservative. Mayor Eric Garcetti can advertise himself to a captive audience at public expense with his endless loop of self-promotion broadcast between TSA gropenführer directives at LAX, but the local Catholic Church cannot, without facing financial punishment from the federal government, explain to its own parishioners how its teachings on abortion or poverty should be applied to public-policy questions. On truly controversial moral matters, the United States does have an established religion: quietism.
Of course, we must expect that the IRS and its political masters will bring to these questions the same fine nonpartisan approach that its now-retired official Lois Lerner took to tea-party groups, or that Houston’s former Democratic mayor Annise Parker had in mind when she subpoenaed the sermons of local pastors she suspects of being less than all-in with her transgender-rights agenda. The tinpot tyrants always have a loudspeaker or 70 at their disposal. They are in your newspaper, in your car, in your airport—in your head, and their critics must be silenced or suppressed because . . . that part is never made quite clear, except for the laughable insistence that two toilet-paper-and-petrochemical tycoons from Wichita covertly lean on the world’s political levers like a couple of prairie Illuminati while poor old Chuck Schumer sits there, powerless, abject, and put-upon.
Philip Hamburger considers every imaginable legal angle of the particular case of Section 501(c)(3) and its application to churches and other “idealistic organizations.” Every word of it is worth reading. But what is in the background is worth keeping in mind, too: Questions of culture and questions of state that, if current trends are left unchecked, threaten to reduce the scope and richness of democratic discourse in deeply illiberal ways. The First Amendment is not enough, and it never has been.